Going “on call” can look different for each individual doula. For me, being on call means…
Making myself accessible.
When I’m on call, my phone is always on. But even so, I am CONSTANTLY checking my phone for missed messages. Sometimes, I’ll try to be really present for something and set an alarm for an hour and try not to check it the whole time (which is a challenge, even though the phone volume is on the entire time!).
Preparing my tools.
Being on call means making sure I always have plenty of gas in my car (even though I mainly practice at three hospitals within a 25-minute drive, so I can’t imagine ever running out of gas to get anywhere).
It also means that I am often thinking about how charged my phone is, and whether it has enough juice to get me to a client’s house or hospital while on a call the entire time.
Other tools include my “uniform” and my doula bag.
When I’m going to a birth, I try to wear things that are happy, comfortable, and not loud (since I know I might show up in someone’s priceless birth photo!). In summer, that usually means rompers with cardigans, and in colder weather, that usually means dark jeans and a t-shirt. In covid times, that always means a headband with buttons on it to hold my mask, and of course my mask.
Also, when I’m on call, I always have my doula bag ready to go (usually in my car already). The doula bag may seem like a mystical or magical tool that epitomizes doula life, but actually mine is mostly just full of snacks.
The items I am most likely to forget?
If I’m out and about when I get the call, tennis shoes. (I never really wear tennis shoes except to births.)
If I’m home, my phone charger. (Hopefully this won’t happen anymore, since I finally just procured a second one to keep in my bag!)
Dropping everything at a moment’s notice.
One key part of on-call life that I think some people don’t realize is that I am forced to be unreliable while on call. I may need to cancel any thing at any moment, drop it all and run to a birth. Because of that, it’s important for me to think ahead and plan for childcare, petcare, food, and laundry a few days in advance.
This is an exhausting part of being on call, and I think it’s a huge contributor to why so many birth doulas burn out. Being on call doesn’t fit well with things a lot of people value. For example, I like being a person of integrity. I want my word to mean something. But at any moment, I might have to reneg on coffee plans or reschedule a meeting. That takes a mental toll. Also, I like having plans, but the effort of making Plan A and then also Plan B (b as in “baby time”), all day every day for the entire on-call period, also takes a mental toll.
I’ve been really grateful for the advice – and I’ll repeat it here – that DOULAS NEED TIME OFF CALL. Whether that be a couple of months every year, or spacing out clients so that you are likely to get a few weeks between each birth, having time where you don’t have to be accessible, prepared, and on notice to change your day is necessary to make this work sustainable.
(It’s also necessary if you work in roles other than as a birth doula – like I do! For example, I time my summer break in doula work based on when I want to get the most interviews done for my book project. But balancing roles when you’re a doula& is a post for another time.)