Networking for Doulas; a conversation with Liz Farmer of The Doula Classroom
Liz Farmer is a doula, wife, mentor, mother, Hypnotherapist, and all around awesome person based in Portland, Oregon. We met a couple years ago when she lived in Orange County- probably at a networking event for doulas, so this conversation was fun and on point for us! Liz recently launched The Doula Classroom, an amazing resource for new and experienced doulas alike. She offers a birthy book club, mentoring for doulas, and hosts awesome conversations like these with birth professionals and maternal wellness advocates all over the world. I'm honored to be a part of her ongoing doula chats and hope you gain something valuable from our videos. Below the video is a transcript of our conversation for all you overnight doulas and parents holding babies out there!
Liz: Alright. Hi Amanda!
Amanda: Hi Liz.
L: So, I'm Liz Farmer. I am the founder of The Doula Classroom.
A: And I'm Amanda Cagle. I run Your Birth Team, which is a doula business locally here in Orange County, CA.
L: Oh yes, and I'm in Portland, Oregon. Sometimes I feel like online you forget where people are in the country and what or you know how different where they are is different than where you are. It's good to know where people are located. As we talk about birth culture, knowing that it's very different in different places. It always boggles my mind. A doula recently in Missouri was talking about how they still shave women at the hospital she supports families at. I was like "whoa, that's still a thing!"
A: Yea absolutely. I mean even here in Orange County it's kind of a bubble-that's what people talk about, being in the Orange bubble-and it really does feel like that because births just over the border in LA or County or just over the border in San Diego County are very different. Same thing in San Bernardino County and Riverside County-completely different worlds. The access that they have to medical staff to begin with...like the actual numbers are totally different.
L: Yea, I did most of my birth work in San Fransisco and then I moved to Orange County and now I live in Portland. But when we moved to Orange County, when I moved there, there were zero Certified Nurse-Midwives in hospitals besides Kaiser. Like Kaiser had them. There were zero. There was one new one I think. Lisa something.
A: Yeah, yeah. At Saddleback?
L: Yes. It blew my mind that a woman couldn't go to a hospital outside of Kaiser and have midwifery care.
A: Yea, I mean people move here all the time and they're like "What are you talking about? Where are my midwives??" Yea, and it feels a little bit like, you know, you're stuck. You don't have a lot of options. And there's not even like you have no options because of your insurance. It's you don't have options because they don't exist in the hospitals available to you. Which is a whole different level of non-access.
L: Absolutely. Well here in Portland, there are 10 midwives for every square foot of space. It is so dense with midwives and doulas here. There's water birth in the hospitals. Every hospital has midwives. It is very progressive and liberal in that way and, you know, they're still hospitals in the hospital system. But way further on the more liberal side of the spectrum. And there's a hospital with doulas as employees. And they're amazing.
A: Yes, I have a friend there!
L: Yes, Christine. (We're referring to the amazing Christine D'Esposito and the kickass Providence system's doula program).
A: Yea, it's not like that here in Orange County at all. People think "West Coast right? California's so liberal, so progressive." But nope, not quite. We're not quite there with birth.
L: Not quite. Okay, so today we're gonna talk about networking.
A: Yes, networking for doulas. It's a big topic.
L: Yes, and you have some thoughts.
A: I do. I have so many thoughts. Because I was a new doula, right? And because now I'm not as new. I've been a doula for six, almost seven years now. And so I've learned a lot and I feel like I'm in this newer place where new doulas come to me as a more experienced professional in our area. New doulas come to me as somebody who is constantly working with families. They want to know, first, "How do I get there?" And it's a beautiful, lovely question. "How do I get to that place where I'm able to work consistently as a doula, able to take on clients on a regular basis. Maybe even a full time basis. How do I potentially give up the day job that I've had forever that I'm not really happy in and move then to a better place in my life?" And I love being able to network with new doulas and help new doulas as much as possible. And also, it's really challenging because I am a busy doula and I do have an emphasis in my work to work with clients-to work with families. So, it's hard to balance that place where you are becoming a mentor to people and also still practicing the thing that you're doing. The thing that you're trying to mentor people for.
Yea, so I do have thoughts. My first, biggest like...if I could just get this one blanket statement on networking and getting to know your community...is not actually networking in the way people talk about. So, people say-and in my original birth doula training for instance, and even in an advanced doula training that I took up in LA, it was all about network, network, network. Go out and get referrals from people just by getting your name out there. Go to any event that you can possibly go to where doulas are congregating. where OBs are congregating or...you know, go to your midwives offices locally and bring baskets of muffins..whatever it may be.
