What does "doula" mean?
It is a Greek word meaning female handmaiden or servant; in modern usage, it means a woman who accompanies another woman through birth. In the 1980s, there was a movement to bring the support that women need back into the birth room. The doula is a nonmedical presence for the mother -- we do not make medical decisions. We're there to give her emotional support and to listen and help her voice her wishes. [Holt heads the doula program at the Cambridge Birth Center.]
If we observed you in the delivery room, what would we see?
I would be by the mother's side, comforting her. I would rub her feet, suggest that she walk or squat or sleep, make sure that she was drinking fluids regularly. I would offer her nourishing food so that she would have the energy to give birth. And I would praise her: "You're doing an amazing job."
Are there territorial disputes?
Our point is to create harmony. Everybody has their role -- the doula, the doctor, the midwife, the nurse, the mother, and the family. What the doula does is facilitate the communication so each person can do their job. Providers often tell us, "You guys really facilitate things."
Is it true that labor can be 25 percent shorter with a doula?
That's what research is demonstrating. As a doula, you can really reduce the tension that a woman is feeling. You might get her into the tub and dim the lights, pour water rhythmically over her belly, and guide her through the contraction. When she emerges from the contraction, you say, "You're doing great, now take a deep breath and let it go." And as she relaxes, she dilates faster.
What's your goal as a doula?
Women don't forget their birth experiences. My job is to help a woman have a positive memory. That's what happened to me when I gave birth to my son, Vincent. I realized that there was something within me that I didn't know I had. I didn't know that I could do that. And it transformed me.
Experiences like that must attract women to this work.
I get calls all the time from women wanting to be doulas. Throughout history, women have been accompanying women in this transition to motherhood. When the medical model came in, we were excluded from the room, but maybe we're becoming so popular now because we belong there.
Are there any male doulas?
No. I don't mean to be sexist, but I just don't think that it's a man's role.
Some doulas call themselves "birth junkies."
I carry my beeper seven days a week, 24 hours a day. To witness a woman's strength in giving birth, to see her welcoming her baby into her arms, and her joy and satisfaction in saying, "I never thought I could do this and I did it" -- that's where my birth junkie-ness comes in.