Lamaze International is 60 years old this year and Linda Harmon has been at the helm of this remarkable organization for half of that time! After nearly 30 years as the organization's executive director, Linda is retiring and stepping away from the most familiar name in childbirth education for many, people. Hard to imagine all the change and growth that Linda has led and participated in these past three decades.
Supporting the board of directors and all the members with her wisdom and leadership skills, Linda has helped shape an organization that is even more relevant than ever to today's educators and families than it was 30 years ago when she first joined the team. I wanted to ask Linda to reflect and share some insight as to what things have stood out for her during her time with Lamaze. On a personal note, I have always appreciated Linda's support, direction and collaboration as I have served in my role as Connecting the Dots' Community Manager and will miss her input, leadership and wisdom. I wish her well.
Sharon Muza: In the 30 years that you have been the Executive Director for Lamaze International, what do you think has changed the most in the field of childbirth education? What has remained the same, despite the passage of time?
Linda Harmon: There’s no doubt that childbirth education has had to change with the times. Thirty years ago, it was standard practice for most parents to attend a traditional six-week childbirth class series. Lamaze Parents Magazine was a mainstay parent communication tool distributed in classes, reaching millions of parents each year in both English and Spanish.
In the new millennium, today's parents were born in an era of technology, fast food, cable TV, computers, cell phones and an array of drive through services, and expected their birth experience to be fast, painless and easy. As result, Lamaze International and the educators teaching classes had to make many adjustments and become creative in order to attract these parents to a childbirth class to prepare for birth.
Lamaze took on the digital age moving online with timely information through our website, blogs, and published The Official Lamaze Guide: “Giving Birth with Confidence”. In order to reach more parents and bring them into classes, we launched the Pregnancy Week by Week email series and online parent classes for those who don’t have local access or may not be able to take the time or afford in person classes.
Just look at current days during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lamaze had to quickly pivot moving our Advocacy Summit to a virtual format. We responded to support members through the transition as well with a series of Meet Ups to share practices to continue teaching parents virtually. And usage of the online parent classes has grown exponentially to meet parents’ education needs in these times. Birth doesn’t stop for COVID-19!
Change and adaption to the current times will continue, but what remains the same is the key role evidence-based childbirth education plays in supporting parents. The recently released Issue Briefs on childbirth education and shared decision making lay out the evidence-base and value Lamaze education offers.
SM: Is childbirth education, particularly classes in a group format, still relevant to today’s parents?
LH: Childbirth education in any format is still relevant today, whether in a traditional class, personal consultation, virtual or online. We know evidence-based childbirth education plays a critical role in improving birth outcomes and reducing maternal health disparities. Childbirth education empowers families to make informed birth choices, encourages them to initiate birth preference discussions with their care teams and thereby decreases the rates of unnecessary birth procedures. By meeting parents at the critical life transition of pregnancy, childbirth education increases parents’ confidence, helps them address pregnancy and childbirth fears, and prepares them for labor by providing information necessary for the development of individualized birth plans.
Our goal is simple: We want all parents to feel confident, supported and powerful as they ask questions, make decisions, and navigate their path through pregnancy, birth and parenthood.
SM: What accomplishment are you most proud of at LI, when you look back on your time with the organization?
LH: Working together with so many talented and committed volunteers over the course of nearly 30 years to advance the Lamaze mission is no doubt what I’m most proud of! It takes a village to accomplish all we have over the past 30 years!
Early key initiatives were launching the Lamaze certification exam, both in English and Spanish. Then setting it up to achieve National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accreditation status, which is currently the only accredited certification in the field of childbirth education. The Journal of Perinatal Education (JPE) launched in 1991 and has grown in impact over the years and set Lamaze up as a resource in the field, and its impact has increased over the years through growth in citations.
