Britney Asbell is a birth doula.
“Doula” is a word of Greek origin, meaning a servant woman.
But a birth doula is more than a mere servant. The modern doula is an American creation, born of the changes in childbirth practices that proliferated during the 1960s and 1970s, as mothers became conscious, active participants in the laboring process.
Today, women in Middle Georgia have many childbirth choices, and a doula can help women through all of them. A birth doula, frequently referred to simply as a “doula”, is someone who provides physical, emotional, and educational support to a woman while she is giving birth.
The work of a doula often includes sharing methods and techniques to help a woman cope with the physical discomforts of pregnancy and childbirth. These can include stretches, massage techniques, demonstrations of positions for sitting or sleeping that can ease discomfort, breathing techniques, and other ways to relax the body. This knowledge is especially useful to women at the end of pregnancy and during labor, and doulas often help fathers and other birth partners help out.
Britney was inspired to become a doula because of her own experience with a doula assisting her through her own childbirth. “I actually hired a doula for m y first child because I took a developmental psychology class and in the class, we learned all about doulas and it piqued my interest.”
When Britney was expecting her first child, she hired a doula. After the birth of her daughter, she knew that she would not be going back to work full-time because she wanted to be a stay at home mom.
“For the first time in my life, I felt a calling,” Britney “For the first time in my life, I knew what I was supposed to be doing, and yeah, it was to be a mom, but I also knew that I needed to be a doula.”
Britney goes on to recount how she told her husband about her decision. “I remember, I looked at my husband and I told him, I’m supposed to be a doula.”
She continues: “He looked at me and he said, you just had a baby, what are you talking about?”
Six months after Britney gave birth to her daughter, her former doula, Lisa Maddox, brought in a doula trainer from DONA International to conduct a workshop in her own home for aspiring doulas. DONA (Doulas of North America) International is the oldest and largest professional organization for doulas, who provide training, certification, continuing education, and support to doulas worldwide.
“I wasn’t sure if it was the right time for me to become a doula, I didn’t know if I was ready, with a six-month old at home,” Britney recalls. Maddox encouraged her that if she wanted to become a doula, she to go ahead and begin her training.
“The thing about doula work is that you can take your time; you can take as many births as you want or you can take as few births as you want,” she explains. So I did the training and I did two births within three months time.”
As her career was taking off, Britney and her husband suffered a pregnancy loss. She took time off, knowing that it would be too great an emotional challenge to participate in the birthing world while she was also grieving her loss. But in 2016, she returned in full force, participating in 9 births.
When Britney is asked to describe what she does, she responds: “In the simplest terms, I provide emotional support, physical support, and information support to pregnant women and their families throughout the pregnancy, birth, and the early postpartum period.”
“I meet with my clients at least two times during their pregnancy. If a woman wants to labor in her home, I try to do those meetings in the home, so that we are all comfortable with me being in the home, she says.
It’s also good to know where the bathroom is, where the blankets and pillows are, and to have a general sense of the layout of the house so that she doesn’t have to interrupt a laboring mother to ask questions that could be avoided with a pre-labor visit.
“In those early appointments, we usually talk about birth just a little bit,” Britney continues. “I’m not a childbirth educator, so I just give them a brief rundown of what childbirth looks like. I encourage my clients to take a childbirth class to learn more.”
The remainder of the first meeting and subsequent meetings is left up to the family. Britney learns about her clients hopes, fears, and wishes for their births.
“I help my clients design a birth wish list. I don’t like to call it a birth plan,” she explains, “because you just can’t plan birth.”
“We discuss what the family sees me doing during labor, whether they want me to be hands-on or hands-off,” she continues, “because as a doula, I can just sit in a chair in the corner of the room and just look at mom, and for some moms, that’s all they want or need to feel supported.”
On the other hand, Britney has worked with many moms who need the physical support of her touching them, holding their hands, massaging them, and staying face-to-face through their labor. It varies from woman to woman and labor to labor. “And sometimes,” Britney says, “what they want and need changes once we get there [to labor].”
One of the biggest roles of a doula is in providing tools to deal with labor pains to manage contractions. “As much as I love natural, un-medicated births, I am not the type of doula that pushes mothers to have that kind of birth. I want them to have the kind of birth that they want to have, because birth is birth,” Britney states.
