Thursday, March 14, 2013

What I Learned From 17 Years as a Freelance Doula

by Ananda Lowe
I have never worked 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.  Financially, being self-employed is nerve-racking, yet those of us who choose to do so often feel that we would be averse to any other lifestyle.  Working from home alone in my pajamas, answering only to the families that hire me, and even being on-call, suit me. 

For most of the past ten years I have freelanced full-time, combining doula work with teaching, publishing a book, and work as a Licensed Massage Therapist.  Before that I served for seven years as Assistant Director of the doula organization ALACE (now, working 3 to 4 days per week in that role, and as a freelance doula part-time. 

As an almost entirely female profession, doulas struggle with society’s devaluing of women’s work, and our own shaky professional self-esteem.  We debate on our email listservs about how much to charge (sometimes whether to charge) and how to stave off burnout as we perform intense work for wages that are often not enough to support our own families. 

The answers to these questions are still evolving and emerging, and I would like to contribute my perspective.  To my doula sisters with your selfless hearts and drive, you can balance your passion for social change with your sanity, and your family’s need to pay the rent or mortgage.

So, here is my list of advice for the freelance soul:
Open a retirement account.  Whatever your age, do not delay.  Save, save, save.  Many funds let you contribute as little as $50 per month.  If you are not sure where to start, you may want to try the oldest socially responsible fund, the Pax World Balanced Fund.  If you earn your living as a freelancer, open an IRA (to get the tax benefits).  If you are not earning enough freelance income to qualify for an IRA, open a regular mutual fund.
Get a salaried, half-time or full-time job with a paycheck you can count on, and freelance on the side.  Or, combine doula work with other freelance jobs that have a lower burnout rate (from personal experience, I do not include Massage Therapist on this list).  People report combining doula work with a variety of jobs:  office manager, housecleaner, journalist, government employee, yoga instructor, childbirth instructor, college professor, dog-sitter or house-sitter, etc. 
Have longer-term career goals in a related field.  You may be able to freelance for years, but this can be tough to do.  I was childless for the first 15 years that I freelanced, then I finally gave birth.  And ironically, working as a doula with a baby feels almost impossible sometimes.  If you can obtain a two-year nursing degree, you can support your family and continue working with mothers and newborns in many roles.  If you can invest in more training, you can work full-time as a nurse-midwife, lactation consultant, physical therapist specializing in pregnancy, genetic counselor, or perinatal social worker.  If you are older or have fears about returning to school, you can do it.  Find others who have, and ask them to mentor you.
Learn to buy your first condo or house while you are young.  The amount of money you lose while renting is stunning.  See if your local city hall offers a free homebuyers’ class.  You will need 12 months of solid income before you can apply for a mortgage, and due to the recent major recession, you will probably be required to provide a down payment.  So save, and/or ask family to contribute (you’d be amazed at how many of your home-owning friends relied on family for their down payment).  After you purchase your home, rent a spare room out—this is the easiest way to bring in extra income quickly.
Accept financial help graciously from relatives or friends.  If it is available and you need it (due to unemployment, the birth of a child, family illness, etc.) be grateful it is there.  Say “thank you” often.  Put the transaction in writing, whether it is a loan or an outright gift.  If you feel the financial support is creating a dependency between you and the giver, discuss it openly with them and come up with a plan to get back on your feet within a realistic timeframe.  Do not think less of yourself for needing help. 
Do not rely on a shaky relationship to provide financial support.  If you are partnered or married and the relationship is shaky emotionally or financially, or your family of origin is chaotic and unsupportive, keep your eyes open.  Know your legal and financial rights and responsibilities if you were to separate from your partner.  Have confidence in your ability to support yourself, remind yourself how you did so in the past, and have a plan for how you would do so in the future.  Put lots of emotional support in place to make up for damaged family ties.
If you inherit money, use it for a mortgage or a retirement account.  Or hire an ace accountant to help you start the business of your dreams.  Try not to use the funds on rent, retail therapy, or in such a way that you will never see it again.  Feel grateful and not guilty for the life it makes possible for you.  Pay it forward in the way you determine is best.
When expecting a baby, have a realistic financial plan.  The birth of a baby is the event most likely to cause a family to enter poverty for the first time.  Ask other doulas how soon they were able to attend births after their maternity leave, and whether this was realistic.  Know what other jobs you would take instead, if necessary.
Report your income and pay taxes honestly.  It will benefit you so you can buy a home, and receive Social Security when you retire or if you become disabled (important!).  If you do not know how to file your taxes as a self-employed person, visit any local tax preparer or accountant for information.  Even as an independent-minded pioneer, you are obligated to participate as a citizen in society.  And you will avoid resentment from the rest of us who pay taxes in a timely way.
If you see a therapist or counselor, ask for help becoming confident enough to support yourself better, to go back to school, or to get a better job.  For some reason, these topics are easily avoided in therapy, even if the therapist is aware you may be struggling financially.  Everyone is uncomfortable talking about money, but push yourself and your therapist to do so.  After all, you are paying good money for their advice.
Encourage your freelance friends to do all of the above, and to become more financially savvy.  Ask your corporate friends to share with you what they know about these topics – they shouldn’t be a secret.
Have other colleagues to turn to for support.  Work with a business partner, not in a stressful solo practice.  Even if you are the most experienced doula in your town and everyone expects you to be a leader, ask for support.  Participate on your local doula email list, attend a meeting, and share at least one or two difficult birth stories per year with peers.  When no one else understands the enormity of your work and the sacrifices you make, these are the people that will.  Hold one another up, and hold each other accountable for keeping your lives sustainable.  As doulas, as freelancers, as visionaries.  Thank you for all that you do.
My gratitude goes to Margaret Rosenau, Pre and Perinatal Therapist and friend, for feedback on this article and many years of insight on these topics.


  1. Excellent post, Ananda. There is SO much here I relate to. Many of these topics are ones I have been processing through as of late. Great timing!

  2. You have learned so much in your life--I love that you're able to pass it on so intelligently and freely. xo

  3. Sound advice. Slowly entering this field and happy to have some guidance! Thank you! :)

  4. Thanks Amanda. So important for seasoned doulas to share these thoughts and help one another create truly sustainable careers.

  5. Good advice! I really appreciate this as a new doula. It makes me feel good knowing you suggest another job with doing this as I wonder how I can do this and do my other work in a medically related capacity as well as with a new child. I know it is possible to be a part of the birthing community and still be financially responsible to my family. Thanks again and keep writing!

  6. Thank you for this wise thoughts! As an 20years long serving Austrian Doula in a country, where motherhood, unimployment and retirement don´t mean to fall into poverty I´m thankful again for our socialsystem...I also agree, that beeing a freelancing Doula means to think carfully about a creative mix of job to survive without burnout...with love, Angelika Rodler

  7. I am a doula Trainer and am going to share this with my new doulas, still dreamy about a doula freelance career. Good sound advice! Thank you!

  8. These are wise words for anyone, not just doulas. Great post Ananda!

  9. Love the post Ananda as a founder of an doula organization and mother of 4. I know exactly how it feels to see yourself going in many directions at once. I too learned allot from your article and have been working on that self time which is truly important. I love the work that I am doing and wouldn't change it for the world. Its a struggle but a beautiful one. Give Thanks for sharing and I hope others can learn from the jewels you have dropped.


  10. This is very wise advise ... I wish I had read this before I had a child and before I turned 40 ! The honesty in these words are crucial for living a realistic life. Thank you thank you...