By Jessica Williams, Managing Director, Stakeholder Relations, Catholic Family Service and Unlocking Potential Foundation

Parent empowerment is something we talk a lot about at Catholic Family Service. It’s a practice, a way of being, that runs through our programs and aims to reinforce, at every opportunity, that the parents we serve are the most important people in their children’s lives.

As a 22-year-old very green social worker, I was trained in the parent empowerment concept when I was hired at CFS in 2006. I employed specific strategies that were intended to affirm and honour parents, and I saw positive results: in both the response from parents and strong program outcomes. Nurturing the relationship between the parent and the child was a privilege and a joy, and I thought I was pretty clear about why empowering parents matters.

I may have understood the theoretical concept, but it is true that experience is the best teacher. So it is with humility and gratitude that I recount how I came to know parent empowerment as a parent. This is my story of how becoming a parent transformed everything about me – including how I think about my work at Catholic Family Service.

This summer, I became a mom for the first time to a beautiful baby girl. I’m sure I am not alone in having difficulty grasping and describing the magnitude of crossing the threshold into parenthood. My daughter was born almost seven weeks early, so my first steps across that threshold were from the delivery room to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

As if day one of parenthood isn’t intimating enough, my husband and I spent our first hours with our daughter surrounded by medical professionals, unfamiliar machines, and 30 other babies who, like my little one, just weren’t big enough to go to the post-partum unit with their moms.

Our daughter had people with advanced medical degrees taking care of her, monitors that would alarm when there was something wrong, and even donor breastmilk to make sure she was getting the best possible nutrition immediately (no time to wait for my body to catch up). I felt like the least important person in her life. What could I possibly do for this little being, covered in wires and lying in her isolette, that wasn’t already being done for her?

For me, the intimidation and loss of meaning was amplified by a sense of shame. Although I had been reassured numerous times by our doctors that there was nothing I did to bring on early labour, I still felt a nagging sense that I had let our baby down. She belonged safe and warm inside me for another two months, not working so hard to learn to breathe, eat, and regulate her temperature! Her strength and breathtaking perfection, tiny as she was, were utterly overwhelming to me. The gap between what I thought she deserved and what I felt I had to offer seemed to grow the more I fell in love with her.

Thankfully, that gap started to get smaller instead of bigger. In direct response to the care we received from the NICU team, my confidence as a mom began to emerge. We were greeted warmly every day when we arrived, and updated, to the minute detail, about any changes in our daughter overnight. We were invited to participate in “rounds” – not just to listen to the details about her care plan, but to offer our perspectives as well. In collaboration with nurses, it was my husband and I who came up with our daughter’s feeding schedule. We were asked to change her diapers and take her temperature. Nothing we could do on our own was done for us, and that felt really, really good.

Certainly, the NICU team provided specialized services to my daughter that I could not, and I am grateful. Parent empowerment isn’t about making the parent “all things” to the child. Sometimes there is a learning component for parents – as there was for me in learning to care for a premature baby. However, not once did our care team make us feel that we were inadequate or incapable of doing this learning and becoming the parents our daughter needed.

I learned that there are two ways a professional can respond to a parent. They can put their attention on the parent’s ability to be what the child needs, or they can put their attention on their own ability to be what the child needs. One is a trusted partner, the other an expert. One helps the parent take the next step forward to be the person their child needs them to be, the other leaves the parent behind. I would have done anything for my child, including (painfully) standing back and letting someone who I believed was more capable than me take her by the hand. The NICU team never asked me to make this choice. Instead, they asked my permission or awaited my invitation to offer their care. By deferring to me whenever possible, the NICU team helped me to believe that I was already the mom my daughter needed.

When we finally left the hospital, taking that long-awaited walk with the car seat to the parking lot, I knew I had been transformed by the countless interactions with the NICU team. I left believing I really was the most important person in our baby’s life, confident that I could manage the care she needed. Of course, I wondered if I was really up to the task. But I didn’t question if someone else could do it better.

I have a new compassion and admiration for parents who walk through the doors of the CFS programs, potentially intimidated by the professionals and perhaps carrying the shame of past times when they wanted to do more or better for their kids. They are the ones who stand ready to make the sacrifice of giving up the core of who they are, to allow someone else be who they think their child needs more. As professionals, we can make sure that they know don’t have to make this choice. We diminish their humanity when we step in and run the race with their children. Our honour is to respectfully offer a few ideas – and a lot of affirmation – from the sidelines as they run that race of a lifetime.

My daughter is now almost four months old, but I don’t think I’m any further along in grasping the magnitude of the love that exists between us. With each sleeper she outgrows, each milestone she achieves, and every little smile, I’m overwhelmed and brought-to-my-knees grateful that I get to be her mom. Before she came along, I had great textbook answers for what it meant for a person to be vulnerable. Now I believe that nothing in my life will make me more vulnerable than the indescribable love I feel for her. I’ve begun to think that the parent-child bond is the most sacred of all human relationships. May these bonds never be diminished by the people trying to help.

Although all of Catholic Family Service’s programs and services build strong families, some are designed specifically to empower parents. Read about them here.