As a woman, I know there is nothing more life-changing than giving birth to a child. It’s a time when you most need the support of people around you. You need encouragement. I had the pleasure of interviewing Audrey Kalman for this week’s Math at Work Monday. She’s been a birth doula for twelve years so she’s been the support for countless women (and watched a lot of lives enter the world!). What does this have to do with math? Let’s find out!
Can you explain what you do for a living?
I support women who are giving birth and their families as a birth doula. Birth doulas are non-medical support people, hired by families, who provide informational, emotional, and physical support before and during birth. I meet with families before their babies are born to find out what they’re hoping for; I help ease anxieties and point them to resources. Once a woman goes into labor—or thinks she’s in labor—she contacts me. I then join her at her home or at the hospital and stay with her and her partner until a couple hours after the baby comes. That could be a few hours… or a few days. I do everything from reassuring her (and the dad!) that everything is fine to massaging her back to talking her through a particularly painful or challenging moment. I often describe my role as a “professional sister.” I have up-to-date training and come without the “baggage” of a family member, but I bring the same kind of caring and compassion you might expect from a close relative.
When do you use basic math in your job?
Because I’m self-employed, math is part of the equation (pardon the pun) that helps me figure out how to set my rates and how many clients I need to work with to meet my income goals. For example, when recently deciding whether to raise rates, I researched living wages in my area. I then calculated how many births I would need to attend to make a living wage, looked at fees charged by doulas just starting out, and used a multiplier developed by another doula to account for my years of experience. Then there’s all the lovely arithmetic that goes into tax calculations, though I use a tax calculation program for that.
Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?
I don’t know where I’d be without Excel spreadsheets. Since I also serve as the administrator for a small group of doulas (we back each other up), I’m responsible for maintaining a spreadsheet to track all of our clients and tallying up who owes what to whom at the end of each quarter. We serve about fifty couples each year so this can get complicated. Using a spreadsheet is the only way to keep track of everything—not only who owes what but also other information like due dates.
How do you think math helps you do your job better?
I absolutely think it helps me do my job better. The hands-on work of being a doula is very intuitive, but the rest is like running any other business. I believe it’s important to be professional which includes creating contracts and invoices for which basic math is certainly required.
How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?
I’ve always felt comfortable with math. (My mother was a college professor who taught physics and mathematics.) The math I use now feels somewhat pedestrian—it’s really just glorified arithmetic. What’s interesting to me is using problem-solving concepts to help me figure out big-picture questions (as with the rate-setting example I gave above).
What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?
I have always really enjoyed math. I had an unusual education in that I attended an early college now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock so I took only algebra in high school. I went on to do some interesting math in college, including systems dynamics, but I didn’t pursue higher level math since I was a creative writing major. I did take statistics for my graduate degree in journalism. I think all citizens should be required to take basic statistics!
Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?
I definitely picked up my spreadsheet skills post-school since nobody was using personal computers when I went to college, but the big-picture thinking and problem-solving skills which I consider to be part of math were definitely something I honed in school and have used ever since.
Anything else you want to mention?
I want to mention another kind of “math” that is related to birth. I think of it as “intuitive math.” It’s what allows me to “feel” whether a woman’s contractions are getting closer together and longer (a sign that labor is progressing). It also allows me to help women through contractions by counting their breaths. Perhaps this doesn’t have much to do with what we typically think of as math, but part of math is all about patterns and cycles—and those are definitely relevant to the process of giving birth.
Intuitive math. Pretty cool! I’ve never even thought about that. I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did. If you have any questions for Audrey, please let me know.