The ‘doularina.’ A ballet dancer becomes a doula in Seattle
It’s around nine on a foggy summer morning, and Colleen Carpenter needs a nap.
Her three-week-old baby, Gloria, has been fussy — eating, spitting up, then wanting more food.
“I just don’t know if that’s normal,” Carpenter says, handing over the infant to her visitor, Sarah Orza.
Orza cradles Gloria, patting her gently on the back, and advises Carpenter to go lie down.
“After you wake up, I can show you some ways to handle this,” she says.
Orza is a post-partum doula, trained to do everything from teaching new moms how to deal with spit up to recognizing signs of post-partum depression or anxiety.
On this particular morning, Orza has come to Carpenter's house to give the single mom a little break. While Carpenter sleeps, Orza will tend to Gloria, fold laundry and maybe wash a few dishes.
Orza is completely at ease with the tiny infant, adjusting her swaddling blanket, then holding her gently as she wriggles and coos. She looks as if she’s been doing this work her whole life, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Orza, 38, and her husband Seth have been professional ballet dancers for the past 20 years; they've been with Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet since 2007.
Orza has to juggle doula gigs with daily rehearsals and regular evening performances. But it’s a second career that Orza is excited to pursue. Her own daughter, Lola, was born six years ago.
Orza’s mother and aunt came from the East Coast to help out for a couple of weeks, but after they left the family was on their own. Orza says she was completely unprepared for the emotional roller-coaster, the sleepless nights, her sense of isolation.
“Babies don’t come with a manual,” she says with a laugh.
She and her husband hired a post-partum doula to help; Orza says she helped with everything from breast feeding to teaching the young couple how to help Lola calm down and sleep.
The experience convinced Sarah to begin her own post-partum doula training at Bastyr University, mostly during the ballet company’s summer hiatus. Orza spent several years amassing the classwork and practical experience she needed for professional certification.
Although many doulas work with women in labor and delivery situations, Orza specifically chose to work exclusively with post-partum families. In part, that’s where she felt a calling, but Orza says given her day job as a ballerina, it also made more sense.
“What happens if a mom goes into labor and I’m about to start 'Swan Lake'?” Orza asks with a laugh.
A doula isn’t a health-care professional. According to Sauleiha Bint-Hasan, the lead post-partum doula at Swedish Hospital’s newly-launched program, they focus mainly on supporting the family after the baby arrives. Bint-Hasan calls this "the fourth trimester."
“We support with feeding, as well as helping soothe the baby,” Bint-Hasan says. “It’s something that mothers, aunts, sisters and cousins would come in to do. But I think the American culture has kind of drifted far away from that.”
Bint-Hasan comes from a family of doulas. She calls herself a "full-circle doula," somebody who can attend births to help with labor and delivery, then pivot to assist the family with the post-partum transition.
“Initially, I got involved because in my community, the African-American community, the infant mortality rate is at an all-time high,” she says.
Bint-Hasan believes firmly that new families need unbiased support, preferably from somebody who looks like them. To that end, she’s recruited 20 post-partum doulas from a range of different backgrounds and cultures. Orza joined the Swedish team this month when the post-partum doula program launched.
Doula care isn’t cheap: Round-the-clock assistance can run as high as $9,000 a week. But in 2017, Swedish began offering free birth doula services to low-income patients and plans to include post-partum doula services in that free program.
According to Jocelyn Alt, who runs Swedish's doula services, 25 percent of regular fees go into a fund to subsidize the costs and administrative support services.
That subsidized program attracted Orza to affiliate with Swedish, although she’s maintained a private practice, as well. While Orza is still dancing full-time with PNB, she can only maintain a handful of clients, but some, including Carpenter, have sought Orza's services specifically because they love the ballet company.
Orza will take the stage again when Pacific Northwest Ballet's artistic season begins in September. But someday, when she’s ready to leave PNB, she’ll have a new career to step into.
“Ballet is our first love, carried in our hearts,” Orza says. “I just always hoped I’d find something that I could be as passionate about.”