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Call the doula

An unplanned pregnancy in high school gave volunteer doula Tammy Stevens compassion for young women in similar circumstances

Call the doula

Tammy Stevens visits with one of her success stories, Colson Merrill, in Midland’s Dow Gardens. (Dale G. Young/Genesis photos)

A young woman in a flowy pink shirt sits next to her mom in the waiting room of an OB-GYN office in Midland. She’s quiet and seems a little nervous. Unmarried and 21 years old, she’s 32 weeks pregnant.

Across from them sits a middle-aged woman with glasses, graying hair, and a gentle smile. She wears a gray jacket with the words “Labor of Love MidMichigan, Tammy—Birth Doula.” Around her neck hangs a simple pendant: a heart encircling the abstract profiles of a mother and infant. Tammy Stevens can tell her client is nervous, so she starts talking about nail polish. She asks the young woman about the silver polish on her fingernails. The woman says it’s her favorite color to use. Her mom painted them for her.

Soon, a nurse calls the young woman’s name and leads the group to a scale, where she takes the woman’s weight. Stevens eyes the numbers on the scale and writes something down in her small red notebook.

Accompanying clients to their OB-GYN appointments is part of Stevens’ role as a birth doula. (Doula comes from the Greek word for a female servant.) Unlike midwives, birth doulas don’t offer medical assistance: They give their clients emotional and mental support before, during, and after childbirth. During labor and delivery, Stevens aims to be the calm presence in the room, telling emotional family members how best to help. She mediates between the doctor and her client. She massages, comforts, and encourages. Afterward, she coaches the mother through the transition from pregnancy to infant care. 

While most birth doulas cost pregnant mothers anywhere from $500 to $3,000, Stevens offers her services for free through her nonprofit volunteer doula organization, Labor of Love. Unlike her client today, most of the women Stevens serves have little to no support from family and friends. Many have unexpected pregnancies. 

But so did Stevens. Her experience as a pregnant teenager and her memories of shame and uncertainty, she says, give her a perspective that helps her show Christ’s love to the women she serves.

Dale G. Young/Genesis photos

Stevens with Colson and his mom, Amanda (Dale G. Young/Genesis photos)

STEVENS WAS 16 when she became pregnant in 1990. During the previous 11 months, her dad, grandmother, and baby cousin had died. She relied emotionally on her boyfriend, Josh, she says, so “I just got pushy … because I was scared of loss.”

Friends and family were critical when they learned she was pregnant. Her mom was in denial for months and didn’t actively help Stevens until the baby was born. Some people had encouraged her to abort. Others suggested adoption. She remembers an extended family member telling her, “If you don’t give up this baby, you’re going to ruin your and Josh’s life forever.” She knew the statistical link between teenage pregnancy and poverty, but she decided against adoption because she had help from Josh, who later became her husband. 

Stevens’ main sources of support became the local crisis pregnancy center and Josh’s Christian family. She was at the center when she took the first pregnancy test. Stevens knew she had messed up and was shocked by the kindness the staff showed her. “Nobody in that building … judged me,” she says, “and I thought that was weird.” She also remembers the day Josh’s mom brought her to a supermarket in Midland to buy toys for the baby. Throughout the rest of her pregnancy, Stevens often looked at the red rocking horse rattle and yellow chick toy from her future mother-in-law as reminders that someone cared. The thought gave her courage. 

Meanwhile, other people continued to remind Stevens of her mistakes. Baby Samantha arrived during Stevens’ junior year in high school. A year and a half later, she was bringing her toddler to the Midland Roll Arena to play. She remembers pulling into the parking lot, driving the blue station wagon she and Josh had purchased. As she took Samantha out of her car seat, a middle-aged woman who had parked nearby began berating her. She called Stevens “too young” and “too unfit” to have a child and scolded her for using “Mommy’s car.”

Stevens knew how hard she and Josh were working to finish school and provide for their little girl. But she says those hurtful words stuck with her. Today, memories of moments like this fuel her desire to show unconditional love to her own clients and to help them know their past mistakes do not define them.

Leah Hickman

Stevens accompanies her client for an exam, where they check her weight. (Leah Hickman)

THE FIRST PREGNANT WOMAN Stevens helped was also a high schooler. In 1992, when Stevens was halfway through her senior year, she noticed a pregnant girl sitting in the front row of study hall in her high-school cafeteria. After the bell rang, Tammy walked up to her, introduced herself, and mentioned she had a baby at home. The girl was in 11th grade, and her baby was due in a couple of months. Stevens learned the girl had no one to support her except for her mom, who was wheelchair-bound. 

