Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!
When we were children, this phrase was meant to comfort and strengthen us, to be a shield against bullies and meanness. And yet even then we knew that words had incredible power. They could make us feel pain, joy, sorrow, fear, and excitement. Words, sometimes even more than physical actions, could leave marks.
And now, as adults working with birthing families, we are in a place where our words can carry an incredible weight with those families. They come to us for knowledge, for reassurance, for support. They come to us wanting validation and encouragement, and they soak in what we tell them like plants in a desert.
Birthing people are especially receptive to the impact of what we say to them. Several studies over the past decade have suggested a connection between oxytocin levels and trust: when someone’s body is flooded with oxytocin, their social barriers to trusting others, even strangers, may be lowered.
This means that the impact of what we say to birthing parents may be more than, or even different from, what the intent behind our words was.
Think about some of the conversations that we have about birth on a regular basis, and the things that we may say as a matter of course: “She ended up with a cesarean.” “They were going for a natural birth, but got narcotics.” “We’re attempting a VBAC.” Those may at first seem like straightforward, factual statements, but think again…what might the underlying messages be? How might these statements feel to someone whose birth story included cesarean birth or medical pain relief? Would they feel validated, or judged? How might this impact change their perceptions of their birth and themselves, consciously or subconsciously? If even a doula is disappointed by someone needing pain meds, it must be really wrong…
Equally importantly, how might hearing such relatively commonplace phrasing influence pregnant people, those who are preparing to give birth? Might it affect their attachments and aversions? Might it influence their ability to prepare for, cope with, and heal from unexpected or unwished-for events?
How might we reframe what we say to pregnant, birthing, and postpartum parents to convey helpful, accurate information, while minimizing outcome-oriented messages of shame or disappointment? How can we validate families’ preferences and lived experiences, provide encouragement, and celebrate the power of birth, all without applying unintentional value judgments?
This is the motivation behind and the focus of “The Words We Use: How Language Impacts the Birth Experience,” my continuing education workshop for experienced and aspiring birth workers. We’ll explore the concepts of language, framing and embodied cognition, and how to shift conversations around common birth topics. I hope you’ll join us!