Larsen Harris Peterson follows the same ritual each time she enters the labor and delivery room: “I take a deep breath and say, ‘Match the rhythm of this room.’ Every labor has its own rhythm and you need to match that to truly support the laboring mom.”
Peterson is a doula (from the Greek word meaning woman of service), conventionally known as a labor support specialist or birth doula. As such, she has helped more than 350 Valley women and their partners enjoy the birth of their children.
The modern doulas’ careers encompass a number of different roles: friend, mentor, labor coach, advocate, a reassuring voice in the midst of arduous and painful or unexpected labor complications.
“I have the best job on earth. I don’t think anyone loves their job as much as I love mine,” Peterson declares.
“It is not always obvious that Larsen is a hired doula versus a good friend because Larsen seems to integrate with the delivering family so well,” says Dr. Nicole Menegakis, an obstetrician at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center.
I have personally experienced this committed love for her job twice, as Larsen stayed through the night to help my husband and me through the labors and births of our two children, Dr. Menegakis’ observations point to Peterson’s most valued trait as a doula: her ability to meld like family within what is for many parents the most intimate experiences of their lives.
Peterson describes this as “tapping into each mother’s needs and assessing the situation.”
Her magic extends to those professionals working around her, transforming the elements of hard steel and sterile linens into a cozy atmosphere.
“Larsen is very good at creating a more natural environment for the laboring patient in our hospital setting,” says St. Luke’s labor and delivery nurse, Amy Downey. “She really puts women at ease and totally supports and respects their decisions both in unmedicated and medicated births.
“Larsen also understands the clinical picture and really helps us, as nurses, provide for a safe delivery as well as for a positive birth experience. She is wonderful to work with!”
Peterson, of course, says her role as a doula is nonclinical. Technically, that is because her job is to take care of the mother from the waist up. A mid-wife, who is certified through the state, is able to deliver the child in a private home, but usually does not have hospital privileges.
But, even with the differentiation, she still strives to work as part of the labor and delivery team. While the doctor and nurses are busy addressing the physical needs of the laboring mother, Peterson focuses on the mother (and partner’s) emotional needs. “Larsen’s agenda seems to be to support the mother without interfering with the mother’s birth plans or the staff’s work. I’ve worked with other doulas in other hospitals in the past and not all doulas are like that,” Dr. Menegakis expounds.
In the labor and delivery room, “I’m part of the team. I’m not taking away anyone’s place,” Peterson explains. Averse to conflict in her personal life, Peterson feels strongly that conflict must be avoided in the labor room. Her fundamental belief that conflict and fear can create hindrances in childbirth dictates the respectful demeanor she presents in working with parents and hospital staff. Both professionally and personally, Peterson displays a great gift for compassion and empathy, as well as skills of acceptance and support in most situations.
“I love working with Larsen,” obstetrician Dr. Joe Rodriguez says. “I wish there were enough Larsens around to be at every birth.”
Because she has a full-time job as the coordinator of childbirth education and certified childbirth educator at St. Luke’s, Peterson’s doula work requires very careful scheduling. She’s got to be ready for the 3 a.m. call saying she’s needed NOW.
She says, “Three a.m. is the most common time for calls. I am on call 24/7 two weeks either side of their due date. She adds, My other job is pretty flexible. I have to preplan EVERYTHING . . . just in case.
Peterson’s clients sign a contract requiring $100 up front and a balance of $700 due a month after the birth. But even in the contract she says she is more than willing to let the birth parents decide how much they can afford to pay beyond the initial $100. >>>
Peterson’s path to her “doula calling” first struck her in a childbirth education class for her own first pregnancy. In the class, “I heard a woman say her father had told her it would be the worst day of her life,” Peterson recalls. Her own mother saw childbirth as a powerful gift women were blessed with and an event to celebrate, not a reason to spend a week in the hospital, so Peterson was shocked, and inspired.
“I had a mother and two sisters who only spoke of birth as a positive and amazing experience,” she says of her epiphany. “I realized these people [in the class] were so scared—I wanted to do something about it.”
Peterson started by immersing herself in childbirth education to provide expectant mothers with a positive and empowering view of childbirth.
It proved more daunting than any childbirth because she was terrified of public speaking. “It took 10 years for me to overcome my fear of public speaking and do my student teaching,” Peterson laughs.
It was while in the midst of her initial training that Peterson learned about a certified nurse midwife program. She enrolled in nursing school with a plan to become a certified midwife, but decided to take a different route when she became pregnant with her third child. The program involved too much schooling and time away from her young—and growing—family, a sacrifice Peterson had no interest in making.
This led Peterson to her dream job when—fortuitously—Penny Simken, one of her instructors and mentors at the Seattle Midwifery School, encouraged Peterson to take the doula training offered at the center. She immediately recognized the role of the doula as the perfect vehicle for her to be an instrument in changing the overall birthing experience.
While doulas, by law, are not required to have any special credentials to practice, Peterson pursued credentials with Doulas of North America, or DONA, the largest and best-known doula organization in the world.
Initial DONA certification requires a few weekends of training and many more hours of independent reading, research, and apprentice work. Peterson also had to write up her detailed observations at three births to pass the DONA evaluation. Certified 18 years ago, she still renews her credentials with continuing education.
When a couple’s ideal birth plans are upended by unexpected complications, Peterson is there providing the emotional and educational support to help them better deal with their new birth situations.
“If they know they’ve exhausted every resource possible to have the birth that they planned and that change is due to medical circumstances, these couples can still have a positive, but different, birth experience,” she reasons.
Kate and Jeff Heinecke decided to ask Peterson to be their doula after meeting her in their childbirth education class. “We thought it would be good to have another person at our birth who is just there for us,” Kate explained before delivery. “Having Larsen allows us to focus on the event—we’re going to have a baby—and not get as worried about the process. Jeff was so impressed with Larsen that I knew he would be able to put 100 percent of his efforts toward supporting me with her support and guidance.”
When the Heineckes finally brought their son Pete into this world, they found their expectations for Larsen more than fulfilled. “Larsen and Jeff made such a great team together,” remembers Kate. “She was phenomenal. Both Jeff and I were so grateful to have her with us.”
And as my husband reminded me as I wrote this article, “It’s easy for the dad to feel overwhelmed and helpless to his wife in labor. Larsen helped me support (my wife) and be fully engaged in both our daughters’ births. I’m not sure I would have felt as emotionally equipped to deal with everything as well if Larsen hadn’t been there to support both of us.”
She’s a much-valued anchor when things get hectic and the medical team handles emergency situations, filling the gaps in information for the husband while the staff takes care of the mother and baby.
For Peterson, the end goal to her work is to provide parents with an empowering birth experience that naturally transfers to their initial parenting experience.
“If parents have a positive birth experience,” she explains her role in the foundation-laying. “It starts them off with more confidence as parents and as a couple.”