Doulas Don’t Empower People

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empowerment, doulas

Doulas don’t empower people. There, I said it.

I bet the heads of quite a few doulas just exploded. Or maybe your head turned fully around like a bad scene out of The Exorcist.  But hang in there, I’m going somewhere with this.

What is empowerment?

The dictionary definition of empower is:

  1. to give or delegate power or authority to; authorize
  2. to give ability to; enable or permit

At first glance, it seems that doulas would fill that role.  We may educate our families on their rights. Often we give them permission to exercise their rights as informed consumers, to make informed decisions, and to exercise their right to informed refusal.

So if this is the definition of empowerment, then it always works, right?

During their pregnancy, we sit down with clients prenatally, and we talk about what they want and don’t want.  We may help them draw up birth plans. Some doulas give handouts on things like The Rights of the Pregnant Patient. Doulas may even role play ways in which clients can advocate for themselves.  So when the time comes, since we’ve empowered them, clients will exercise their right to say no thank you, and get the birth they want. They will speak up when things are deviating from their plan.  Because of course, we’ve empowered them to do so.

But it doesn’t always work that way, does it?

How many times have we worked with a client who seems to just ‘get it?”  They say all the right things, do all the right things, and then when they are in labor that empowered couple is nowhere to be found.  We remind them of their birth plan, we remind them of their right to accept or decline any procedure or intervention, and they either choose or are unable to use the “empowerment” we have so graciously bestowed on them.  So after all the education, time, effort, what went wrong? The impact that their personality has on this process aside, there’s a genuine reason why this happens.

I come from a much different perspective on power and empowerment.

My college major was psychology, and while I did not finish my degree, I have the credits and student loans to show that for a vast majority of my adult life it was my passion.  During that time we learned a lot about motivation, specifically external vs. internal motivation.  In the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey he states, “In all my experiences, I have never seen lasting solutions to problems, lasting happiness and success, which came from the outside in.” (7 Habits of Highly Effective People,1990, p. 43)

This is what we see in the example I gave above.

As doulas, we can impart all of our wisdom upon our clients, and give them all the resources we have. But they have to be internally motivated to exercise those options.  Our job is not to empower them, but to create an environment that fosters self-discovery, the ability to ask for what they need, and the support to negotiate for their needs.

As we so often say, we are there to hold the space.

But just like we can’t give birth for them, we can’t empower them. Motivation has to come from within.

There are four cognitive elements to empowerment:

  • Sense of impact
  • Meaningfulness
  • Choice
  • Competence.

These are qualities that must develop internally.  They can not be given from one individual to another.

Empowerment is also dependant upon competence.  This is where doulas can shine.  We assist our clients in building competence.  Education, information, and non-judgmental support are our core tenants.  Those who become empowered, accept responsibility for their power.  They are prepared to change, grow and be stretched by this experience.  We hold the space for that change, we foster the growth of this experience, and we assist them with stretching as they move through this journey.  But we can not give it to them. We do not empower them.

Empowerment is theirs and theirs alone to either accept or reject.

Not all clients are searching for an empowering experience. For others, it will be a cornerstone of how they define success.

As a doula, my goal is to hold the space, foster self-determination, and competence, deepen the trust between my laboring families and their providers and reinforce their change, growth, and power.  At the end of our journey, I don’t want them to feel that they couldn’t have done it without me.  I want them to say “We did it!” meaning that I held the space and assisted them in discovering the tools they needed to step out into this uncertain journey in confidence together, discovering their power and that of their partner.

I have a personal story about empowerment to share.

For most of my life, I have been terrified of public speaking, to the point of full-blown panic attacks.  When it came to public speaking simply did not do it. In fact, I’d do whatever it took to avoid it.  Take the bad grade, skip school to get out of presenting, literally whatever it takes.

I have attended many remarkable conferences over the span of my 18-year career. And I saw some incredible speakers.  Speakers who spoke eloquently made wonderfully illustrated points, and who took the floor and motivated huge audiences.

Could they empower me to do the same? The simple answer is no.

They can discuss with me their strategies to keep fear at bay.  They can help me make impressive PowerPoint presentations that make me feel like the focus is off of me.

But can they bestow empowerment on me to jump up and become the powerful speaker that I admire them for being?  The simple answer is, no.

I have to work on myself.  It is imperative that I believe I am worthy of being heard. I must rely on my skills, knowing that I have all the tools. Step out in faith that my message should and will be heard, and that it has merit.  Most importantly I have to find my confidence, make a choice to step out of my comfort zone and know in my soul that this is a risk worth taking.

I did just that in 2015 when I presented at the ProDoula conference.

When I was asked to be a speaker I was terrified. Honored and so genuinely terrified. Panic, fear, even 🤢 became a part of my process when thinking about being in front of a room full of my peers. But I had my own kind of public speaking doula to help me navigate these waters. Someone who believed in me more than I believed in myself.

When those moments of self-doubt and 🤢 crept in, my mantra was “I will believe in myself as much as Randy believes in me.”

I developed a plan to navigate through my presentation. I had a co-presenter who also served as my public speaking doula so that I had someone to share the stage with. My co-presenter and I crafted a carefully scripted presentation that I could fall back on if needed.  When the big day came I was terrified and yes 🤢, but I did it anyway.

They helped me navigate through those uncertain waters.


They helped me discover skills I already had that helped me trust myself. Both were vital to me embracing my right to be heard, but they did not give me the power to do so.

This was my journey and mine alone. They couldn’t do it for me, or bop me on the head with their “wands of empowerment.” That would have cheated me out of the journey and the lessons I would ultimately learn.  When it comes to empowerment, the journey is equally as important as the destination.

The process and the journey were essential on my path to empowerment.

I faced my fear. I achieved my goal. The lessons I learned along the way will serve me for the rest of my life.

When I was asked to speak at the 2017 ProDoula Speak Your Truth Conference I said I needed a few days to think about it. I needed to first write out an outline of the topic to see how I felt.  That was my past fear speaking. I recognized that very quickly and instead I sent Randy a message saying I’d do it.

No outline, no need to think.  I did it before, I can do it again.

So we come full circle to the four cognitive elements of empowerment:

  1. A sense of impact – I understand the sense of impact that my presentation this year will hold.
  2. Meaningfulness – There is a deep desire for me to teach others now, it is meaningful to me.
  3. Choice – The choice to speak has been made.
  4. Competence – I have achieved this goal before, I will remember that when doubt or fear creep in.

Through the journey of self-discovery, I have become empowered.

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