That was — and still is — a common response Ms Ginny Phang, 36, gets when she tells people what she does.
Ms Phang is a full-time doula, a non-medical individual who provides physical and emotional support to expectant mothers and educates them on what to expect during childbirth. The word “doula” originates from Greek, meaning female servant.
Unlike a midwife, a doula is not involved in clinical procedures such as administering drugs.
“Think of us as professional birth coaches,” says Ms Phang, who co-owns and runs Four Trimesters. The company specialises in providing doula services and antenatal classes.
A new thing in Singapore
“Doula services were a very new thing in Singapore 11 years ago and people didn’t understand the value of having a doula at a birth,” says Ms Phang, who ditched her secretarial position to join Four Trimesters as a full-time doula in 2005. Prior to doing so, she was juggling her day job with her freelance doula gig.
Ms Phang’s family thought she was “crazy” to give up the stability of her office job to enter a little-known profession.
She also had to deal with clients’ misgivings about her age.
“When clients saw me, they were always like, ‘Wow, you are so young’. They usually expect someone who is older and with more experience,” says Ms Phang.
What she lacked in experience, Ms Phang made up with diligence, taking on up to eight clients a month.
Driven by a personal conviction
A personal conviction rooted Ms Phang to her choice of becoming a doula, despite the odds.
“Becoming a mother, I didn’t get the birth experience I wanted,” she recalls.
“The nurse undermined my ability to birth my baby. Instead of encouraging me, she just kept telling me the way I was pushing was wrong,” she says.
This got Ms Phang thinking there had to be a better way of giving birth.
“I felt I could have been treated better, and this made me want to help other women,” she says.
That led her to enrol in a distance learning programme in 2003 with Childbirth International for her doula certification. Her mission was to empower women to have the best childbirth experience they can have.
The work of a doula
With a doula, mothers have someone to hold their hands through the childbearing experience.
A key aspect of Ms Phang’s job is to prepare mothers mentally, physically and emotionally about childbirth.
“Women who come to us come with the concept that childbirth is painful. But childbirth can be enjoyable, relaxing and fulfilling,” she says.
During antenatal classes, women address their fears and misconceptions of childbirth, learn relaxation techniques and how to get their baby in a prime position for delivery.
Ms Phang also helps couples to devise a birth plan. This maps out the couple’s birth preferences, whether it is a drug-free, natural or caesarean birth — even the mother’s choice to have an episiotomy (an incision to the perineum to aid delivery). The birth plan also helps couples decide what to do if their preferences cannot be met.
“When you’re going through childbirth you are in a vulnerable situation and not thinking straight,” says Ms Phang.
She is also by the mother’s side every step of the way when she goes into labour. Ms Phang comforts the mother, gives her massages, runs through breathing and relaxation techniques with her — all to get the mother into the “lovemaking zone”.
“You want the mother to go into the lovemaking zone, because the same hormones involved in lovemaking are involved in childbirth,” explains Ms Phang.
Making her mark
Till now, Ms Phang has assisted more than 500 births and conducted antenatal classes with couples in Singapore and in the region. In addition to being a doula, she is also a certified hypnobirthing practitioner, childbirth educator and doula trainer.
To practise as a doula, you need to be certified by the United States-based international doula association, DONA International. Locally, aspiring doulas can seek mentorship and training with Four Trimesters’ Birth Ambassadors Doula Network.
Ms Phang is quick to point out that contrary to what people think, doulas do not “shake legs and make a lot of money”.
“When I’m in Singapore, I don’t have a day off. When you are called to a birth, it can be in the middle of the night, and you never really know when you will be home,” says Ms Phang, who works 12- to 16-hour days. Unpredictable as labour is, births can last anywhere from 12 hours to a few days.
Beyond helping mothers experience a fulfilling childbirth, Ms Phang is also working towards growing the pool of doulas in Singapore. Currently there are fewer than 20 full-time doulas here.
But her overarching mission is to “improve maternity care in Singapore and the world and reach out to more women and their families”.