Emma Gold didn’t know what to do — plan her dream destination wedding in South America and risk losing guests, or keep it local and swallow her resentment? Her wedding planner was helping her narrow down venues and calculate logistics and costs, but it was ultimately a doula who addressed Gold’s conflicting emotions and helped her decide. “She told me that I can’t please everybody and that I need to do what’s right for me,” Gold recalls. “But if key people aren’t there, is it still right?” Yes, because Gold’s physical response to a city wedding was cramps and nausea, said her wedding doula, Elizabeth Su.
For decades, doulas have accompanied women during childbirth. Now, a new breed of doulas is turning its attention to the $300 billion wedding industry. A wedding doula is a new concept, so it’s hard to define the role, which falls somewhere between that of best friend, parents, therapist and wedding planner. Think of them as providing “marriage mindfulness.”
There’s a desire for something meaningful that they don’t know how to express.
Elizabeth Su, wedding doula
Wedding doulas are popping up across the U.S., and the demand for their services is growing … as is the branding. Two years ago, there were no professionals offering wedding doula services. Today, there are at least 10. Kate Hoffman in Denver, who calls herself the “intuitive wedding doula,” started in 2017 and has assisted five women through their weddings. In Wichita, Kansas, Jonny Diane Thompson, who calls herself the “RN doula,” got started back in January and has already helped 12 couples marry. Gold – whose wedding is set for June 2019 — is one of more than 100 women Su has assisted since she started her business in mid-2017.
The rise of wedding doulas coincides with an increase in the number of Americans who identify as spiritual rather than religious — 27 percent in 2017, compared with 19 percent in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center study. Many modern marriages happen without a religious service, but brides don’t always know how to fill that gap.
“There’s a desire for something meaningful that they don’t know how to express,” Su says.
Su, 30, was spurred to take up the profession by the number of friends requesting her help. They’d seen her wedding — a dreamy outdoor affair in Mendocino, California, that included personalized vows and a tea ceremony — and wanted the same spirit for their own nuptials. But it had taken Su time to create the event. During the planning process, she’d struggled with the minutiae of logistics, and was frustrated that she wasn’t focusing on the feelings.
She took a step back to assess. “I wanted the event to be intentional,” she says — she was marrying her college sweetheart, a former member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and they’d waited a long time for the big day. “Weddings are one of the few rituals in our society, and it’s quickly becoming just a party,” Su says.
Su culled her guest list ruthlessly, cutting acquaintances and friends that she felt brought bad juju into her life. She focused on what she wanted: community, laughter, nature. In June last year, Su left her health tech job to be a doula full time. She clocks over 40 hours a week with fees ranging from $300 for a one-hour consult to $150 for online mindfulness challenges. Her goal is to empower women to recognize their own needs, without fear of being labeled bridezillas. “That’s a phrase that’s negatively used in the way we shame women,” she says. “People are craving this non-cookie-cutter experience, and that’s OK.”
Hoffman’s approach is to help brides come to terms with the changes that come with marriage. “Getting married is a loss of independence, and there’s a sense of grief in losing a part of yourself,” she says, adding that the people closest to brides-to-be are often too personally invested to provide perspective. “It’s a huge life shift, and the traditional wedding process does not acknowledge these emotions.”
Thompson provides the doula trifecta; births, deaths and weddings. The dozen couples she’s helped wed are only the start. “I have more on the books,” she says. “I go from helping someone plan their wedding to marrying her and being beside her when she has a baby.” Wedding doula styles vary, but they all place the bride’s well-being as a priority. “Think of me as a selfless and intuitive maid of honor and an emotional bodyguard mixed into one,” says Tamar Krauss-Yunger, the “LA wedding doula.” She charges $100 a meeting and $1,500–$2,000 per wedding day.
Overall, there’s growing recognition of the benefits of doulas. Studies show that pregnant women with doulas have easier, healthier births, and in recent years there’s been a growth in death doulas who prepare people for the end of life. Not a necessity, sure, but an addition that can aid people in feeling more at ease. With weddings among the most stressful life events, there’s space to make a difference.
But does the bloated wedding industry really need another thing for brides to budget for? “It used to be easy to know what to do — the white dress, speech, etc.,” says Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “But now you’re supposed to personalize the wedding, and if you fail it looks like your relationship isn’t important to you.” Wade believes wedding doulas can be a boon for brides-to-be, but warns that it’s also another example of feminized labor. “It’s a perfect metaphor,” she says. “It’s a difficult job and you need support from other women.”
In Su’s case, a number of brides have sought her skills post-wedding, for help with careers or motherhood. “What I do is applicable to any life transition,” she says. Accordingly, she broadened her scope to “doula” people through the multiple emotional stages of their life. “These are all difficult experiences and there’s a real opportunity to help someone,” Su says. Can’t argue with that.