Not many 17-year-olds witness childbirth during their four years of high school. But attending births is as routine for Casco Bay High School senior Franci Bliss as going to classes and participating in National Honor Society, yoga, debate club and school musicals.
She had always been interested in childbirth, she says, so during the summer of her freshman year at Casco Bay, she reached out to the Portland Doula Collaborative to inquire about being a doula’s intern. At the time, she didn’t know much about doulas, other than they were “granola hippie women who were trying to channel your chakras and use your karma to help you give birth,” she says with a laugh. But she decided, “why not give it a shot?”
Portland Doula Collaborative, formed in April 2014, is a cooperative of doulas, certified professionals who provide physical and emotional support to a mother before, during and shortly after childbirth to ensure the best possible experience for both mother and baby. Since its founding, the group’s doulas have attended over 170 births.
Founding Director Mary Latendresse-Bolton was open to taking on a high school intern with no experience in birth work. Mary, pregnant with her third child, invited Franci to attend the home birth as a doula’s assistant. “It was so beautiful and transformative and nothing like anything I’d ever experienced,” Franci says.
“It is one of the most life-changing things to see another life come into the world, because it opens up your view. Each time I see a birth, I feel like a new person. Mary calls it the ‘birth high,’” Franci says. “A lot of people live from the perspective that ‘this is my world and I’m here to do something to change things.’ The cool thing about being a doula is that you are affecting someone’s life and you feel like you’re making a change, but it also humbles you because you’re witnessing a life come into the world.”
Being a doula isn’t all epiphanies and roses though. “It’s really demanding work, physically, mentally, emotionally. When you’re on call it’s a 100 percent commitment,” Franci says. During a birth, she assists the mother and her partner in just about any way possible, offering emotional and physical support to make sure Mom is comfortable, and providing measures like massage, coaching, getting food and water, implementing pain management techniques and doing whatever’s needed to support the mother’s birth plan. “It’s exhausting,” says Franci. “But also really rewarding.”
Another challenge is that doulas aren’t currently covered by health insurance (though clients can use a Health Savings Account or Health Reimbursement Account, if their employers offer them, to help cover costs), which limits their accessibility to families. As a result, doulas often wear many hats. For example, in addition to attending labor and delivery and providing postpartum care, Portland Doula Collaborative offers a wide variety of services, including massage, sleep and lactation consultation, childbirth education classes and nanny care, and sells products such as Happy Momma Body Butter and Prenatal Body Oil.
Franci’s internship evolved into a three-year relationship with Portland Doula Collaborative, inspiring her to get her doula certification this summer with DONA International, a doula-certifying organization. Now that she’s certified, Franci can practice independently, but she has continued to work with Portland Doula Collaborative. The benefit is that members can utilize the Collaborative’s office space (located at 95 High St. in Portland), marketing materials and website, while maintaining autonomy for their own clients.
Franci plans to take a gap year before college to continue her work as a doula.
She says she’s fortunate to work in the community of Portland, which she sees as progressive and open to the centuries-old practice of having doulas present at a birth. “There are so many different types of doulas (in greater Portland), and it’s great we can offer that to the community and mommas can find the doula that’s right for them.”
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie. In her spare time she enjoys hiking, biking and exploring Maine’s Midcoast by water.
Photo by Lauryn Hottinger