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On this episode of the EBB Podcast, I interview Jessica Diggs, certified professional midwife (CPM), doula mentor and co-founder of Centered about creating a sustainable career in birth work.

Jessica is a licensed midwife working in a solo practice in Los Angeles. Jessica supports people and families through holistic gynecological care, home birth services, and conception support. Jessica has a skill and love for making childbirth and reproductive education digestible and accessible for all people. She is the co-founder of Centered, a curated community for doulas and she is the former lead educator and curriculum developer at Doula Trainings International.

 

Jessica and I discuss not only her career path from doula to midwife but dive deep into a discussion about making birth work sustainable in the long run. Jessica shares a multitude of tips for our audience in avoiding burnout, setting boundaries to better serve yourself and your clients, as well as finding your joy and purpose in birth work outside just attending births. With over 10 years in the field and a thriving career, Jessica practices what she preaches and has a passion for teaching others not only about how to be a doula at a birth, but a doula making a living wage and sustainable career path.

Trigger Warning:
Black maternal and Black infant death, Postpartum death, systemic racism
Resources

Learn about Jessica’s work, including how to join Centered, here: https://www.jessicadiggs.com 

Follow Jessica’s work:
Read the book referenced, The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker, here
Transcript

Rebecca Dekker:

Hi everyone. On today’s podcast, we’re going to talk with Jessica Diggs, midwife, doula mentor and co-founder of Centered about creating a sustainable career in birth work.

Welcome to the Evidence Based Birth® podcast. My name is Rebecca Dekker and I’m a nurse with my PhD and the founder of Evidence Based Birth®. Join me each week as we work together to get evidence-based information into the hands of families and professionals around the world. As a reminder, this information is not medical advice, see ebbirth.com/disclaimer for more details.

Hi everyone. My name is Rebecca Decker, pronouns she/her and I’ll be your host for today’s episode. If there are any detailed content or trigger warnings, we’ll post them in the description or show notes that go along with this episode.

And now I’d like to introduce our honored guest. Today, I’m so excited to welcome Jessica Diggs, pronouns she/her who is a licensed midwife working in a solo practice in Los Angeles. Jessica supports people and families through holistic gynecological care, homebirth services, and conception support. Jessica has a skill and love for making childbirth and reproductive education digestible and accessible for all people. Jessica has a Substack called the jessicadiggs.substack.com. That’s her latest publication where she shares her thoughts as a midwife. She’s Co-founder of Centered, a curated community, and she’s the former lead educator and curriculum developer at DTI, which is Doula Training International. When Jessica is not talking about birth and bodies, she loves hosting dinner parties, eating, and devouring a good book. I’m so thrilled that Jessica is here. Welcome Jessica to the Evidence Based Birth® Podcast.

Jessica Diggs:

So happy to be here.

Rebecca Dekker:

Hey Jessica, we are really thrilled to listen to your story with our audience. And so I was wondering if you could tell us about how you found yourself in birth work? And also in your case, both a doula and a midwife. Can you talk about where that came from?

Jessica Diggs:

Yeah. From an early age I was fascinated with the body, with how it, worked with our sexual health, with what was going on, and I often was the person answering those questions for my friends. Around early 18, 19, I volunteered at a women’s health information center because I was pre-med and I was trying to do all the extracurriculars and I used to do the maternity tours for them. So I walked families around labor and delivery showing them the rooms, and a part of that script was to talk about doulas. I didn’t quite know what they did, but I knew that they were magical people who didn’t count against the visitation policy. And that intrigued me. I was like, why? And I just knew they didn’t. I said it with confidence, but I was not sure what they actually did and why they were so important that they shouldn’t be counted against.

Over Christmas break, I went down a rabbit hole around what a doula was, what they did, how could I become one? And by the following January, February, I had enrolled in a training, taking a doula training and did births all throughout college and have been going to birth in some capacity ever since. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue medical school around 2014, ending not loving my interview process, really, really being discouraged by the other applicants and really having a heart-to-heart around did I want to do this for the next eight years? Did I want to be in the system where I was going to be really fighting against a lot of my beliefs and philosophies around birth? And my dad was actually the person who asked, he was like, “You could tackle the system, you could, if there’s anyone who could, it could be you, but do you want to?”

And that was the reality. I didn’t really want to, in that capacity, I do it in other ways. So I withdrew, enrolled in midwifery school and then really just expanded my education practice. I took a childbirth education class in 2015 and have been teaching couples and family ever since. I love group classes, love doing that. And then I enrolled in midwifery school to expand on being able to offer people choices, being able to be a provider in the room, being able to help parents practice parenting in a safe space. Since then, I’ve been doing my own solo practice in Los Angeles.

