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Orthodox Women Turn to Other Orthodox Women During Pregnancy and Childbirth

Observant mothers-to-be hire doulas who share their religious practices and understand their specific needs

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Chana Luba Ertel with a client. (Chana Luba Ertel)
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Miriam Shapiro was on all fours in her hospital bed reciting Tehillim—Psalms—when she felt another contraction. She summoned her doula, and together they placed a quarter into her tzedakah box. After that, she knew that the baby was ready. She took a deep breath and started reciting prayers. “Right when I was pushing Adina out, my doula reminded me, ‘It’s a good time to pray,’ ” Shapiro told me in a recent email interview. “When you’re pushing a new life into the world, it’s like all the gates are open upstairs.”

Doulas, who offer women advice and companionship during their pregnancies and then coach them through labor, have been growing in popularity among pregnant women for several years—and Orthodox Jews are no exception. But since Orthodox women have a unique set of needs during childbirth, they’ve been turning to doulas who are themselves Orthodox women, to provide mental, emotional, and spiritual support before, during, and after they give birth.

For these women, Orthodox doulas are preferable because they understand what the mothers are going through from a halachic perspective. For instance, when an Orthodox woman gives birth, her husband cannot touch her because she is niddah, or bleeding, and it would go against the laws of family purity if her husband held her hand or rubbed her back. If a doula is present in the delivery room, however, she can massage the woman, do breathing exercises, adjust her tichel (headscarf), or fix her clothing to ensure that she is still upholding the laws of modesty, even during childbirth.

According to Chana Barak, an Orthodox doula in Texas, observant doulas understand the distinct rituals surrounding birth, especially family purity. “It can be hard to explain to someone that your husband won’t be nearby for the birth or that he won’t hold your hand when you are in pain,” she said. “A Jewish doula already knows these things and respects [them].”

When Shapiro gave birth in the hospital, she noticed that some of the medical professionals didn’t understand her customs. One advantage of hiring an Orthodox doula, she found, was that someone was in her corner so that she wouldn’t feel alienated. “Sometimes the nurses see the Orthodox Jewish dad out of the room, and not touching the mom, and they sadly cluck their tongues and say, ‘Mmm, this marriage ain’t gonna last. He’s not even holding her hand, [and] he’s not even there to watch his baby get born,’ ” she said. “But an Orthodox Jewish doula can explain all of this and work beautifully around and through it.”

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As birthrates climb in the Orthodox community, some doulas report that more Orthodox women are utilizing them. “Doulas are becoming more popular in the younger frum community,” said Chana Luba Ertel, a doula based in Pittsburgh. “The trend I see is that young women aren’t very in touch with their birth process and have a terrible first birth. The second time around they seek out education and doulas.”

According to Yaffa Bochner, the coordinator of the doula volunteer program at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn for the past 15 years, her Orthodox patients are having multiple children and returning year after year to make use of her services. “The community grew so much and it became so popular,” she said. “They want a person there in addition to the medical service. [The first time women give birth they] feel that their births are too medically inclined. The doctors and nurses say, ‘Congratulations and go home.’ Pregnant women have more of a desire to experience their births.”

Orthodox women seek out doulas in part because they would rather have natural births; since they’re often planning to give birth more than once or twice or even three times, they want to avoid C-sections. “If a woman is Orthodox, and she comes from this tradition, she really does not want intervention, even during prenatal care,” said Shadman Habibi, a certified nurse midwife at University of California, Los Angeles in Westwood. Some will refuse an ultrasound, or only get one done after 20 weeks; they’ll also forgo some genetic screening and any other invasive procedure.

An Orthodox doula can teach expectant mothers about all the different practices that occur during pregnancy and labor. Some women, like Shapiro, give tzedakah during birth because it’s customary to donate to charity while going through important life-cycle events. Women are required to wash their hands after birth and recite certain prayers depending upon the sex of the child: Hatov V’hameitiv is said for a newborn son, while a Shehecheyanu blessing follows the birth of a daughter.

Estee Rosen, a Los Angeles resident who used a doula during her first pregnancy, said, “It was extremely helpful that my doula lives a similar religious lifestyle, because she was also able to help guide me through the different customs and laws that affect a woman in childbirth.”

The doulas will also utilize various prayers and songs that help calm a woman down and get her through the birth. “When I’m with the woman in labor, aside from being an advocate and helping with breathing and things, I add an element of kedusha [holiness] into the experience,” said Ertel.

One of Ertel’s clients was having an especially tough time during a homebirth. She was screaming at the top of her lungs, and her midwife couldn’t help her. The midwife, in turn, asked Ertel for help. Ertel quickly got behind her client, told her to listen to her voice, and started chanting the Shema as the baby started to crown. “She told me she really had a mind-blowing and powerful experience,” Ertel said.

Ertel, who’s been a doula for 16 years, is now working to provide more Orthodox Jewish doulas to the community so that these mothers-to-be don’t feel alone. Over the past five years, she’s traveled to Brooklyn to conduct classes on birthing techniques, recognizing the different stages of labor, coaching phrases to use during labor, post-partum practices, and how to deal with a complicated or especially long birth. The attendees of her training workshops play “musical positions,” a game that mimics how the woman should be standing, lying, or sitting when she’s giving birth, and teaches them how to adjust her and tweak her position. There’s also a lesson on Torah and the distinctive aspects of supporting a Jewish woman during pregnancy and labor. A majority of the students, she said, are observant Jews.

To date, Ertel has taught over 375 women who either went on to get their doula certifications or started assisting women right away. Some do it to make a living, with others do it as chesed (kindness), just like the women who volunteer at Maimonides.

Ertel, who is Orthodox, became a doula because, she said, “I wanted to serve my community. There is something special and holy in holding onto the heritage that we have of women helping other women in labor. There was Yocheved, and Miriam, and all the mothers who came after that.”

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During the birth of Adina—her fourth child, who was born in early 2013—Shapiro wanted to make sure that the experience would be meaningful and the labor as smooth as possible. She hired Tania Jedian, an Orthodox doula who incorporates homeopathic and meditative treatments into her work and uses her own Sephardic tefillah (prayers).

Shapiro said that it was different from the birth of her second child in 2010, when she hired a doula who was Jewish, but not Orthodox. “I ended up having to explain to her, ‘Now we need to do this, and now we need to do that,’ and that’s just not what you want to be doing after you’ve brought a tiny life into the world.” Her experience with Jedian, however, was exactly what she wanted. “You want someone,” Shapiro said, “who can feel the process with you.”

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Orthodox Women Turn to Other Orthodox Women During Pregnancy and Childbirth

Observant mothers-to-be hire doulas who share their religious practices and understand their specific needs

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