So Stevens befriended her. In the following months, they painted nails, had game nights, and went to prom together. During the birth, Stevens joined her friend in the hospital. That was her first informal exposure to coaching another woman through birth, and she loved it.

The same semester, Stevens became a Christian. Her relationship with Christ helped her to see how she could have value despite her mistakes—and that understanding began to inform how she interacted with others. Three years later, she joined the doula program at Midland’s Family and Children’s Services of Mid-Michigan (FCS) and, over the next few years, served as a volunteer doula for 30 different births. She often used her role as doula to tell the women about Christ’s love and the new identity He offers. Since FCS was not a Christian organization, the directors occasionally reprimanded Stevens for sharing her faith. But as she grew as a Christian, she saw how crucial it was to be able to share with her clients the true source of hope, forgiveness, and grace. Rather than compromise what she believed, she chose to resign in 2012.

Later that year, the doula program at FCS shut down. Seeing the need for a Christ-centered doula program, Stevens and a small board of directors spent the next couple of years starting Labor of Love. The first woman Stevens served under the new doula organization exemplified her target clientele: homeless with no support from friends or family. Through their relationship, Stevens helped lead the woman to faith in Christ. Since then, Stevens has served 50 women through Labor of Love, joining them for OB-GYN appointments, births, and postpartum checkups, taking notes in her little red notebooks, and building friendships. 

Sometimes, women take advantage of her free services. One woman tried to use her as a personal taxi service to and from appointments. Even after the woman’s twins were born, the parents still asked Stevens to run errands for them, and she now realizes that she helped this woman too much. But, in her mind, the good that has come from her volunteer work outweighs the bad. Stevens remembers attending the baptism of one of her clients from FCS. When the pastor told the woman to invite someone to join him in baptizing her, she asked Stevens to come up. She remembers the woman looking at her and saying, “You were there for the birth of my child. Now you’re here for the rebirth of me.”

A Christian volunteer doula organization like Labor of Love is rare. Midland, of course, isn’t the only city with volunteer Christian doulas. Doulas in other cities occasionally volunteer through a hospital or a crisis pregnancy center, sometimes for special situations or to gain experience when they’re starting out in the field. Other doulas may charge for their services and offer reduced rates for women in need.

Leah Hickman

Stevens accompanies her client for an exam, where they check the baby’s heartbeat. (Leah Hickman)

THE MOTHER OF THE CLIENT Stevens is helping at the OB-GYN office today recognizes the importance of Stevens’ role. “This is your mission field,” she tells Stevens. “This is what God has called you to do.” Although this mother offers her daughter the support that some other clients don’t have, she still has a job and a busy schedule of her own and knows that the help she can give her daughter has a limit. “You’re the best thing for [my daughter],” the mother continues. “She has a village behind her, and that village is growing.”

Stevens and the client’s mother stand by the exam table to watch as the doctor checks the baby’s heartbeat. He slides the gray Doppler device through the gel on the young woman’s belly. Stevens smiles at the young woman as the sound of the heartbeat enters the room—the sound of life, muffled as if in a faraway world. Soon, she’ll help that same life graduate into the air.

Leah Hickman

Leah Hickman

Leah is a WORLD Magazine reporter.

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  • JennyBeth
    Posted: Wed, 10/30/2019 06:53 pm

    I am so very encouraged to hear this story, and pray the idea may catch on. Even being married and feeling prepared, I was stunned to realize just how much help I needed when I had my babies--how much my doula helped me in labor, how much it meant when people brought over dinner, when my mother cleaned my kitchen, when someone would ask what I still lacked after the baby shower, when other moms would encourage me that we all have those "I'm going to go crazy" moments. It gave me an idea how powerful a pro-life ministry churches could make if they encouraged members who have the inclination and time to get doula certification and volunteer, and others to become support teams for moms in need referred by the local pregnancy center, checking in on her regularly, bringing her food and other practical help, and discipling her in the process. 

    One of the saddest articles about abortion I ever read was one that said most women who had an abortion in the past, when asked, said, "People told me they would be there for me if I had an abortion. I wouldn't have had it if just one person said they'd be there for me if I had the baby." It's so encouraging to see people stepping up with Jesus' love, and I pray we may do all the more.