Language is one of our most powerful weapons. Words can hurt, start wars, and tear apart relationships. Word can also heal, soothe, and tear down emotional walls. A short sentence or single word can either invite everyone into a conversation or experience, or exclude individuals or whole groups. If not used with considerate intention, words can have unnecessarily negative impacts when used during vulnerable and intimate moments or uncertain and nerve-wracking situations. Pregnancy and birthing experiences cover all of these criteria, and the people who seek guidance from birth workers, friends, and family need and deserve to hear inclusive and affirming language.
Pregnancy Is Not For “Goddesses”
When folks think of pregnancy, their brain associates that experience with the following words: women, wives, moms, mamas, and mothers. While it’s not wrong to think of women as folks who can achieve pregnancy, it’s wrong to think that all and only women are the people who become pregnant. Many identities and kinds of bodies give birth. Transgender men can and do get pregnant and so do nonbinary folks.
It’s also incorrect to assume all people who get pregnant are straight, coupled, and married. Plenty of single folks attempt pregnancy as well as queer couples who don’t fit into the overwhelming narrative that children come from one man and one woman. Some folks in non-monogamous relationships achieve pregnancy and give birth as well.
When I was in a birth class with my ex-partner, the instructor continually referred to the non-pregnant birthing partner as “Dad.” I was the non-pregnant birthing partner and was not male nor a dad. I gently corrected her the first few times she left me out of the conversation, but she continued to fuck it up. Others corrected her to the point of it becoming weird and annoying. Despite claiming her open-mindedness to queer couples and diversity, she could not get beyond her biases of birthing situations. This created a shitty experience for me and everyone in the class because she was the only one who couldn’t get it right, yet she was the instructor.
Queer people are constantly on the lookout for signs of inclusion and safety. From that point forward, I became much more intentional when seeking medical providers and birth workers who were intentional in their language. If a website or pamphlet uses gendered, cisgender and heterosexual-assumed language, it’s a clear sign that I and other queer and transgender folks are not going to get the care we deserve.
Using mindful and inclusive language around pregnancy and birth is not about people being too sensitive or an act of political correctness and it’s certainly not about erasure. Shifting to phrases like pregnant person, birthing person, postpartum person, partner(s), parent(s), and they/them pronouns does not take away from the pregnancy experience. Instead it helps everyone feel included. Of course a birth worker and family members can then use language that is desired and appropriate for each client and loved one, but when speaking in “general” terms about pregnancy and people who become pregnant, we need to let go of heteronormative language.
Birth Is Not “Natural”
Logistically, there are many ways to get pregnant, and there are multiple ways to birth a child. No one way is better or more natural than the other. To ask if someone got pregnant the “old fashioned way” is once again to assume that only cishet folks can achieve pregnancy and that it’s as simple as having sex. Plenty of folks rely on fertility assisted pregnancies no matter their gender or sexuality; people shouldn’t feel shame or judged if they used a sperm donor, egg donor, Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) or IVF to achieve pregnancy.
When it comes to birthing a child, the goal is to keep the pregnant person and the child safe. Some people brag about having a “natural birth” when what they mean is that they had a vaginal or unmedicated birth—both are wonderful, but you don’t get bonus points for this. To assume that this type of birth is natural is to then put stigma on someone who decided to use an epidural or chose or needed to have a cesarean birth. For some folks, referring to a non-vaginal birth as a belly birth or abdomen birth is preferred over calling it a C-section or cesarean.
All birth stories are valid and one type of birth should not be seen as preferred over the other. No one should ever feel disappointed in the way their body birthed a child. Your body birthed a child. That’s fucking incredible.
Breast is Not “Best”
This is not up for debate. Options are best. A well-fed child is best. A mentally well postpartum and fully supported person is best. Just because breastfeeding is an option for some, it’s not for all people. Some transgender folks may not have breasts because of gender affirming surgery and others may refer to their body as a chest and will call feeding their child chest feeding. Some women with breasts may not be able to breastfeed for physical or emotional reasons or any reason at all. Any reason to not breast or chest feed is absolutely valid. Too much pressure is put on people to feed their children human milk. Child and parent attachment still occurs and nutrients are still supplied when a parent decides formula and bottle feeding is best for their family.
Whether done on purpose or not, what we say can either invite people in to share their experiences or our words can push people away even if their experiences are similar. Pregnancy and birthing experiences are varied and our language needs to evolve to be sure everyone’s story is captured.