Parents often share birth stories with one another in parenting groups, on playgrounds, or on coffee dates. Without guidance or modeling on how to deeply listen to another person’s story of transformation, many people will fall back on ingrained patterns of attempting to placate the parent, telling them to “let it go,” sharing their own story in response, or even trying to “one-up” the storyteller.
It’s my belief that people want to be compassionate and supportive of one another…they just don’t know how. It’s understandable that being presented with another person’s uncomfortable emotions can bring its own feelings of discomfort. I’m here to offer you some mentoring on how to be an attentive story listener, and bring the presence and empathy that birth story tellers are longing for.
- You are not responsible for making the storyteller feel better. Unless you have special training, it’s unlikely that you even can impact the way they see their birth. Luckily for you, they’re not looking for someone to change the way they feel. They’re looking for someone to hold space for them…to hear them and see them just as they are in this state, with acceptance for where they are today.Try replacing statements like, “At least you had a healthy baby,” or “Maybe it will be better next time,” with…That sounds really intense.
That must have been so hard for you.
Thank you for trusting me with your story.
- They are probably not looking for advice. Unless a storyteller specifically asks you for advice, that’s probably not what they’re seeking from this dialogue. While you may know of a great doula they could hire for their next birth, or have ideas about what could have made things different for them, offering this advice is more likely to make the person feel as if they’ve screwed up than to open up a new perspective. This can result in the storyteller emotionally pulling away, and even losing trust.
- Remember their humanity. Each and every one of us is deeply impacted by the experiences we have lived. We are constantly being guided by the forces of our conditioning – usually on an unconscious level. While it may seem to you like this person should have simply said “no,” stood up for themselves, been more patient, or considered other options, they have a set of beliefs and social contracts that have prevented them from taking these actions. Have compassion for how they (and all people) are limited by the way they’ve been trained to see the world, and see themselves. It would take much deeper work than casual advice to change those patterns.
- Think twice before sharing your own story. While there may be a time and a place in this relationship for you to share your own birth story, the best timing for this exchange is probably not on the heels of hearing another person’s story. It’s not possible for us to cue up our own story of initiation while listening deeply to someone else’s. Be in the moment. Meet this person with your entire presence and your open heart. Let them have their turn to really be heard. It is one of the greatest gifts you can give to another person.
- Be kind to yourself. I know that reading this list might make you cringe. It can bring painful awareness to less-than-mindful interactions you may have had in the past. You didn’t know any different, and you were doing your best. Your humanity is just as valid as the storyteller’s.Self-kindness can also take the shape of letting a storyteller know that you feel uncomfortable with their sharing, that it’s triggering painful memories and emotions within you, or that you don’t feel like you have the skills needed to support this person through their story. It’s ok to not consent to the emotional energy it takes to deeply listen to a birth story.
Old habits can be very hard to break, so take heart and bring a heaping tablespoon of self-compassion to every birth story discussion that you are a part of. We are all in a constant state of new learning and new growth. With practice and mindfulness, you can learn to change the way you listen to birth stories, and help the parents you talk to feel heard and cared for.
Nikki Shaheed is one of the directors of Birthing from Within, and a certified trainer for Birthing from Within and Birth Story Listening. She hosts birth classes and birth story sessions for parents in San Antonio, TX, where she lives with her husband and three children.