As a doula trainer for many years now, one of the most challenging concepts to instill in newer doulas is the idea of healthy boundaries with clients. Not the kind discussed in the scope of practice because those are pretty clear-cut, but instead, establishing when we will be available for routine questions and support. It is especially difficult in this age of instant-everything, including text messaging. I have had text messages as late as 11pm and as early as 5am. There seems to be no concept of time.
Newer doulas often feel desperate. They want to get started. They want clients now. And they want it all yesterday! Helping them to understand it will happen in time and the amount of work it takes on their part is all a part of my mentoring process after they complete their training class.
Recently, I was training when a potential postpartum doula said a client had been texting her almost the entire day knowing full well where she was. We discussed this as a group and I brought home a few examples of setting good and healthy boundaries, which not only will benefit the doula but their own family as well.
Back when I first started working as a doula, we had no cell phones—if you can imagine that! I had a pager and my clients would page me then put in their number and I would find a phone—yes, we even had payphones back then—and call them back. Sunday’s were my day. Family time. And they all knew it. The only thing that changed that was if someone was in labor. Other than that one exception, if they paged me, I would get back to them the next day.
I also had a system. Paging “411” was for information and “911” was for, “I am in labor!” One Sunday, I was at a family gathering for a celebration in a restaurant. My pager vibrated and I looked to see a client number I was familiar with and after it, “411”. So, I went about my celebrating and the next morning called her. She proceeded to yell and scream at me, saying that she was paying me and how dare I not get back to her right away. I reminded her of my agreement and the process for 411–information only. She screamed and yelled some more and I became very quiet.
Finally, she said, “Are you still there?”
To which I responded, “Yes, I am. I am writing you a check.”
She was shocked and said, “For what?”
And I said, “Obviously, we are not a good fit so I am reimbursing your fee.”
Well, she was taken back and begged me not to do that. I explained that I do not expect to be talked to like that and it should never happen again. She agreed and we went on to have an amazing relationship and three babies together.
Two things happened here. I respected my own down time as a doula, which we all need. And, I was not going to allow anyone to verbally abuse me like that. By respecting myself, I force people to respect me as well.
I asked this prospective doula if she had been responding and she said, “Well, yes, I feel I have to.” This led to a discussion about what should be in the agreement that the client signs. What is in your agreement? If there is nothing about schedules or availability, then it is time to establish those boundaries that protect you and your family. When you meet for the first time do you read your agreement out loud to your prospective clients? I always did. This ensured everyone was on the same page. It is even more important in this day and age of one-liners and short responses. I find people don’t read things thoroughly and just sign anything put in front of them. Make sure your clients are aware.
At a birth, I would explain to my clients beforehand that if I did not care for myself, how could I ever care for them? I took breaks. I would eat and drink and take a short walk. I needed that time to refresh and reset, so that I could come back to that room and keep going.
I also had call hours. Each morning during the week that I was not at a birth, clients could call me between 8-9am with questions or concerns. This helped in several ways. They knew they had someone to reach out to and I could predict when I needed to be home to respond to their needs. During this time, I would do office work like filing and planning while near the phone to take calls. Most days brought no calls at all and were productive in the paperwork department while other days were back-to-back calls and no paperwork got accomplished.
This work is hard. It is taxing and if we don’t care for ourselves, we will surely burn out before our time. It is also not fair to our families. I had a very supportive husband and family. If I didn’t take at least one day for us, then how supportive should I expect them to be? Once explained, people get it. They understand and they provide you the space you need because they realize that in the end they are really the ones who will benefit the most.
I had a lot of rules for my practice. Some people did not understand all I did to establish positive and healthy boundaries. But I am always available for anyone who would like to hear how I managed to be a very well respected and sought after doula for over 16 years. Pick up your phone or send me a text. But not on Wednesday evening – date night – or Sunday – my day off unless I am training. LOL!
CCCE, CLD, CPD, CAPPA Senior Advisor and Faculty
Crystal Sada has been a childbirth educator for 32 years. She also ran a very busy labor and postpartum doula practice for 16 years, having attended over 600 births and worked with hundreds of families during the postpartum period. In the past she was the Director of Postpartum Programs with CAPPA as well as a member of the Board of Directors and has been a labor doula faculty member for 15 years. Her workshops are well attended and very popular. Crystal no longer works full time as a doula but mentors doulas in her community to help them transition into this work of passion as well as offers independent childbirth education classes. Her interests include jewelry making, music, reading, cooking and spending time with her family as well as visiting the Jersey shore every chance she gets.