Rebecca Dekker:

I love hearing when people discover doula work or shortly after. And I know we were talking earlier about your amazing origin story and you mentioned you attended a birth in college. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got invited to this birth? What was that experience like? I imagine that helped with, sometimes I talk about being bitten by the birth bug. So what happened there?

Jessica Diggs:

I had just finished my doula training and I was working at a hospital. They had a beautiful integrated system where doulas were kind of paged if they had a patient that didn’t have either adequate support or wanted to attempt an unmedicated birth but didn’t hire a doula. And one of the older, retired nurses, I happened to be at lunch with her and she had just gotten the page, she’s like, “You want to go to a birth?” And I was like, “Right now?” She’s like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “Sure.” And so we get to the hospital, the nurses are happy to see us. I was bitten by the doula bug a little. It doesn’t exist like that in every space, but I was a little misled. But the nurses are happy to see us. They’re like, “Oh, this person could definitely use a doula.” They had a lot of mental health issues and past experience, both them and the partner was in VBAC and it was second baby.

And it was one of those where I was thrown in. They stayed around and hung out with me for a bit and they’re like, “Okay, we’re going to go now.” And I was there for 18 hours with this family I never met before, she got an epidural. All I remember about is that we online shopped for sunglasses for a portion of the birth. We ate a sandwich together, we split a sandwich. She could still eat for some reason and which she should be able to, but it was very unique and baby was born and it was this beautiful, magical thing. And I don’t remember being tired. I was young, but it was amazing. And ever since then I signed up for the hospital program and I probably went to one to two births a month the entire time I was in college.

Rebecca Dekker:

Wow. So you’re doing this the whole time you were studying and taking classes, and being a student as well?

Jessica Diggs:

Yes. And it was an easy way to get excused from an exam because often the professors were impressed and I remember I missed one class, I think it was just a class when I got back to class the next time, the professor made me stand up and tell the class what I did and why it was important. And I was very embarrassed, but also like, okay, sure, I’ll tell people what a doula is.

Rebecca Dekker:

I have met students just like you who just become so enamored with the whole birthing process and watching families transform. And it’s funny because sometimes their parents are like, “Why do you have all these birth books on your wishlist? And is there something we need to know about?”

Jessica Diggs:

Yeah.

Rebecca Dekker:

No, but it’s a refreshing and exciting, I think when young people find out about this career path early in life.

Jessica Diggs:

Yeah, I think my parents weren’t too shocked. I saw my mom was pregnant, with the baby. My youngest sister’s 10 years younger, so I saw that pregnancy and we were at that birth. And I was fine at that birth, so I don’t think they were too shocked. I was very excited. And then our dog had puppies, I can’t remember, I was probably like 12, and everyone went to sleep and I was like, “I’m not leaving her.” And my dad gave me a poncho and a flashlight and was like, “Have at it, stay in the backyard.” And I was like, “All right.” And I stayed up all night and watched her have her puppies, so it wasn’t too farfetched for them to envision me in this space. Even then though, they still as a career birth worker, they didn’t know what I did for a long time until my sister had a baby and they actually got to see me in action.

Rebecca Dekker:

Oh really?

Jessica Diggs:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

You got to be at the birth when your sister was giving birth as well?

Jessica Diggs:

Yeah. Well, my sister had my nephew six years ago. I was there and my parents were there and they got to witness what it looks like to hold space for people and how to navigate the hospital system. And they were a bit blown away after the fact that I had been doing it for almost eight years by then.

Rebecca Dekker:

So you’re pretty experienced at that point, but even at your first birth as a doula, what strikes me about what you talked about is how much of it was just simply your presence in the room.

Jessica Diggs:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

That abiding presence and bringing yourself to this situation, not necessarily years of skills or tricks in your back pocket, but just yourself and your presence.

Jessica Diggs:

And so it is something that comes up a lot for me as I train new doulas and hold space for them. It’s like the most powerful thing we can do and what the evidence shows about the benefits of doulas is us being present and this person that haven’t been able to build a relationship with her beforehand, she just needed a person to talk to, to process some things, to answer some questions, or to create space for her to have those questions answered by her actual medical team. And it was powerful. It was beautiful and it was exhilarating, and then it didn’t really sink until a few births later. It was like, I don’t need to know everything. I just need to be here, be present.

Rebecca Dekker:

And then you transferred those skills on, there’s this common thread through your work as a childbirth educator and then as a midwife. Can you talk a little bit about what it felt like to become a midwife apprentice and go through that whole training program?

