I began my doula work before I knew the word “doula.” As a childbirth educator in 1986, I attended my first birth with a couple from one of my childbirth classes and immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. As the mother, I felt that it would be an honor to nurture women and their partners at such a critical time. In 1987 I read an article in Mothering magazine about Doula, Inc., of Rhode Island. As I read the description of a doula, I said to myself, “I am a doula.” It was a magical moment. I called the organization and spoke with Cindy who knew of a woman named Jane Arnold in Westchester County, New York (across the Hudson River from my New Jersey home) who was running a doula service called Mom Service, Inc. I soon had Jane’s brochure in-hand and called her. I was pleased to learn more about doulas, what they do, and how to run a doula service. Jane was hosting a picnic that weekend for her doulas and invited me and my children to attend. I will never forget driving across the Tappan Zee Bridge that warm sunny day and arriving to meet Jane and her children and her doulas, as we laid our blankets out and had a picnic in her yard. He warmth and passion embraced me. She shared her dream to become a nurse, then a midwife and to bring doulas and midwives together, with a passion to serve underserved women. I remember thinking how will she do this and Do this and more she has!
Jane became my mentor. As the mother of four, running her own company, she helped me to begin MotherLove, Inc., and to learn and grow as a doula. In those early days, no one knew what a doula was, friends called us “granola and oatmeal women.” Hospitals and medical providers wouldn’t even return phone calls. On many days when I was ready to give up, Jane helped me regain the vision of a doula for every woman who wants one. She kept me focused on the work we had done and what lay ahead, reminding me that change is a long, slow process, but well worth the effort. Jane began nursing school soon after we met. I greatly admired her determination to achieve her goals. Her example kept me focused on mine: to bring doula care into mainstream medical care.
I grew interested in the role and history of doula care and maternity care around the world. I reached to anyone who knew how different cultures or countries cared for women around the time of birth. I talked with anyone who would listen about doulas and the importance of caring for women and children.
Jane completed nursing school and began practicing as a registered nurse at North Central Bronx Hospital in New York City. Although we had less time to speak on the telephone, she kept encouraging me to carry the doula torch. Jane went on to midwifery school through the Frontier School of Midwifery in Kentucky, and was soon a certified nurse-midwife (CNM) working at the Morris Heights birthing Center in the South Bronx.
One day in 1994, Jane called to say she had been awarded a grant from the Robin Hood Foundation the Aaron Diamond Foundation to begin a doula training program, to be called the Morris Heights doula Program, in the Bronx. To my delight, Jane invited me to participate. She was bringing midwives and doula together for the very first community doula program. I will never forget the first day I drove to the Bronx, a community not far from my own geographically, yet so very different from my suburb. I felt excited, nervous about not knowing what to expect, and keen interest in how this ethnically diverse community would react.
The training was exhilarating. To hear women from many cultural backgrounds share their stories to share their visions and hopes for nurturing support for pregnant and birthing women justified the days I had spent learning and planning. I knew then that Jane and I were right: Women everywhere would embrace this concept. We would work hard to return caring, education, and nurturing to communities everywhere. The Morris Heights Doula Program reignited my passion and determination to bring doula care to all women who wanted it.
In 1992 I attended the first meeting of Doulas of North America (DONA) in Boston and found myself a member of its first board as chair of public relations. I was to work with Penny Simkin, Dr. Marshall Klaus, Dr. John Kennell, Phyllis Klaus, Annie Kennedy and many other wonderful people. My horizons continued to broaden and my views expanded.
In 1994 I was invited to speak at the White House to the Task Force on Health Care Reform about doula care. A few years before, I had been unable to get a local obstetrician to speak with me. Now Hillary Clinton wanted to know more about doulas and the role we could play in rebuilding our families and communities.
In 1995, as a board member of the Northern New Jersey Maternal Child Health Consortium, I had an opportunity to participate in the development of a grant proposal to provide doula care to women in treatment from substance abuse and alcohol addiction in Paterson, New Jersey. The Neighborhood Doula Project was founded with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation of Princeton, New Jersey, and later Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies of Paterson. Again Jane provided guidance and wisdom as we brought doula care to a community burdened with difficult issues. Unemployment is rampant. More than 30% of homes with children have only one parent. High rates of violence and child abuse and widespread distrustfulness cry out for emotional and spiritual nurturing. I trusted my heart that doula skills were needed here. One cold winter morning in Paterson after a month of training- five talented black women spoke passionately of the need to reduce the high rate of black infant mortality in their communities. They vowed to help raise the low rates of breastfeeding, to lower the incidence of postpartum depression, and to reduce ever-increasing rates of child abuse and neglect. They proclaimed their determination to assist teenage mothers, to help women stay off drugs while pregnant, and to prevent child abuse. Hearing my words echoed in theirs, I felt fiercely proud of them. If training and education no longer come automatically from one’s actual mother, sisters and friends, they can come from surrogate mothers… from doulas.
Directing the Neighborhood Doula Project enriched my life in ways I had never anticipated. I learned so much from the doulas and the women we served. Running this program reinforced my belief that caring for pregnant, birthing, and parenting women and their families is necessary if we are to provide the next generation with the love and family values we hear thrown around in political speeches.
In 1996, with a grant from the New York State Department of Health, Jane was hired by the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook to begin a midwifery practice there. As Director of Midwifery, and with the help of other key nursing personnel within Women and Children’s Hospital at Stony Brook, she prepared to bring doulas to the surrounding community. In 1998, Jane and I began to train doulas at Stony Brook.
Jane and I and the Midwifery Practice and School of Nursing at Stony Brook are honored that our work to return education, caring, nurturing, and high-quality medical care through midwives and doulas into communities was featured in “Indivisible,” a national documentary funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. (www.indivisible.org)
Our journey has continued to include bringing Midwives and Doulas together in North Carolina and Botswana- Africa. We don’t know the next place we will be together, yet, Jane will always be in my heart as I pass along the warmth and wisdom she greeted me with years ago. I now train, speak, consult, and design doula programs for hospitals, medical providers, and doulas globally.
Doula programs are regularly being started in new communities around the world. Jane and I continue working together to bring midwives, doulas and doula training to all women and all communities.
Wherever the doula heart and spirit live, the interrupted tradition of woman-to-woman, mother to mother care resumes and prevails.
I thank all the doulas and midwives who have joined us on this journey. They bring their dedication and love to grateful families every day.
Thank you Jane for starting me on a journey that continues to evolve. Looking back to that day on your lawn, I could not have imagined the many places around the world we have reconnected the circle of support of midwives and doulas. Thank you for sharing your vision and making it happen.
With love and gratitude,
Debra and Jane collaborated on Nurturing Beginnings, found on the DONA Post Partum Reading List- an updated, digital version of Nurturing Beginnings will be available later this year. If you’d like to receive announcements about this updated, electronic version of Nurturing Beginnings please sign up here.
Leah DeCesare says
Debra and Jane – I love your intertwined stories and your parts in the history of doulas! I’m proud to be working together with you on your updated book, Nurturing Beginnings!
Safe travels, Debra!