There are so many words that are special to Birthing From Within, words that we use in very specific ways that are important and meaningful — but not always entirely self-explanatory. The purpose of the BFW Dictionary posts is to shine a clarifying light on the language used by BFW and its practitioners and to explain how some of these words are so central to our unique approach to the childbearing years.
noun. An experienced or trusted advisor.
verb. Advise or train.
— Oxford Dictionaries online
In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor was a trusted friend of Odysseus, King of Ithaca. When Odysseus left to fight the Trojan War, he entrusted Mentor, who was by then in his old age, with the education and supervision of his son, Telemachus. The word “mentor” has since come to suggest a special kind of guidance, with connotations of trust, close personal connection, and the sharing of wisdom born of experience. This sense of mentorship is fundamental to the BFW understanding of what a perinatal professional actually does.
A BFW childbirth educator does more than simply teach classes, a BFW doula does more than simply squeeze hips, and a BFW birth story listener does more than simply listen to birth stories. Of course, each of these tasks is appropriate to each of these roles, but the underlying purpose of the tasks is that of mentorship. The classes, the hip squeezes, and the listening are all vehicles by which BFW practitioners mentor their clients, building the trusting relationships that allow for the transmission not of specific facts or techniques, but rather of deep underlying wisdom.
Pregnant, birthing, and postpartum people are frequently surrounded by people voicing opinions, telling them what to do, and talking about their own experiences. Instead of doing this, BFW practitioners pay attention to where their clients really are, and guide them towards developing their own inner understandings and coping strength so that they can navigate whatever situation comes their way.
On a practical note, as you read through various BFW texts — books, blog posts, articles, other texts written over the years — you might experience a little confusion as to who, precisely, is being referred to as a “mentor.” The word is frequently used to specifically replace “childbirth educator,” as in the phrase “mentors and doulas.” This usage has been common, and may remain so, partially out of organizational habit and partially to distinguish varying strands of perinatal practice.
It is important, however, to understand that all professionals working within the BFW approach — whether they are childbirth educators, doulas, nurses, yoga teachers, therapists, lactation specialists, and so on — are fundamentally mentors, using their wisdom and experience to guide and support parents in finding their own ways through the often rocky terrain of the childbearing experience.
There’s an interesting twist, by the way, to Mentor’s presence in the Odyssey. Most of the times in the story when Telemachus believes that he’s interacting with Mentor, he’s actually interacting with Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare, who has disguised herself as Mentor in order to offer Telemachus guidance. Indeed, all of the mentorship that Telemachus receives in the story is provided by Athena-as-Mentor, rather than by Mentor himself. This is a tantalizing detail because it posits mentorship not as the incidental advice of a staid old man, but rather as the active, story-shaping stratagems of a fiery warrior. With Athena-as-Mentor, mentorship is magical, surprising, daring — a glimpse of divine action in human form. This is perhaps an apt encapsulation of the function that a Birthing From Within mentor can perform for parents (who may, like Telemachus, be unsuspecting): to put a friendly, human face on the ancient warrior wisdom that is demanded by the initiatory journey of birth.
This wonderful interview with the classicist Gregory Nagy sheds even more light on the role of Athena-as-Mentor, and provides even more food for thought about how a BFW practitioner might fill that role.