Jessica Diggs:

Yes. I felt very, very, very lucky to have been a doula for a while before I became a midwife. So a lot of it is theoretical, but also as a student I’m observing a lot. So I am often in the role of a doula for the first portion of that apprenticeship. And so that observation phase was really nice because it was like, okay, I’m just doing what I already do, and then I’m also learning a little bit more and watching a little bit more of the actual provider. The apprenticeship is about three to five years, depending on how quickly you can get the clinical side done. And I didn’t have kids and single, so I banged out that portion of things. But I worked in a busy birth center for two of my apprenticeships and then a solo home birth practice where I got a lot of, I kind of polished off my skills and also got a lot of the gynecological and conception support skillset in that portion of my apprenticeship.

Rebecca Dekker:

So aside from supporting growing families, I know a lot of your work is focused on mentorship and education for other birth workers, and you kind of mentioned that earlier. How did you find a calling for supporting other birth workers and cultivating culture among birth workers?

Jessica Diggs:

This came about with my move to Los Angeles. So I started in North Carolina, that’s where I trained, that’s where I went to those first births. And then I moved to LA and I needed to build community around being a doula where it was my actual source of income. So in North Carolina I was volunteering most of those births. It was built into the hospital system. I was living as a student. I didn’t need the income in the same way, but I was moving to one of the most expensive cities in the world and I wanted to do this for a living. I needed to figure out how to actually make an income and I didn’t have that skillset, but I hit the ground running. I befriended every known doula in Los Angeles, just like cold calling for coffee dates, going to all of the meetups, to the point that I ended up winning some, it was a popularity test of the best doula in Los Angeles. The year I got here, no one knew me. They didn’t know I was actually a good doula, but because I met so many people that when it came time to vote, I actually won.

But I just created a sense of community. I knew I needed that. I knew no one in Los Angeles. I think I was 21 when I moved here, so I needed to create community, and I was really good at that. It has led to literally every big career shift in birth work. From my job at DTI was just through Instagram creating community. My job at Loom, was just through an event and I met Erica, we hit it off. I am a big person who creates space for myself. And a lot of that is through true connection, really getting to know people.

And so I have always made time. People made time for me. And when it came time where we were seeing that there were less spaces for doulas, I was like, “Let’s create something. I’m already giving back my time. My time is a little bit more precious now, so let’s just bring people in where they can talk to each other, they can hold space for each other, they can find their backup doula. They have a safe space to process.” And also, I’ve seen many doulas come and go. I’ve been in this work for over 10 years, which is unheard of. Most doulas life cycle in this work is about two to three years. So I also was feeling a big push to see how can we make this a sustainable career for these awesome humans who want to do it for a long time?

Rebecca Dekker:

So how were you creating this community? Was this online or was this in an actual space?

Jessica Diggs:

Originally was a lot of it was in-person. And then post Covid has moved online and has slowly been back in person. So Centered is what we created is our current container for community, and it includes an online platform. It includes in-person connect gatherings, and then it includes online sometimes in-person, cultivate workshops where doulas can build new skillsets.

Rebecca Dekker:

I know this is a really common problem that you’re talking about, the feeling like you don’t have a community connection with other doulas. And in the EBB Pro membership, we’ll get that question a lot from new members who join and are like, “I just moved to Charleston, or I just moved here or there, and I don’t know any of the doulas and it doesn’t feel like there’s a community. How do I find community?” What advice do you have for those new doulas?

Jessica Diggs:

I always say post on Facebook, find any Facebook groups or anything that’s free that you can just search, and post and introduce yourself to the community and then put out your asks. Say, “Hey, I am Jessica Diggs. I’m a new birth worker in this area. I specialize in this, this, and this. I’m hoping to reach out and meet people to potentially be a backup doula, learn more about what you do, build my resource list.” Because then they’re like, oh, they’re advertised for me. There’s something in it for them. “I would love to either get coffee or meet up for a walk. Is anyone interested?” Just like you have to put yourself out there or show up at any events. If there is a vibrant birth community in that area, show up at all the events. To me, I took that networking time as vital as doing any of the admin for my business. So I was carving out two to three hours a week to go to events as if I would carve out two to three hours a week to do social media. All of that was pouring back into my business.

Rebecca Dekker:

That makes perfect sense. And I think sometimes people think, well, I don’t know who they are. And you gave some really great examples and then just sometimes a simple Google search like “Doulas in blank city.” And I did that for some people and I found news articles about different doulas. Sometimes there are reporters who are reporting on work that especially doulas of color have been doing recently in communities. And so you can kind of find out who are the people out there who are already being featured and are doing work for organizations or other things like that.

