|About the author: Pamela Mertz is a woman who stutters from Albany, NY, USA. She is the founder and host of the podcast “Women Who Stutter: Our Stories” and writes the blog “Make Room For The Stuttering” found at www.stutterrockstar.com. Pam is actively involved in the stuttering community and recently became a host with Stutter Social. She is also an active Toastmaster. During her spare time, Pam enjoys Community Theater and music, and also works fulltime in Adult Education.|
Women who stutter want to talk about stuttering. With each other. And sometimes without men around. There, I said it. It’s true. How do I know? Because I’m a woman who stutters and I’ve asked other women who stutter. Many of us like the opportunity to talk about the feelings and thoughts we have about stuttering just with other women. It’s not that we don’t appreciate men who stutter, or their insights. No, that’s not it at all. It’s just simply that women need to talk amongst themselves to feel better and to realize that they are not alone in their feelings.
In John Gray’s 1992 classic book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” we learn about the differences in communication between men and women. Dr. Gray tells us the difference between “Martians and Venusians.” Men – “Martians” – define their sense of self through their ability to achieve results. Men are very solution oriented and want to fix things. Women – “Venusians” – define their sense of self through their feelings and the quality of relationships. They want to talk about things.
When “Martians” are stressed, they retreat to their caves to think about the problem and figure out a solution. Men feel better when they’ve figured out how to “fix the problem.” When “Venusians” are stressed, they want to find other women and talk. Women feel better talking about and sharing their problems. Dr. Gray tells us that “Martians” and “Venusians” – men and women – need to understand that there are innate differences in how men and women and communicate. It’s OK to communicate differently. The key is to acknowledge that. Acknowledging the differences in communicating makes communicating easier.
Twenty + years later, much of this remains true, in my humble opinion. When men and women acknowledge that we communicate differently, we communicate better. And the same applies in the stuttering community.
How many women who stutter do you know who have had the experience of attending stuttering support groups and find themselves to be the only woman there, with 12-15 men who stutter? I have, numerous times, and always felt like the “odd man out.” No pun intended! Of course, this plays to the statistical breakdown of stuttering, where it’s said that 4 of 5 people who stutter are men. So, women who stutter are a minority within a minority, as only approximately 1% of the population at large stutters. So 20% of 1% is a miniscule number and can indeed feel like living alone on an isolated planet.
I felt uncomfortable when I attended stuttering support groups where I was the only woman, or one of only two women in a group dominated by men. I often felt that the men were focusing on finding fluency, or trying techniques, or looking for a solution, where I was more interested in talking about how I felt. Talking about how it felt to feel less attractive, talking about how my self-esteem had been affected, talking about my confidence being eroded, talking about how it felt to try and hide my stuttering for so long and slowly coming to terms that trying to hide it wasn’t working anymore. The mostly male group didn’t seem to want to talk about feelings and attitudes about stuttering.
To be transparent, this group I attended for a while was a clinic based stuttering support group, so I learned that it was indeed largely fluency based. But the group did advertise that acceptance was also part of the group goals and that discussion of feelings was welcome. But it never seemed that way to me, and I never felt comfortable discussing real feelings. On the one or two occasions I did venture to share, a couple of the guys in the group would seize the opportunity to talk about how if I worked harder on managing fluency, I wouldn’t have those feelings of low self-esteem or not feeling confident, etc. I didn’t attend this group for too very long.
I’ve thought a lot about this for the past several years, as I have become more involved in the stuttering community at large and met so many women who stutter at annual stuttering conferences and through social media. I have often thought I’d like to chat with just women about some of the issues we wrestle with as we go through life as women who stutter. I’ve had the chance to do that one-on-one with women in the podcast I host called “Women Who Stutter: Our Stories.” Here, I invite women to tell their stories and we often explore the feelings of shame, fear, denial, lack of confidence, etc. It is often quite healing for both of us, as we very often touch on very deep and personal feelings.
But my podcast forum is really to give the female “guest” a chance to do just what the podcast says – to share her story, which women who stutter rarely get the chance to, because, as said, we’re a minority within a minority. And frankly, we’re hardly ever asked to tell our story. Media portrayals of people who stutter almost always feature men. I have wanted a chance myself to talk in groups of just women about how it feels to be a woman who stutters and to just really put those feelings out there and have other women grab on, respond, discuss and share.
