Saturday, April 9, 2011

Birth Story Listener

A friend of mine on Twitter has been livetweeting the ICAN conference, and one of her tweets quoted Pam England (of Birthing from Within fame) as saying her profession is Birth Story Listener. Not having been at the conference, I don't know the context of this quote, but I think it's a sentiment we can all relate to as birth workers.

For me, the idea of being a Birth Story Listener is not just about tuning into my clients and holding the space for them as they process their previous and recent births, but about doing this for all women. Whenever someone finds out that I am a doula and student midwife, I inevitably hear their birth story. This is one of the parts of my job I love the most, even when I have to bite my tongue as they recount things like, "My baby was too big at 38 weeks, so I had to have a c-section" or "I just wasn't progressing once I got to the hospital, so I had to be on Pit." Often they ask me questions about their experience, and I realize they've never been given the opportunity to truly process their births. I don't think this is something OBs regularly do. Once I was in one of my PhD classes and during the break, I'd gotten a call from a client that her OB had stripped her membranes during her appointment with the hopes that she would go into labor before the OB had to leave for vacation that weekend. I was so excited because this was my first client, and I was telling my classmates that I would likely attend my first birth that night! Before I knew it, eight women were telling me their birth stories, almost simultaneously, just lovely detail after detail pouring out of them, all piling up around me and surrounding me with happy birth thoughts.

The most important part of being a Birth Story Listener is to avoid judgement. I will gently correct certain statements made, like "well, it's not possible to have a breech baby vaginally," with something like "Actually, that's not true, it's just that few people are taught the skills to help deliver a breech presentation" or, "Pitocin does speed up contractions, but it also makes them more unmanageable." I never ever say, "That was a bad decision" or "Your OB lied to you," (unless this is an idea they introduced and which seems obvious--often I encounter women who are looking for someone to validate their feelings of being lied to and cheated out of their ideal birth). It's also common to have women ask me if, based on what they've told me, I think they could have gone natural. I try to offer affirmation and validation of their feelings and thank them for sharing with me.

It is a gift to be able to hear a birth story, and not everyone can listen and receive such stories in a supportive manner. One of our jobs as midwives or doulas or birthworkers of any kind is to hold the space for women to safely process their births. I have heard from friends who had planned homebirths and had to transfer that their midwives never followed up and went through the birth story with them. It can be embarrassing or uncomfortable when things don't go according to plan, but this is all the more reason to process what happened, both for you and the client. We are the keepers of birth stories, and we can learn so much from each one.

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