Jessica Diggs:

Yeah. Anytime when I was training doulas and that was in a new city that I didn’t know, I would always spend my time before the training and look up all of the things where there’s like a free program at a hospital, or some awesome grassroots organization. I would already have that list for them. And I’m like, these people seem very willing to mentor, train, engage, or they need actual doulas for this insert, awesome project. This is where you want to start. And anytime you are reaching out to people, maintaining an ongoing relationship is also helpful. I help people all the time for myself, I’m training, or meeting, or seeing hundreds of doulas all the time. I remember the ones who are constantly reaching out, not annoyingly, but actually just popping in to say, “Hey, I’m still doing this thing.” Or “Hey, just wanted you to share this or wanted you to know I’m available for birth work.” So when someone asks me for a doula, they’re at the top of my forebrain or forethought about who to recommend.

Rebecca Dekker:

And doulas go in and out of the work too, in terms of being at births. Because doulas may be pregnant themselves or have a baby or be going through another circumstance where they can’t attend birth. So they’re always looking to build their connections. And you’ve given some really good suggestions. And one thing that struck me about what you said is the in-person connections and how a lot of people, I’ve had this myself as well, trying to figure out friendships. So I think a lot of people today feel really lonely, especially Covid. And most of us do not take the initiative to create gatherings and invite other people to something. And my husband is the perfect example of somebody who does that. He has some other friends, most of whom are dads, and he takes the initiative to text them all and invite them to come over or to go out. And he’s created this amazing little community of dads that support one another. And I don’t necessarily have that because I don’t take the initiative to be the one to invite people. Does that make sense?

Jessica Diggs:

That makes a lot of sense. That is awesome. That is very common that people want community, but community is an action. It’s a verb and it’s an exchange. And that’s a big frustration that I have with mentoring new doulas. I’m always like, I can easily find these resources in your area at a place I don’t live, and I just did a quick Google search, why aren’t you able to find them or engage with these folks? And someone was said, we are introverts, we are lonely, but we want it to come to us in a certain container at a certain time. And a lot of this is, that’s not how you, there’s an aspect of manifesting, but there’s an action that goes behind getting what you need and meeting that need. I always say, “Stay true to yourself, you do not have to recreate what I did or what someone else did, but you need to figure out what works for you and do it consistently.”

Consistency is a thing and community is an exchange. We build amazing workshops and events and we’re always dumbfounded when the turnout is like, no one’s here. 300 people voted on Instagram that they wanted this, and 15 people showed up. It is frustrating. We’ll keep doing it. Even intimate gatherings are amazing, but it is frustrating. I think we have a misunderstanding when it comes to what intentional gathering is and what community looks like, and it’s often a do it for us and facilitate when it’s a gather and exchange. I am hoping that that’s becoming more of a normalized thing. So I love Priya Parker’s, the Art of Gathering. I devoured that book when I was creating childbirth education content because how we come into any space should be very intentional. And a lot of what she talks about is that it starts from the invite of what type of space do you want people to feel that this is? Is it informal? Is it formal? Is it going to be social? Is it going to be more reflective?

And so I’ve been playing around with a lot of that to make sure we’re hitting on what doulas need, what birth workers need when they’re coming into spaces. I think with that, we’re getting a better turnout. Sometimes they just need to adapt, unload, so something around their body and self-care, sometimes they need to learn. And so trying to separate the events versus making it a one size fits all, like come together. We’ll do all these three, people are overwhelmed. So I think sometimes we having to use a little psychology too, actually, the intention about the gatherings, but I also think individuals need to realize that community is an exchange. It is not just someone coming to you. You actually are bringing something to the table that we value.

Rebecca Dekker:

Yeah, I love that. Remembering that, having an intention for any gathering that you talked about. Then also, you talked about being persistent, not just having one time gathering and then being done. It made me think, I tend to do that in-person. I’ll invite people over for a fire pit. We can do that in Kentucky. We don’t have a drought right now, and you gather around the fire pit with a bunch of birth workers, or midwifery students, or midwives, and it turns a lot of times that first meeting, there’s just a lot of debriefing, a lot of unloading of everybody’s burdens, which is important. We need to do that. But then it would be nice, I can see how meeting more regularly could move on from the debriefing and do more of the connecting and exchanging.

Jessica Diggs:

With Centered, we have our connect and it’s a monthly gathering, and you see that, initially for people’s first time. It’s like unpack. And for those who’ve been coming for a while, it’s diving a little deeper, it’s building more relationship, and there’s some questions here and there, but they’re also in a space where now they aren’t just coming to answer a question. They’re coming to have a question answered. They’re coming to answer some of the newbies questions.

Rebecca Dekker:

Give back.