Coalition for Improving Maternity Services (CIMS), a national alliance of more than fifty organizations and many prominent individuals, came together in 1996 to create the “Mother Friendly Childbirth Initiative (MFCI): Ten Steps to Mother-Friendly Hospitals, Birth Centers and Home Birth Services”. CIMS was born out of collaborative discussions that began at the Winds of Change Conference in Chicago, and that work continues today through collaboration with the International MotherBaby Childbirth Organization (IMBCO) and now International Childbirth Initiative.
The development of the Lamaze Six Healthy Birth Practices was a breakthrough moment for the organization in 2003. Based on research and World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, these are simple, concrete, actionable steps parents could take to support a safe and healthy birth. They have stood the test of time and serve as the strong base for what Lamaze childbirth education is all about.
Supporting research like Understanding Childbirth Education and Listening to Mothers allowed the organization to gain insights from the parents we serve to continue to adapt how we reach them. Most recently our Research Working Group published evidence-based Issue Briefs on childbirth education and shared decision making to use in making our case to for the value childbirth can bring to current maternal child health care challenges. Adapting with the times, Lamaze moved online with our research and parent blogs and infographics, and public media campaigns like Push for Your Baby.
Lamaze has always had advocacy as part of its mission, and in the past few years has taken that to a new level, with the congressional office visits by our board and then larger gatherings with members at our Advocacy Summit. The energy of members after a day on Capitol Hill meeting with congressional offices was so energizing for everyone involved. And, most recently the collaboration with the Black Maternal Health Caucus in a congressional briefing on key maternal/child health issues.
Our willingness to take risks like the launch of online parent education, which has been a remarkable resource for parents during the COVID pandemic has provided many benefits. Our agility to pivot and host our Advocacy Summit virtually, along with an array of virtual member Meet Ups to support members through the pandemic and adapting to virtual teaching has been key.
Our licensing partnerships, offering Lamaze infant development toys, books, organic infant apparel and maternity intimates, have been a key factor in providing the financial resources needed to support Lamaze programs and advance our mission. Over the past 25 years these partnerships have contributed over $25 million in revenue and in addition have extended the Lamaze brand to parents across the globe.
And on a personal level, I’m very proud that my daughters learned about safe and healthy birth through my work. When it came time for them to have families, it came naturally to get educated, choose midwifery care and both have had memorable safe and healthy births. I’ve been personally blessed to be at the births of my four grandchildren, and with another on the way in April I’m hopeful to be there for support again.
SM: What challenges face the organization as we move forward?
LH: Continuing to adapt and change with the times and to serving diverse and international communities is important. Attracting committed and engaged volunteers to lead and carry out the work of the organization is a continued focus. Additionally, ensuring a strong financial base will always be an organization priority in order to support the work and mission of the organization.
SM: What are you going to miss the most after you retire?
LH: I will definitely miss the team work, relationships, and satisfaction of seeing how all the moving parts come together to advance the Lamaze programs and mission. Over the years I have worked in partnership with 24 Lamaze presidents and countless volunteer leaders. I hold those relationships dear and have such fond memories of my work with Lamaze.
My professional life’s journey has been amazing. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished together. But, there is still so much more to do! I have every confidence Lamaze members, volunteer leaders and my successor Andrea Boudreaux are up to leading the ongoing work!
SM: What advice do you have for the incoming Executive Director, who will have big shoes to replace upon your departure?
LH: I’m thrilled to welcome Andrea Bourdreaux, and believe she is fully up to the work at hand with the breadth of experience she brings to the organization. She will be taking time to get to know Lamaze key programs and initiatives, and meet with our members and volunteer leaders who are essential to engage and work with to advance the Lamaze mission. Only working together, we can accomplish Lamaze’s strategic goals and make a difference for the parents and communities we serve.
SM: As we thank you for the remarkable contributions you have made to our organization and to the field of maternal-infant health, is there anything you would like to say to our members, our families and the community at large?
LH: Keep up the good work! Remember the next generation is counting on you to prepare new parents not only for birth but the start of a family. Our goal is simple: We want all parents to feel confident, supported and powerful as they ask questions, make decisions, and navigate their path through pregnancy, birth and parenthood.
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