The “Uniform” of a Doula

“Hit Me Up” is the humble space in which I take a stab at answering the questions I receive most often about my holy work as a birth doula.

The cool thing is, I’m constantly learning that there’s always something to learn.  I hope to be a forever student of Birth.  I am not going to tell you how I “think” a woman should birth, or where they should birth, or that my experience makes me any kind of expert.

{How can someone be an expert in something as mysterious and beautifully unpredictable as birth?}

And I love to hear from other birth doulas, so please add your advice and wisdom in the comments.

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Q:  What is your “uniform of choice” when you attend births?  Do you have an opinion or advice on what to wear?

Q:  This is a great question that often comes up during general doula discussions.  It may surprise you to know that people have some very passionate views around the “uniform” of birth!  Below I’ll share mine…

“What a strange power there is in clothing.”  ~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Before I tell you my preference for the clothing I wear at births, I’d like to ask you to think about both the practicality and the symbology of clothing.

  • In cultural traditions and ceremonies, what does clothing represent?
  • What symbology and purpose does a uniform carry with it?
  • Come to Your Own Conclusions:  Close your eyes (after you read this – ha) and notice what you feel and see when you read the following.  Consider the colors, textures, and structure and what it brings up for you:  police uniform, cheerleader uniform, doctor’s scrubs, a nun’s habit, a chef’s or maid’s uniform, non-traditional uniforms such as those worn by businessmen and businesswomen. martial arts uniforms, uniforms worn by prisoners, a lifeguards uniform, pilots and flight attendants uniforms, sports teams’ uniforms, and casual “interpretive” uniforms worn by dancers, artists, religious sects of peoples, and so forth.
  • The word uniform is very descriptive itself:  article of clothing that makes a (human) form universal.  uniforms are obviously practical and helpful in many ways:  they help customers or the general public easily identify those in certain fields and create a sense of belonging.  But many of us don’t think about what clothing says about “class, sex, and our desire to belong”

When it comes to the birthing space of a woman, I ask you to consider what the clothing of those supporting her could consciously, or subconsciously, represent to the birthing woman.  There is not a right or wrong answer, simply an awareness that clothing can make an impact on a woman’s perception and reality.  It may be somewhat inconsequential,  but it is there.

You probably aren’t surprised by now that there is disagreement on whether or not a doula or a homebirth midwife should wear scrubs to a birth.  For some birthing women, scrubs can bring on a very visceral reaction of fear, powerlessness, resentment, or sterility.  Other women don’t have these same associations and even appreciate the “hygienic” and “easily recognized/team” feeling of a care provider wearing scrubs.

I know midwives that swear by wearing scrubs to homebirths, both for the comfort and practicality (easy to wash, don’t have to worry about staining your own clothes, no thinking about what to wear, good coverage, etc).   Some just wear the shirt or the pants, but others prefer both.  Many often pick a color (such as black) that is not normally associated with those in the medical profession.

I also know midwives who do not believe in wearing something that you only would find in a hospital-type setting.  They feel it introduces an unnessesary energy of sterility and power into the room and could send the message that the birth is a medical event.

Personally, I will always remember the clothing my midwife wore to my first birth.  Her apparel was warm and inviting, soft and flowing, and her simple jewelry made me feel rooted, calmed, and welcomed into the process of birth.

So what do I wear?

I tend to favor the camp that believes that a non-medical professional (such as a doula) wearing scrubs can not only be confusing to a client but can bring up those previously mentioned feelings of fear and subordination.

In a hospital setting in particular, I find that wearing scrubs would make it harder for a woman in labor to “recognize” you among the masses of nurses and other staff.  This sounds silly, but in the throes of labor a woman may barely open her eyes or quickly scan the room and I think it’s critical that she be able to recognize her doula immediately.

Another factor of the “uniform” debate is to wear makeup or not?  I’ve heard doulas express that they don’t want clients to feel like the doula is trying to be “center stage”
or “more beautiful” than them by wearing full makeup.

On the other hand, I’ve also heard doulas feel sensitive to the fact that a woman wouldn’t want her birth team to look “tired”.  Thus, they feel some makeup and grooming would allow the doula to appear “Fresh, ready, and energized” to support her client.

That said, my personal feeling is that a doula should present herself at a birth the way the client has always known her (meaning, if she doesn’t normally wear makeup I see no need to come in full-on makeup to the birth!).

