What better way to start the new year than to consider words that are to do with new beginnings.
Language choice in midwifery isn't a new topic, but it is an important one. It's something members of The Secret Community For Midwives In The Making have been asking me to write about and as a person who loves words, I'm thrilled to do so 🙂
If you've done much midwifery reading, you'll know that many excellent midwives have reflected on the impact that language can have and there's been quite a bit of research on the subject too.
The words we choose are powerful as they carry meaning and context from our society.
I think the difference between the words 'delivery' and 'birth' illustrates this truth perfectly.
The word 'delivery' comes from the Old French 'delivrer' based on the Latin 'de-' meaning 'away' and 'liberare' which means 'to set free'.
The way we use it in everyday speech means 'to hand over' or 'provide something' (as promised and expected).
If you were a Mum in labour, how would you feel about this word and concept? If your caregivers were using the word 'delivery' what might it mean to you?
Would you want to 'hand over' your baby to someone as soon as it's left your body? Or 'set it free'? Are you 'providing' the world with your baby?
Does the word 'delivery' imply your part in things is being overlooked? Or like your baby is going to be taken from you, as you just are the vessel for 'delivery'?
This is where the word BIRTH comes in. Birth is a wonderful word.
The word 'birth' is technically more accurate than 'delivery' as it describes the emergence of a baby or other young from its mother and the start of its life as a physically separate being.
We also use 'birth' in everyday language to describe the origins and ancestry of people, as in, 'she's Scottish by birth'.
This seems fitting when welcoming a new person into the world as it has connotations of a baby's home and place of belonging.
The word 'birth' comes from the old Norse 'byrth' which is related to 'bear'. It's a beautiful word which has nothing to do with anyone providing an item as promised.
Just like when we say a 'tree bears fruit', the tree is acknowledged as the source.
We wouldn't say 'the tree delivered fruit'. It would sound weird as the tree isn't just passing the fruit on to us. The tree has it's own agenda 🙂
And while we're discussing old Norse language, which was the language of the Vikings, it's worth mentioning that women in that ancient society held most of the legal rights of men and were often leaders of clans. The word 'byrth' comes from a culture that was (fairly) respectful of women.
Back to midwifery.
A lot of staff think this distinction is not worth taking time over.
They want to fit in with their colleagues who use the word and not be seen as making a fuss. When I was training, I can remember using the word 'delivery' because I wanted to fit in and be seen as a member of the team. I cared what people thought of me, and there's nothing wrong with that.
But do you see how much power you hand a woman when you opt to say 'birth' instead of 'delivery'?
Using the word 'birth' implies midwifery care that is more patient, respectful, understanding, healthy and wise. To me this is what midwifery is all about. Careful language choice is one of the ways I'd tell between a midwife I'd like to have caring for me and one I wouldn't be so sure of.
Sheena Byrom, who is an amazing UK midwifery leader, has written about this topic and lists many other examples of disempowering obstetric language like:
Patient (childbearing women are usually healthy so why label them as 'patients'?)
Failure to progress
Poor Maternal Effort
Trial of Scar
There are many more examples. It's a huge topic and one I hope I've got you started thinking about.
Now I'd love to hear what you think about midwifery language choice.
Do you think the distinction between 'birth' and 'delivery' is important? What are other midwifery terms that you think are disempowering? What would you say instead?
Please do include detail and context so we can learn from your expertise and insight 🙂
I hope you're already having an amazing 2017. As always, thanks for reading. From the bottom of my heart, it's an honour to write for you and I look forward to doing my weekly Midwife Diaries posts right through the year.