Advocacy and Spirituality are at the Core of Désirée Sprauve’s Doula Work

Désirée Sprauve has always been of the nurturing kind, always the one to cheer people on.

“I have always been the mother,” Sprauve said. “Mothering and just loving on people without the desire of wanting something back.”

However, it’s only once Sprauve turned 27 that she realized her nurturing spirit could turn into a profession. After earning her degree from Howard University, Sprauve worked at an aerospace company doing global supply chain management. But she didn’t feel fulfilled by the work and realized it wasn’t her calling, and she says that her subconscious worked to encourage Sprauve to take on a new challenge as a doula.

Doulas are non-medical professionals who support individuals through childbirth, miscarriage, abortion, stillbirth, or death. For almost a year, the idea of becoming a doula came to Sprauve through her dreams at night. She believes the idea was placed in her spirit because she wasn’t looking for a career change and didn’t know much about being a doula. But the idea continued to appear in her dreams, in her daydreams, and even on social media.

While the vast majority (98.4%) of births in the United States occur in hospitals, 0.99% occur at home and 0.52 % occur at birth centers, facilities staffed by midwives, obstetricians, doulas, or birthing coaches. In recent years, doulas have become increasingly popular because of the emotional and physical support they offer individuals at all stages of their pregnancy, according to 2019 research.

Sprauve said it took her so long to seriously consider a shift to becoming a doula because she already had a great job, she had never been a mother, and she wasn’t looking to pursue a new career. But she couldn’t deny how she felt every time the idea popped into her head. Sprauve explains that, after waking up from a dream during which she was a doula, she remembers feeling happy, realizing she had, in some sense, witnessed a very spiritual experience. In 2018, after a year of not listening to the thoughts, Sprauve decided it was time to learn more about becoming a doula and purchase in-person training, readings, and essays.

A spiritual person, Sprauve explained that all dreams have some sort of tie to the real world, a mentality that eventually led her to listen to her subconscious and try out the doula career.

Sprauve was raised in Canarsie, Brooklyn, which she describes as a “mini Caribbean island,” because of its abundance of Caribbean-owned businesses, restaurants, music, culture, and dense amount of residents of Caribbean descent. Sprauve says the neighborhood suits her family perfectly, as her mom’s side of the family is from Saint Thomas and her father is Jamaican. Sprauve is her mother’s only child and she has two brothers from her father. Growing up, she didn’t always see her nurturing side as a benefit as she didn’t feel that people would reciprocate her feelings and support her.

“It definitely felt like a burden,” Sprauve said. “Like, ‘ugh, why am I so good to people? People aren’t like this to me.’ And so growing up, I was like, ‘this is terrible.’ And then after a while, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s actually my power.’ My power is to serve people. And so that mind shift really had to occur.”

Spirituality is an essential component of Sprauve’s everyday life and her work, she said. She believes, and tries to teach her clients, that holistic wellness, an approach to health that considers a person’s body, mind, and spirit, is the foundation needed to have a successful conception, pregnancy, birth, and postpartum period. Though Sprauve has learned a lot about spirituality from her experiences as an adult, she was also raised in a household and by a family where spirituality was always a presence.

“I grew up in that space,” Sprauve said. “There were always rumblings [about spirituality] or herbs [like ginger, echinacea, hibiscus, ginkgo biloba] were around. And my grandma was praying or fasting or reading these books that none of my other friends knew anything about… I never really paid attention to it or knew it was different or really anything. It wasn’t until college that I was like, ‘that stuff was weird.’ And then after college, I started coming back to who I originally was.”

As a doula, Sprauve offers various services including supporting pregnancy and postpartum, meditation, yoga, and holistic wellness. According to a 2014 report by Choices in Childbirth, a nonprofit organization, the average cost of doula services in New York City was $1,200. However, the report found that prices could range from $150 to $2,800, depending on the doula’s experience.

During the pandemic, Sprauve has provided sessions remotely and has been able to accompany those giving birth to hospitals, a process she said has been difficult during the pandemic due to testing requirements. However. Sprauve explains that the shift to online work has been mostly easy as says she’s able to create the same energy with clients as she would in person.

“How I show up within the space is a part of my spirituality that I’m inviting my clients into,” Sprauve said. “It’s very important to set the tone, set the mood, shift the energy if necessary.”

In her free time, Sprauve loves to do yoga, make homemade skincare products, spend time with her friends, and watch stand-up comedy, particularly her favorite comedian Dave Chappelle. Sprauve likes to learn when comedians are going to give their punchlines so she can know they engage the audience, which she says is a combination of actions that leads to amazing storytelling. Sprauve says that she got her personality from her mom, Daisy Lee, with whom she now makes YouTube videos about “motherhood, friendship, love, and laughter.”

Daisy Lee worked as a nurse, which Sprauve believes is a major reason she inherited so many nurturing characteristics.

“I would definitely say just her personality is why I’m a successful doula because I naturally know how to care for people,” Sprauve said.

She put this into practice, when, within only a year of starting her career, Sprauve experienced something that many doulas never do: a live birth with little support.

