Language matters. The words we choose to communicate our messages are indicative of our position and our intent. They indicate how we feel – about ourselves, the situation we find ourselves in, and the people with whom we are conversing. This is relevant in the realm of pregnancy and childbirth because the way a vulnerable person is spoken to hugely influences their experience of an event. In some cases, it can be the difference between feeling empowered, and being (re)traumatised.
Whether we like it or not, pregnancy and childbirth have been taken over by medicine – and the language of medicine, the language of science, is the language of men. The medical model of childbirth teaches its students the language of science and power, of technology, of industrialisation, of intervention, of ‘patients’ who are ‘allowed’ to do this or that. It teaches them the language of helpless women who need to be rescued by doctors – and it teaches them well.
The woman-centred, midwifery-model of childbirth, on the other hand, teaches its students the language of love; the language of being ‘with woman’, of being privileged witnesses as new life bursts forth, of holding the sacred space while the women is empowered to get on with doing what it is she was designed to do. It is unlikely that the trend away from homebirth will be reversed in the near future, which means that the majority of births in Ireland will take place in hospitals for the foreseeable future. In order to better serve the women whose birthing journeys they are privileged to be part of, health care providers in hospital settings need to learn to be bilingual: They need to learn, alongside their hard, harsh male language of power and industrialisation, the softer, gentler, kinder language of being ‘with woman’.
Think, for a moment, of the difference between ‘hop up there now and we’ll have a little look’ and ‘would you mind if I examined you?’ Or the difference between ‘I can’t let you go over 40 weeks’ and ‘If you reach your due date without going into labour, we’ll chat about your options’. Or the difference between ‘Why are you still wearing your knickers? This is a maternity hospital – you leave your dignity at the door’ and no remarks whatsoever being passed on the appearance of a woman in labour.
This is why language matters in pregnancy and childbirth; birthing women need to be spoken to by people using language (including body language) that supports and empowers them, and lets them know that they have choices – and what those choices are.