By definition a doula is a woman trained to help another woman through childbirth, and possibly beyond, although that’s less typical. Portland-based Jessica Thomas is a postpartum doula. Her company is called Ballast & Buoy, and when we called her up to find out exactly what she does, she told us she is “there to keep the ship afloat” to sustain baby, mom and family in the often rocky weeks after a birth. From her we learned about lactation cookies (yes, really a thing) and how she helps soothe frazzled new mothers, including finding the right gear.

RESUMÉ: Thomas was a librarian for 15 years, working in public libraries in Boston and, for five years, at the Portland Public Library, where she was head of the Technical Services department. She loved the work and remains a librarian at heart. “I am very organized and literary,” Thomas said. “I am all about helping people find information.” But then she had children (her first son was stillborn and her second starts kindergarten in the fall) and she wanted more flexible work. A friend who had just been certified as a birth doula suggested she explore becoming a postpartum doula. To qualify, she needed to be certified in first aid and CPR for infants and children and to take a training course. “I happened to luck into one that was at Maine Med,” she said. She started her new career in late 2014.

SUSTAINING SHOULDER? For a rate of about $40 an hour (for multiple weeks and longer term engagements, the price typically drops), Thomas keeps the household going, including Target runs for supplies and some cooking. But she also offers emotional support. “Validation and normalization for the mom and to some extent the non-birth parent when the (stuff diapers are made for) hits the fan. Those early weeks and months can just be disorienting.” What does validation and normalization look like? “I try to help people understand that no matter how isolated or unusual they might feel their experience is, it is really within the normal confines of childbirth and afterwards.” It could be listening or guidance or making a referral to a therapist or a lactation specialist. Or on the nitty-gritty level: “It might involve cleaning out your fridge.”

COOKIES AND MILK: One of her services involves nourishment to help new mothers, including making batches of lactation cookies. Some foods – things like oatmeal and beer – have been shown to improve milk production. Thomas whips up cookies that contain flax meal, chia seeds, brewer’s yeast and other ingredients that help with lactation. Oh, and some chocolate chips. She admits that there’s no scientific proof her cookies help everyone, but “it’s a nice reason for a mom to have a treat.”

TAKING CHARGE: New parenthood is an “existential moment for people,” Thomas said. “There is that moment where you kind of go, ‘I can’t go back,’ ” and that can be cause for panic, especially for those without nearby family or friends. Other causes of panic? Figuring out which baby gear is best. She’ll bring in baby carriers, for instance, so parents can try out a bunch at the same time. “You really won’t know what carrier works for you until you have that baby and try it.” She’ll also help parents figure out what they don’t need. “There is so much cute baby stuff out there. In the age of Etsy, my God, you can have the cutest nursery. But you’ll only need one-tenth of it.”

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT: Parents who talk to her about baby gear tend to be anxious about it. Like plastics, for instance. “It’s one more way for parents to put pressure on themselves,” she said. But the trend she sees (undeniably among parents with enough disposable income to hire a postpartum doula) is toward greater awareness of sustainability issues. For example: “A lot of people are looking at cloth diapers as a way to cut down on their landfill waste.” But “if there is an area where I err on the side of convenience over the planet,” she said, it’d be the plastic funnels and tubing for breast pumps. She recommends multiple purchases, so new parents feel less pressure to constantly wash and sterilize. In general, she said, she sees Maine mothers and fathers “getting the absolute most use out of the stuff that they do end up with for their babies.”

WITCHING HOUR: You’ve heard about Twilight Barking for dogs (if you’ve read “101 Dalmatians”) but what about the witching hour for babies? “There is that stretch of time when you know the baby is going to be inconsolable for a few hours in the afternoon, and it is hard to imagine what you are going to eat for dinner.” Thomas provides a special service for this, called Witching Hour Housecalls. For about $60, she’ll come over and either take the baby or stay with the baby so the parent can have a rest.

BABY LOVE: So, has Thomas always had a thing for babies? Was she the babysitter in demand growing up? “I don’t know if I was in demand,” she said, “but there were always kids around at family gatherings, and I would be the one who played with the kids. I gravitate towards babies in a crowd.” Not to sound like a total curmudgeon, but … why? “I just like their energy.”


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