Can I shadow you at a birth?

It’s a question I get all the time. You may have asked the question before! It’s absolutely not a bad question, but it does sometimes raise the hackles of more experienced doulas. I do want to be very clear that wanting to work alongside an experienced doula is a good thing! But I’ve got to say, after having a few bad experiences, I am not a fan of simple shadowing. I am a huge fan of apprenticeship instead! Asking about working alongside another doula can totally work if you go into it with the mindset that you are offering something and not just attending the birth as an audience.

First let me spell out the difference in how I use the terms:

Shadow

  • Thinking about being a doula
  • Wants to see a doula in action
  • Has not prepared for attending a birth

Apprentice

  • Is a trained doula
  • Wants hands on experience
  • Invested in self improvement

Here’s why:

Apprentices bring much more value to my clients. if I am going to ask my clients to invite another person to their birth, I want that extra person to be able to bring something to the table. A shadow just wants to watch. An apprentice will bring knowledge and skills to the table and comes prepared to contribute. I’ve worked with apprentices who had valuable instinct and insight, as well as skills.

Apprentices understand the doula role and scope better. One of the earliest times I took a shadow to a birth, she kept whispering (in a loud, easily overheard stage whisper) that I should be doing things totally out of scope for my client. She “whispered” things like “You should check her before we go to the hospital!” and “Just tell her doctor to buzz off!” We had talked about the doula role and scope before, and our agreement was that she would *write down* her questions and comments to discuss later, outside the birth room. But she was in full on “save this woman from a bad birth” mode and just didn’t get it.

Apprentices are more committed to both the work and the client. They are not merely dabbling with the idea of becoming a doula, they are invested and on the path. They ARE doulas early in the experience curve. I’ve never had an apprentice fail to show up for a birth, where people just wanting to shadow have about a 50% rate of actually showing up.

Apprentices are less likely to make me look bad. I once took a chance and brought a shadow to a birth because she was a friends daughter and thinking about becoming a doula. The call had come at 4 am, and this young woman had not yet gone to bed. Because she lived nearby, I picked her up and drove her to the birth. When we met my client at the hospital, this shadow whined and complained about how tired she was for about 2 hours, before curling up in the recliner and snoring for a couple of hours. Because I had driven her there, I wasn’t able to send her home, and my texts to her mother/my friend went unanswered. It was awkward and I felt really guilty for introducing that into my client’s birth space. That was the last time I took a shadow.

Apprentices are more likely to go on and become active doulas. I have a limited number of clients who are comfortable with having an apprentice at their birth. Given the choice to bring someone who might decide their curiosity won’t sustain doula work, and someone who is well on the way and just wants mentoring and experience, I’m going to choose the one who is more likely to become a full fledged doula.

I want to repeat: It’s not a bad thing to want to do a few births alongside a more experienced doula. Not at all. The mentoring and confidence that can come from that can really be a benefit for newer doulas. Just make sure you approach the doula, and the experience with the apprentice mindset rather than the shadow mindset. Be prepared to bring something to the table, respect the birthing family and the doula you’re with, and remember the birth is much more a family event than your own learning.

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