In 2010, Pam England wrote a series of pieces about ways in which we can change birth in our culture. The Birthing From Within leadership and blog team has chosen some of these pieces as inspiration and jumping-off points to create a new 12-part series about changing birth in our culture that reflects current understandings within the birth world as well as our current approaches and offerings as an organization. We will be sharing one piece for each month of 2019, both on the blog and in our monthly newsletters. We hope you enjoy this wonderful material, both the archival treasure and the new, innovative insights!
As birth professionals, the language we use matters.
From the text on our websites, brochures, and business cards, to the way we speak in person with people in our communities, our words have power. One aspect of this power is the power to include or exclude.
There are many affirmations commonly used within the birth community that can be exclusive. Think about phrases like:
“She believed she could, so she did.”
“Your body is not a lemon.”
“What the mind believes, the body achieves.”
Such expressions exclude birthing people whose bodies did not work in the way that they had hoped — who experienced difficult births with unwished-for events, who struggled with infertility or loss, or who have medical conditions or disabilities that mean that certain birth outcomes just aren’t possible.
Birthing From Within offers parents a more expansive approach as they prepare for, experience, and process their births. By changing the language we use, we can help clients move away from the success/failure model into a mindset of thinking about and coping with the many unknowns in pregnancy, birth, and parenting. This mode of thinking is inclusive in the sense that it is applicable to all birthing people and all birth outcomes, and offers a level of freedom and self-compassion that many have never experienced before.
This is all to say that, as BFW practitioners, we are already highly sensitive to how language affects birthing people, and we strive to use language that leaves room for many kinds of birth experiences and outcomes.
In order to continue to blaze a path towards changing birth in our culture, though, we need to consider another aspect of our language use: Do our words also leave room for the many kinds of people who give birth?
Many birth workers are confused by this aspect of inclusive language, especially as it pertains to the LGBTQ+ community. The basic concept is pretty simple: all kinds of people give birth. Women give birth. Men give birth. People who identify outside the gender binary give birth. Single people give birth. People in forms of partnership other than traditional monogamous marriage give birth.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the medical care system in general and reproductive healthcare in particular have a long way to go to become truly inclusive of all of this variety. But doulas, childbirth educators, and other birth professionals are in a wonderful position to help turn the tide.
If you want to have an inclusive practice that serves all birthing people, you might start by taking a look at your written materials — your website, your social media outlets, and any paper handouts that you may give to current or prospective clients. Do you use words like woman, mama/mom/daddy/father, she/her, husband, goddess, etc.? Does your writing suggest the assumption that all birthing people are married women with male spouses who will be involved in the birth? These questions may help you start to identify ways in which you could change your language to become more inclusive of more families in your community, substituting words like person (pregnant person, birthing person, postpartum person), partner(s), parent(s), and they/them.
LGBTQ+ folks — and members of other marginalized communities — are often on the lookout for explicit signs that service providers are non-discriminatory, safe, and aware of their needs. If your website and other materials insistently use words like “woman,” “husband,” and so on, that may immediately suggest to an LGBTQ+ person that you are not a safe choice for them, regardless of your actual feelings or intentions.
Of course, along with making these shifts in your written materials, it’s important to practice them in your spoken words as well. If your website is gender inclusive but you tend to use words like “women” and “mama” when speaking to clients or speaking about your work with others, there is a big opportunity there for you to allow that inclusive spirit to infiltrate all of your language choices. If you want to support many different types of families in your practice, indicating that through subtle language shifts will help to let those folks know that you may be safe for them.
If you feel that you aren’t truly prepared to work with LGBTQ+ clients, it’s a wonderful idea to become familiar with birth professionals in your community who may be better equipped to support these parents. Sometimes the most inclusive and compassionate thing you can do is to refer a potential client to a more appropriate resource for their needs. That said, it’s also important for you to seek out education for yourself in order to become well-versed in the issues facing birthing people in these communities, and to understand how to support their particular needs, even if you don’t think that they will ever form the majority of your clientele.
Remember, too, that you will not always know everything about prospective clients, or about the people in your childbirth classes.
Gender and sexual identities are not always immediately obvious; nor are the relationships between the people who you may be interpreting as a “couple.” Using inclusive language helps you to not make assumptions about the people with whom you’re interacting, and allows their own stories and identities to emerge unpressured.
In short, making these seemingly small changes in word choice can add up to making a huge difference for the people you serve.
When we shift from terms and phrases that are limiting to those that are more expansive and inclusive, we help make the birth world safer and more accessible for more folks who are looking for support and care as they navigate the path to parenthood.
For more specific help with affirming and inclusive language, take a look at these resources:
- LGBTQIA Inclusive Pregnancy and Birth Care
- Using Gender Neutral Language in Birth Classes
- Affirming Language in Birth Work
- Queering Reproductive Justice: A Mini Toolkit