(Written for a friend who is a passionate provider of breastfeeding advice to explain my personal take on providing support to moms.)
With my daughter’s birth I had two nurses.
The first nurse had birthed her own children without any painkillers. She had a rhythm that her births had drilled into her. She moved with me, her hands pausing at contractions and touching gently between. She relaxed me and I settled into the course of things with her support, retreating into my own world to focus on those things that needed to be focused on. She did the things that she needed to do, and was a pleasant motherly presence that made me feel safe and protected. I was an easy patient, and smiled at her and thanked her when I could.
The second nurse moved by routine and offered many things that she felt would be comforting but did not have the rhythm that the first nurse did. Her touch crashed into the contractions, causing me to tense up in pain and object with the only words that I could muster. “Stop. No. Don’t.” I was not an easy patient. I spoke in short-hand. I tensed up at the sight of her, knowing that her well-meaning ministrations would hurt, pull me out of the focus I needed, and that I could not make her understand.
She wanted to check my dilation, something that I allowed my previous nurse to do without complaint (I had heavy bleeding so they needed to keep an eye on the bleeding and progress). This is something I found tolerable between contractions and excruciating during. I had previously used those words “Stop. No. Don’t.” I had previously tried to say “Not during a contraction”. I was not being understood.
The words that I needed to clearly communicate were that “I know that you need to check my dilation. I am not telling you not to do your job. I am asking you to do it when I am not having a contraction. If you can wait until this contraction passes and do it as fast as you can once the contraction is over it won’t hurt and I won’t complain.”
I needed those words in the middle of transition, the most intense part of childbirth where the intensity is so strong that I could not manage to ask for the blue plastic bag that I needed to catch the vomit that my body threatened me with every contraction. I was bed-ridden for the labor with my daughter, which made it all the more intense.
This nurse of mine needed to hear that I was not telling her that she couldn’t do her job, that I understood what she needed to do, that I would let her do her job, and that I was just asking her to please do it a little bit differently if she could. Shifting things around by centimeters or seconds made all the difference.
As soon as I managed to speak those words, she understood not only what I was trying to tell her, but she understood more that when I asked for something to be done a little bit differently it was not because I had a birth plan that I wanted to adhere to, but because I was struggling and those little things made my struggle easier.
I see this pattern all the time in support forums where mothers and parents are giving and getting advice. It spirals threads into name calling, “mommy guilt”, “mommy wars” and accusations of bashing and drama.
When we are supporting women in breastfeeding, in parenting, in labor or in recovery.. It is important that we try and recognize when someone is stretched to their maximum ability to cope. When a person is stretched this far, the things that we do to try and help can stretch them further.
Often when a person asks a specific question they are seeking a specific answer. They have chosen a path that they feel will take them where they need to go. They are getting advice from everyone in their life that is stretching them thinner and thinner and thinner. They are sleep deprived, emotionally vulnerable, and in a storm of hormones.
When we accidentally upset someone with information or questions.. We need to step back. We need to apologize. We need to reassure. And we need to LISTEN. More often than not we have accidentally piled more on top of someone who is struggling to cope.
We need to ask ourselves “Are we supporting the individual mother that we are trying to help, or are we simply supporting breastfeeding in general?” Because when we are supporting the MOTHER, we need to support her on an individual level and not from a checklist of best practices.
The goal needs to be to make it easier for her to continue doing what it is that she wants to do and this “thing” we believe in. Not to make her question her choices any more than she probably already does.
In order to do this we need to look at how we phrase the information about the catch-22’s and the best practices and the booby-traps. She needs to know that they are suggestions and informational bullet points and not indictments of her judgement or parenting skills.
Our goal in being “support providers” should be never to be so in love with an idea that we accidentally hurt the feelings of a person.