Hit Me Up: Emotional Boundaries for 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.


“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Q:  Do you set emotional boundaries for yourself when you attend births in an effort to “protect” yourself from a traumatic or difficult birth?

This question actually came out of a recent conversation with a lovely and wise acquaintance.  She had just attended her first hospital birth as a doula and left feeling vulnerable and emotionally exhausted. She said she sas having a difficult time processing some of the challenging moments of the birth where she felt the laboring mother was not treated with dignity.   She also mentioned that she was second-guessing some of her choices and wondering if she could have done “anything else” to make a difference in the birth.   In the process of releasing her feelings around this experience, she answered her own question.

A:  Birth is a spectrum of emotions.  To be open to birth means to open yourself up both the blissful and the somber,  the yin and the yang, the miraculous and the heartbreaking.  If we seek to protect ourselves from it – even though it’s a natural tendency to do such –  we miss out on lessons born in the thick of that spectrum.

Wounds Remind Us

“The wound is the cure”.  I recall another wise friend repeating this to me after she had studied with her spiritual midwife.  The simplicity of it struck a chord in me.  It is deep within our wounds where the seed of healing begins;  where the recipe for our cure is found.

I listened to my doula friend’s story and heard the hurt in her voice.  I’ve been there and felt that same hurt.   I could relate to the profound desire to want to “save” women from shame, trauma, powerlessness, and self-deprecation.

Because I knew details of some of her own births, I remembered that she had experienced birth trauma.  I told her that I think there are two important things to remember about serving women in birth…

“Attending births can reopen the wounds of birth trauma”, I shared with her gently.   I could hear her voice break and the tears flow.

“Yes.  That is what I am feeling.  Everything is rushing back to me about my own traumatic birth…will it always feel this way?”, she said.

“It will get easier.  You will find tools to soften the pain.  But there will always be a tenderness where that wound is.”.   I know this as healing after my own traumatic birth was vast and surprising in the way it would come and go.  And yet the wound pulls back all the layers, allowing us to take a microscopic look into our own inner-workings and inner-wisdom.  The wound is another way in which we come to know ourselves.

Even after we’ve done our work around healing traumatic experiences or births, they always remain a part of our body memory and consciousness.   And I do believe we can come to a place of fully honoring, accepting, and releasing our wounds.   But more often the reality is that when we invest ourselves deeply into the experience of supporting a woman in birth, sometimes the wound splits open a bit.  And we are left to discern between our own pain we may be projecting on our clients and the valid truths of their unique birth experience.

And that is the real work, that discernment.   Knowing how to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open but also knowing how to allow a woman’s birth story to unfold on her own terms, in her own truth.


“The second thing to remember is that what matters most is how SHE feels about her birth experience – positive and negative”, I remarked.

Wise one that she is, her voice softened and she responded “Oh yes, and I’m going to just sit with her and allow that to unfold in her own way”

And then my friend reminded me of something so simple, and yet so powerfully insightful.

“During the birth, after she started to say she was disappointed in herself, I just began focusing on what was true.  I said ‘You were a warrior! You listened to your body, you made your own decisions, you got to 10cm, you did it!‘.  I made sure to reiterate everything she did on her own accord”.

I can think of nothing more powerful than to reaffirm to a woman those very specific and powerful parts of her birth experience that she was in control of.    Even when a birth doesn’t unfold in the way that a woman may have wished, she still always has the ability to make decisions and influence the course of her labor.

Validating those instances brings her back to the fact that this is her empowering birth.  And that no can take that away from her.  Research has shown us that women rate their birth experiences (positive or negative) not based solely on outcome but on the information and choices they were given, the quality of their care, and how supported and respected they felt.

As a woman releases that cleansing breath after each wave of labor, her unique labor song is being composed;  “herstory” is being authored on every surface of her body and heart.  Our biggest role as doulas, perhaps, is to allow that story to take up space, to find its roots, and to flourish in its own way and time.

A dear midwife friend of mine shared with me something that has stuck with me after many years “Women are strong enough to handle their outcomes”.    Let us trust that with fierce love and support, women indeed can handle their outcomes.  They need no heroine or hero, no savior, no antagonist, no one to rescue them from their own biography.

Like my friend reminded me:  Let us focus on what is True.

As we sit conscientiously in the full spectrum of birth, we can trust that the ebb and flow will always bring us back to the one thing that is true: Love.

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