When I heard Penny Simkin speak at the Breastfeeding & Feminism conference, she talked about the rising fees that doulas are charging and the conflict between doulas who do it for a living and doulas who do it as sideline income or even without any real financial need/goals. I've almost never met a doula who can support themselves on doula work alone, but Penny Simkin was talking about how for an increasing number of doulas this is their goal. They love doula work and they want to charge fees that enable them to support themselves/their families on their doula career alone.
For a little while I had the idea that I could be one of those doulas...I gave that up pretty fast. I realized how long it would take to build a consistent referral base to bring in new clients and how even when you think you've got a good cycle going, things happen... many doulas I knew in NYC were really impacted by the economic downturn there, when fewer parents felt financially able/willing to spend on doulas (you all know I think that's one of the most important things to spend on, but those parents didn't ask me!) I also saw how most doulas needed other sources of income to fallback on: many offer a whole set of services like childbirth ed, placenta encapsulation, birth photography, etc. etc. I'm not a personality who is happy patching things together that way long-term, and it didn't seem like it made sense for my personal financial health either. I decided to go back to grad school and get me a Real Grown-Up Job (tm).
Fast-forward to my Real Grown-Up Job (tm) doing something I love - working as an LC - and I am now feeling the tug between my doula work and said Real Job. I attended my second out-of-hospital birth ever today - hooray! It went so well and was such a wonderful experience with a lovely family. It really reminded me of why I LOVE being a doula - why it is my favorite thing in the world to do. But it was hard to work it around the Real Job in ways that show it really wouldn't be sustainable in the long-term to take doula clients. When I'm in the midst of being on-call for clients - phone always on and with me, can't go out of town, can't make concrete plans, etc. - it doesn't seem like such a sacrifice. But then I go to a birth, all those little annoyances fall away, and it breaks my heart to think about stopping.
I have thought about doing a partner doula system, where clients hire me & another doula together with the understanding that one of us is always on-call and at birthing time she could get either one, depending on our schedules. But it has been frustratingly difficult for me to find back-up doulas, and I don't really think that bodes well for finding a full-time partner. There might be some more flexibility in going back to volunteer doula work, but I recognize that will need to be fairly rare; I found myself getting burned out on 30+ hour volunteer births where I wasn't willing to leave but wasn't feeling a return on my energy and experience.
I have one more doula client coming up (yep, still on call!) Both today's and the next one hired me before I went permanent at Real Job. After that, I know I'll be happy to get some time off from the on-call routine...and then what?