Who Cares? How Doulas Engage in Radical Acts of Kindness

Taken from the July/August 2017 issue of The Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

At a workshop last fall on “creating a more inclusive organization,” the facilitator passed around a sheet of paper with 30 key values listed on it. “Please circle the five values that you think are most important to the health and well-being of your organization,” he told the group. There were so many to choose from, it was difficult to pick just five. After some thought, participants began to circle words like teamwork, reliability, and respect. Other words like punctuality and honesty were briefly considered and passed over for the more popular buzzwords mindfulness and empathy. One particular value was noticeably absent from the sheet: kindness.

A few months later Donald Trump won the Presidential election and the value system of an entire nation was thrown into question. We were gearing up for the release of our new book, The Doulas: Radical Care for Pregnant People, due in stores just one week after the election. The book is an ode to The Doula Project and the core of the full spectrum doula’s role: to act as a kind and compassionate caregiver who supports a pregnant person through birth, abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, or adoption. What place does kindness and compassion hold in a country that is now in a state of emergency?

In a February blog post that went viral, Pastor John Pavlovitz lamented, “When Did Compassion Become Partisan Politics?”1 He commented that, “Republicans have so lost the plot, that affirming anything remotely compassionate or decent now feels like a political stance against them. Empathy seems like an act of defiant resistance—and in many ways, it now is.”

Pavlovitz’s article is powerful because he not only thinks through the purpose of compassion but also names the problem: under the current administration, compassionate care is denigrated. Trump and his followers have empowered a public rhetoric that is steeped in hatred of the “Other,” whether that be female, Black, Muslim, low-income, transgender, or any other number of intersectional identities that are vulnerable even in the best of times. The hate-speech, now cast under the auspices of “alternative facts,” has illuminated the flaws in America’s moral compass.

We perked up at his article’s elevation of the importance of kindness in today’s dangerous political climate. The essence of a doula’s role is meeting pregnant people, an extremely vulnerable “Other,” where they are, and offering them whatever love and compassion they need. Kindness is not simply an extension of basic generosity or a pleasant affect; in a doula’s work, it is an expression of passionate activism.

As we promoted our book around the country, meeting doulas and activists who felt terrified and hopeless, we realized that part of the reason Trump was elected was because, like at that workshop, kindness had been left behind long ago. And yet, when existing side by side with other human beings every day, what could be more important? It isn’t that people no longer do kind things for others, we realized, it’s that these acts are not valued, acknowledged, or given any weight or authority. In fact, kindness has become something to be taken advantage of and seized upon as a sign of weakness.

The doula role is attempting to bring back the power of kindness in a capitalist society that focuses primarily on mass production, deliverables, and bottom lines. Doulas help guide pregnant people through their births or abortions by offering physical, emotional, informational, and spiritual support. This may come in the form of a comforting touch, a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on. Doulas believe that providing non-judgmental emotional support, resources, and education can empower women to have not only a positive birth or abortion experience, but also become advocates for their own reproductive health for the rest of their lives.

Kindness is not simply a soft skill; it is a powerful tool for changing lives for the better. Now more than ever, we find ourselves fielding questions about the necessity of doulas in the bigger picture of reproductive health services. It’s a good question: how can we assert the value of this carefully crafted form of empathetic care if people are unable to make an appointment for an abortion? When abortion access is under severe threat throughout the country; when pregnancy is considered a “pre-existing condition;” when people are arrested for “endangering the life of a fetus” while they are pregnant, the role of compassion and kindness can seem superfluous. As social justice activists, we are in a constant state of triage as we attempt to address the most pressing issue of the moment.

Yet kindness has always been important to social justice movements. Kindness implicitly shapes the identities of many activists who fight for equality. Compassion often inspires people to do the hard work of taking care of others, whether that is through macro-level political organizing or through one-on-one direct care.

But "kindness" as a political concept rarely gets confronted head-on, partly because most people rationalize their ethical gray areas through the greater worth of good intentions.  We are quite certain, for example, that many Trump supporters consider themselves to be "kind."  In order for kindness to be applied as a political concept, we must define what it is and what it looks like. We need to decide if we want kindness to be a baseline ethic of “treating each other well” or, in the words of the prophet Michelle Obama, a practice of building a bigger table and not a higher wall.

Doulas take kindness very seriously on a practical level, where activism and caregiving meet to pull it from a devalued — and, dare we say feminized — place so that its meaning becomes distinct and important.  Kindness isn't a glib, empty label for someone who is nice: it's a radical act that pulls you out of your own ego in order to help another person be fortified and feel valued. Kindness and compassion aren’t “icing on the cake;” they are reminders that we need to take responsibility for what we can, and should, do for others, whether that is holding space, holding hands, or offering validating words when it feels like no one is listening. It’s the least we can do for one another—and yet, it’s also the most.

The Doulas: Radical Care for Pregnant People (2016) is available online at The Feminist Press and Amazon. We also recommend you search for it at your local indie bookstore! If you’d like to learn more, another great resource is The Radical Doula Guide: A Political Primer for Full Spectrum Pregnancy and Childbirth Support, by Miriam Zoila Perez.

Mary Mahoney, LCSW, is cofounder of The Doula Project. She is a graduate of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and holds a post-graduate training certificate from the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies. She is a speaker with Soapbox, Inc.

Lauren Mitchell, M.S., is cofounder of The Doula Project and a doctoral candidate in the English Department at Vanderbilt University.  Prior to that, she obtained a degree in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University.  She is also a speaker with Soapbox, Inc.

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1. Pavlovitz J, DzWhen did Compassion Become Partisan Politics? Stuff that Needs to be Said Blog, February 19, 2017. Online at: http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/02/19/when-did-compassion-become-partisan-politics/