Franci Bliss’s journey into birthwork began her freshman year at Casco Bay High School.

After reaching out to the Portland Doula Collaborative, its co-founder, Mary Latendresse-Bolton, who was eight months pregnant, offered Bliss the opportunity to attend the birth of her third son, Owen.

On the last day of school that year, knowing Latendresse-Bolton would be going into labor at any moment, then 14-year-old Bliss decided to get to bed early rather than celebrate the start of summer with friends.

At 1 a.m. she got the call that Latendresse-Bolton had gone into labor. Not being of driving age yet, Bliss’ mother drove her to Latendresse-Bolton’s home, where the birth was occurring. During labor, Bliss — who had never witnessed a birth before — observed and assisted Latendresse-Bolton’s doula, Jennifer, in any way she could, bringing her water or washcloths.

“I remember when the baby came, I was just standing there watching Jen and Mary, and they were looking at the baby. Everything just felt totally euphoric and everybody was happy, and it was so beautiful to have gone on this journey,” Bliss said. “After that birth, I went home and was jittery and excited. Even though I hadn’t slept in, like, 30 hours, I felt wide awake and excited about life.”

The experience of helping bring a new life into the world had a profound impact on Bliss, to the point that she was compelled enough to add doula-in-training to her already lengthy list of extracurricular activities.

A teenage doula with an ‘old soul’

After two years working as an assistant doula with the Portland Doula Collaborative, Bliss, now a 17-year-old senior in high school, became a certified doula in August 2016.

A doula serves in a variety of capacities during a woman’s pregnancy and labor, acting as a physical and emotional birthing coach — offering a variety of services from birth planning in the prenatal stages of pregnancy to postpartum overnight services.

Bliss always had an interest with birthwork, which was fueled by her fascination with new life coming into the world. So, when choosing an internship — a requirement for graduation at Casco Bay High School — she knew that midwifery or doula work might be a good fit for her.

“I thought it would be a good way to expand my idea of what a happy and healthy birth is,” she said. “Everything just fell into place in a beautiful way.”

Latendresse-Bolton formed the Portland Doula Collaborative in April of 2014 with Jennifer Merriman. In the time that the collaborative has been operating, Latendresse-Bolton has fielded calls from many people who were interested in becoming doulas, though she said it’s common for people not to stick with the work, given its mental, emotional and physical demands.

But from their first interaction, she sensed that wouldn’t be the case for Bliss.

“I thought she was a senior in high school when she came into my office as a freshman,” Latendresse-Bolton said. “She just was super involved, and anytime we gave her a small task she would do it. We don’t see that sort of eagerness to learn with most people … regardless of age.”

Bliss did her homework on becoming a doula, reading books and completing any task that the collaborative’s doulas sent her way. After witnessing Latendresse-Bolton’s birth, Bliss became her assistant doula.

At Bliss’ first birth as an assistant doula, the mother experienced complications and needed to undergo a cesarean section. Bliss was not allowed in the operating room during the birth, but witnessing the complications that birth can pose didn’t shake her desire to pursue becoming a doula.

“That didn’t scare her. And at that point, I was like, ‘OK, this girl is going to do stuff,” Latendresse-Bolton said. “She just has a certain flare about her. She’s an old soul.”

Balancing schoolwork and birthwork

In her time with Portland Doula Collaborative, Bliss has worked with about 15 mothers through various stages of their pregnancies. As an assistant, she learned by watching and would do tasks a lead doula would do while assisting Latendresse-Bolton, whether that be holding a mother’s leg during labor or making sure the room is quiet and that the mother has everything she needs to be comfortable.

But she’s a typical high school student, too, and a busy one at that.

Bliss is a member of the National Honor Society and her school’s ukulele club; she runs the school’s volunteer club, yoga club and debate club; she is co-creator and editor of her school newspaper; she works as a stage manager for school musicals; and finds time to work on a vegetable farm.

