“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”
I flung myself into motherhood before I knew very much about infant development. When my firstborn was only a few weeks old and she would wake throughout the night, I would nurse her and then I’d carry her to the couch and I would read to her until my eyelids were so heavy, I could scarcely make out the words on the page. Then we’d shuffle back to bed. Over and over.
Knowing what I know now, looking back, this is an absurd ritual. I wasn’t doing myself or my daughter any favors when it came to regulating her sleep cycle; all she really needed were my breasts. But at the time, I felt it was important to provide her with the enrichment of storytelling, even at the most ridiculous hours of the night, when the entire neighborhood was still, only the orange glow of street lamps and the crickets’ chirp.
Since then, I have spent many, many more evenings reading bedtime stories (at a much more reasonable hour.) Perhaps it was the precedent I set; my now eleven-year-old devotes her evenings devouring stories well into cricket-chirping hours.
Over this roughly decade’s worth of motherhood, I have simultaneously spent my time helping tell the stories of maternal child health advocates. Every Sunday, we bring these stories to you here on Our Milky Way. Similar to reading the same requested bedtime story over and over and over again, something I imagine many parents are familiar with, the storytelling on Our Milky Way has started to feel formulaic. This is not to say the stories themselves are stale, but the way in which I gather and piece them together easily slips into a robotic rhythm.
That was until I had the opportunity to hear one of Dr. Magda Peck’s presentations at the Healthy Start TA & Support Center’s (TASC) inaugural Healthy Start Consumer Convening at the end of May.
It was like she exhaled inspiration into the room, encouraging storytelling in less familiar or conventional ways. A tattoo is a story, she told participants. Songs tell stories. There are of course so many more modalities: video, radio stories, podcast, poem, oral tradition, and so on.
Stories are ancient. Stories are ever-evolving. Stories help us make sense of the world. We tell stories to connect, to understand, to preserve memory, to educate, to cope and to heal, and as Kendall Haven has been quoted, “Story is not theoretical anymore. It’s not hyperbole. Story is woven into our DNA. We are story. That’s now science.”
In the context of the maternal health crisis, stories can humanize numbers and help us make sense of data.
Numbers and data are important because they drive decisions and policies, but they also sanitize humanity, as Dr. Peck put it.
“Water the stories so they come back to life,” she insisted.
Another bit of advice: let the story breathe. That is, listen to understand, not to respond. Dr. Peck went on to point out that humans often interrupt because of the desire to connect, but interruption stifles a story.
With an optimistic outlook, Dr. Peck maintained that “Everything is possible if we can imagine it so.”
This week, we’ve pulled together some of the storytelling vehicles and projects, research and commentary on anecdotes for you to engage with.
The following projects and pieces are excellent examples of storytelling for connection, understanding, coping and healing, for education, for preservation and reclamation, for education to elicit action.
- Micronutrient FORUM’s Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies created a series of short films that lift up women’s voices in different global contexts. Find the videos here.
- Birthright is a podcast about stories of joy and healing in Black birth with Kimberly Seals Allers.
- Our Bodies, Our Stories is a series of reports that details the scope of violence against Native women and people across the nation.
- “Established in 2019 as part of Lehigh University’s Global Social Impact Fellowship, Mothers of Sierra Leone is a documentary film campaign that foregrounds the voices of Sierra Leonean women and the expertise of Sierra Leonean healthcare workers.” The creators “leverage stories of innovation and resilience, and we study the efficacy of these stories for improving maternal health outcomes.” Find coverage on this project at On “Mothers of Sierra Leone”: Improving Maternal Health Through Storytelling.
- Birthing Justice and Legacy, Power, Voice: Movements in Black Midwifery both explore the experience of Black birth in America. The latter “intimately explores the evolution of Black birthing traditions in America by giving voice to the traditional caretakers of the Black community.”
- In 2022, the authors of Storytelling in Pregnancy and Childbirth: An Integrative Review of the Literature concluded that “the use of storytelling can be used as an effective method in educational interventions during pregnancy and childbirth.”
- Rafael Camp writes about why narratives matter in medical practice here.
- Chelsea Ann Wiley, MSN, RN, PHN writes about why telling your birth story matters here.
- The United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) mobilizes action on legislative and policy opportunities that can help create a landscape of breastfeeding support across the U.S. often by collecting and sharing families’ stories. Check out their Share Your Story Action Tools here.
- Similarly, New America and A Better Balance’s The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Future of the Care Movement virtual event opened with discussing the influence narrative can have on policy change. Check out the conversation here. Vania Leveille of ACLU did share that while storytelling is an important piece in legislation adoption, she does not believe it to be central to the cause.
- Kajsa Brimdyr’s ethnographic work helps tell the stories of health care facilities working to implement best practice, like immediate, uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact after all modes of birth.
- PATH’s Tell Better Stories report was created to “assist global health and development organizations in their decision-making, particularly when conveying Narrative Project messages to the engaged public via internet-based video messaging.” As the authors write: “… Broadly, [the] results favor the use of story and emotion-based videos over lecture-based videos though there are several caveats.”
- The course Advanced Issues in Lactation Practice uses narrative-based practice as the means to enhance counseling. “Telling one’s story can be therapeutic in itself, but it also opens the client’s world to the practitioner, giving insights that closed- ended questions do not,” Healthy Children Project’s Karin Cadwell explains.
We would be honored to share YOUR story. Email us with your interest in being featured on Our Milky Way at firstname.lastname@example.org.