The Doula Movement: A 31 Year Journey

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31 Years ago a doula movement began. Today I share my story of becoming a doula, the doula history – transformations that have begun, and the reality that so much more needs to be done.

By Debra Pascali-Bonaro


World Doula Week provides an opportunity to share the benefits of a doula’s nurturing touch and to also remind ourselves how important self care and nurturing is too. For me, it is also an opportunity to reflect on the amazing growth of doulas around the world and our humble beginning that began 30 years!

One morning in 1987, I was blessed to wake up and read my monthly copy of Mothering Magazine – something I enjoyed doing each time it arrived in my mailbox. As a mother to 2 small children and pregnant with a third, I craved a community of women and the magazine always gave me a sense of belonging, validating my intuition as a mother.  

This particular issue can be credited with changing my life – as I read about Cindy a doula in Rhode Island and thought “A do What?”. I was already a childbirth educator and had been attending births with anyone who would allow me to come with them. But here, right before my eyes I saw that there is actually a title for those that are providing the same care that I was!

I called “Cindy the doula” from my kitchen home phone (long before computers and cell phones) while my little ones ran around. Cindy shared with me all about her doula group which was receiving reimbursement for birth and postpartum care from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island (something we are still working on re-instating today). Since the article came out, Cindy had been receiving calls from women all around the US, taking down our information, typing it up, and snail-mailing it to each of us – so our circle began!  Myself, Ruth Wilf, a midwife in PA, Jane Arnold, a doula (now Midwife), a few others and I helped to organize the first US gathering of doulas in Montclair, NJ later that year, 1987.  I later learned there were regional doulas group that already existed, such a PALS the Pacific Alliance of Labor Support in Seattle, but without internet it was much harder to find each other.  30  people arrived in Montclair from around the US for our doula meeting, and little did we know we were beginning a movement that is now, 30 year later, global.

All of us saw and felt the gaps and even holes in modern childbirth and parenting when it came to support. Women had traditionally been supported by women from their family and community during pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and postpartum for thousands of years – but in the last 100 or so years things had changed dramatically. Now, with the medicalization of childbirth, women were stripped of their support systems – first by the institutions, as once birth moved to hospitals women were often forced to give birth alone, and then by our society, as our world became more industrialized and families became much more distance making our time with our mothers and grandmothers limited to only a few times a year rather. To make the support even more limited, many grandmothers are still working as their daughters were beginning their families, so the traditional role of grandmother in caring for their daughters, daughter-in loves and grandchildren.  As a working “grandmother” myself, this is something I struggle with personally too.

While there are of course many benefits to the modernization of society, much has also been lost. I see that we have forgotten the wisdom of comfort measures in birth, traditional healing recipes and personal care. The nurturing touch in childbirth is often hard to find in our families and communities.  Doulas are reconnecting this ancient circle of support, care and wisdom. I am honored to teach with Ibu Robin Lim each year in Bali where we train doulas from all over the world to re-awaken our inner wisdom, as well as share culturally competent care with respect and love in our Eat Pray Doula Bali Retreat.

Ever since that first meeting in 1987, I’ve known that I wanted to help others to understand what a doula was and to begin filling that gap of support. We gathered with our children, brought food, studied every book we could find and most importantly we nurtured each other.  We became the families we wished we had – unconditionally accepting each other and our ways.  While we came from varied backgrounds, faiths, and family structures, we spoke the universal language of motherhood.

I went on to becoming a part of the very first meeting of DONA in October of 1992 and joined as a board member for the first 6 years. I have facilitated DONA doula workshops in 30 countries and watched and helped doula groups form around the world.  I am filled with emotion as I write – I could have never imagined that one article would change my life and in 31 years doulas would become a global movement connecting doulas, families and communities, healing birth and parenting. There is still much to do. – the world needs more love, care, respect, sharing and healing now more than ever. If you are a doula – THANK YOU, truly from the bottom of my heart. The work you do is immeasurable – you are helping families in more ways than you could ever imagine.

If you are not a doula – maybe you are inspired to become one. World Doula Week is an opportunity to share the role of a doula, and encourage those interested in this amazing vocation to pursue it further. I know you might consider becoming a doula if you feel this calling.

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