“People who are attracted to birth tend to feel it in their bones, but there’s no way to fully prepare yourself, truly, for any birth,” said Lanell Coultas, matter-of-factly. “Here I am, hundreds and hundreds of births later, and you never know exactly what you’re stepping into. It’s like a Texas thunderstorm. You just hold on tight!”
During a wide-ranging conversation with Coultas over breakfast, her analogy was spot on as she described the extreme highs and lows that accompany the birth process and expressed an irrepressible enthusiasm for her life’s work. It’s something she was always driven toward; she recalled being asked by her mother to hold the babies of family friends to give new moms a break. The first birth she ever witnessed was at the age of 8—and it was her cat. With humans, it was not until her good friend was pregnant with her second baby in the mid-1990s and she invited Coultas to attend her birth.
“Afterwards, it was like being shot out of a cannon,” she recalled. “As I was driving home after that birth, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, you people are just going about your day! There’s a new human being on the planet!’”
Seeing everything up close for the first time stuck with her on a visceral level. “I didn’t fully expect, and there was no way I could have anticipated, the emotional response that I would feel in my body.”
Doula, derived from the Greek word for “female servant,” means supporting a mother emotionally, educationally and physically before, during and after the pregnancy. Doulas also undergo a certification process. One of her friends who had given birth and used a doula suggested that Coultas look into it. She trained and certified with DONA International in 1998 and served as a state representative with the organization from 2000 to 2004. Coultas emphasized that it was less about a piece of paper than about her heartfelt desire. “What I’m doing now is really so deep and intuitive in my soul and in my heart, it’s really not about the training,” she said. She has worked with the Coalition for Improving Maternity Services, a group of 90,000 birth professionals and international organizations committed to bringing mother-friendly childbirth practices to as many families as possible.
Indeed, Coultas takes a very holistic and adaptive approach to birthing, always meeting the needs of her clients. Each family will choose where they want to have their birth, who they want in the room, and whether or not they want any pain medications—and she fully respects their choices. She comes from a place of believing that birth is a safe, normal and miraculous process, which brings a sense of calm to every delivery. That calm caretaking permeates her essence when she’s working with her clients.
When she began working as a doula in Austin in 1996, Coultas was one of only a half dozen in the entire city. The word “doula” wasn’t even in the Austin phone book before then. In 2004, she began focusing on Birthing From Within–a dynamic approach to childbirth preparation. Then, in 2006, after completing an intensive weeklong retreat and advanced home study training program, she became a certified Birthing From Within Mentor. In 2010, Coultas felt compelled to give back to the organization that has given her so much, so she became an Advisor in the Birthing From Within Certification Program, helping other mentors all over the world cultivate their skills and passion for working with parents. Birthing From Within is a movement that exists to create “holistic prenatal care that is informative, transformative and builds a foundation for birthing in awareness in our birth culture” and “prevent or minimize emotionally difficult births through compassionate, honest preparation.” Coultas puts that philosophy into practice each and every day.
She recently worked with a couple who are both family practice physicians and told them that what they need to know about having a baby is not in their head or inside a book. “After that birth, the mother said, ‘Thanks so much again for your warm, caring, human support. I’m so glad you were there. Medicine has taken a lot of that out.’ Honestly, that’s what a doula is. A big old heart in the room.”
There’s a great quote from Robin Lim, a nationally known midwife and founder of the Healthy Mother Earth Foundation, that Coultas takes to heart and draws inspiration from: “At the fulcrum of first breath, I defend the smallest citizens of our planet, advocating for them a gentle, natural, culturally-appropriate birth and bonding with their mother and family. This, I believe, is the foundation for our intact ability to love.”
Doulas are professional hand-holders, according to some people, but the value of Coultas’ work in one of the most miraculous moments of life is much deeper. She’s been called to speak at childbirth conferences and events statewide, including Seton Medical Center and the Department of State Health Services. “Because I have witnessed it before, I am deeply moved and I am not deeply moved at the same time,” she said. “I bring my calm presence and my very capable hands and I use my words a lot, my voice, and also my intuition.”
Everyone who knows Coultas and supports her professionally—her business partner and backup doula Marcela, her wife Lucy Anderson, and their 4-year-old son, Hugh—are on a roller-coaster ride with her. It may be cliché, but in this instance, bringing one new life into the world truly does take a village. More than 500 births later, Coultas still gets nervous in anticipation of the call and knowing she’ll have to drive through traffic. “Every time I’m driving to a birth, I’m definitely nervous!” Even so, once she puts her hand on the door and steps into the space, she feels at peace.