Jessica Diggs:

Yeah, the ongoing regular spaces can be a drag. Sometimes if you’re hosting, because I got to be here again, but, it is every time it’s super fulfilling and it does build actual relationships with the people in the space.

Rebecca Dekker:

I love it. So talk to me about, you work with both new doulas and experienced doulas, and doulas in training. What are some of the trends you’re seeing in birth work right now that you want to share with our listeners?

Jessica Diggs:

Yeah. Birth work has evolved so much and for the better. When it first started, it was a largely White, cis, heteronormative space, and over the last 10 years, it has evolved to be much more diverse, much more inclusive, not just like the people, but the actual type of care. The biggest trends that I’m seeing for all involved is one, an intentionality to be true to who they actually are, versus fit into the mold of what a doula should be.

Intentionality around BIPOC culture and community, but also the issues of most marginalized communities, whether it’s queer, trans, BIPOC folks, I would say a intentionality around sustainability with this career in comparison to what I’ve seen from my trainings and the last previous five years where people come into it and it’s just a hobby. Someone’s retired, someone’s partners bank role in their life, so they can just do this here and there, which, no shade, I’m jealous. Some people are just coming in, putting a toe in, going to a few births and that’s it. So there’s been a lot more conversations around how can I do this for a long time without burning out? Making a living wage, and also supporting the people who look like me or who actually really need this care and it not being just for privileged, high income, typically White, cis families.

Rebecca Dekker:

So are you seeing more doulas stay in it for the long term? I know there’s that saying, “The shelf life of a doula is three to five years.” Are you seeing more people find ways to make it more sustainable and how are they doing that?

Jessica Diggs:

Similar to, I don’t have babies, but I do see my doula babies thriving in this work and creating some amazing resources in the world. And so yes, I do see people really thriving. Just one doula maybe I think from one of my first doula trainings, her second, she sustained her family of five, three children and her partner during Covid when he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do on her doula income as a fairly new doula.

I have a friend and doula who transitioned out of bartending to do this full time. I’m seeing a lot of people really lean into this work and create some amazing things from apps to books to podcasting, and a lot of them have come up in the last five years. So I would say most of the ways in which they’re doing it, they’re not just doing just direct care doula work.

And I think that that’s where some of us get lost is that they just do go to births, go to families’ homes for postpartum care, and that’s fine, but the body doesn’t love that forever. So most people are adding things like some form of education, some form of podcasting and sharing information, some form of other supportive care, whether it’s lactation, placental support. People are usually combining other areas of their brain that they didn’t realize thinking of like Cheyenne, who does graphic design and then created The Educated Birth, combining different spaces of themselves to still do this work. A dear friend did organizing, and social justice, and policy work. Now she works for California Family Working Coalition doing breastfeeding and paid family leave work.

So I’m seeing people do this work in many different ways that create those space for still true to their work as a doula and to families, and then also creating living wages, whether it’s directly from doula work or a combination.

Rebecca Dekker:

Yeah, I think creating almost diversity in your own income streams, I guess as a business owner is important because you can focus on your one main thing, but then there’s other things if you have, you can fall back on, such as if you’re teaching childbirth classes online or like you said, going in some of these other areas of creating revenue streams. But yeah, I think you’re right. It seems to be that the doulas that are making it sustainable are being paid a living wage, but they’re also seeking out these other ways of doing birth work that don’t just involve being in the birth room.

Jessica Diggs:

And sometimes for my practice, my doula practice, when it was exclusively a doula, I made a living wage just as a doula. I made enough for the way in which I looked at it, which I had just a big money… I geeked out on finances and business finance. But the way I looked at it is I made a living wage that was the bare minimum of what it actually costs you, book me as a doula and fill up. And then my teaching was, okay, I deserve a savings account. I deserve a retirement. And if I had been in any other field for at that time, six to seven years, I would be making this amount of money. So it was also giving myself a raise and having intentionality around that portion of it, which most-

Rebecca Dekker:

You can designate your childbirth education income to go towards creating a savings account or retirement.

Jessica Diggs:

Specifically for Loom. All of my, because it was the first place I got an actual 401K because I’ve been doing birth work my entire adult life. I’ve been self-employed the entire time. So have other savings, but this was the first 401K, and I was like, well, I literally just put the entire check there. I didn’t need to live off of it. And now I have a nice little cushion there. So sometimes it’s that. Sometimes, yes, I deserve to be able to walk away from this career that I’ve done for a decade and decades. I’m still young and actually be able to retire because many birth workers coming out of this work because they have to because a physical or a health issue, but not with usually a savings.

