Ask A Doula: Setting Boundaries

Q I just read your post about modeling boundary setting for your clients, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that. What kind of boundaries should I be setting? How do I set them? Honestly I worry about offending my clients or losing them to more flexible doulas. And what do you mean by “maintaining” your boundaries?

A I’m really glad you asked, because this is a critical part of avoiding burnout and compassion fatigue, and an important lesson that doulas need to learn if they want to have a healthy balance between their family life and their business. It’s all about making sure that your heart for your clients doesn’t result in you being overrun by clients that always want more, more, more. There’s a reason that the old saying “good fences make good neighbors” has stood the test of time. This can be tough, especially if you’re conflict avoidant, but I have broken it down into 4 steps for you, and ideally you never need to get to step 4.

Step 1: Set your boundaries

Woman juggling framed photos of family and clients

Decide what your boundaries will be. That’s up to you. Some boundaries I have set with clients are

  • Non urgent calls and texts should come between 8 am and 9 pm only. Obviously, labor calls can come whenever, but calls about the speed of leg hair growth or which baby carrier I recommend should wait.
  • I stick with the number of prenatal and postpartum visits in the contract. If you want more, we can do more, but I have the option to charge more if you want more.
  • I expect to be paid on time, as agreed.
  • Because I miss a lot of family things due to births, all other things will be scheduled around that. I’m not missing my child’s performance for something that can be scheduled.
  • If I have a big family event (like a wedding or vacation) I will be sending my backup.
  • I don’t always come at the first call that you are in labor, we will evaluate together and decide when is the best time for me to come.
  • I don’t attend births without a medical care provider.

You may choose different boundaries. That’s absolutely your prerogative.

Step 2: Communicate your boundaries

Setting expectations before something comes up goes a long way. I talk about most of my boundaries in the initial interview, just in the course of explaining my services. For example, I will say something like “I’m available 24/7 for births and during daytime hours for non-urgent questions.” This sets the expectation in a way that is positive, as being available for non-urgent questions is a feature, not a limit. Some boundaries come up in the process of reviewing my contract with potential clients.

Step 3: Review your boundaries

After being hired, I usually spend a few minutes at the first prenatal reviewing how things work, and once again, I present my boundaries as features. “You’re welcome to call me as soon as you realize it’s labor. Remember that early labor can be long and I may not come at that first call. We will check in periodically and decide when is the best time for me to come. In our prenatals, we’ll be focusing on how you can do early labor at home without me being there making you feel observed.” Whenever it makes sense to do it, I maintain the boundaries by resetting and reviewing expectations.

Step 4: Enforce your boundaries

The really challenging part comes when clients try something that crosses one of your boundaries! Remember that how you handle this will model to your clients how they can handle it when grandparents cross the boundaries they are learning to set as new parents. Some tips:

  • Thank them or compliment them if possible. This is how I handled my client who called me in the middle of the night asking about leg hair growth. I said something like “Wow, that’s an interesting question. Probably the most interesting question I’ve ever had. And it’s also not really urgent. Can I call you in the morning to discuss it?”
  • Redirect them. Sometimes clients will expect you to be a one stop shop for services you don’t provide. Get comfortable with saying things like “It sounds like you could really benefit from a childbirth class. Here are a few great classes that many of my clients have found useful.”
  • Remind them of your agreement. My contract states that I won’t attend a birth without full payment ahead of time. While there have been times I’ve chosen to work with clients, there has also been times I’ve chosen to hold firm and say “The contract you signed designates (date) and the time when payment is due. As the contract states, paying late means there will be a late fee and I might not be able to attend your birth.” (Note, when I *do* work with clients and adjust payment plans, I ask them to sign a revised payment agreement.)
  • If you are willing to do what they ask, say “Yes, and….” Agree to what they’re asking for AND add your conditions. “Sure, we can do two more prenatal visits if you’d like. That’s more than you’re contracted to get, so if we do these, they’ll cost $XXX”
  • If you’re not okay with what they are asking, say no kindly. “Since you’ve decided to birth without a care provider, I am not going to be able to attend your birth. I will (restate your contract terms for refunds, make a referral to someone else, etc.).

Enforcing boundaries is the part that is the scariest, for sure. I’ve found that making sure you do a thorough job of setting, communicating, and reviewing your boundaries makes a huge difference and you’ll rarely find yourself having to enforce them.

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