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What a postpartum doula does in a workday

Welcome to The Work Day, a series that charts a single day in women’s working lives

(Courtesy of Terrah Mulligan/Washington Post illustration)
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Welcome to The Work Day, a series that charts a single day in various women’s working lives — from gallery owners to stay-at-home parents to chief executives. In this installment, we hear from Terrah Mulligan, a certified postpartum doula who recorded a workday in February.

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Name: Terrah Mulligan

Age: 42

Location: Fairfield, Conn.

Job title: Certified postpartum doula and owner of Bloom Postpartum Care

Previous jobs: During college, I worked as a restaurant server and live-in nanny. After college, I worked as a retail manager for several different companies before becoming a stay-at-home mom after my first child was born in 2006. I got certified as a postpartum doula three years ago.

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What led me to my current role: I loved being a stay-at-home mom and found the experience fulfilling and rewarding. A lot of my friends felt like they lost their identity when they left the workforce to stay home — but I felt like I found mine. When my oldest turned 13, I finally felt ready to go back to work, but had no desire to return to retail. I wanted to work with new moms and/or babies, so when I learned there was a job where I could do both, I knew I had found my calling.

I struggled with a lot of postpartum anxiety after the birth of each of my children, and I felt so overwhelmed a lot of the time. I never knew how or where to ask for help. Helping parents navigate the postpartum period and have a better experience than I did really feels like coming full circle, and that has been so meaningful.

How I spend the majority of my day: Most of my day is spent working directly in the homes of my clients. I typically work with families for two to three months. My services include infant care, breastfeeding support and education, meal prep, laundry, light house cleaning, sibling care, baby wearing and baby massage tutorials, and developmental checks. I also help families better organize their living spaces to make caring for a newborn easier.

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And finally, I spend a lot of time listening. Many new moms (and partners!) just need to talk to a nonjudgmental, nonmedical professional about what they’re struggling with, what they’re scared about, what they thought would be easy and isn’t, etc. An important part of my job is just holding the space for them to do that.

My workday:

6 a.m.: Wake up and make coffee. My daughter’s bus comes at 6:40, so I’m up at 6 to get her breakfast started and pack all the lunches. Coffee is a very important part of this!

7:30 a.m.: Workout. After my boys get on their bus, I usually try to sneak in a workout if I can. If I save it for later in the day, I know it won’t happen, and it’s a good time to clear my head before the workday starts. I shower and put on comfortable clothes — leggings and a sweater most days. Postpartum work can get very messy and I’m on my feet all day, so comfort is key.

9 a.m.: I arrive at my clients’ house. The first 20 minutes or so are spent talking about the previous night or day. How did breastfeeding or bottle feeding go, how often did the baby wake during the night, how many poops and pees have there been, etc. I also always ask, “How are you feeling today?”

It’s important to gauge where the mom is emotionally, because that will dictate what I spend my time doing for that shift. If the mom seems to be really struggling and exhausted, then my priority is to give her time to rest, take a long shower and eat a warm meal by herself. I’ll leave extra time for her to talk, cry or vent if she needs to. I’ll take over baby duties and maybe try to talk to the partner and come up with a plan.

10 a.m.: I always start a load of laundry right away, make the bed and clean the kitchen. It’s the little things that begin to feel overwhelming once you bring a newborn home, so I try to make sure all those tasks get completed while I’m there.

Tummy time, when you lay a baby on its stomach to help strengthen muscles, is one of my favorite things to teach. While most parents are aware of the importance of tummy time for newborns, many still don’t understand exactly what it is or how to make it a part of their baby’s daily routine. I help parents set up tummy time stations throughout the house and walk them through the basics. We talk about how to create a visually stimulating environment and how to encourage a baby to love tummy time and get the most out of it so that their development stays on track.

10:30 a.m.: Baby massage and bath. I love showing new parents how to massage their babies and how to make bath time less stressful. I use a lot of Ayurvedic techniques when teaching massage, and my favorite oil to use is jojoba oil. We go over how to give a safe and enjoyable bath. If there is an older sibling in the house, I love to include them in the baby’s bath time. It’s important to recognize that older siblings go through their own postpartum experience, and they often feel a real sense of loss once the baby comes home. Any time I can encourage siblings to participate in taking care of the baby, it makes them feel like they are still important and still have a special place in the family.

12 p.m.: Lunch/toddler playtime/partner check-in. I try to make sure the parents get a warm, healthy lunch and a break from the baby and older siblings for a bit. I’ll often wear the baby in a baby wrap and get some laundry folded. I might get a crockpot meal started for dinner and prep some snacks for the next day. I’ll take time to read to or play with any older siblings if they’re home — maybe take them outside or do a craft.

I also use this time to check in with the mom’s partner to see how they’re doing. Partners experience a lot of change and anxiety during this time, too, and it’s important that they feel heard and taken care of as well. My lunch is usually a quick granola bar or some trail mix.

2-3 p.m.: End of my shift. I make sure that the mom and family are set up for the evening and night. Dinner is planned, hopefully prepped, beds are made, laundry is done and any questions have been answered. We’ve made a referral plan for any lingering concerns. When I leave a family, I want them to feel less anxious and like they’ve really been cared for and nurtured. I feel like I mother the whole family.

4-8 p.m.: Once I get home, my second shift begins. I need to get my teenagers where they need to go for sports and activities. I need to do our laundry and cleaning and figure out what we’re going to eat for dinner. After a hard day of doula work, my ability to caretake often feels completely depleted. Sometimes I feel like I’m a “mother” all day long, and then I have nothing left to mother my own kids. That can be hard. I’ve had to adjust my emotional boundaries with clients over the years so that I don’t burn out. We try to do a sit-down dinner as a family two or three times a week just to check in and see how everyone is doing.

8:30 p.m.: Bedtime. I’m usually in bed by 8:30 or 9. I’ll answer texts from clients and prep for the family I’ll be helping the next day. I like to watch a show or read for a bit — I love a good mystery or memoir, and I’m forever trying to get through my stack of New Yorkers! I’ll also spend time looking at new postpartum products or reading research articles on infant development to share with my clients. I rarely can keep my eyes open past 9.