See. Hear. Value.

Imagine walking into the movie theatre to see a film you’ve been waiting for impatiently. You find a seat, watch the trailers and begin to forget about everything else going on in your life. The anticipated film begins. At this point, you become completely absorbed. You invest entirely in the characters’ lives for an hour and a half. The credits roll. You exit the theatre. You walk back into your life.

CindyHealthy Children lead faculty Cindy Turner-Maffei, MA, ALC, IBCLC  uses this analogy often told by her colleague Barb O’Connor to explain the counseling experience.

Cindy served as National Coordinator of Baby-Friendly USA, Inc. for 14 years and has extensive experience as a nutritionist and breastfeeding educator in WIC and other Maternal Child Health programs. She is a member of breastfeeding coalitions on local, state, and national levels, including the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee. Cindy is also affiliated faculty of Union Institute and University and the author of numerous publications.

Cindy and Willow explore.
Cindy and Willow explore.

Cindy is my dearest friend Nikki’s mom, and I’m beyond proud to say that she is like family to me. She has been one of my most precious support people, from the minute I announced I was expecting my first baby until today, just weeks after the arrival of my second.

Not long ago, Cindy spoke to me about breastfeeding as empowerment for both mothers and health care professionals, and how the simple acts of fully engaging and listening can be the impetus for extraordinary growth and change.

Cindy is an intensely reflective woman. She’s accomplished with years and years of experience in the field of maternal child health. Her thoughts are complex. I found it difficult to organize the ideas she provoked during our conversation. So, I started with a simple exercise to help my writing flow. I sat down and I listened. What did I hear?

An overwhelming trill of roosting birds, a distant hum of traffic, a tree frog’s warble, the aggravating drone of a fly on my window pane, wet leaves rustling on changing trees, crunchy leaves dancing across asphalt, a clicking of earrings as I turned my head, the trickle of last night’s autumn rain rolling from the rooftop, my dry fingertips idly tapping the laptop keys, the rumble and roll of an approaching thunderstorm, my breath like the rush of the ocean.

In that moment I became entirely present, experiencing unpolluted awareness. In a sense, I was sitting in my own little movie theatre.

This way of being present – this kind of attentive mindfulness — should always be practiced when working with pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and families. Bringing this heightened awareness to the counseling experience truly honors the client’s experience.

“We can choose to be open and true to our own experience while honoring and helping others explore their own,” Cindy says. “As counselors, that should be our highest goal. We’re not breastfeeding dictators: let me figure out how to make her breastfeed. No one’s path, passion, or interest should dictate that of another.”

(For those of you who have completed the CLC training, you might recall the “When you counsel, when you counsel, never judge, never judge” tune.)

When we actively listen, we offer women a sense of value, and a valued woman is an empowered woman. An empowered woman recognizes her potential to evolve, and she becomes an impetus for change.

Cindy illustrates. While working in an inner-city Boston health center, she got to know women with less than ideal habits, in less than ideal relationships, experiencing sometimes tragic life events. But when these same women became pregnant, they were willing to change dramatic parts of their lives for their “little passengers,” for their babies whom they hadn’t even met yet.

“I saw it as a pivotal point; helping women think about their potential and what they could do for another person,” Cindy explains.

Even more, it seemed that a woman’s success with breastfeeding continued to positively influence other choices in her life. She continues:

“When she saw that she could feed her baby, she became confident in her ability to be successful at other things, like giving up an addiction or finding the courage to leave an abusive relationship.”

Cindy’s passion for teaching Healthy Children’s Lactation Counselor Training Course stems from the idea that it is an opportunity for health care professionals to learn the tools to become successful at supporting women in their parenting journeys, while participants become empowered by the knowledge and skills that they gain in the course.

“I see these parallel tracks between moms and care providers,” Cindy says of the transformative, one-week journey. “It helps health care providers see that our situation isn’t hopeless.”

Participants get “fired up” and become motivated to create change.

“People get these little seeds that they can go back and plant,” Cindy says. “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

The Lactation Counselor Training Course is based on WHO/UNICEF’s Breastfeeding Counseling Training Course.

Because we live in a credential-oriented culture, the CLC course offers a way to recognize the breastfeeding education of professionals amidst other credentials that are becoming harder and harder to obtain.

“We at Healthy Children are committed to the principle that everyone whose job touches on mothers and babies need to know how to support breastfeeding,” Cindy explains. “We have so many more moms that need help than we have breastfeeding-savvy health care providers. It seems foolish to insist that breastfeeding care can be provided only by individuals with one difficult-to-attain credential.”

Instead, it’s more effective to offer people the opportunity to prove their breastfeeding knowledge and competency so that mothers have access to reliable, evidence-based support.

“When we train people to listen, we open doors of opportunity,” Cindy explains. “What seems insignificant to one is life-altering to another.”

For instance, Cindy recalls a WIC client who had a great breastfeeding experience despite awful circumstances. She suggested this client become a peer counselor. The client wasn’t able to fit it into her life at the time, so Cindy simply said, “That’s cool. We will wait for you.”

Months went by when Cindy received a letter from the woman explaining that Cindy’s patience had been life-altering.

“To me it was just common courtesy, but to this woman, our ongoing interest in training her as a peer counselor led her to feel ‘I’m important!’” Cindy reflects.

This concept may be difficult to see in the architecture of the course, but Cindy says that the CLC training offers participants the opportunity to become a reflective pool, an opportunity to offer back insights that might help clients to make life-altering changes.

We know that breastfeeding is best, but Cindy argues that it is important to help all women learn to feed their babies. Many things can happen to women during their lives in general, and during childbirth specifically, that may discourage breastfeeding. What matters most is that we help women learn to feed their babies responsively and well. It’s crucial that women are seen, heard, valued, and supported in learning to trust their instincts and  their  ability to support their babies as they grow, and ultimately to fall in love with their little ones, Cindy explains.

“It matters how she feels about how she feeds her baby,” she continues. “We have lost the idea that mothers’ stories need space to be processed, and can then evolve. Instead, they are being hardened and packaged.”

If health care professionals can help women feel good about themselves and understand the choices they make, positive energy will flow and broaden, allowing for constructive and often profound change.

When care providers give mothers the opportunity to be heard and to process their experience, we can all continue to move forward.