Doula Katie Reitman tells about her approach to pregnancy and childbirth

Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Doula Katie Reitman, left, works with Gretchen Probst and her newborn, Lexi, during a postpartum visit and breastfeeding check-in on Friday, Jan. 6, 2012, at Probst's home in Cape Girardeau. (Kristin Eberts)

Katie Reitman is used to receiving blank stares when she tells someone she's a doula. So she's perfected a quick "elevator speech" to explain her profession:

"I'm there for hands-on physical, emotional and educational support before, during and after childbirth. I'm kind of like a paid labor coach," she says. "I explain the process more than the doctor has time for and remind (moms) what they learned in childbirth class."

Reitman became a doula -- an ancient Greek word meaning "woman's servant" -- nearly six years ago. She says she got into this career the way most doulas do: She had a "really bad birth experience" and felt there was something wrong with that.

"I wanted a natural birth but I didn't do anything to educate myself," says Reitman of her first daughter's birth. Her experience started with an induction, forceps and episiotomy, all performed on a flat table, and ended in severe postpartum depression.

Reitman began studying obstetrics, midwifery and breast-feeding from every possible angle. She soon felt a call to help other women have the birth experience they desire, from pregnancy through postpartum. She was certified by the Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association in 2006 and now serves as a doula, independent childbirth educator and certified lactation consultant based in Cape Girardeau.

Once Reitman is hired by parents-to-be, she works alongside the doctors and nurses in the hospital during a birth, or with the midwife during a home birth. But a major part of a doula's job takes place before and after the birth. Reitman meets with parents two or three times before birth to discuss the birth plan and coping mechanisms and get to know the family. When labor begins, Reitman helps mom find her "zone" before going to the hospital, refocus once she gets there, stay calm and remember what to do. Reitman stays when it's time to push, then for another two or three hours postpartum to make sure mom is doing OK and that breast-feeding is going well.

Childbirth is a lot like a final exam, says Reitman. Parents can take classes and plan ahead, but the birth itself is overwhelming. It's hard to remember everything at once. And though doctors and nurses are present for a hospital birth, says Reitman, they usually have other patients to see.

"I don't leave except for the occasional potty break or to get a coffee," says Reitman. "With a doula, somebody is always there for (mom)."

Reitman makes one or two visits to the new family postpartum to check on breast-feeding, discuss the birth experience and screen for postpartum depression. The last visit is always the hardest, says Reitman, because that means it's time to say goodbye. She grows close to each family and considers it a huge honor to share such a special experience with them. Some families have become good friends.

"I know that I'm helpful because I get big giant hugs," she says. "It's a highly emotional job and it does take its toll. The hugs I get at the first postpartum visit are amazing."

When she's not meeting with parents, Reitman is doing more research and training, and trying to spread the word about what doulas do. She knows of two other doulas in the area, and a few midwives, but Southeast Missouri is overall a very medically-minded area when it comes to childbirth, she says.

"Doctors are aware of who we are, but they're not quick to refer to us. Most doctors are not hip to what we do, and it's sad because we can make their jobs a lot easier," says Reitman.

But again, a doula's main job is to serve mom and give her all the support she needs. And Reitman, a mom of three, knows just what it's like to be on the other side of the experience. Though she never hired a doula for herself, she wishes she had. By the time she became a doula, she couldn't turn off her "doula brain" and "just be the mom" during the birth of her third daughter. As a native of Mobile, Ala., Reitman has family all over the country, and she meets many moms in the same boat. Today's families are more isolated, she says, we don't rely on them as much as we used to.

"If you're pregnant, you need a doula, and I don't just say that because I benefit financially. I really think it's integral to the pregnancy process," says Reitman. "Women used to look to their sisters and mothers, but they don't have that network anymore. You used to call up the granny midwife down the street and she'd catch your baby and that was that."

Reitman says her ultimate goal is to work herself out of a job -- for every woman to feel secure in her birth process, what she wants and how to get it.

"If your doctor tells you that you have cancer, I guarantee you'll be doing Internet research and learning medical terms overnight," says Reitman. So why don't we do the same for deciding how a baby is going to come through our bodies? "This is a natural life event that doesn't happen on a regular basis," she says.

And the best part of attending a birth? When every one else is focused on the baby, Reitman loves to watch a woman transform into a "mama bear" who's in control of her own birth experience.

"It's when mom gets it, she owns it, it's hers no one else's. She and dad made all the decisions together," says Reitman. "It's her birth, and that's the birth she needs. It doesn't have to be intervention-free or epidural free, but she knows she made every single decision and she owns it. That's the bedrock of parenting. Raising children is a lot of work, but it all starts with the pregnancy and childbirth."

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