I found that chance recently. I have had the opportunity to co-facilitate three workshops in the last two years on issues related to women who stutter and what we want to talk about with each other. Two of the workshops were at the National Stuttering Association (NSA) annual conferences in 2012 and 2013. The workshops were about women’s issues, but men were welcome to attend. In 2012, one man attended the workshop with about 30 women. In 2013, 15 men attended with about 50 women.
The other workshop that I was fortunate enough to co-facilitate was a “for women only” workshop at the 2013 World Congress for People Who Stutter in The Netherlands. I was lucky to be present at the workshop through Skype and co-facilitated with three other women who were physically present at the conference. That was a great experience to be able to use technology to attend a conference workshop and still feel very much a part of it. I was able to see, hear and interact with the workshop participants, as if I was in the room with them.
All three of the workshops were powerful learning experiences – both for the participants and the facilitators.
I learned that women appreciate having a safe space created for them to talk about our feelings and thoughts about navigating through life as women who stutter. When we first held the workshop at the NSA conference in 2012, we broke the participants into three groups who had the opportunity to talk about such topics as esteem, confidence, socializing and dating, vulnerability, parenting and work.
The facilitators moved among the groups and saw raw emotion being shared – confessions, tears, hugs, laughter and relief. The relief seemed most important to share. Women felt relieved to know that they weren’t the only ones wanting to share deep emotions about stuttering with other women and that it was very healing to be able to do so. How do I know that? Because women shared that at our large group brief-out before the workshop was over. Women shared that they valued having a space of their own to talk about deep feelings relating to their stuttering experience and that it was important to them to be able to do so without men there. Women expressed relief knowing they weren’t alone in feeling that it was OK to want to talk with just other women.
Many women at that 2012 NSA workshop also shared that the workshop had been their favorite, and they requested we hold it again in 2013. So we did! We titled the workshop “What Women Want,” and described it as an opportunity for women to come together to talk about issues important to them as women who stutter. We included in the workshop description that men were welcome and encouraged to attend, not really expecting that men would be interested. Boy, were we wrong!
About 15 men came to the 2013 workshop, and we facilitators did a double take. We had planned to break the women up into three groups again like last year and give the opportunity and space to talk about women’s issues, this year focusing a bit more on issues that had come up at last year’s groups: confidence, dignity and the space we take up as women (or don’t take up!) We decided to form a 4th group, of the men only, and give them an opportunity to talk about what kind of issues were important to them as men who stutter, and see what the experience would be like for them to have this space with just men.
It turned out that both men and women learned something very important that day. There needs to be opportunities created for men (Martians) to talk just with each other and the same for women (Venusians.) The men’s group had a buzz and energy just like the women’s groups did, for different but similar reasons. The men were huddled closely together and were talking about emotions with each other. We had asked a friend to facilitate the men’s group at the last minute and another guy helped out too.
Walking around the groups and seeing the emotions and energy was uplifting. Again, women in their groups were emotional – one group was in tears and supporting a woman who had shared a very personal story with her group, strangers until that moment. Another group of diverse ages were having a spirited discussion about dating. And it was obvious that the men’s group was creating a buzz among the group at large. I think the women wanted to know what the men were talking about.
At the large group break-out, we learned that most of the men who came to the workshop really wanted to learn what women who stutter need and want, so that men could know and be more supportive. The men also shared that they had a great experience at this workshop – most reported that they had never had the chance to talk on such a deep and personal level with other men who stutter in a space created for just that. The men reported that they’d love to have their own workshop next year called “What Men Want” to do this deep talking again. And in further sharing, all of us as a group thought it would be great to have both a men’s and women’s group going on at the same time in adjacent rooms and then gather together for the last half hour or so of the workshop time, for a mutual sharing of ideas and support.
The women’s workshop at the World Congress in The Netherlands was for women only. We had sought permission to advertise the group that way and give women from all different countries and backgrounds the experience of talking in just a women’s space. The groups talked about confidence, parenting, hormonal issues, self-esteem and how it feels to be a woman who stutters. As at the NSA conferences, I saw and heard raw emotion, tears, laughter, hugs and relief. The international gathering of women reported unanimously that this was a favorite workshop – that it is important to create safe space where women who stutter can talk about the feelings we have about stuttering without necessarily also having to talk about finding solutions. Just talking and sharing is/was sometimes enough.
Women who stutter like to, and need to, talk about the experiences and feelings of stuttering, free of agendas and solutions. Creating such safe spaces for women to talk with each other is important and valuable.
And we learned that men support that and want to know what women who stutter want to talk about.
Who knew that Martians and Venusians could be on the same page . . . . er, planet?
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