Empathy is not Endorsement

How many times have you talked to another parent at play group and they’ve mentioned something that you fundamentally disagree with? Perhaps you’ve thought ‘I’d never do that’ or even ‘Poor kid!’ even though you know that their child is perfectly healthy and thriving?

As parents and practitioners in birth and parenthood it can be so easy to judge an action or decision that goes against our beliefs and/or current guidelines. We obviously want the best for both child and parent, wishing they conform to the latest evidence-based recommendations so it can be really hard to hear about parenting that doesn’t fit within our own framework of ideas about how children should be born and raised.

What we need to keep doing is reflecting on whether acting on that judgement consciously or unconsciously can really affect behaviour. Stopping and acknowledging any judgemental thoughts or feelings is the first step. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, but it does not mean that by doing this we are compromising our own beliefs and agreeing with them. 

We might believe that all babies should be breastfed until 2 years (and is backed by the World Health Organisation) however it’s not always possible and is certainly not harmful to supplement or stop when we decide that the time is right. It might come out through our words - ‘are you not carrying on breastfeeding?’ - and we may not even be aware of the underlying message that is received i.e. I think you should carry on breastfeeding, even though you are working away 4 days a week, your baby is not particularly asking for it and you’ve had enough. Being empathetic in this situation doesn’t mean that you stop believing that all children should be breastfed until 2 but you can understand and share the feelings that lead to this mother making this decision that is best for her family.

Birthing and parenting beliefs are often multi-generational in origin, culturally dependant and are embedded so deeply that raising a mirror to them can feel very intimidating to a parent, and in turn ourselves. By uncovering another person’s belief system, we in turn reveal our own. 

Letting our own judgement creep through into our conversations can result in a defensive reaction, either avoidance of the topic, denial or even anger from the other person.

The caveat is when we see or hear something that we know to be harmful or unsafe. We should definitely feel comfortable challenging unsafe or harmful behaviour when we see it, as the person could simply be unaware of the consequences, however that is different to a birthing or parenting situation that we just don’t agree with. 

Helpfully what we can do is be empathetic, listen actively and present any evidence with an unbiased, motive-less approach that promotes autonomy in the other person.