I remember the very first time that I held a newborn baby. I remember the sensation in my heart as I held her like a fragile tea cup. I was a young and wide-eyed first year nursing student assigned to teaching newborn care. I was invited to hold her while listening to her mother share their birth story.
I had studied labour and birth in the classroom, but I was not prepared for this softness in my heart. I left the hospital a changed person that day. I had found my true calling. I was determined to work hard—seeking knowledge and the most rewarding experiences so that I might be the “best” childbirth educator.
I also believed that the more I achieved academically, the more valuable I would be to my profession. I got caught up in the “I” and lost touch with the heart connection. When I didn’t achieve, I was hard on myself. I mistakenly believed that my worth was measured by others.
Many years later, I met a gifted and wise teacher. Sue hired and mentored me as a community health nurse and childbirth educator. Despite her many more years of experience, she invited me to critique her childbirth education curriculum and always welcomed my insight. Most importantly, our relationship taught me what the job description did not: the art of self-compassion.
Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion teacher and researcher argues in her article “Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem and Well-Being” that “Self-Compassion entails treating oneself with kindness, recognizing one’s shared humanity and being mindful when considering negative aspects of oneself” (Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2011, p. 1).
As birth professionals, we practice kindness.
We build bridges with professionals and our community partners. We strive for evidence-based practice to empower families. We live in a world where the internet and social media give us opportunities to connect with each other, but also to disconnect from our lives. We follow our passion; however, are we kind to ourselves along the way?
As I reflect on my own work as a childbirth educator, I can think of moments when I have not been kind to myself—specifically when I have received “negative” student evaluations. During moments like these, it is easy for me to lose my way. I go “inside” and I begin to ruminate about what I have done wrong and what I could have done better. I find all of my personal flaws and I dwell there. I imagine who the student is when the evaluation is anonymous and what they are telling other students about me. The story that I fabricate can be very creative! My self-esteem is wounded, and I feel less valuable to my profession.
One of the most challenging and necessary aspects of the childbirth educator’s role is the student evaluations. We can’t avoid them. I’ve tried.
Today, I practice self-compassion as a starting point. I aspire to treat myself with the same kindness that I extend to my students.
Dr. Kristin Neff teaches us that “self-compassion should provide the emotional safety needed to see yourself clearly so that you are actually better able to identify needed areas of growth and change” (“Self-Compassion and Psychological Well-Being,” Constructivism in the Human Sciences, Vol. 9 (2), 2004, p.30).
Negative self-talk does not cultivate wisdom.
Over the years, I have adapted my own “self-kindness” rituals for those times like student evaluations. As CAPPA reminds me, “women need support and encouragement to acknowledge the inner wisdom their bodies provide” (CAPPA CBE Manual 2017, p. 17). How can I support and encourage families when I do not acknowledge that same inner wisdom that my body provides?
At the end of the class, I now reflect on my purpose as an educator. After everyone has left, I take a few moments for me. I find a safe space. I sit quietly, I close my eyes and I breathe into my heart. I practice a lovingkindness meditation—sending warmth to myself and to my students.
Sometimes, I need to hear someone else’s voice. I listen to Nancy Bardacke’s soothing guided lovingkindness meditation. She reminds me every time that I was once “a baby growing in my mother’s belly.” I am encouraged to “hold” my heart as tenderly as I would hold a newborn baby (Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond, CD, Nancy Bardacke, 2012).
After this time of sitting, I get up and I arrange the furniture back to how it was before class. I pack up my teaching supplies one at a time, including my sealed envelope of evaluations, and go home.
There are times when I open the envelope and a particular evaluation is really tough. My chest tightens. My inner critic returns and I am lost in the train of negative self-talk. I feel very isolated. Kind acts toward myself are even more important here. These are the times when I seek out people that care for me deeply and I share how I am feeling.
Self-compassion fosters “feelings of common humanity” (Neff, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2011, p. 4). With self-compassion, I realize that I am not the only childbirth educator who has received a tough student evaluation.
Self-compassion is an evidence-based practice. Dr. Kristin Neff cites examples of research (Davidson, 2007) where MRI scans have shown changes in the part of the brain that helps us with perspective taking (Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2011, p. 6).
At the CAPPA Conference 2017, “Guiding the Way Let Your Light Shine,” I met individuals from diverse backgrounds who are very passionate about what they do. We shared our stories and I learned that many of us face the same challenges. I also learned that we share the same joys.
I felt a great sense of connection. I felt the joy of learning within a circle of caring and compassionate professionals.
Dr. Kristin Neff’s research states that the practice of mindfulness is also a very important component of self-compassion (Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2011, p. 29).
I do not want to miss the little but rich moments in class when a mother’s smile affirms what she has learned. I do not want to misread the comments on my evaluations. I want to learn from all of these moments! My growth comes from how I respond to them.
Dr. Kristen Neff proposes that self-compassion is “a way of responding to the mystery of who we are!” (Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem, and Well-Being, Social and Personality Compass, 2011, p. 9).
Be mindful of that mystery!
- Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association (2017). “Becoming a Childbirth Educator,” p. 15-20, CAPPA Childbirth Educator Manual.
- Neff, K.D. (2004). “Self-Compassion and Psychological Well-Being,” Constructivism in the Human Sciences, Vol.9(2) p. 27-37.
- Neff, K.D. (2011). “Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem, and Well-Being,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5/1, p.1-12.
BN, CCCE, CAPPA Faculty
Shelley is a mother of three children who has been teaching prenatal classes in New Brunswick for two decades. Since she began obstetrical training as part of her education at the Bathurst School of Nursing, Shelley has had a particular passion for family centered, holistic care. She holds a Bachelor of Nursing degree from UNB Fredericton and has been certified as a childbirth educator and a childbirth educator trainer by the Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association; she conducts trainings throughout Atlantic Canada. A Roots of Empathy educator, Shelley went into schools with parents and infants to teach school-age children about empathy.
Shelley and her family enjoy a tranquil life in the small community of Marysville, NB.