YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Special Delivery for New Parents Seeking an Old World Touch


What's an expectant mother to do when it feels as if there's no one to turn to? Mother is off in Palm Desert recuperating from a face lift, Grandma's on a cruise with her third husband, HMOs limit the time doctors spend talking with patients and the literature of childbirth is rife with propaganda? There should be someone a woman can hire, a wise, nurturing mother surrogate experienced in guiding a typically terrified woman through pregnancy and delivery.

There is. She's called a doulah, a Greek word describing the traditional woman's servant. As traditional in many cultures as midwives, doulahs, in their current Southern Californian incarnation, do not deliver babies. They provide physical and emotional support for pregnant women, especially during labor, and in some cases give postpartum care to mother and infant. They're part of a burgeoning subculture that's repackaging ancient childbirth practices in trendy new wrappings.

Harinam is a doulah who makes house calls. On a hot August morning, she's sitting in the Silver Lake living room of Amy and Mo Morrison, who run a live-event production company and whose first child is due in a month. By the end of this initial consultation, the couple will decide whether to hire her. Mo, 48, has already agreed to be present at the birth and likes the idea of being part of a team effort. "I'm trying to stack the deck with as many people as I can," he tells Harinam. "If there are three more of you to help, fine."

The 51-year-old doulah appears quite capable of handling things herself. Her manner is gently authoritative. Wearing no makeup, flat sandals and a flowing yellow dress that bares her fleshy upper arms, she is the reassuring picture of an earth mother. Without getting all sloppy about it, she communicates that she would be honored to share one of life's most ecstatic moments with this couple.

"When you go into labor without labor support," Harinam explains, "it's like going to an amusement park and taking the scary ride. Things are coming at you. Don't worry. I can guide you through it."

The name "Harinam" is Sikh, given when she became involved with the religious sect 25 years ago, and replaced a name she'd never liked as a girl in Atlantic City, N.J. Though she no longer covers her hair with a turban, she says her spiritual roots are still in the Northern-Indian religion. Although she's never been certified as a nurse-midwife, she's assisted at several hundred births and chooses to function as a labor coach at deliveries where a doctor is in charge.

The use of doulahs has grown steadily in the last five years, according to the Doulahs of North America, which certifies and trains them. The Utah-based group had 750 members in 1995, 3,300 this year, an increase that could be credited to attitudinal shifts, to fractured and scattered families and a strong economy that has given many couples the means to employ a personal labor coach.

The natural childbirth movement that arose in the 1960s was an outgrowth of the era's emerging feminism and the politicization of health care. Women rejecting the influence of the male medical establishment advocated a return to old-fashioned birthing methods that substituted natural pain-dulling techniques for drugs.

Harinam asks the Morrisons how they'd like to have their baby.

"Quickly," Amy answers, with a smile. "I'll see how it goes without drugs, but I'm not completely opposed to them."

The doulah explains that she can teach Amy, 38, how to pace herself through a long labor but that if she gets to the hospital and opts for pain relief from drugs, Harinam would neither question her decision nor pass judgment on it. After listening to the older woman talk warmly about her grandson and other children she's helped into the world, Amy says, "With Harinam there, I'll have someone who's totally my advocate, whose only focus is looking out for me and my baby."

Harinam explains that she'll put the couple through at least two "dance rehearsals," practice sessions that concentrate on relaxation, breathing and pushing techniques. "I call it the dance of life because it is--the baby's moving, the mother's moving, the father's moving with the mother. They're dancing," she says.

Once labor begins, she'll show up as soon as Amy summons her. Since she's trained to measure how dilated a woman in labor has become, that knowledge can be used to keep Amy safely at home longer, where she's likely to be more relaxed.

Perhaps it's the way Harinam describes how she'll bathe the baby at the hospital, in a deep tub she'll bring along, that clinches the deal. "There are plenty of maternity nurses who are pretty fantastic," she says. "But they have a lot of other things to do besides give one-on-one care to a family. One day a Mom and I were walking past the hospital nursery, and while the nurse's intentions might have been wonderful, she could have been washing a pot instead of a baby."

Los Angeles Times Articles