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Community Building and Supporting Women: A Conversation With Doula Valerie Meharg

This month, the female entrepreneur in the spotlight is someone who provides an incredibly valuable service to northern Michigan. Any person who has gone through a pregnancy has probably, at one point or another, become overwhelmed with all the information being thrown at them from every which way. Advice from well-meaning friends and family, countless books, doctors, nurses, online forums...eventually it all just becomes white noise, and you're left alone to sort through what pertains to your situation and what doesn't. It can be hard, and soon you're just wishing for a birthing fairy godmother to come along and hold your hand. Enter: Valerie Meharg.

Valerie is a doula with Northern Michigan Doula Service. Don't know what a doula is? In Valerie's words:

"A doula is a non-medical support person and information provider. We assist during labors and births with emotional guidance and physical support, including non-chemical pain relief options. Doulas don’t (or shouldn’t) be communicating directly with care providers or medical staff, but it’s common to help facilitate conversations. Sometimes, a person is not able to get their point across while they are in labor, so part of my job is aiding that communication while avoiding being the decision maker at any point.

Doulas also give information during and before pregnancy. In our culture, pregnancy and birth seem to be some kind of big secret until you go through it yourself. That leads to a lack of knowledge on the subject, and most people have a lot of questions about the whole process. Also, I see community building as a big part of doula work and consider it my responsibility to have a grasp on what kinds of resources are available in our area. If someone calls me because they don’t know where to find a midwife or a breast pump, I need to be able to help them."

Did you know there was that kind of resource in the area? Someone who can help you find a breast pump, or answer your questions about breastfeeding, or ease your mind when you get one of those weird and sometimes scary cramps in the middle of the night? How amazing is that?! She can even help you find a midwife! If you're not sure of the difference between a doula and a midwife, Valerie explains it like this:

"While a doula is a support person, a midwife is a primary health care provider. A midwife provides prenatal and postpartum care and attends the birth as the care provider in charge. Doulas do not perform any medical procedures; even simple things like checking blood pressure are out of a doulas scope. Doulas and midwives have very different roles but often complement each other and work well together."

As someone with a special interest in birth photography, I found it fascinating to speak with someone like Valerie, who has taken her desire to support and empower women to the next level. My love for birth photography stems from a belief that every birth story deserves to be told. Valerie's work as a doula stems from her belief that every woman deserves support during the entire pregnancy experience and beyond.

I had the opportunity to meet Valerie during my own pregnancy, when a friend introduced us. I told my husband that there was a doula service in the area, and that it was something we might consider for the birth of our daughter.

He wrinkled his brow. "You're going to have the baby at home? Where? In, like...a tub?"

I was taken aback. "No, we're definitely going to the hospital." (Not that I have anything against home births, but I was planning on that epidural since Day One).

"'re going to do this naturally? I thought you had a whole song about the epidural?"

"Well, I'm still planning on the epidural."

"But won't a doula not let you do that?"

I realized then that there are still a lot of misconceptions around what a doula does, so it's an honor to help spread Valerie's message and share what she does for the community.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I grew up in Alabama but northern Michigan is my home now. I have been married to my husband for more than ten years and we have three children. My passion for the natural world and its resources led me to my job as the part time manager of the Presque Isle Conservation District. I love gardening, foraging, and studying herbal medicine.

What led you to become a doula?

I hired a doula with my second pregnancy. The support she gave us during that time was truly inspiring. After one of our meetings with her, my husband said he thought I would be good at what she did. Honestly, I had already considered it but just let the thought pass because I was a little busy growing a baby. The thought never fully went away so I took a training and opened a business!

Do you have to have a home birth to have a doula?

No way! Actually, a huge majority of my birth doula clients have hospital births.

If a woman wants an epidural, can she still have a doula?

Absolutely. There is still a lot that goes into a medicated birth and a lot of ways that a doula can help.

What are the benefits of having a doula?

According to a Cochrane Review, women with continuous labor support

*Have shorter labors

*Are more likely to have spontaneous vaginal deliveries

*Have a lower risk of cesarean

*Use less pain medication (all types)

*Have babies less likely to have a low 5 minute APGAR score

*Are less likely to report a negative birth experience

Even though there is plenty of evidence to support doula care, I feel that it’s just kind of the way it should be. Women have been helping other women have babies since women started having babies! Why would we stop?

When during a pregnancy do your services begin?

I’ve had clients call me as soon as they got two lines on a pregnancy test. Others have hired me less than a week before giving birth. It works either way but the process looks a little different. The majority start seeing me around the half way point.

How far postpartum do your services extend?

I do at least one postpartum visit for my birth doula clients, ideally within the first week. Sometimes people need a little more help, especially with breastfeeding, and I will visit them a couple more times. Occasionally someone will need a lot more support, and I can provide them a more extensive postpartum doula option.

What sort of training or education do you have to go through?

Doulas have no legal regulations, so nothing is required. I do believe that it is best to at least take a workshop or shadow an experienced doula. I trained through DONA International (Doulas of North America) and completed their certification process.

What is the biggest misconception about doulas that you would like to address?

Probably that doulas only attend natural births or home births. I do attend those, but I also attend planned cesareans, inductions, and medicated births. Everyone deserves support when giving birth, no matter the circumstance. In my experience, the more difficult births with a lot of intervention are the ones that need a doula the most. Those things are hard to deal with and having a non-judgmental support person can be a huge help.

What duties does the non-pregnant partner have while a doula is present?

Another misconception is that a doula takes the place of a partner. I understand that it is much more meaningful for a loved one to be able to give support than if I just did it myself. I always involve the partner, according to their level of willingness, of course. If I just give them a little guidance by showing them how to squeeze their partners hips or making sure they know it is alright to be physically close to them, they gain some confidence. Then they get be the one that makes the biggest difference and the best memories, not me. It’s a lot more special to the couple that way. And, partners are emotionally invested and need tons of reassurance. I often end up giving them the most emotional support!

Are there any birth moments that have stuck out to you as particularly noteworthy?

There are lots! Each birth has special moments. There is one that I think of quite often. I was at the hospital with a client; we had not been there long. There were two nurses trying to get the electronic fetal monitor to work properly, and they were concentrating on the machinery while ignoring my client. She spoke up and said,” Can I have this baby without a computer?” They snickered a little but turned right back to the screen. Modern medicine saves lives in lots of situations, but we cannot trade humanity for technology in birth.

If you're interested in having a doula support you along your pregnancy or postpartum journey, check out Valerie's Facebook page, Northern Michigan Doula Service. And thank you, Valerie, for providing such an important service to our area!

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