Rebecca Dekker:

Talk to me about solo practice work, because I know you practice solo as a midwife and I’ve heard some midwives and doulas talk about how that can be a recipe for burnout. So can you talk a little bit about safety nets or things you have set up to help you be more sustainable in that kind of practice model?

Jessica Diggs:

Yes. So my business structure is I am the midwife they get, however, my sense of safety net is I have a beautiful community of midwives ready to jump in. So as a solo provider, I was a doula for eight years before I became a midwife. So I already know what my threshold, especially as a home birth midwife is for-

Rebecca Dekker:

On-call life and stuff.

Jessica Diggs:

Yes, I was already used to that, but I also know I can’t take more than four births a month. I don’t want to. So I have that limit for myself. I take six weeks off every year and I have been since my sister gave birth, it was the first time I put it to the test and I wasn’t missing that like.

Rebecca Dekker:

A six-week chunk off or-

Jessica Diggs:

It varies depending on the year and what’s going on. Most of the time it’s like two here and four weeks off. When I travel, I like to be gone for three weeks and immerse myself in a new space. So I usually take that whole month to travel, but usually it’s short trips. I have a wedding this year, so my best friend is getting the maid of honor, so I’m using some of that time for her. But 2021, I took the full six weeks and went to Spain. Another midwife covered my practice because people still pregnant are still needing prenatals and postpartum care and that midwife saw everybody. So I normalize the fact that I’m human to my clients. This is a relationship. That’s the beauty of the solo practice is that you’re getting me, but you’re getting a whole human me. And so I normalize that I need to take time off.

I have weekends where my phone, my messages are off, but I can get emergencies, which is their midwifery number. So call if there’s something, but I’m not checking email or I’m not responding to you otherwise. And I normalize that with my clients and everyone’s pretty receptive. They’re like, “Oh, yes, thank you. You should go take care of yourself. How was your vacation?” I just came back from Mexico and all of my clients are thrilled that their midwife rests so that I can actually show up for them better. So I think we as doulas want to be the end all, be all to most people, that’s just who we are. That draws us to this work, and we often have to remind ourselves and our clients that we are humans. We need rests, we need restoration, and I need to not talk to people and hold space for other people. I remind my clients and myself of that. I am only 31, so the bulk of my doula career was to my twenties and when I used to travel, that was my Instagram post. I’m just 25 today. I’m not a 25-year-old person responsible for the safety and wellbeing of this mother baby. Today I am just a 25-year old in Cuba. That’s all I’m being today.

Rebecca Dekker:

You get to kind of switch off your midwife brain and rest, truly. I love how you’re talking about setting up expectations and clearly communicating so that your clients understand what they’re getting and that way they’re not upset when you’re not the one that answers the phone call or comes to the birth. But you also have used, again, it’s that whole community building that you started in the beginning is what enables you to take that time off. And then I assume you are also doing the same for other midwives?

Jessica Diggs:

Yep. We trade time. I’m on call for birth center this month because they’re taking time off. So yes, you trade that, you build that community that exchange still is happening. I do believe that this work should be done in a partnership in many ways, and I’ve seen some beautiful ones and I’ve helped doulas build beautiful ones. I have never segued into it, mostly because I was still young and I was foolish to think this body will last forever. As I continue to move forward in this work, I will definitely revisit that, but it’s also really hard to also find the right people to partner with. So I think that, that is really important. I’ve also seen partnerships not work. There’s some pros and benefits to it all, but I think sustainability people should build out a good partnership that works for them.

Rebecca Dekker:

In your work mentoring and building this community at Centered, I imagine you’ve met some doulas and midwives who are on the edge of burnout or have already reached that wall where they just hit a wall and they can’t do it anymore. What is your recipe? What do you advise doulas to do who’ve reached that point or are getting close to it?

Jessica Diggs:

If there is funds, I’m always like, “Take the time off, remember why you decided to do this work and actually take time off.” To the point where I’ve had people sending your backup, you still have people on call for folks, send in the backup. You’re not the doula they hired anyway. You’re a shell of this person. So send in the backup and take the time off. From bare minimum, I’m always like, “Start with body, what does the body need? Is there supplements, is there acupuncture, adaptogen or just light therapy?” I do a saying when I’ve had some weird births at weird times. I have a wall of lights across from me and I don’t turn on any artificial lights when the sun goes down. So my just resetting the circadian rhythm, it is so easy and free and it’s so restorative that I’ll do that for two days straight.

So I’ll give them a recipe of tend to the body, tend to the mind, journal, vent, therapy, and then I would say tend to the creative side and the spirit of why you got into this work.

