The topic of childbirth education handouts often comes up in online groups for birth professionals, and the Facebook group for Birthing From Within practitioners is no different. When the topic was raised again recently, BFW mentor and doula Megan Malone-Franklin had a fascinating response. Megan and her wife, BFW mentor and doula Marlee Malone-Franklin, don’t use childbirth education handouts with their Hero Birth Services clients. Here’s her explanation…
#unpopularopinion: We don’t give handouts to our clients.
We used to give a packet of childbirth education handouts to all of our birth doula clients at prenatal visits, and to all of our childbirth education students. Over time, we began to find that the parents were either a) losing the packet, or b) over-relying on what was written rather than on their own independent thinking. After our first Birthing From Within training, we started to rethink our approach.
Once we envisioned ourselves as BFW mentors, we realized that our goal was no longer to give parents all of the answers.
Instead (and much more importantly), we wanted to guide parents towards having thoughtful conversations, doing their own further research, and tapping into other ways of knowing in order to move forward in their own unique processes of learning and discovery. (We love Chapter 5 of Ancient Map for Modern Birth for Pam England’s perspective on assembling the pieces of the information-gathering puzzle.)
In class, we do use visual demonstrations for each information-heavy topic. But we don’t pass those out in the form of handouts. Instead, we draw them or make them or use props. We encourage parents to take notes for themselves if there are specific things they want to remember, such as the decision-making acronym BRAIN. (You may have heard of studies about taking notes by hand as opposed to typing them or reading someone else’s notes on a page. It’s a more active way of learning actually helps with retention!)
The big shift came when we figured out that we COULDN’T POSSIBLY provide our clients with everything THEY need to know to give birth, as we thought we could when we first started out.
Once we began to internalize that realization, we stopped promising parents that they would find all of the answers they wanted when they worked with us. Sometimes when parents are asking for a lot of details about things, we mention that no one could ever learn everything about birth/parenting in a 3-hour class, or a 12-hour class, or even in a lifetime. We acknowledge that there are a lot of external resources (books, articles, blogs, friends/family, etc.) where parents can learn about these things. But the reason they’re paying to take a class from us in person isn’t to just download information. (Or maybe they think it is, but we work to gently challenge that mindset.)
Not giving handouts doesn’t mean not giving resources. We do provide resources in the context of pointing parents in the right direction if they’re having trouble finding information on a specific topic, such as the side effects of a particular medication, or pointers for creating a bedtime routine for their baby. In such cases, we’re happy to give them a helpful book, website, blog post, etc that might address their needs. That’s in sharp contrast to what we used to do – passing out packets with the “answers” to all of the possible questions we thought our clients might have before even meeting them.
We’ve found that when parents are asking for childbirth education handouts, they’re often coming from a childlike archetype. A part of them is hoping for a “grownup” – an expert or authority figure – to tell them everything they need to know. Wouldn’t life be so much simpler if that were possible?
But life isn’t that simple, nor is birth.
So instead of handing over a bunch of papers with facts, we ask questions in order to bring out more mature, nuanced perspectives. How do you know that you need to find out more about that? What is it you’re REALLY wanting to know? How might you go about learning more? Helping clients access their inner curiosity in this way often transforms the conversation. And it’s nearly always enlightening for us – we’re usually surprised by the answers to these questions. Without being able to read minds, we don’t know the real story behind parents’ questions, so we practice activating our own curiosity as well.
For instance, a parent asking questions about epidural side effects might mostly be concerned that they wouldn’t truly be experiencing birth if they chose to take advantage of pain medication. We might then talk about the idea that you have to experience birth in a certain way for it to “count,” or about the often-unacknowledged emotional intensity of birth even with pain medications. Learning where a parent is coming from can lead to much more meaningful, layered conversations than simply answering their questions outright.
In the couple of years since we’ve “gone paperless,” we’ve found that clients are actually absorbing more during our time together.
We often hear the feedback that before working with us, parents thought that “all we needed to know” was some specific pieces of information, like stages of labor, how to push, breastfeeding positions, and so on. Instead, they came away knowing themselves and their partners better, and feeling more prepared for birth than if they actually did “know everything” (which isn’t even possible!). Parents often put so much pressure on themselves to KNOW ALL THE THINGS. It’s a pleasure for us to help ease that burden so they can begin to prepare to welcome their baby in a different way, letting themselves off the hook of unrealistic expectations.
By helping parents see birth as a journey into the unknown rather than as an exam to be passed, we invite them to access and strengthen the inner resources and resilience that they already have.
Sometimes we doubt our choice to not give childbirth education handouts, especially when doulas and educators talk about their handouts in online groups. (And even more so when these discussions are accompanied by pretty pictures of Pinterest-perfect decorative folders that tempt our stationary-loving selves!) But then we remember the difference it can make to work through WHY a parent feels that they need to know everything about birth in order to welcome their baby. Those interactions are so much more meaningful for parents than simply receiving a packet of information that pretends to provide them with complete knowledge.
A shift occurs as parents begin to understand the importance of preparing their hearts for birth instead of just their minds. Rather than acting from a place of childlike dependence on others to give them the answers, they discover in themselves a strength to search for the answers they need in order to do what needs to be done.