And I'll just say that none of those things were really the thing that got me to a place where I was able to work full time. It wasn't the 15 minutes I spent at a lovely local meeting. Even though that was really helpful. Even though I loved getting to know so many people in our community, it was the one-on-one with people that got me to a place where I understood what doula work really was to multiple people and how different people perceive it. But also, the one-on-one is how people learned about me. People got to see like "oh your values are this and they are in alignment with what I believe doulas do and how doulas should work potentially or even just how I've seen doulas work well in our community."
L: And when you're talking about the one-on-one, who are you talking about exactly?
A: Mostly doulas. So, something that I heard a lot in my original training as a doula, was "doulas will be your best friends". Other doulas will be your advocates and will be able to refer you their extra client load if they have too many people. Which I didn't find to be true in the beginning at all in my community. I felt like...and I think it wasn't true because I went to those events thinking "If they just know my face. If they just have my business card" right? And I spent so much time working on that first doula business card. And I wanted everyone to have it. But it didn't mean anything that they had it. There was no substance behind it. There wasn't like "Oh, this is Amanda and she is this." It was just "This is Amanda. I saw her face once at a local meeting." And as lovely as it was, again, to see people and to get to be familiar with people in general, it was one-on-one lunches with people. It was backing people up in emergent situations.
L: And not just once or twice. Multiple times.
A: Absolutely, yea. Having like full on dinner where we end up spending like four hours together because we just keep talking about life and everything, not just birth. That's how I found the people that work with me on my team. It's not just people that I work with now, it's people that I adore. People that are like such good people for not just my business, but also my life. My person. So yea, the one-on-ones. If I could tell any and every doula, just have one-on-ones with people. If you never go to a meeting ever where there's 25 doulas, that's okay I think. It's nice to be able to do those things and sometimes you get together and watch birth documentaries or whatever. But that's not the thing that's going to bring you business long-term; that's not the thing that's going to be sustainable in your life. You're not going to be able to be friends or be a referral person for all of the 20 doulas at that meeting no matter what. So you want to find the people who are your allies. The people who get you. the people who you appreciate things about their practice and want to maybe include those aspects in your own practice I think that's really important.
L: And also to not give up, so if you email five doulas because you're looking for a doula mentor or you see their website and it really resonates with you. They might never get back to you because...which, I think it's always nice just business-courtesy to get back to everyone who emails you, but people might mean to get back to you and your email just gets lost and they have five births at the same time..things just get crazy.
A: Oh yes, I've had that week.
L: Yes, and then you just forget about it. And so even marking it down and saying "You know what? In a month I'm going to email this person." Because the thing is, your reputation-eventually if they're in your community you're going to run into them at some point. Really, really throwing your net out very very wide and then if that person doesn't respond to you, just going and finding another person who can do that for you.
A: Since you brought up the emails...I would love to bring up my thoughts about emailing people as a new doula. So, this is something I did not do as a new doula. I want to be clear that I never had to experience this particular aspect of trying to build a business. Because I think it's important to just be fair with my info. So, I worked at a homeless shelter for pregnant women when I first became a doula. All of my clients were in that private setting and they just were there for me. And of course when I transitioned out of that shelter environment and wanted to build a private practice, I had to do lots of other things to make that actually happen. But, when it came to finding my first clients-getting my first experiences-my certification even. I never had to do any of that by reaching out to somebody else and trying to get births that they can't take on or even posting online for those low cost births. So I didn't have to do that to get the experience to begin with. I just want to give a disclaimer there.
But, as somebody who's more experience now and runs a pretty busy practice, we get lots and lots of emails from new doulas. And I will tell you there are clear differences between the...I'm like sighing saying it because I don't want it to be heavy. I want to encourage people so much. Definitely reach out. It's not about not doing it or there being a line, right? But there is a way to do it where you can tell people that you are interested and these are the reasons why and this is your experience and give a little bit about who you are. Instead of-so this is a recent example. We had an email from somebody who's probably really lovely and we might not ever actually learn that about them because all the email said was "I'm a doula in this area. I would love to connect and get all of your extra clients." That was the email.
L: Ohhh man.
A: And my response is internally very like "whoooaaa, wait a minute now. I don't know you. How could I possibly refer people that I potentially work with in other ways? Even if I have overflow as a birth doula, I have other parts of my business and practice that I might work with families with. "How could I just trust and give people away to these other doulas who I have no knowledge about? I have no idea how they practice, how they communicate, how they speak to people, right? But also, if you're emailing somebody as a professional, one of the best ways I think to help that professional know who you are as a new doula, or as a doula who is trying to grow her practice...whatever stage...is to email in exactly the way you would email a client, right?
