How to Survive Life on Call
Life on call is not easy. You always have to have your phone. You can’t have that second glass of wine. Every plan, every schedule, comes with a mental “but I’m on call” or “if my client goes into labor.” Real talk, I’m entering my 13th year of doula work, and I still have moments when I’m on call and missing out on something that I ask myself, “Why am I doing this job? This is crazy.” These are the moments that lead to doula burnout.
To battle burnout, I’ve put together three strategies and a few bonus tips that I’ve used over the years to make this crazy life on call happen. These ideas will not magically transform our work into a nine-to-five job, but they have made my life as a doula more doable and sustainable. There is no one size fits all approach, but, hopefully, you will find some ideas that will help you meet your professional and personal goals.
Block Time Off Call - Heavy Months and Light Months
When you’re on call for a client, it’s usually for a few weeks. Sure, you have their estimated due date, but you don’t really know when you’re going to be needed. When I started out, I thought I could probably only handle one or two clients a month and scheduled accordingly. Even though that’s not THAT many clients, I’d look at my calendar and realize that I would be on call for months at a time.
The strategy of blocking months is exactly what it sounds like. After assessing your schedule, goals and income, you choose a few months out of the year to be your heavy months. The rest of the year, you’re totally off call. For example, I have some doula friends who are preschool teachers and they are off call during the school year and on call during the summer. With this strategy when you’re on call, you’re ON, but the rest of the time you can chill, disconnect and do all those things you can’t do when you’re on call.
Create Blackout Days
Sometimes if you know you’re going to be out of town or have a big event like a birthday or anniversary, you feel like you can’t take a client during that time. Unfortunately, blocking off one day or weekend really amounts to blocking off a four week span because you don’t know when a client will deliver. I hate to hear about doulas missing out on potential work for fear of missing an event.
You’ve heard of blackout days with gift certificates. This idea works the same way. Tell your clients, “Yes I am available that month, but I want you know that I have a few blackout days on which I will have a great backup doula available for you.” Also, let them know that there are probably a couple days of the month that might have an unexpected conflict like a last minute trip or special event. In my experience, most clients are fine with the idea of blackout days as long as they know in advance.
Sometimes it feels uncomfortable to tell people you won’t always be available because you’re afraid you won’t get hired, but you can’t guarantee you will be at a birth. Life gets in the way, and it’s better to set your client’s expectations at the start.
Another strategy that has been on the rise is doula partnerships. Though there are formal permanent doula partnerships that require detailed business and legal planning, I’m focusing here on the idea of a temporary partnership used during those heavy months or months you know you’ll need more flexibility.
Make sure to partner with a doula who shares your style so as to make any transition as seamless as possible for your clients. You and your partner should attend prenatal meetings together. Tell your clients that when the time comes, it could be either you or your partner who will be on call.
The beauty of having a doula partner, as opposed to just a backup, is that your partner will be as familiar and prepared for the client as you are. However, If you choose to explore this option, I would recommend that you take it slow. Test the waters with a couple births to see how the partnership works. Make sure to get the money part of it ironed out in advance. Set up a breakdown where the partner that handles the delivery gets a larger portion of the fee, but the partner who attends the meetings still gets a percentage. I know it can be awkward to talk about money, but I’ve heard so many negative stories from doulas that revolve around compensation. Don’t fall into that trap.
- Build a Village - Life on call requires a support network. When you have a family and you’re on call, you basically need somebody on call for you. Maybe that’s a relative, a family friend or a regular babysitter. I have four children and I have had to use all of these, including a whole network of moms that I pay back with babysitting.
- Communicate your Limitations - Don’t miss out on your own life. If you have to turn off your phone for an hour a week for a yoga class, don’t stop going to yoga, just let your clients know. On the flip side, if you can’t bring yourself to make an appointment because you might have to cancel last minute, let them know you’re on call. Most service providers will be understanding of the rare cancellation. Chances are your client will not need you during these limited windows anyway.
Don’t Fatigue your Village - Can you please stop telling me that you’re on call?
Your friends, your family, the people you interact with on a regular basis, they know what you do and what your life is like. If you’re constantly saying, “I’ll try to be there, but I’m on call”, the only thing you’re accomplishing is stressing them out. Once you’ve communicated your limitations just carry on. Again, the likelihood is you won’t have to cancel so live your life and let the doula work slot in. The birth will come when it comes. If you need to vent, find another doula.
Don’t Burn Out
You may think this advice is all good and well but be asking yourself what about the money? Every one of these strategies could mean turning away work, losing a client or sharing fees with another doula. My answer would be that burnout brings in zero income. If your current lifestyle is unsustainable, then you may very well burnout. We are not doula robots. We are actual people with lives and needs, and we should not feel guilty about that. Self care is not a myth. Taking care of ourselves, being kind to ourselves and our families will help with the sustainability of our passion and our profession.
- Alice Turner