A Day’s Work: Doula

Cottrell with the most recent baby whose birth she attended.

In her job as a doula, Fiona Cottrell has attended nearly 200 births throughout the Hudson Valley. Doulas provide support for parents during and after birth, educate, encourage and coach women and their partners through the process of labor and beyond. That’s different for every birth, and can include rubbing the mother’s back or applying counter-pressure during labor, suggesting pain relief techniques and positions, helping the parents design and stick to a birth plan, or even letting the dad catch a nap after being up all night so he can be fully present when it is time for the baby to be born. As Cottrell says of her work, “I mother new moms, and new dads too, because they need it just as much.”

How did you get into this line of work?

It was a good friend, she was having her third boy. She was looking for a little help, and so she said, Why don’t you come up and spend the day with me? And of course, who can resist a new baby? So I said sure, and I went up and spent the day with her, and then she said I really wanted to call you and ask you to be my doula.


She said you would really make a great doula, so I thought, what is a doula? I immediately went home and Googled it, and after that everything sort of fell into place. It was like this is what I was meant to be doing.

What is the training like?

When I started, there were basically three organizations that would certify you as a doula. Now there are dozens of organizations. The training requires a three-day workshop, and then you go out and have to attend three births. I believe it’s more now. So you attended your births, had to get good evaluations from everyone who was present – midwives, doctors, the patient themselves. A lot of reading. They want you to read a lot of books, which is nice. You get a different perspective from everyone who writes about birth. Then you’re off.

How does the relationship with your clients work?

First-time moms feel totally intimidated. You’re scared, don’t know what to expect. You’re afraid of the pain. Everyone tells you these awful horror stories. No one ever tells you the good birth stories. As a doula, you’re already one step ahead of the mom you’re helping. They put a certain amount of trust in you, because you’ve already, you’ve learned, experienced, read about this. And so, they put that trust in you. You have to develop a connection. You have to be able to relate to the person. Not just with mom, but a lot of the times, with dads too. Because the dads are even more scared, but they won’t tell you that.

As a doula, you have to find your place in the birthing field. It’s not just a happy couple having a baby. There’s a dynamic going on, and sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s amazing, and sometimes it’s not so good, and you have to figure out where your place is.
And it’s not. You don’t take over. You don’t direct. You’re not in charge. It’s keeping the wishes of both parents in mind when the labor is happening, within the realms of safety. A good experience for everyone. You have to find your spot in the laboring dance that goes on.

What sort of person makes a good doula?

You have to be open-minded. You have to be very flexible, because you can be called to a birth at a moment’s notice. Your family has to be able to survive without you for 48 hours. You have to have a lot of patience, a lot of stamina. And it’s not steady work, so you can’t depend on it for income. That’s the harsh reality of it.

It’s a very challenging job.

What’s a common misconception about the work?
I think people think we’re midwives. We don’t do anything medical. We’re solely physical, emotional and educational support.

What makes for a really good day?

Smelling a baby head. Taking care of a newborn baby. I love babies. I enjoy taking care of people.

A bad day?

I can always find the good in something. Not making the birth on time, that’s a bad day.

How has the job changed since you started?

I don’t know if it’s really changed. Doulas are much more of a household name now, but there are still vast amounts of women who don’t want to know anything about labor. And those aren’t the ones that hire me, unfortunately.

Birth teaches us so much. It’s a huge learning experience for us, for our relationship with our partner, you learn you can do far more than you think you can, far more. You can tolerate more. You can stay up longer than you ever imagined. You can love more deeply.

How’s the pay?

It sometimes works out well for a doula, and most of the time it doesn’t. There’s a couple of doula in the area, and we all keep it around the same rate. I want to keep it in the realm of possibility for most women. Postpartum is great, because you’re on an hourly rate and you know when you’re starting and stopping.

Do you see yourself in the same job ten years from now?

Oh, yeah. Most definitely. This isn’t something you do for the money. You do it for the love. I didn’t choose this. It chose me.

I still cry at every birth. I pour my heart into these births, because you want to be there, you want a good birth, you know that pain, you know that she just wants this baby out. You’re constantly thinking what if we try this? I wonder if the doctor will let me try this? Can she eat? Can we move positions? Can we get in the tub? You kind of go through the labor with the mom. I get into it. I try to be like a duck, calm on the surface, peddling like crazy underneath.