I want to know how you're going to communicate with people in your community, because I'm one of those people. At some point, I could get pregnant and want to use your services, so you always have to be thinking about not just who you're talking to in the moment, but also what that person represents in the community-and also how you give of yourself in email communication or on the phone. So, same thing on the phone. If I get a call and it's just like "Hey I'm a new doula and I want to meet." Well, my initial response is "That's really lovely. I would probably love to meet you too. What's your deal? Where are you? Where are you located? Who did you train with? What's your experience so far?" I want to get to know people a little bit before I commit to giving a free hour or two or five of my time, right? And I think that's really important: to recognize that the people who you're reaching out to from the new doula state are people who are probably really busy and always want to give of themselves in that way, but may not have the time to do it with every single person.
L: Right. And I'm a remembering an email I got from a doula or an email exchange I had with a doula who was new and was reaching out to me to see if she could... or if I could kind of mentor her or she could shadow at births. And I said "Great, let's meet for tea," and she wanted to meet in the middle- which was kind of a far drive for me. And I was just like "I'm an experienced doula. This wouldn't necessarily be extremely beneficial for me. You need to come to me." You sort of have to think logistically about things. If I'm asking someone to give away a free hour of their time, what's going to make it easiest for them? "I will definitely come to your part of town. I'm not going to ask you to drive 30 minutes to come meet me." So, just those little things like that. Making it easy for them. And then, also, putting out there what you could do for them. Like: "I'm really looking for someone that I could potentially shadow and be of service to you at the births..at your clients' births." That would be where there's this mutual exchange.
A: Absolutely. I think as there's a doula in the LA area who does quite often mentor newer doulas and one of the things that she requires of a newer doula mentee is that they are the people to first go to the births with the client to kind of feel out what's going on to potentially...and I'm just speaking from what I'm seeing, right? I can't actually know this. But I think what it does for her in her own practice as a mentor is that not only does she get to mentor someone new and give to that person and get that person experience at births, but she also gets to potentially limit the number of hours she's totally there. Which is a huge, lovely gift to that doula who probably has four or five clients per month and is worried she might be exhausted and have to use a backup for her next doula person..her next client.
L: When I was new, and I've blogged a little bit about her, my mentor-her name was Shannon Padlog and she's in San Francisco- we just kind of became friends. She's still a dear friend. She was so integral in how successful I was early on. I got to go to maybe five births with her. And she loved it. She's like "I get company. It's lonely." I got to go out..I would run out to get her food and coffee. I would let her go take a nap and like labor sit with the clients in the other room, so she got a lot out of our exchange.
And when I became an experienced doula, I loved having people come with me to births. And I would teach them my knowledge that I had gained from my knowledge and they would do those things to me. I even had doulas-one of the people I mentored who's actually in school right now to be a CNM and I'm so proud of her-she did all of my binding of my paperwork. She made booklets for all of my clients and they were beautiful and I never would have done them myself because I'm not good at stuff like that. That was one of her offerings to me when we first met and I was like "Yes, if you have a skill like that." If you could do website maintenance for them or some offering to them, that is the most beneficial symbiotically for everybody.
A: That's so lovely. I want that. I want that mentee! I have things that need to be bound.
L: And then Shannon actually, you know, as I became an experienced doula. I think when I hit...I think she had been to 100 births when I started and I had been to like three. And once I hit like 30 or 40 she was able to actually refer out to me and I was her backup and, you know, I did get a lot of her overflow. But going into it you can't be thinking about that. You have to go into it thinking "I want your knowledge and I want you to have assistance during the births."
A: OR, "I want your knowledge and I'm going to pay you for that because I don't have a skill to offer or I don't have extra time or I need to ask of you things that are a little above and beyond. I've absolutely mentored people and they've just been like "I have no extra time to do anything. I just want to get to births and I just want to know, you know..." So like one of the things I did was prenatal coaching. What do you do at prenatal visits, right? I had a newer doula who was like "I'm so terrified. I've been on two interviews so far and those have bombed. And if I can't get through those, how am I going to be doing prenatals with people? How am I going to be teaching people or talking to them. Like how do I even know what to offer in those meetings?" At that point in time, I had very little time to give and I said, you know, "I'm absolutely happy to do this with you and walk you through it, but I do have to charge for it." And she was like "Yup, sounds great." And it was lovely. And that was a lovely exchange as well, so if that's possible for you...and it's not possible for most new doulas because they're trying to work and practice and I absolutely get that. But if it is possible, that could be another route to go.
L: Absolutely. And one other thing you said, you know going to those big networking events-they're great. The energy is nice, usually there's a speaker that can be really helpful...but don't just go and hand out your cards. One thing that I wanted to add to that is actually make dates with people there. When you meet people say "Hey can we exchange cards and can we meet for tea this week or next week?" That way you're seeing them again and you'll start building that relationship with them.