So, my “uniform” as such is generally the following:

  • Clothing I don’t mind getting stained, wet, ripped, or otherwise “ruined”.  I always pack a back-up outfit.
  • Comfortable yoga-type pants that will accommodate the various positions I’m in and not expose my backside :)
  • A comfy shirt that is of soft material (a woman may be learning her head on you), not cut too low (no one needs to be distracted by cleavage), and has short sleeves (for when your arms are in the birth tub).  I generally try to wear clothing that doesn’t have much design on it so that it isn’t a distraction.
  • I always bring a lightweight, long-sleeve jacket or cardigan with me for those times that the birth space is cold.
  • Socks and comfortable shoes (There was a birth in which I was caught off-guard and called to directly from a dinner with girlfriends.  I had to clomp up the sidewalk to my client’s front door in high-heeled boots because I’d forgotten to have comfy shoes on hand.  Thankfully, I borrowed her mother-in-law’s flip flops)
  • I do tend to wear a necklace of some sort, both because my style is to wear jewelry but also because I think it can often provide a focal-point to a woman in labor.  I try to select jewelry that doesn’t have hard edges (again, for a woman leaning on you) and that is evocative of strength, softness, and beauty.  I love natural stones and pendants with spirals or flower.   Picking my necklace is also a form of meditation and grounding for me. This is just my personal preference and I don’t think jewelry is a huge component of a “uniform”.
  • In terms of makeup, I always put on a light coat of fresh makeup before heading out to a birth.  I do feel that presenting myself as groomed and prepared makes a difference.  If nothing else, it helps ME to feel more awake and professional when I’m headed out the door at 3am.  Lastly, I wear makeup in my everyday routine so my clients are used to seeing me in that manner.
  • And don’t forget aromas:  I generally wear a soothing essential oil or a light indian champa body oil.   Take care that any oils, perfumes, shampoos, detergents, deodorants, etc aren’t too strong or overpowering or your client will surely let you know it. :)

Overall, I think that whatever you wear, be comfortable and aware of how your dress may be perceived by your client.  And also be aware that not only does our clothing impact the way we move but also our state of mind.

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Sharing the Holy Work…

  • As a birth-worker, what do YOU wear at births?
  • As a birthing woman, how do you feel about what your support-team is wearing?


6 thoughts on “The “Uniform” of a Doula

  1. “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” ~ Thoreau

    Leigh, this is a great topic! At our son’s birth, your natural, comfortable clothes were such a soothing relief against the harshness of the scrubs that were symbolic (for me, at that time) of rigidity and opposition. Having you there dressed in everyday attire *did* represent a friend, and normalcy, to me. Also, your necklace (with a round circle hanging down) *was* a focal point and I have memories (albeit hazy and laborland-ish) of you leaning in while I was in the tub, and your necklace provided a sense of groundedness and also centeredness. Even though I’ve never talked to you about doula attire, I did somehow soak in all of the points you mentioned in this post and adopt them myself at the births I have attended. Thank you!

    Here’s a fun story about clothes at birth… I was supporting a couple during their birth and as we were leaving their home to go to the hospital, the dad said, “Hold on a second, I forgot something!” He raced in, changed his shirt, and came out with a special ringer-tee he had ordered with the word “COACH” emblazoned across the chest, in college-style script. The style of the shirt and everything were just so perfect for that couple’s personalities and approach. It was awesome!

  2. Rachel,

    Thank you for this beautiful feedback. Your birth will always be something that allows me to return, again and again, to the holiness of this work.

    And you – you could be at a birth dressed in practically anything and be so amazingly soothing and supportive to any women. You have that “Zen”. :)

    And that “coach” shirt story rocked! Let’s give it up for inventive people! (PS Mark needs one that says both “Coach” and “Catcher”)

    Love,
    Leigh

  3. Love this topic. Funny that I often think of you when getting dressed for births since we’ve talked about this (online) before.
    I rarely wear jewelery anyway so that’s not part of my uniform. Except that I take off my wedding ring so as not to injure her back or my fingers if they get squeezed.
    I wear similar clothing. One of my own superstitions is not to wear red. Being the color of blood I don’t want to encourage that on any level. It might be silly but it is what it is. :-)

  4. Rose,
    Good tip about the wedding ring – I’d never considered that. And I love hearing about others’ rituals and traditions, even those “superstitions”. That totally makes sense about the red! :) I like how you think.
    xo
    Leigh

  5. Well to me Martial Arts means respect and discipline.
    I have trained in different Martial arts now for well
    over twenty years. I have seen various people appear and disappear but one thing that I have noticed is clearly
    the respect and discipline that’s changed those peoples perception of life.
    Youngsters that have started which were on the wrong side of the tracks, always in trouble and no idea how to respect other kids. Put them in a controlled environment with discipline and fighting and they soon start to understand.
    Martial arts is one method for kids and adults to get rid of their aggression without hurting or bullying anyone.

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