With Bliss’ host of commitments, the 24-hour on-call service that doulas offer posed challenges, but she credits the collaborative’s doulas, her teachers and her family for realizing the passion she had for being a doula and awarding her the support and time she needed to pursue the work.

“I’m really lucky that no one has had any doubt in me, because birthwork is very rewarding but it’s also very challenging,” Bliss said.

Latendresse-Bolton said scheduling is a challenge any doula faces, regardless of age, because a mother could have questions or require the support of their doula at any time. The collaborative pairs a second doula with their clients in case the mother’s primary doula is not available.

Gaining DONA-International certification as a doula presents its own time requirements above the day-to-day duties of being a doula. Doulas are not required to be certified, Latendresse-Bolton said, who herself is not yet certified though she has been a practicing doula for eight years and has gone through the certification training. Latendresse-Bolton has submitted her certification materials to DONA-International and is waiting for the organization to process her certification.

Though certification is not required, useful information for doulas can be gained during the certification process, according to Latendresse-Bolton.

To become certified, a doula must attend a weekend training session that teaches doulas the anatomy and physiology of pregnancy and labor, how to measure comfort levels during labor, techniques for helping a mother through labor, and familiarizing the doula with medical terms they will hear during pregnancy and labor.

In addition to the training session, the doula must attend three births on their own, read 12 books and complete a written component to become certified, Latendresse-Bolton said.

While she didn’t have to gain her certification to continue working as a doula with the collaborative, Bliss said going through the process of becoming certified just seemed right to her.

“I’m very passionate about this whole process,” she said. “[Being a doula] is totally a crazy, transformative, wild experience, no matter your age. It’s not something that I ever thought I would experience in this phase of my life, but it has really been eye-opening.”

Despite doulas being around for centuries, having one help through the birth process is becoming an increasing trend, Latendresse-Bolton said. In Maine, Latendresse-Bolton said, there are many doulas offering services, which are increasingly attracting professional families who are expecting a baby.

At the Portland Doula Collaborative, mothers and their partners first meet with a doula for an introductory interview to make sure the doula is a good fit for the family. Between the initial meeting and birth, doulas conduct two prenatal visits, where they help the mother form a birth plan, explaining the options that the mother has and answering any questions they might have. During birth, the doula offers any emotional and physical support the mother might need, whether that be massage and breathing exercises to help her through labor or ensuring the room is quiet.

After the baby is born, the doula will help initiate breastfeeding if the mother chooses to do so, then the doula leaves to give the mother and family time with their new infant.

“We make sure everyone is healthy and happy and then we leave,” Latendresse-Bolton said.

Postpartum, the doula will have a follow-up meeting with the mother to check in and address any questions or concerns the mother has. The collaborative also offers overnight services after birth where they will take care of a mother’s household and watch the baby if the mother needs rest.

“I feel like doulas are something that are so needed right now, as birth becomes such an industrialized experience,” Bliss said. “They can make birth transformative and amazing.”

A part of her story

Since becoming a certified doula, none of Bliss’ clients has given birth, though two of the mothers she is working with are due within the next month.

Over the course of her time with the Portland Doula Collaborative, Bliss said she has grown as a person, becoming more selfless and compassionate. Latendresse-Bolton has noticed Bliss’ growth, too, not only as a person, but also as a doula. Regardless of whether Bliss pursues being a doula, Latendresse-Bolton said her knowledge of pregnancy and birth has “exploded.”

“We’re excited to see what she does in the future,” Latendresse-Bolton said. “This work will be a part of her story in some capacity.”

Bliss will graduate from Casco Bay High School in June and will attend Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania this fall. She initially thought about taking a gap year after graduating high school to pursue doula work, but because of scholarships she received, a gap year might not have been possible.

Entering into her college years, Bliss plans to continue with birthwork in some way. She is looking at pre-medical studies and may pursue becoming an obstetrician-gynecologist or a midwife. Regardless where the future takes her, helping others will be at the center of her plans.

“I think it’s so important to help people,” Bliss said. “I know I don’t want to find myself in a job where I’m not working toward the betterment of the world or the betterment of others.”