And also, you need...once you're a doula with a full load-and sometimes when you're starting out it's so hard to see that- "In 10 months, I'm going to have 4 births a month." You need really good backup because you need someone you can call at 3am who will put their butt out of bed and come labor sit for you if you have two clients in labor because it will happen. And you need someone who has the same expertise as you, so that when you are charging, or if you're charging less...let's say you're charging $300 a birth. It's really hard to find someone to get up for that money in the middle of the night.
A: Sometimes they're not getting up for the money. Sometimes they're getting up for you and for the experience and for the relationship aspect, right?
L: I think that birth workers are very empathetic people and we bring so much heart into our business and then we don't remember that it's a business. And it's still a business and we still have to be professional. And it's an odd business. What other businesses are people massaging naked sweating women in the middle of the night in their bathroom? It's just such an intimate interesting profession and at the same time you have to still do all the tech stuff and the email correspondence professionally, the interactions professionally, spell check your emails before sending them out to people. Very basic things. Like you said, you want an example of how they're going to communicate with your clients.
A: Yea, spellcheck. I can't emphasize that enough. Put your email in a Microsoft Word doc first, have it spellcheck for you. I even do that with longer emails that I'm sending out in the middle of the night because I'm on a break from a birth or with a postpartum doula client. Maybe the baby's sleeping and I'm getting some work done, right? It's like 2am and I've had a long day, I'm not just going to send that email out. I'm going to put it through Word doc first, see what's going on there and then put it back in the email. It's just one of the things that I feel like is really important because I don't want there to be miscommunications with my clients. So then, of course, when we're talking about other doulas communicating with doulas or childbirth educators or OBs in the area, whatever it may be. Just making sure they're clear on what you are, who you are, what you do, what you have to offer their practice and their clients. Communication, especially in text form, is so important.
L: I just wanted to say a couple things about networking, not just with other doulas but with other care providers. Because I often have new doulas ask me "Okay, I want to make my business cards and then I'm going to go drop them off in all the OB offices or midwife offices in town." That typically doesn't work. They will just throw them out. And so stay away from those care providers first-the OBs and the midwives. Go more towards the acupuncturist, the massage therapists, the more holistic care providers who have their own practice. Because then you can kind of do the mutual client exchange. The way you get onto the good graces of OBs and midwives is you see them at multiple births. I mean there were OBs where the fifth or sixth births I went to where they were the care provider for my client, they asked for my card and then they started referring people to me. But that takes time. They have to see that their philosophy and your philosophy about birth mesh and they enjoy working with you.
A: And that their clients actually have good things to say about your services, because they're not just seeing them during prenatals. They're also going to see them in the postpartum. And it's post birth your client says "You were great, but I couldn't have done it without my doula.." or "Oh my gosh, I'm so glad I ended up hiring doulas" -that matters. They'll remember like "Oh yea, you had that one doula that I've seen a couple times."
L: I even had clients ask me at our postpartum visit "Is there anything I can do to help you?" Especially as a new doula..."Like give me some cards and I'll give them to friends." And I said "Actually, you can bring some of my cards to your doctor or midwife visit at your six week appointment and tell them you enjoyed having a doula and, you know, give them my card not just for me but also just so that they're hearing very positive things about doulas and to increase awareness about what doulas are and what they do." If your clients offer that, take them up on that.
It's so hard to figure all these things out. There's so much trial and error. It really takes...and you know, you had a head start because you weren't starting from Ground Zero where you were like "Where do I even find a pregnant person who would want my services?" But when you're a new doula, it could really take two years to get a full client load. Just seeing that trajectory if this is something you want to do for your life or for several years. It takes awhile.
A: I think, you know, with any business it takes awhile to build the back end of it as well. The stuff people don't see when they're interacting with you. It takes awhile to figure out what systems work for you. How do you track clients? I mean any part of this work, any part of running your own business. It's going to take time. The same thing is true for finding clients and networking and getting to know your community, right? And just like you said -acupuncturists and other providers that work with pregnant people a lot can be great allies.
I remember the first time I actually got a referral from a professional, it was a daycare provider who I had sent some info via snail mail and it was the one person that actually responded. They called me and were like "We have no idea what you do but we have a couple pregnant people right now who are asking for support and resources. We don't really do that, we're just a daycare. If you gave us some info or came in and talked to us, we'd love to know what you do." And I was like "Yes, I will absolutely do that." So, even the places or businesses you don't think will necessarily be your allies, might be when you're building that business. Think outside the box. And I agree that the medical care providers--they're just so busy. Their practices are just so packed. It's hard for them to get people saying "Hey, can I bring you lunch or a basket of muffins or whatever and tell you about my services?" It's really hard for them to even fathom the idea for making time for that in their normal day-to-day in their practices, in their offices. Absolutely agree. The work itself is what they'll see.
L: Exactly. Cool, well this was so fun.
A: I love it. Thank you so much for having me.
L: I'm excited to do this again.