The process of giving birth often can be one of the most difficult and stressful events of a woman's life. Wendy Scharp, a certified calm birth instructor and doula at Ashland Community Hospital, would like women and society at large to remember that child-bearing is an "empowering rite of passage" that can, according to Scharp, define motherhood for many.

The most common type of doula is a labor-support doula, whose job it is to guide women through the birth experience and act as a grandmother-for-hire. Essentially, a labor-support doula provides for the needs, physical or emotional, of the mother in order to create a smoother labor process.

Labor-support doulas will often meet with their clients in advance of the birth in order to get a deeper understanding of the type of person each mother-to-be is, so as to provide more specific support for the mother. In fact, doulas not only enhance the experience of the birthing woman, but her partner and family, as well.

"I've been hired specifically for the dad," Scharp said. "My job was to make sure that the father ate, drank and rested when he needed and that, when he was participating in the breathing patterns with the mother, he didn't hyperventilate."

Because having a doula participate in birthing has shown to reduce Cesarean rates, epidural requests, labor times and rates of post-partum depression, many hospitals in the United States have instituted a doula program. Of all the hospitals in the country that have such a program, ACH is one of the few that pays for their services.

A postpartum doula is another type of doula, one that is trained to offer help and guidance for parents after the child has been born. This type of doula could do anything from laundry and cooking to advice on breastfeeding and calming the infant. Postpartum doulas aid in emotional and physical recovery processes.

Confusing doulas with midwives is a common misunderstanding, according to Scharp.

"A doula does nothing medical," she said. "A midwife provides the same sort of care that an obstetrician or family practice doctor does. A doula focuses more on the informational and physical support. We connect with moms in a different way than their care providers; for example, we learn how a mother normally deals with stress and can assume that it will be similar to the way that she deals with the stress of labor. If a mother holds stress in her shoulders, I'm going to pay attention to that when she goes into labor and perhaps massage her shoulders to help her relax."

In addition to being a lactation specialist, teaching classes on birthing at the hospital and participating in more than 21 births, Scharp helped establish the Southern Oregon Birth Network, a support group for doulas.

She believes that creating a solid network of doulas and, thereby inducing a cultural shift toward a positive birth experience, is important work, not only for the birthing mothers but for the community as a whole.

"Having a child is one of the most amazing things that two people can do together," Scharp said. "When you're completely supported and have a satisfying birth experience, you have an easier time connecting and bonding with the child and, as a result, become better parents."