In honor of World Breastfeeding Week this week, I am planning a series of breastfeeding posts. The following is a modified version of an article that previously appeared in a journal for support group leaders:
Listening Well Enough
by Molly Remer
When I was training to become a breastfeeding counselor, I practiced four helping situations as telephone role-plays. I was very anxious about receiving the first practice call. In fact, I confess to being so anxious that when one of the women I was working with called for the first time to practice and I missed her call, I actually cried.
After that missed call, I had a dream. In the dream, the woman called to practice. I said “hello,” and received no response. I said hello again. No response. “I’m not able to hear you,” I explained, “you have reached a breastfeeding counselor. Do you have a breastfeeding question?” Silence. I tried again, “Let me tell you a little bit about our services…our services are free, do you want to ask me a question?” Still there was silence, though I was positive that the woman was still on the other end of the line. Finally, I said, “I am not able to hear you, so I’m going to hang up now. Please feel free to call me back if you need to talk.” Finally, the woman spoke. She told me that I had not handled the call well. I asked her how I was supposed to know what to say if the mother wasn’t saying anything. The woman responded, “that mother told you everything you needed to know, you just weren’t listening well enough.”
Obviously, this dream reflected the anxiety I was feeling about being able to “perform” during helping calls. It also showed the fears I had about being judged by the other women as not being warm enough or informative enough (though I was assured by my trainers that the practice calls were to help me feel comfortable, not to judge and test me!). Aside from this analysis of the practical reasons behind my dream, I feel it reminded me of several relevant points:
- A breastfeeding counselor is not a mind reader. While we can ask skillful questions, read subtle cues, and encourage explanation, we cannot intuit everything!
- A helping call is a partnership—no matter how well we listen, the mother must still give some information in order to receive information.
- Breastfeeding counselors do not have to have all of the answers—we listen to what the specific mother tells us, ask for more information if we need it, explore further if we sense it is necessary, and share information with her.
- Breastfeeding counselors need to listen well and respond sensitively to the individual mother, not take a “cookbook” approach and think we have the answer right away.
- Breastfeeding counselors need to listen for the questions not-asked, because they are often the most important. It may take some “detective” work to get to the real question behind her request for help. The first question a mother asks is rarely her real question.
- For in-person interactions, nonverbal communication can tell you so much—“listening” to her body language and other cues is as important as the words she speaks, or doesn’t speak.
Before becoming a mother, I worked in domestic violence shelters answering the crisis line and providing short-term crisis intervention services to women who had experienced domestic violence. Interestingly enough, I find that those types of helping calls were in some ways “easier” to work through than breastfeeding help calls, since there were fewer variations in women’s stories and experiences. With breastfeeding questions, there are an infinite number of variables and an infinite array of mothers, babies, families, and mother-baby dyads. Just as there is no one way to be a good mother, there is no perfect way to help mothers. Breastfeeding is not a by the book procedure—it is an intimate relationship with different dynamics from one nursing couple to the next. Individual mothers and babies respond differently to the same things.
Our main message to each mother is how important she is to her baby and how breastfeeding can be a wonderful part of this. We want to help mothers feel good about being a mother, about meeting their babies’ needs in the way that feels best for them, and to trust their own instincts. We wish to leave mothers with a feeling of self-confidence, acceptance, and encouragement.