So checking in and was it a sense of not being compensated well for the work? Do we need to give ourselves a raise? Was it a sense of not really setting the expectations to a client? Some doulas really are burnt out because they feel that they failed their clients. Is it the system? Is it navigating hospitals? Do you need to only do home births for a period of time? So really checking in on what is contributing to the burnout and tend to our body and mind for now and then make changes for the future so that we aren’t repeating this cycle of burnout.

And then also really looking at you’re your own CEO of this business. What does a HR department have in place to help you prevent this? So do you get weekends off? Are you answering emails all around all the time? Do you have systems set up where it takes me 30 seconds to answer email for an inquiry because it’s a template. There’s an automated process where I’m not bogged down by that portion of my business, so we’ll look ahead and see where are there places that we can create some change? So that the thing that is causing the burnout is eliminated as much as we can control.

Rebecca Dekker:

I think that is helpful. It almost sounds like you’re suggesting that we put boundaries in place to protect ourselves?

Jessica Diggs:

Yes. Many birth workers would call me the boundary queen. I have a lot of them. I don’t text clients. A lot of little things that can make this work very exhausting if you really allow it, and pregnant people and postpartum parents are already in a heightened state with a trusted person like their doula. They can use and abuse that relationship unintentionally oftentimes. But if you have a full roster of clients, there’s 10 to 12 people in the upcoming months that are needing you. If you allow all of them to send you texts whenever they want, they will, and it’s overwhelming. So I usually set up a lot of boundaries on how to communicate with me, what I want to know about. I give clients this little reminder email that comes out every month of, I want to create space for you, as questions come up, put them in your notes section, bring them to our appointment. Get in that habit of like, “Ooh, let me write this down for Jessica.” Versus texting me. I’m not going to respond and I’m going to forget. Get in a habit for them so that they know for their pediatrician, I’m the only one that’s actually accessible to them. They don’t do this to any other provider.

Rebecca Dekker:

They’re not texting their pediatrician.

Jessica Diggs:

Their doctor, yeah. But they still have questions. I’m like, this habit is helpful for all aspects of their parenting experience. It’s not a malicious request. It’s actually one that actually will be helpful. So creating boundaries really helps them and sustains the doula.

Rebecca Dekker:

I found that whenever you start to feel resentful, it’s often because you are letting people cross boundaries or you haven’t set boundaries, and so you feel like people keep wanting pieces of you and you can’t give, give, give, give. It’s a terrible feeling when you feel like people are constantly wanting you and you can never be sick, or step away, or have mental health issues.

Jessica Diggs:

And then as a doula and midwife, the worst feeling is this person has crossed your bounds the entire pregnancy and now you have to go to their insert, infinite amount of hours long birth, and I don’t want to dread going to work. That’s why I work for myself. I don’t want to dread going to work. I don’t want to be in a space where I am feeling annoyed while I’m at someone’s birth. Now I’m guilty that I’m bringing this energy into this beautiful experience, all because I didn’t set boundaries a long time ago. So I’m like, it’s helpful for my business, it’s helpful for the part of this work I want to do. It’s helpful for the mission and it’s helpful for longevity.

Rebecca Dekker:

Deciding what your boundaries are and then protecting them and asking other doulas who are experienced and done it for a long time, what boundaries do they set up around text messages, phone calls, etc. You’re right. It seems like a lot of doulas just accept the fact that they will answer a text anytime from their clients, and it might be fun the first year that you’re a doula, but then I can imagine it gets really old.

Jessica Diggs:

Am My rule of thumb is like, it’s fun if you do it for the first two people, but can you do it if it’s 15? If you can’t imagine-

Rebecca Dekker:

Or 20 or 25.

Jessica Diggs:

… Doing it, yeah, then you should probably have a plan in place now before that because the business will grow. We’re envisioning a full, beautiful, vibrant practice build it for then. I can’t imagine being able to text that many people, my phone is always on, do not disturb. I would go insane every time it beeped. I was just like, “Oh, is this someone, is this…” It’s not a way in which I can live and thrive in my own life, and so it has to be in place.

Rebecca Dekker:

Yeah. Thank you so much for this advice. Jessica. I feel like this is just an amazing primer for doulas and other birth workers to rethink and envision, what do they want their work life to look like? What is bothering them right now? What actions can they take to build community, to build sustainability, be able to boundaries.

