There’s no one right way to have a backup arrangement with another birth doula. However, it IS undoubtedly better to have a backup arrangement than to have nothing in place when you need it!
Why you need a backup
First let’s talk about why you need backup! It’s simple: You are human. Even if you “never get sick”, life happens and you need to be prepared. I have backed up other doulas because of sickness, funerals, car accidents and broken bones. I have used a backup for a family wedding and for a mom who called while I was in the middle of teaching a class. I have nearly had to decide between using backup or sending my kids to one babysitter with chicken pox or another with pink eye. I have gotten a flat tire on the way to a birth! You are not immune to any of these. Don’t think it won’t happen to you!
In places where there’s a large doula community, some think that “if I can’t make it, I will post on Facebook and someone will help me out.” Not necessarily. At 2:30 in the morning it’s unlikely that a doula is on FB and can go.
Some doulas have the belief that since your client chose you, they wouldn’t want anyone else. While it’s great that they chose you, don’t let it flatter you so much that you think they love you so much that no doula is better than a backup. Wrong. Leaving your client to birth alone is worse than sending a backup.
It’s a good idea to have it spelled out in your contract that you can send in a backup if you’re unavailable. Discuss the possibility with your clients at a prenatal. I found that my clients had often interviewed with the same doulas who provided me with backup so it was nice to be able to say “Robynne’s great, she and I back each other up!” when we talked about who they also interviewed with.
What to include in your backup arrangements
While any arrangements can work, I think it’s important to be fair and for everything to be worked out in advance as much as possible. This ensures no one is surprised and makes the handoff much simpler and quicker. Here are some things to keep in mind and discuss with your potential backups ahead of time:
Philosophy and approach – If you only take home births, and your backup isn’t comfortable with out of hospital birth, that probably isn’t a good match. Ideally you want to find a doula with a similar approach to doula work, and with a similar style. You don’t have to be an exact match, just similar enough that clients won’t get mental whiplash from a change.
Area of service – I haven’t always had the exact same service area as my backups, which means I have on occasion traveled farther than usual to do births for them. I once declined to backup for a particular client who lived in an area difficult for me to get to in the winter as well. Because we talked about the location issues before clients went into labor, it wasn’t a big deal and she was able to get other coverage.
Money – This is probably the biggest one! Some backup arrangements include payment for general availability. That’s not something I’ve ever done with any of my backups. We have paid for times when we have been the *primary* one on call. So I would not expect payment for random minor stuff that means a backup is needed, but if my fellow doula is going out of town for two weeks right before her client’s due date and I am The Doula for that week, she would pay a small sum for that, and if I did the birth a larger amount.
Payment for the birth can be done in several different ways, and I’ve outlines some examples in the chart below. It’s okay to keep some of your fee to cover your overhead and prenatal work with your clients. Do make it worth your backup’s time to be there for you. If your fees for doula services are similar to start with, chances are you both will be more satisfied with the split of the fees.
Sometimes doulas have already spent the money the client paid so they feel they can’t use a backup. Remember that this family is going to want a refund if they have to birth without a doula, so not sending a backup doesn’t fix that problem. Best to set aside money you are paid until after you’ve done the work.
A word about bartering for doula services There are definitely some pitfalls to barter if you need a backup! What happens if you barter a birth for someone to paint your house, and when your client is in labor, you’re stuck in your newly painted home puking your guts out? I don’t like to do barter births in my business because I have been stuck being the backup in a situation where the other doula had already received the services in the barter. We worked it out because we had a long and healthy backup relationship already but it could have been a problem.
Follow up – When I have used or been a backup, I like to have both of us attend the postpartum follow up with the parents. This is not always possible, and you and your backup should agree on who will be the one to follow up with the client.
Backup doesn’t have to be just two people. For many years, I had a group of doulas I exchanged backup with. There were usually 3-6 doulas in the group, and we met monthly to discuss our upcoming clients and potential backup needs. My clients were all well aware of the backup group and the minimal discussions we had, so we were sharing with permission. It was nice to have multiple people to choose from. I would often use Laura for clients who lived south of me, and Angie or Sarah for clients who lived north of me. Unless a client north of me was using HypnoBirthing, then I might ask Laura because she was a certified HypnoBirthing Practitioner. Being able to match a backup to my client’s needs was really nice.
(Our monthly gatherings were also a great place to process and debrief difficult births, so that was an amazing side benefit!)
Having a prearranged and reliable backup can make doula work so much easier. You provide better service to your clients, and you can have peace of mind on your end. I highly recommend it!