BFW Dictionary: Mentor

Meaning of Mentor in Birthing from Within

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. 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 and the hip squeezes are 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.

About Koyuki Smith

Koyuki Smith is the Director of Communications for Birthing from Within. She loves thinking, teaching, and writing about the universal experiences of initiation and transformation. She lives in Harlem with her husband, her two sons, and a little dog, too. Learn more about her work, or get in touch with her, at

1 Comment

  1. Guina G Bixler on September 6, 2018 at 10:53 pm

    I found this quote from Fr. Richard Rohr today and thought it describes our work so well….hope you enjoy it too.

    “Mentoring leads us into the Real Work inside: to work on ourselves; to do our soul work and not be preoccupied with answer-giving and problem-solving. The focus is on “cleaning the inside of the cup.” It is clarifying our attitudes and our intentionality.

    Richard develops themes of the essential qualities of the Mentor/Elder, some of which are:

    The mentor has the caring ability for simple friendship. What is important is the transmission of life; it is not about a money-making skill or career.
    A mentor has a mature sense of self. You can only lead people as far as you have gone.”

    Guina Bixler
    Certified Advanced BFW Mentor

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