“..no matter what her experience in birth was, every mother knows something other people don’t know.”—Pam England
“Stories are medicine…They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything—we need only listen. The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained in stories.” –Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Every woman who has given birth knows something about birth that other people don’t know. She has something unique and powerful to offer.
As birth professionals, we are often cautioned against sharing our personal stories. We must remember that it is her birth and her story, not ours. In doula and childbirth educator trainings, trainees are taught to keep their own stories to themselves and to present evidence-based information so that women can make their own informed choices. As a breastfeeding counselor too, I must remind myself to keep my own personal experiences out of the helping relationship. My formal education is in clinical social work and in that field as well we are indoctrinated to guard against inappropriate self-disclosure in a client-helper setting. In each environment, we are taught how to be good listeners without clouding the exchange with our own “baggage.” The messages are powerful—keep your own stories out of it. Recently, I have been wondering how this caution might impact our real-life connections with women?
Nine months after I experienced a powerful miscarriage at home at 15 weeks, a good friend found out at 13 weeks that her baby died. As I had, she decided to let nature take its course and to let her body let go of the pregnancy on its own timetable, rather than a medical timetable. When she emailed me for support, it was extremely difficult to separate our experiences. I kept sharing bits and pieces of my own loss experiences and then apologizing and feeling guilty for having violated the “no stories” rule. I kept telling her, “I know this isn’t about me, but I felt this way…” I told her about choosing to take pictures of the baby and to have a ceremony for him at home. That I wished I had gotten his footprints and handprints. The kinds of personal sharing that may have been frowned upon in my varied collection of professional trainings. After several apologies of this sort, I began to reflect and remembered that what I hungered for most in the aftermath of my own miscarriage was other women’s voices and stories. Real stories. The nitty gritty, how-much-blood-is-normal and did-you-feel-like-you-were-going-to-die, type of stories. Just as many women enjoy and benefit from reading other women’s birth stories, I craved real, deep, miscarriage-birth stories. These stories told me the most about what I needed to know and more than organization websites or “coping with loss” books ever could.
I had a similar realization the following month when considering the effectiveness of childbirth classes and trying to pin down what truly had reached me as a first time mother. The question I was trying to answer as I considered my own childbirth education practice was how do women really learn about birth? What did I, personally, retain and carry with me into my own birth journey? The answer, for me, was again, story.
On this blog, I have a narrative about my experiences during my first pregnancy with being able to feel my baby practicing breathing while in-utero. More than any other post on the site, this post receives more comments on an ongoing basis from women saying, “thank you for sharing”–that the story has validated their own current experience. In this example, rather than getting what they need from books, experts, or classes, women have found what they needed from story and, indeed, most of them reference that it was the only place they were able to find the information they were seeking.
And finally, as breastfeeding counselor, during monthly support meetings, I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen mothers’ faces fill with relief when another mother validates her story with a similar one.
So, what is special about story as a medium and what can it offer to women that traditional forms of education cannot? Stories are validating. They can communicate that you are not alone, not crazy, and not weird. Stories are instructive without being directive or prescriptive. It is very easy to take what works from stories and leave the rest because stories communicate personal experiences and lessons learned, rather than expert direction, recommendations, or advice. Stories can also provide a point of identification and clarification as a way of sharing information that is open to possibility, rather than advice-giving.
Cautions in sharing stories while also listening to another’s experience include:
- Are you so busy in your own story that you can’t see the person in front of you?
- Does the story contain bad, inaccurate, or misleading information?
- Is the story so long and involved that it is distracting from the other person’s point?
- Does the story communicate that you are the only right person and that everyone else should do things exactly like you?
- Is the story really advice or a “to do” disguised as a story?
- Does the story redirect attention to you and away from the person in need of help/listening?
- Does the story keep the focus in the past and not in the here and now present moment?
- Is there a subtext of, “you should…”?
Several of these self-awareness questions are much bigger concerns during a person-to-person direct dialogue rather than in written form such as blog. In reading stories, the reader has the power to engage or disengage with the story, while in person there is a possibility of becoming stuck in an unwelcome story. Some things to keep in mind while sharing stories in person are:
- Sensitivity to whether your story is welcome, helpful, or contributing to the other person’s process.
- Being mindful of personal motives—are you telling a story to bolster your own self-image, as a means of pointing out others’ flaws and failings, or to secretly give advice?
- Asking yourself whether the story is one that will move us forward (returning to the here and now question above).
While my training and professional background might suggest otherwise, my personal lived experience is that stories have had more power in my own childbearing life than most other single influences. The sharing of story in an appropriate way is, indeed, intimately intertwined with good listening and warm connection. As the authors of the book, Sacred Circles, remind us “…in listening you become an opening for that other person…Indeed, nothing comes close to an evening spent spellbound by the stories of women’s inner lives.”
Molly Remer, MSW, ICCE, CCCE is a certified birth educator, writer, and activist who lives in central Missouri with her husband and children. She is an LLL Leader, a professor of Human Services, and the editor of the Friends of Missouri Midwives newsletter. She blogs about birth, women, and motherhood at http://talkbirth.wordpress.com.
This is a preprint of The Value of Sharing Story, an article by Molly Remer, MSW, ICCE, published in Midwifery Today, Issue 99, Autumn 2011. Copyright © 2011 Midwifery Today. Midwifery Today’s website is located at: http://www.midwiferytoday.com/