A Bad Case of Empathy

Recently, I was felled for 48 hours by a flu-like virus. Body aches, fever, cough. The works. One morning, my ten-year-old daughter asked me, “Mom, what’s it called when someone is sick, and you wish you were sick instead of them?”

“That’s called empathy, sweetie,” I replied in a fog as I reached for my keys.

“Well,” she said, “I have a bad case of empathy then.”

My daughter is an intelligent, sensitive empath, and often takes on bigger feelings than she can handle. I would never know if it weren’t for regular check-ins and the occasional unexpected outburst.

Birth professionals also have a pretty “bad case of empathy.” Otherwise, we would not be as effective in this work as we could be. Evidence, positivity, loving objectivity, and building bridges may be our cornerstones, but empathy is the foundation.

Empathy is our strength, and is probably one reason why perinatal education and doula work is so effective. If we didn’t understand where women were coming from, we would be nothing more than white noise in a cacophony of conflicting information. It’s our empathy that helps each family tune into the most helpful channels for them, while tuning out those that are less so.

Yet if it’s left unchecked, empathy can lead us straight to burnout, especially when we help a family face difficult circumstances. Empathy must be gently tempered with accountability and regular check-ins, or we will fall prey to the same outbursts as my ten-year-old little girl when the struggle gets Too Big.

“Self-care will prevent burnout!” is our rallying cry.

Yes, it can. But it doesn’t go far enough. When the pedicure is finished we still have to face the potential trauma of what happened. Self-care can take the edge off and help us re-center, but it cannot always heal.

“It’s not my birth/It’s not my baby,” is another tried and true standby of the birth world.

As birth professionals, we have sometimes paid too dearly to live this out. It is true that it’s not our experience, but that does not mean we have no personal stake in the process. We do.

What happens to our clients and students happens to us in a way. We understand the nearly eternal ripple effect that one birth story can have on a mother, her family, her community, and beyond. We oughtn’t make the mistake of believing we are immune to this ripple effect.

“It’s not my birth,” just isn’t helpful when our empathy is so deeply tapped that we are left empty and shaking.

We must equip ourselves with tools to keep our empathy alive, healthy, and useful. To maintain its strength, so that we can keep the flame of our passion burning as we grow in our world-changing professions.

Where do we start?

1) Peer Review

It is critical to have at least one other person who understands birth work, and has the character and professionalism to maintain strict confidentiality. Peer review is an in-depth look at a difficult situation including potentially identifying details. It involves confronting with honesty the facts of the case, and the raw emotions.

Do it regularly. The format should follow a basic structure of presenting your case and its details, what you did and why. Your peers should step in and ask what you feel you did well, what you wish you had done differently, and what you learned from this case. Seeing your case this way takes something overwhelmingly large, and shrinks it down to a manageable, more realistic size.

2) Counseling/Therapy

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is real. Just because we are professionals doesn’t mean that we are immune. Learn the symptoms of PTSD, and get help sooner rather than later if needed. Even if PTSD isn’t something you suspect, finding a good therapist can help tremendously when you are navigating difficult and conflicting emotions about a traumatic or difficult experience.

Keep in mind that therapy isn’t always long-term. Often, a few sessions with a qualified professional now and then, as needed, is all that is required. You don’t have to be mentally ill or unstable to benefit from therapy.

3) Mentor relationships

I have always been taught the wisdom of having at least one reliable mentor you can trust and lean on. Someone you can text in the middle of the situation and tap for information, suggestions, or just to help you think through the situation in the moment. This person needs to be someone willing to take your text or call at two in the morning. Of course, as you grow, you will have the chance to pay it forward and perform this service to the next up-and-coming professional.

We have a bad case of empathy in the birth world, and we need to face it with courage. The solution is not to harden our empathic hearts, but to hearten them through doing purposeful emotional work. And it is WORK. Don’t ever settle for pouring from an empty cup. Fill it up.

More reading on Empathy/Compassion Fatigue

Tiffany Miller


Tiffany Miller, CLD, CCCE, Student Midwife, has been a CAPPA member since 2007, when she took her Labor Doula training in Colorado. She has since become a Childbirth Educator through CAPPA’s program, and a student midwife in NARM’s PEP program, and cannot imagine a life without birth work. She especially loves the work of inspiring, encouraging, and uplifting clients, students, and other birth professionals through the spoken and written word whenever she can. She strives always to “be a rainbow in someone’s cloud” (Maya Angelou).

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