Jennifer Vanhoff has a beautiful, curly-haired 2-year-old son. She has a supportive husband. The 25-year-old mother also has two sets of grandparents just minutes away if she needs their help.
It’s an ideal situation for a young mother. But the Valley woman didn’t fully appreciate it.
Until she became a doula.
In Greek, a “doula” is a woman who serves another woman. Here in Spokane County, doulas are mothers who agree to take a more vulnerable mother or mother-to-be under their wing, serving as her companion, confidant and role model.
Vanhoff, the youngest volunteer doula in the county, has spent more than a year helping a 17-year-old single mom who is raising two little girls of her own.
“It’s been much more rewarding for me than I ever thought it would be,” Vanhoff said. “We take turns exploring each other’s worlds. It’s neat to see the things my teen mom has taught me.”
Catholic Charities has been running the volunteer doula program in Spokane County for four years. The nonprofit organization provides training and support for the volunteers, who spend at least two hours per week with their young mother or mother-to-be.
The goal is to develop a nurturing, stable relationship, something the at risk mother may not have with others in her life.
Building that relationship can be fun - and challenging.
“We’ve made Easter cookies. We made bird feeders. We raid the thrift stores,” said Vanhoff, who has also taken her young mother to doctor’s appointments and prenatal classes.
Sometimes the women will meet at a park and talk while their children play. Sometimes, they’ll go to a movie, just the two of them.
“I think the most important thing I’ve done is provide constant support, despite her decisions,” Vanhoff said.
It isn’t always easy.
It can be hard for a doula to accept their young mother’s setbacks or “bad choices,” Vanhoff said. Doulas sometimes feel responsible. They wonder if they’ve failed.
Like many others, Vanhoff had secretly hoped to “change the world” for her teen mom - in just two hours each week.
When her teen mom got pregnant again, she felt the strong sting of discouragement. But instead of giving up, Vanhoff looked for smaller victories.
She helped the young girl stay healthy and took her to the doctor for prenatal visits. Halfway through, the teen’s boyfriend took over. It was a small but significant step.
Vanhoff also has taken some important steps.
“I learned I had a hidden prejudice about kids who wear strange clothes and makeup,” said Vanhoff. “I’ve learned my teen mom is a really strong person. I’ve learned not to put my own expectations on her.”
Vanhoff also believes young at-risk moms can be good parents - if they receive enough support.
“Knowing someone cares for you is often the first step to caring for yourself,” Vanhoff said. “When you help a parent feel successful and whole, you help their child.”
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