Aronda Sparks-Bowman was Sprauve’s company’s first client. When Sparks-Bowman first met Sprauve at a birthday brunch for her sorority sister, she knew she would be a great professional match.

“My connection with Desiree was just very natural… So I definitely just felt like we just had a higher connection and that she would be somebody who I would want in my corner during the birthing process,” Sparks-Bowman said.

The day before the birth, Sparks-Bowman was having what she didn’t know at the time were contractions. Thinking she just had an upset stomach from some tacos she ate, she went on with her day. She went to church, went grocery shopping, visited a friend, and went to bed, though the contractions increased in intensity. Because it was around 1 a.m, Sparks-Bowman worried about being an inconvenience, but texted Sprauve, thinking that if Spauve replied, it would be a sign that the birth was near. Sprauve made her way to the Bronx immediately and soon after and the contractions grew stronger and more painful.

Sprauve rushed over to her home in the Bronx. A few hours later, as Sparks-Bowman prepared to give birth, she called her midwife, who was planned to help deliver the baby. But the midwife hit standstill traffic on her way from Brooklyn, so Sprauve was left to help with the delivery, which doulas often don’t do as they are not medically trained to help with birth like midwives.

“I knew she was about to give birth, and the midwife was still in traffic,” Sprauve said. “So I got the water in the tub, I went into the tub with her, and within one push [her son] was born into my arms. And that’s an experience most doulas don’t have.”

The experience was a bonding moment for the two women.

“Right after [the baby was born] I was like, ‘Wow, like you just delivered a baby.’ and she was like, ‘You just gave birth to one!’ and we just laughed,” Sparks-Bowman said.

Since the birth, Sparks-Bowman and Sprauve have become friends, celebrating her son’s birthday and texting to stay in touch during the pandemic.

It was Sprauve’s first birth experience since starting her company, and it didn’t go as planned, but it reaffirmed her passion for the career. After experiencing this birth, one of the things that stood out to Sprauve the most was how sacred the birthing space is because so few people have the opportunity to be in the physical and emotional space of someone giving birth.

Doulas all have different tolerances and beliefs, which determine what kinds of birthing practices they support, and which services they provide. While some doulas might only support home births without any forms of medication like epidurals to be used during birth, some doulas are more accepting of this. Sprauve supports all types of birthing practices, excluding unassisted births, meaning births where the client is not accompanied by any medical provider, such as a doctor or a midwife, as it could be a liability.

“If they come in and go straight for a C-section, that’s their decision and I’ll support them either way. They are absolutely still getting all the education on the pros and cons of a Cesarean or an epidural… They are 100% still going to get that,” Sprauve said.

Sprauve maintains this mentality because she identifies advocacy as a major component of doulaism. According to DONA International, a major doula certifying organization, doulas play a key role in advocating for their clients’ wishes to medical professionals in regards to their birthing plan as well as their prenatal and postpartum care. Sprauve notes that she has had to advocate for clients who have been mistreated or ignored by hospital staff.

While Sprauve argues that doctors can work to improve their practices to make them more holistic, the issue of obstetric violence — when a person in labor or birth experiences mistreatment — is a systemic issue that is ingrained in the western medical system. Sprauve notes that, as a doula, it’s crucial to recognize obstetric violence, a combination of institutional violence and violence against women during the pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum stages. Obstetric violence can come in the form of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse and can include coercion or assault. This violence has a particularly large history of abuse among people of color, and in the United States, particularly the Black community as, before the mid-1900s, almost all births occurred outside of hospitals, with Granny Midwives playing a major role in supporting individuals in childbirth. Sprauve explains that Granny Midwives were women who arrived in America by slave ships and grew up in the country and had to help birth and raise white people’s babies.

“Granny Midwives were women who literally birthed America,” Sprauve said.

During the 20th century, births slowly moved to hospitals so that those who could afford it could have medicine during birth, a process described as the “Twilight sleep,” the predecessor to today’s epidurals. This shift was also made due to racial bias about Granny Midwives.

“Over time, it was decided that uncleanliness was occurring because of the Black Granny Midwives,” Sprauve said. “It was also said that babies were dying because of the Black Granny Midwives. And none of these things were actual.”

Sprauve says that, because of these biases, people stopped seeking out Black Granny Midwives and, without clients, they quickly disappeared. The history of these midwives is intrinsically linked to the racial injustice that continues to exist in medicine today, she says, leading to discrimination and higher mortality rates of Black women while giving birth.

“We have perception, and people should acknowledge that we perceive people differently, and what is the consequence of that?” Sprauve asked. “That is something that needs to occur to counter this horrendous system that is really not made for Black and brown bodies.”

Sprauve hopes that, through her work and on her Instagram, she can help educate people about systemic issues to combat injustices.

“I am teaching people so that they can learn how to speak up for themselves and I have a lot of doctor friends, so I am planting seeds in their minds of how to support our people better,” Sprauve said. “A lot of people can speak, but do they have a voice?”

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Catherine Morrison

Catherine Morrison

I'm Catherine (she/her), a journalism student with a focus on covering social justice, health, and politics.