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What Happens While My Doula Is On Call?

Most doulas list an “on call” period as a component of their birth support package when they present their services to prospective clients. When I explain my package structure, I’m sometimes asked about the “on call” component – when does it begin, and what does it really mean to have a doula on call? Surely you can’t be paying me to sit around watching a Game of Thrones marathon and doing what I’d normally be doing anyway…right?

I’m sure if you asked any of my clients, they’d tell you that the biggest change they noticed in our relationship as their birth drew closer was that we began communicating more frequently. In the final week or two of pregnancy, and particularly when a client goes post dates, we might be in contact every day or two until labour begins. My clients know that I’ll be there when they call me in labour – no matter what, no matter when. But that availability and peace of mind doesn’t come without a little bit of behind the scenes crazy!

Life on Call

Managing the on call period while family life goes on as usual has its challenges.  If babies came out with advance notice, being on call would a cinch. But in my line of work, babies come when they’re done and they take as long as they take to arrive. When the phone finally rings, I don’t know how long I might be away (it could be six hours, it could be thirty!) so I need to be ready to roll any time…for a LONG time.

A couple of weeks before you’re due, the “Away at Birth” Drill goes up on the fridge and I make sure my birth bag is fully packed and any perishable supplies replenished. I print off a copy of your birth preferences, and start reading it over every few days to make sure the essence of it stays front and centre in my mind.

Meanwhile, I keep an eye on upcoming client appointments and as the “window” for birth gets smaller, begin sketching out contingency plans for those that may need to be rescheduled. The same goes for any social commitments I might have – which are entirely dry affairs for me while on call. Even the simple act of arranging to meet a friend for coffee comes with a standard caveat – “I’ll be there…if I’m not at a birth”.

I sleep with my phone (as I do pretty much all the time!) and always have my labour gear washed and ironed, ready throw on in the middle of the night. Whether I get it on the right way around at that hour is in the hands of the goddess…but hey, at least it’s clean.  A list of last minute bits (iphone, cold water, snacks, and a printed copy of the client’s final birth preferences) rests permanently on my birth bag so I can throw these things on board as I dash out the door. The car must always have at least a half tank of fuel.

It’s true, I live on the edge.

Rare is the pregnancy that sees me on call for a short few days – more often it’s at least two weeks, and sometimes for as long as a month.

For every single day I’m on call, everyone in our house has two sets of plans. Plan A is what we’re going to be doing for the day. Plan B is what we’re going to be doing if baby decides that Plan A is unsatisfactory. Who will pick up the children from school and what will they have to juggle at short notice to pull that off in my place? Who will attend the late afternoon meeting about the school chook roster? What needs to be done to feed everyone if I’m not here? What social plans might need to be scrapped? What client appointments might need to be rescheduled? Plan B is a constantly evolving beast.

When a baby is due we don’t venture far from home base. Being on call has often meant that we’ve missed family get-togethers and special occasions over the years. A few years back, I spent an entire Christmas Day holding a shower head  over a contracting belly and I had a muesli bar for Christmas lunch. This doesn’t bother me so much, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard on our kids. Vacations must be blocked out 7-8 months in advance before enquiries for those months begin coming in, and the weeks either side blocked out for bookings also – not a good look to have a client call in labour while I’m three hours drive away!

It might seem a bit crazy to live your life this way, but it becomes normal after a while. When the phone finally does ring, our household is a well oiled machine – everyone slips seamlessly into “birth mode”, and there’s minimal disruption. I’ve been doing this work since my youngest was a baby; they know nothing else.

So while you’re waiting patiently (or impatiently!) for your baby, know that you haven’t been waiting alone. And when your labour begins and I’m heading out the door to you at 2am in the dead of winter…I head out with a sense of excitement that you’ll finally be meeting your baby, and completely confident in the knowledge that my own family are tucked up, safe and happy. I don’t have to worry about them – for now, it’s all about you.