Jessica Diggs:

I love creating the practice protocols for that specific doula. I’m very particular, I’m a human and I own that. What I do for my practice and myself is not going to work for every doula. It’s not going to work for the type of doula they want to be. So I’m always really, really intentional and really good at jumping into, well, how do you want to meet your clients needs? What do you envision and love about this work? And I have one doula who does weekly walks with her clients at 36 weeks. I can’t imagine driving anywhere in Los Angeles for all the clients who are in that timeframe. And she was loving it, but she was getting busier. And now I’m like, “If you want to do that, why don’t you just meet at a set location and walk with all of your clients now they all can come to you. It’s still one time you’re doing this, one location versus you doing it with each individual and it builds community for them.” And she was like, “Oh, I could do…” I was like, “Yes, pick a park. They’re free. Take a beautiful walking space. You show up every time. They can bring friends, they can bring in potential clients, and then they create community because that’s hard to do when you’re pregnant.”

And now she is reduced that sense of burnout and dread for something she really loved about her practice but couldn’t maintain with client load. I will say setting boundaries does not have to look like how I set boundaries, because some people get very turned off about the no texting. When I tell doulas, they’re like, it doesn’t have to look the same. The different pieces of this work that ignite us, and that drain us, are going to look different for each doula. What we want is you to identify what works for you so that you can show up because we need you as the doula, not another me.

Rebecca Dekker:

There’s all kinds of technology today too that we have access to that we didn’t used to, that we can use to set boundaries with texting, and phone calls, and things. So I’m sure there’s many solutions to feeling that kind of overwhelm. Jessica, before you go, I want you to talk to our listeners a little bit about how you moderated the birth disparities of the Anatomy of Prejudice. Can you talk a little bit about that project?

Jessica Diggs:

Yes. It was in 2017, I think, and it was a panel that really ignited and kind of kicked off the conversation around the birth disparities, specifically in Los Angeles, among Black birthing people. LA prides itself on being progressive. In some ways it is, and in many ways it just avoids the actual issue. And that is what we were seeing in birth work specifically, is that no one wanted to talk about what was actually happening. And we know the stat Black people are dying in childbirth and Black infants are dying at alarming rates in the postpartum period.

Myself and my co-founder of Centered Julia Underwood, we and a midwife, Debbie Allen, put together our heads to host a panel and a giant event where we talked about the real experiences of not only Black families, but the Black midwives, and the Black OBs who care for these families and how the disparities trickle to all people involved. So whether you’re a birthing person or you’re a person caring for them and you’re a Black person, you’re also feeling the responsibility, the weight, and then also many of the systemic issues within the system you work. It was a powerful event. It was like 150 people. It really sparked a lot of change within the LA birth space, doulas, midwives, and I think ongoing conversation.

Rebecca Dekker:

Then do you feel like that’s a conversation that is still ongoing in the LA area?

Jessica Diggs:

Yes, there’s been a lot more programs and resources that’s come out of this conversation. There’s been some beautiful birth centers that have come out, and I think more understanding when the spaces, particularly for Black families is created, whereas, that was some of the pushback we were getting in 2015, 2016, 2017, is that when there are spaces specifically created for Black or people of color, White counterparts, were feeling excluded and it’s-

Rebecca Dekker:

Like complaining.

Jessica Diggs:

… Like no, we actually need this safe space because, or if a person requested a Black doula, it’s like, well, why? I can show up for them. So I think that questioning is starting instantly it’s not public. It may still be happening in private spaces, but I think White doulas who are wanting to be more inclusive are also creating space to make sure families know that there are resources available. If you want someone who looks like you, or understands your culture or speaks your language, they’re not feeling the defensive anymore, and are pushing people towards other resources.

Rebecca Dekker:

Jessica, you’re doing such amazing work helping foster the next generation of doulas and midwives. Can you tell our listeners how they can follow your work and if there’s any programs or anything you want to let them know about?

Jessica Diggs:

Yeah. If you are a doula, I would love to have you join Centered. It is our curated community for doulas. There are workshops and gatherings in an online space. It is not just for LA doulas, it’s for all doulas. So that is a beautiful space. If you need mentorship, if you need community, if you have question, this is the space we created just for you. We’ll be cheering you on and coaching you to your business success.

If you’re a pregnant person, I’m a midwife in Los Angeles, you can find me at jessicadiggs.com, and if you’re just curious and want to hear me rant about things, I also write a Substack called Midwifery is More, where I dive deeper into the role of a midwife that’s not just reduced to particularly home birth or an unmedicated birth, but I do a lot of conception support, a lot of well person care, and so I’m there talking about random things.

Rebecca Dekker:

Yeah, and make sure you follow Jessica on Instagram @jessicaadiggs and @joincentered.

Jessica Diggs:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

Thank you, Jessica, so much for sharing your wisdom and your enthusiasm with us today about the field of doula work and midwifery.

Jessica Diggs:

Thank you for having me.

Rebecca Dekker:

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