With 17 years of experience in the world of birthing, Coultas is in a good position to have observed the demographic, social and societal shifts impacting the makeup of American families. In the last five years, she’s seen a boom in preparing lesbian couples in her childbirth classes. As cultural acceptance of LGBT-led families has increased, Coultas began to see a big increase about 10 years ago in the number of lesbian couples requesting her services. Regardless of whether the couple having children is gay or straight, Coultas believes that women need to reexamine the impact of technology and modern life on their bodies.
“We need to align toward consciousness in our bodies. Anything a woman wants to know is immediately available on our phones,” she said. What women need is not more of that. It’s not really in line with what birth is all about—it’s a body thing.” So she is always trying to help families reconnect with what their bodies are saying. Even though pregnant women are going to read an average of six to eight books on pregnancy, her mission is to add to all that cerebral work with real, intuitive everyday knowledge.
“Lanell was an incredible part of my mothering journey from pregnancy to childbirth to infancy,” said Lana Hewitt. “She was invaluable in giving my husband and I both a conscious and spiritual perspective on the birth process as well as offering very practical and specific advice.”
Even with the depth of her own knowledge base, having worked with hundreds of expectant mothers, Coultas, who always knew she wanted to be a parent, was unprepared for the journey into having a family. As ready as you would expect Coultas to be for her own birth, she labored for more than 36 hours. “Labor is a path of learning, and boy did I have a steep learning curve! Like all laboring mothers, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, doing the next best thing for 36 hours, until my sweet baby landed into my arms.” The two knew that they wanted a known donor with a connection to them in the beginning of their process, and they found a donor who aligned with their desires and gave them the most priceless gift. Hugh was born on October 7, 2007.
“To have your heart broken open on a daily basis, the sleep deprivation, it’s just ridiculous! Why would anybody sign up for that?” she asked. “You can never do anything on your own terms ever again. Yet, it’s honestly the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever done. And it keeps getting better and better.” The most surprising thing about motherhood is the polarity of emotions: A mother can be the saddest or most angry she’s ever been, and then a minute later feel completely enveloped by joy that connects her emotionally with every other parent who has gone through the same thing.
It’s not unusual for a first-time mother to have a 24-hour ordeal from early labor to birth; birthing textbooks would tell you that the average birth is 12 to 15 hours. During her unexpectedly long birth process, Coultas felt an overwhelming sense of being loved, comforted and supported by all the mothers she had ever helped as a doula. As they flashed through her mind, she had the strength to keep going because she knew that others had gotten through similarly long births.
The Hewitts, who own Life Ki-do, a martial arts and life skills program for children, were prepared for what turned out to be a difficult birthing process thanks to Coultas. “Lanell prepared us so much. She was able to help me navigate all the twists and turns of the birth process, which ended in an unplanned C-section,” said Hewitt. “Because I was on the operating table, I was not able to hold our daughter right after she was born. However, Lanell gave Jonathan some tools to be with our daughter in the nursery—making those first precious first moments of life full of love and connection. It wasn’t what I planned, but it was perfect just as it was.”
Adventures In Happiness
“I was instantly drawn to her smile—and then her passion for life and what she does professionally,” said Anderson, who works as a copywriter for a local B2B marketing agency. The couple met at Saxon Pub when Coultas was having a night out with her girlfriends, en route to some two-stepping at another bar. The bar was full, but there were free chairs where Anderson was sitting. After Anderson tried to guess what she does for a living (she guessed police officer and nurse). Coultas told her with a sly grin and said, “I’m a doula, it’s a Greek word for a female servant.”
That playful banter eventually led to a date a few weeks later, although Anderson had to find her with Google. Fortunately, searching for doulas in Austin at that time was relatively easy because Coultas was one of very few certified doulas in the city. “I’ve always been drawn to talented, passionate women, and I’m so grateful that we connected,” Anderson said.
Coultas, a native of Friendswood near Houston, has been a proud Austin resident since 1993. She launched her life here with another cool, self-aware Friendswood native: Alisa Weldon. “We grew up together, but we were from different social groups. Alisa was the kid who had the most awesome shoes and the best Swatch watches,” said Coultas. “We came together in high school and then moved to Austin and started our life here together.”
