Undivided Doula: An Interview with Certified Doula, Lee Mcclenon

What made you decide to become a doula?

L: This is always a tough question for me, surprisingly. I heard about doulas when I was in college and I went to an all women’s college, so it was very feminist. I was intrigued about the birth process for a while. When I was little I wanted to be a doctor and I think medicine and bodies are really interesting. When a friend told me about doulas, it was just an awakening moment. I realized that the story that I had been told about birth didn’t have to be so rigid. I learned that women didn’t have to give birth on their back or in the hospital. I had never heard of midwives before. I didn’t know they existed in the current age. 

C: So you found that becoming a doula was an interesting pathway into this less rigid idea of birth?

L: Right, it really fit into my mindset of empowering women and helping people to make the best choices for themselves. 

What surprised you most about becoming a doula—maybe something you learned or something about the community you became a part of?

L: There is such a breath of doula work. When people hear that I am a doula, they often ask if I’m a midwife or if I’m really into natural births, but there is a lot of diversity within the doula community. There are so many skills. Some people are really trained in natural birth or in acupuncture…

Something that truly surprised me is that doula training is very much about birth, but being a doula is so much more than that. My training was about how to support someone through labor and delivery, but being a doula is really about getting to be a part of this really intimate moment in someone’s life. There’s a lot going on—birth doesn't happen in a vacuum. People still have relationships, and family members, and employment and this is a moment of transition.

I think that being a doula is not just about labor and delivery and having a baby, but being there for someone in this transformative moment in their life. I think that’s something that’s not as touched on training, but there is so much more that goes into being an effective doula—counseling skills, being a great listener, and really just being there for someone. 

C: Something else that you touched on that I would like you to elaborate on are the differences between a birthing doula and a postpartum doula.

L:  So, I’m actually a trained birthing doula, postpartum doula, and actually an abortion doula too. 

C: I actually didn’t even know that abortion doulas existed.

L: There’s a movement of doulas now calling themselves, “full spectrum doulas.” They’re there for people through the whole spectrum of reproduction—whether that means you got pregnant and didn’t intend and don’t feel prepared to have a baby right now or are really welcoming a kid into your life. 

C: That’s so interesting. I think it really brings home your earlier point about the emotional role that doulas can play—that abortion doesn’t have to take place in emotional isolation if you don’t have a built in support system.

L: Yes, many clinics also don't allow partners in the room during abortions. There’s actually a clinic in Cherry Hill that started a doula program, so that there could be someone in the room that wasn’t a doctor and could support women—hold their hand, remind them to breath, even just make small talk. 

I think what you were saying about partners being involved is really important. I see my role as a doula as not taking the place of a partner who knows this person so well, but bringing the breath of knowledge that I have from experiencing other births and make suggestions. I can encourage partners to rub her back in a certain way to deal with pain or coach them in counting breaths. Essentially, helping the partner to help her. 

So a postpartum doula is different from a baby nurse. A postpartum doula is still primary focused on the woman who just gave birth and looking out for her experience. So that is doing baby care, changing diapers, and doing feedings, but it’s primarily, so that the mother can go take a shower, a walk, nap, or just take a break.

C: I know women who are obsessed with their postpartum doulas. They can really be rather life-changing.

L: They can be especially great for women who don’t have family that live nearby. We’re of a generation where a lot of women move away from their family and career-oriented women are jet-setting all over the county. Relying on a postpartum doula for some of the support that family may usually provide can be really beneficial. Postpartum doulas can make healthy meals or stay overnight, so that moms can get more sleep. Even if you’re breastfeeding, they’ll bring the baby to you, but still do the burping and changing, so you can get to sleep. 

C: I think that can be really invaluable. I feel that postpartum doulas fit into Mama Said’s stressing of the intrinsic link between maternal health and wellness and child health and wellness. Utilizing a doula supports the idea that focusing on the mom is a way of focusing on the child.

What would you like women to know about using a doula and/or the birthing process in general?

L: I’d like to break out of this connection that’s often made between doulas and natural birth. Doulas can still be really engaged with the birth process when an epidural is used. I encourage people who even know from the get go that they want to use an epidural to have a birthing doula. There are so many options in the birthing process and I think it’s not so much about what you choose, but about choosing something. It’s important to make an informed choice and choose what’s right for you. 

C: Do you typically meet with moms before delivery or do you have experience when you’re just meeting the mom on the spot?

L: Both. If I’m working with someone we usually meet twice beforehand. The first meeting is really a “get to know you.” I ask about their family, why they wanted to hire a doula, and their goals. The second meeting is more practice. We will role play different positions and sometimes if the person is particularly nervous about advocating for themselves in the medical setting, we will role play that.

I’ve also had situation when I didn’t know the people ahead of time. My most recent birth experience was like that. I was a back up doula. I had a little bit of context, but I had never met them before. It’s about being able to establish relationships quickly. 

Has your experience as a doula varied in different communities you work with, in different settings, or with different moms?

L: I’ve done doula work on my own with private clients, volunteer with a group called Philadelphia Alliance for Labor Support that offers free and low cost doulas services for those who can’t afford to pay full price. I’ve also worked with the Maternity Care Coalition and that doula program primarily serves women in North Philadelphia. 

My experience is with women all over the city and I’ve been to lots of different hospitals. 

