"You're a what, sorry?"

It never fails to amaze me how many people have no idea what a Doula actually is or does. I can only assume that this is because the vocation is not mainstream like a midwife or a health visitor, although we all move in the same circles. When I say I'm a Doula, I get a blank look and I have to explain in as few words as possible so I don't blind them with science. I tend to say "a birth companion".

To give the dictionary definition, a doula is: a woman, typically without formal obstetric training, who is employed to provide guidance and support to a pregnant woman during labour. "from admission through delivery, a doula stayed at her assigned patient's side"

Now, to debunk a myth, a Doula does not necessarily have to be female although most of us are. There are, in fact, male Doulas but it is true that the profession is predominantly feminine. The word "doula" is Greek for "woman's servant" and we are there, typically, to serve the mother - although in modern times, it is better to say the "parent" to acknowledge that not all new parents are of a female/male gender.

Also, Doulas are not just about birth. There are Doulas for stillbirth, miscarriage and death. As a wise Doula once said to me, "we all doula every day. We coach our kids through their exams and our partners through troubles and worries. And generally we do it without even thinking about it." That's using "doula" as a verb and not a noun.

When I think of Doulas, my mind's eye brings forth a biblical tent of the many wives of Jacob (think The red Tent by Anita Diamant and you'd be close) and a shed-load of oxytocin (the love hormone essential for progression in labour). I feel a kind touch, hear an encouraging word and and imagine a supporter of the parents' choices in childbirth. We strive to ensure that all new parents have the best birth they can and the most wonderful experience they deserve. We also provide support through the postnatal period. We can cook and make sure the parents are eating well; to give them time to sleep while the baby is sleeping and to signpost to parent and baby groups for support. We can also help with breastfeeding; formula feeding and be a sympathetic ear when it can feel overwhelming. Typically we would help the family for around 4-6 weeks, until they felt like they were doing just fine on their own.

Now, I used to be a student midwife and when you're drinking tea with other qualified midwives in the break room, you hear all sorts of opinions about birth companions and partners. One midwife said to me once that doulas were only present to make trouble and argue with the health care professionals. Now, since then I have come to know that this is not what we do - why on Earth would we want to start a fight with someone who is there to ensure the baby is born safely? And neither do we speak on behalf of the parents. We want to empower them to use their own voices and speak up about their choices. And above everything, we want them to leave their birth space with a sense of fulfilment and not sadness.

Doulas are for everyone. Or they should be. Who doesn't want to be "mothered" when they are going through an emotional and pivotal moment in their lives? To have someone tell them they're amazing and coping and laying a blanket of kindness over them? They are not just for the white, middles class. They're not just for rich people who want a water-birth with whale music and incense and they're certainly not hippy-dippy witches with crystals and runes (although please excuse me if you are!). They're everyday people serving every day people and they bring a bucket load of compassion with them.

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