“Lanell was my first relationship and I recall vividly our first date, visiting the maternity hall and looking at babies at Clearlake Hospital,” said Weldon. “Then we went to get an ice cream at Marble Slab. She was born to do what she does today.”
Anderson and Coultas knew that they wanted to have children, which for them meant honoring their relationship in a public way in front of family and friends; the couple tied the knot in 2005. Coultas, who was raised Mormon and struggled for acceptance early on in her coming out process, invited her father to speak about the value of partnership. It was a powerful moment that has stuck with her to this day. To be seen and accepted in a heartfelt way by her parents was extremely gratifying.
“Here he was, talking about how to be a team and how to row the boat together. He had these little wooden oars and handed them to us and said, ‘you need to learn how to paddle the canoe together,’ Coultas said. “You can’t be going your own separate ways or you’ll go in circles. There will be times when one of you has to take a break and rest and one of you has to keep steering down the river.” It was a tearjerker day. After the ceremony, her mother said, “I have never loved you as much as I love you right now.”
The couple has taken to parenthood wholeheartedly and their chubby-cheeked and blue-eyed 4-year-old son, Hugh, continues to inspire and challenge them. “Hugh has such a sweet heart,” said Anderson. “He loves to make others laugh and is just now discovering his sense of humor and wit.”
Impromptu family dance parties are typical. “We love dancing! Hugh loves Madonna and Michael Jackson,” said Coultas. “We like going on hikes together and really challenging ourselves physically. I love showing him the minute details of the natural world and how it works.”
Coultas said that her partner makes even the smallest, most tedious tasks enjoyable by the sheer force of her personality. For her part, Anderson said that she feels grateful to be observing Hugh as he discovers his way in the world. “It’s an opportunity, a second one, to experience the things I forget to do as an adult: the goofiness, innocence and curiosity. I love how with a child, these things happen all the time, in a million different ways and directions.”
“Our ability to laugh together and our sense of fun and playfulness, along with a deep love and respect for one another is what bonds us together,” she continued.
Hugh single-handedly created their family’s mission statement after Coultas solicited his opinion. He strung these words together: adventures, happiness and joy. “And that’s really true! So, that’s our mission statement. We know we’re imprinting Hugh with what love and partnership looks like,” Coultas said.
There is no typical day at work for Coultas. After an initial visit and several in-person consultations with the couple, she receives the call that the client is in labor. Coultas watches and comforts the mother to surrender to what’s happening. Oftentimes, she’s holding the mother’s hand and never letting go. Sometimes she’s whispering a mantra into her ear, over and over, to keep her calm. Or she may be playing DJ and getting warm cloths. She’s also making sure that the client’s husband or partner is partaking in whatever way he or she wants to. If the partner seems to be receding into the wallpaper (and had expressed interest in being actively involved), Coultas will bring him or her back into it and give a sense of calm and comfort. “I can be as hands off or hands on as families want,” she added. “I have no agenda or ego in that.”
When asked what she envisions for the future, she was clear and detailed. Imagine a wellness center where mothers can be nurtured for an extended period of time; enjoy the best local, organic foods; attend workshops and classes; and be served by the best practitioners at all levels—all under a gorgeous canopy of live oaks on a big piece of land in East Austin. Coultas and her business partners are currently putting the finishing touches on their business plan and looking at properties.
“I’ve got some big plans; I’m a big dreamer,” she said, detailing her professional growth plans. “Lucy and I would love to add on to our family. I want [Hugh] to have somebody to share his humanity with when Lucy and I are long gone.”
“We work at it,” said Anderson. “Our love of family and children and living life to the fullest way possible is solid. We’ve got our oars and we’re going down the river together.”
There would be a nonprofit arm at the center, as well, according to Coultas. Her goal is to educate women about how to eat to create the healthiest babies. She plans to have a mobile unit that would drive around the city and park in local shopping centers to help women examine what’s in their shopping carts and what’s the best food for when they are pregnant.
Clinical studies have shown that a doula’s presence at birth tends to result in births that have few complications, reduces any negative feelings about childbirth, and reduces the mother’s need for labor-inducing drugs and pain medications. Coultas summarizes her birthing philosophy for her clients by suggesting that they listen to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” She elaborated, “The more weary she gets, the more tender you get. What she wants is some tenderness; she wants to be seen! This is the long view that I’m holding. I’m imprinting on them what they’re doing with their life, not just their birth.”