It really boils down to the fact that every birth is different. I think that working with different populations reinforces the idea that birth doesn’t happen in a vacuum. My last client was 19, so she’s thinking about going back to school. We talked about her plans for going back to school and what her goals are for breastfeeding and her goals for school and how they would fit together. Other clients’ questions have mainly been about bonding with their baby and/or baby wearing and working through that. I really try to listen to people’s needs and work with the resources that they have. 

C: So many things come to mind as you were talking. One thing I was just thinking about is how one woman can have many children and therefore many different birth experiences. And I think that it’s great for people to know that you can have a birth experience with a doula at an affordable cost. 

L: Yes, a lot of doulas are willing to use sliding scales. I encourage people if they find a doula they like, to reach out to her and express both their interest and limitations. 

C: I also encourage women and moms to seek out a doula, lactation consultant, sleep consultant, etc. in the same way they would seek out any other type of health and wellness care. It’s not a one size fits all—your friend may love her doula and she may still not be the right fit for you. I want women to feel empowered in that process and I think what you have been touching on throughout this conversation is that women are the experts of their own lives and in the case of mothers, experts of their lives and their children’s lives. 

The last time we spoke, you talked a little bit about your experience with doula work in the queer community. You exposed me to new information in that community related to doula work and I’m wondering if you could share more about that. 

L: I really want to be a resource for the queer community, because I think that are birth stories are different from the “mainstream.” So, lesbian families, families where one partners is transgender, even postpartum doulas for gay men adopting children. LGBT families may not have extended family that they are close to and there is still an element of discrimination. We now have trans men giving birth and I know people are made uncomfortable by that. I really want to be there for people and I believe that everyone deserves a joyful and empowered birth experience. I think that people who want to have children should be allowed to have children. 

C: You’ve already mentioned some resources, but are there groups or organizations related to doula work if you identify as queer or LGBT? 

L: There is a listing of doulas that are trans friendly from all over Pennsylvania. It’s a list of doulas, midwives, and Obstetricians/Gynecologists, so all reproductive care for trans individuals. There are a few doulas locally from that list. 

Can you share some thoughts about motherhood and/or working with mothers?

L: I’m not a mom.

C: That makes two of us. I love people working with moms who aren’t moms. Unfortunately, so much of the dialogue around motherhood has to come from mothers. What if we as a culture and society decided that motherhood is an experience that impacts virtually every aspect of our lives. How can we raise awareness and the be dedicated to improving the experience.

L: I think that not being a mom in some ways makes be a better doula, because I’m not comparing your experience with my own. Whatever you choose, I’m not thinking about my own birth experience or my own children. So, I think that it can make me less biased. 

Also, birth used to be much more of a communal experience and women our age would witnessed many births and the childcare experience. Family wasn’t so nuclear, so being a doula has given me a lot of exposure and understanding that I wouldn't otherwise have. 

L: My experience generally of motherhood is that moms can do anything! 

C: I think that working with mothers really is this experience of awe—in terms of capability and resiliency. Every mom is extraordinary in her own way. I think the expectation in the US in our time of what women should be able to be up and doing so soon after giving birth really draws into question how much we actually care about women and families. A lot of the work that Mama Said is doing in and out of the workplace is this awareness raising that motherhood needs to be celebrated and supported. 

L: Being a doula has made me furious that the US doesn’t have paid maternity leave AND paternity leave. It’s outrageous. I think that most people who don’t have kids don’t even know that’s true. 

C: Definitely. And if you get hired somewhere and you’re not quite at that stage of life, would you even think to ask questions about maternity leave etc. I think for many for many of us, especially young women it’s not something that comes up. I know that I’ve never asked about maternity leave policies in a job interview. There’s almost a fear of it. I think that women already feel that there is this stereotype of partnered women in their 30s having their resume thrown into the trash based on assumptions. 

L: That’s another thing that does come into play between the populations that I work with. There are moms who take eight weeks of paid maternity leave and really get to spend time with their baby and then there are moms who have to go back very quickly, even within a few days. You’re not supposed to lift anything heavier than your baby at first and then you have women on their feet all day in service jobs, because that’s what they need to do to support their family. 

C: I think that there are some really big questions we need to be asking in terms of pregnancy and motherhood and all of the pieces we’ve discussed. It is important to not only value mothers, but also the people that help them. We should value doulas and the various consultants and providers that can make the experience much more positive for women and their families. What’s good for mom is good for her children. 

L: That’s another thing—doulas fall into this class of what we call “care labor” that is not always valued. Some people get “sticker shock” from the cost of doula services, but it’s very important to pay a doula what she is worth. It is a feminist act. It is a way of supporting female owned business and care work which has been undervalued for generations. 

C: I was just reading about this as well. Why is it that as soon someone starts doing something in a “caring” field, it’s immediately devalued? Daycare, doulas, mothers, people caring for older adults, the list goes on…

L: Right. When you think about prepping for a baby, think about how much you spent prepping for your wedding. You likely spent a good amount of time and money to make that day special and in this experience you’re bringing a new life into your household. I think it’s a worthy investment to set yourself up for success. Having a doula means lower rates of c-sections, lower rates of postpartum depression, better bonding with your baby, and higher success rates with breastfeeding. It can be really beneficial.

C: Thank you so much for your time. I’ve learned a lot!

Lee’s doula business is called Undivided Doula and you can find her at undivideddoula.com!