“I’ve had mothers who’ve said that as soon as we get to the hospital, I want to get an epidural,” she continues. “And I say, okay, we’ll labor at home as long as you want to, and when we get to the hospital, we can use these techniques to help you until you can get that epidural.”
It’s all about what women want. “I encourage mothers to do their own research on the positives and negatives of different birth interventions,” Britney says, “and I offer them trusted resources to guide them, but it’s not my birth, so it’s ultimately not my decision, and I’m okay with that.”
Britney is quick to reassure perspective clients that having a doula doesn’t mean mom can’t also have dad and other family or friends support her.
“There is a misconception that doulas take the place of a dad or birth partner, but we don’t. A doula can help calm down dad or grandma or whomever is the mother’s birth partner of choice, and give that person small tasks or ways to support mom if they need help figuring out what to do,” Britney explains.
After the baby is born, Britney stays with the new family to help be sure that they are getting off to a good start. For families that plan to breastfeed, I make sure that nursing is starting off well because I am also a breastfeeding counselor. She weans herself off of the family in the hour or two after birth, as the family begins to settle in.
“I return to visit the family at home for two postpartum visits. The first visit is about one to two weeks postpartum, and it’s a time to debrief the mom on her birth experience,” Britney explains, “because so often, everything is focused on the baby, but mom has still got so much emotion from the birth, and she needs an opportunity to release it. I help her to process it all.”
Six to eight weeks postpartum, Britney returns to visit the mom again. For Britney, the motivation behind this visit is intensely personal.
“I do my second postpartum home visit six to eight weeks postpartum because generally, if postpartum depression is going to set in, it’s around six to eight weeks,” she explains.
After the birth of her second child, Britney was diagnosed with postpartum depression. She was first diagnosed at eight weeks postpartum; despite getting treatment, at four months postpartum, Britney experienced a rapid decline in her condition and struggled with intense postpartum anxiety.
“I began having severe panic attacks,” Britney reveals, “and I ended up in seven weeks of partial hospitalization.”
She continues: “It took me getting pretty deep down, pretty dark, before I was able to get the help that I really needed, and I realized that my mothers needed more postpartum support than they traditionally were getting.”
From her own experience, Britney gained an understanding that earlier detection of her symptoms could have changed her struggle. “I feel like a lot of mothers don’t realize that they have it until they are so many months into it, and they don’t realize that they can get help and they can get better.” She is careful to look for sign and symptoms of postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety during her visits with her clients.
“I try to send a simple text, just asking how are you feeling today—not how is baby,” she clarifies, “but how are YOU?”
She encourages her clients that they need to remember to focus on themselves. “During treatment, I realized that I had neglected myself for so long, that I didn’t even know HOW to take care of myself anymore,” Britney says.
Britney has also started a support group for women suffering from postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety.
“I was at a Breastfeeding USA meeting, which I hosted monthly, and I decided to open up to these women and just be very vulnerable and let them know how much I was struggling,” Britney recalls. “And much to my surprise, I was not alone.”
She goes on to clarify: “Now, not all of these women were struggling with postpartum mental illness, but they all struggled with those crappy mom days. For the first time in months, I felt like I was not alone, and that was so healing in its own way.”
Another mother suggested that perhaps Britney should start a support group for moms that wasn’t focused on any specific topic, like breastfeeding or baby wearing. “It was at that moment that I knew I had to start this group. I hosted the first gathering in March and it was a hit!” Britney exclaimed.
Motherhood: Keepin’ It Real is now a monthly support group for women to express the difficult aspects of their lives, be it postpartum depression, loneliness, or struggling with the responsibilities of motherhood. Women gather in Kathleen to share their experiences and provide support to each other.
Now, there is also a Motherhood: Keepin’ It Real Facebook page for mothers to seek support, ask advice, and share the highs and lows of motherhood.
Britney continues to provide birth support to women through her work as a doula through Britney Asbell Doula Services, but she has also become a leader in women’s postpartum mental health support and motherhood support. What began as a calling has become a lifestyle.
For more information on Britney’s doula services, please consult her Facebook page, Britney Asbell Doula Services. On her doula services page, you will also find more information about Motherhood: Keepin’ It Real.