By: Giuditta Mastrototaro, Milan, Italy
Translated from Italian by Shevawn O’Connor
An LLL Leader writes
The answers seemed straightforward from a technical point of view—the issues being overuse of the pacifier, incorrect attachment, skipping night feedings—but were exhausting from the point of view of emotional support. The mother kept sending me WhatsApp (a form of mobile phone communication) messages every two or three days, with the same questions and doubts. For example ‘I squeeze my breast and transparent drops come out, is this normal?’ or ‘My baby only slept half an hour today, shouldn’t he sleep for two hours after feeding?’ or ‘My baby has slept a lot today, should I wake him?’ When the same questions were asked again and again, I began to become impatient.
Many of us have been in this situation before. These tiring exchanges often feel like “ping-pong”, with questions and answers that always seem to be the same, batted back and forth. We may find we experience frustration, emotional fatigue and exhaustion when finding ourselves giving the same information over and over again. What is it that is not working?
To answer this question, it can help to take a step back and try to observe the situation before taking action. What is it that this mother needs? Does she really need to know if the transparent drops that she sees coming out of the breast are normal or if the baby must wake up? Or might the mother need more confidence in her own skills and resources?
Confidence in one’s own abilities is one of the most important tools we need in order to grow. Drawing out the inner qualities and feelings of mothers involves fostering their self-esteem. We can reply: ”It seems to me that you feel doubtful about what to do…” “Maybe you are worried that baby is not getting enough sleep?” “Why do you think he should sleep more?” and so help her to reflect. Sometimes however, the small words that follow these phrases such as: but, instead, you should can invalidate the process of listening to oneself because they overshadow the mother’s feelings and resources. The process of listening to oneself, in which people own and rediscover the richness of their thoughts, emotions and motives, can be a truly precious path. This technique may be useful for a thousand other questions that a mother will ask herself during her mothering journey.
There is a certain consistency between what we perceive about ourselves and the questions we ask ourselves. If a mother thinks she does not know how to be a mother, she will tend to try to find the nearest expert who gives her the right answers and thus remain anchored to a model of dependence. On the other hand, if she feels self-confident and has all the necessary tools to make informed decisions, this can empower her as a mother. Empowerment is just that: self-confidence and trust in one’s own skills. This process needs time and space to take place. In reality, no one can give us self-esteem, nor can we give it away. We can be facilitators for others, but we all have to find this awareness within ourselves.
The term empowerment also indicates a path of growth and development, based on self-efficacy, and self-determination. For this reason it is important for the mother to acknowledge her choices, successes and achievements. The aim then becomes to enhance her known resources and bring out her latent ones, by leading the mother to acquire awareness of her enormous potential, which is in her hands, not ours.
Providing support for mothers can bring new energy and motivation to both parties. Very often it leads to a reversal of the perception of a dependent relationship when the Leader responds to questions by reframing them in order to help the mother find her own answers. Only by staying true to our mission and not getting tired of restoring a mother’s confidence will she discover the skills she has, yet did not know she had.
It is an approach that resembles the Socratic method (a form of cooperative argumentative conversation, that involves asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas). The great philosopher Socrates called himself a spiritual obstetrician. He said that he did not teach anything but rather elicited what everyone carried within himself. It is a familiar philosophy to Leaders, who respect mothers’ knowledge and experience and provide information so that they can make their own decisions.
The goal is to open doors to new possibilities, by leading mothers to be protagonists and not users—thus developing and growing personally, in order to overcome any sense of inadequacy, and learn to recognize their fears and overcome them.
We can achieve this goal if we as Leaders take responsibility for our feelings. When we have a certain idea of what a mother is like, we are moving away from empathy, limiting the potential of our ability to listen, and our effectiveness; it is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I see a mother who doesn’t listen, I will view her through this lens. If I see a mother along with her feelings and struggles, I can also see her needs and resources.
So when we feel that something is not working, it is perhaps worth changing our strategy. We could try to see the mother in person or listen to her on the phone, instead of texting. We can try to ask different questions that build on her skills such as:
Are there any problems you solved that were similar?
What went wrong?
Is there another way to explain this?
What would happen if…?
What do you think is useful in your situation in light of the article on our website?
When you look at your daughter, what do you feel is the right thing to do?
Leaders’ and mothers’ feelings are the signposts that indicate if we are going in the right direction. Feelings of well-being or malaise can provide us with valuable clues to our needs. Owning our feelings and the possibility of learning from every person we meet, is an opportunity we have every day by listening to mothers. Every support situation can lead to mutual growth. Learning from mothers and developing our listening skills have a positive influence not only on us as Leaders, but in all areas of our lives: in our volunteer activities, at home and at work. Italian psychologist and author Alba Marcoli explains: “Really being helpful means that the other person has managed to see things from a different perspective. Really being helpful means that the other person comes with specific questions and goes away with broader ones .”
Giuditta Mastrototaro has been a Leader for 13 years in Milan, Italy. She has been a Group facilitator for the Communication Skills Department in Italy for three years. Giuditta has four children: one in heaven and three in this world.
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Mastrototaro Giuditta. Nascere e crescere alla luce dell’educazione empatica. Streetlib. Milano 2015.
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 Table tennis, a game where a small ball is batted back and forth across a table over a net.