Guest Writers

The Power of Birth Language

11 Comments 30 April 2010

by guest blogger Morgan A. McLaughlin McFarland

Language is a powerful thing.

The ways in which we choose to describe a situation or relationship often shed light on our beliefs (be they conscious or subconscious) about the balance of power within that situation or relationship. The language that we use also shapes how we perceive a situation and how we will act when confronted with it.

Consider if you will, the word “let” when applied to a birth or a care provider/birthing mother relationship.

How broad is the gulf between “my care provider supports my plan to give birth in water” and “my care provider is letting me give birth in water?” Both describe the same situation–a mother and her midwife/doctor both agree on the safety/efficacy of the water birth–but while the first statement places the power in the hands of the mother, the second places it in the hands of the doctor.

In the first statement, the mother has come to a decision and then conferred with her care provider, who agrees with and supports that mother’s choice to birth as she sees fit. In the second statement, the mother has sought and been granted permission to pursue a certain type of birth.

Another word that misplaces the power of birth is “deliver.”

The same birth could be described in two ways: “I gave birth to my baby [in the care of Dr. Smith]” or “Dr. Smith delivered my baby.” Where is the mother in the second statement? The difference in the balance of power in those two statements is obvious, because in the second, the mother is presented as irrelevant to the birth, which exists only as a relationship, a delivery, between the baby and doctor.

Do our babies really need to be delivered from us, liberated or saved from our bodies? Should we deliver our babies into the hands of others, as though they were pizzas or packages places in someone else’s care? An empowered mother births or gives birth to her baby; she is not delivered by a doctor or midwife. Using this language, she is the initiator of the experience, an active participant in the action, and the care provider’s role is to attend the birth or assist the birthing mother.

As advocates of normal birth, we believe that birth is the property of the mother, not the care provider.

We believe birthing women are clients of the care provider and that the care provider works for the mother, rather than seeing birthing women as patients of a doctor/midwife authority figure to whom they must defer.

As adult women preparing to bring another life into the world, we must be empowered enough to stop seeking permission from doctors, nurses, and midwives. We must not put ours births into their hands for delivery, but claim our rightful place as the source of the birth experience. We must be careful in the language we use to describe, not just our own pregnancies/births, but the pregnancies/births of others.

If we are to own our birth experiences, we must remember that care providers require our permission to act, not the other way around.

While changing your language can’t guarantee a perfect birth experience for yourself or anyone else, being aware of your word choice can help you be more empowered through even a less than ideal birth experience. Women who believe in their right to weigh the costs/benefits of interventions, choosing the course of action they believe is safest for their babies and themselves, are less likely to feel a sense of disempowerment and anger after the birth is over.

Even if choice is between a rock and a hard place, simply owning the responsibility to make that choice is empowering. Owning your birth experience can give immeasurable strength. The first step to that ownership is language.

When writing or speaking about birth, be aware of your words and the weight they carry.

Take a moment to consider why you might choose words like “let/allow” and “deliver” to describe a birth experience, especially if you’re using those words in the context of expectations for an impending birth.

If you are wondering if your midwife/doctor will let you do something, consider examining why you, as an intelligent, empowered adult, need permission to do something your body already knows how to do. If you think of the birth process as a delivery, consider questioning why you frame it within the context of that language.

Giving away our power verbally or in writing creates a paradigm in which we condition ourselves to surrender our power in actuality. When your language paradigm shifts to place mothers and babies at the center, and providers on the periphery, so, too, will your beliefs shift.

As you think and write and speak, so shall you live. As you live, so shall you birth.

Your Comments

11 Comments so far

  1. V says:

    Many midwives use the term “catch.” ;)

  2. Chantal says:

    This is a beautiful piece. I changed my language some time ago and have changed the language in official hospital documents, descriptions of classes, and information booklets regarding childbirth at the facility where I work. I encourage our perinatal nurses to do the same. This is so important if we want to change the paradigm.

  3. Lisa Kerrigan says:

    Babies are not delivered. At home a woman gives birth and her husband, friend, or helper may catch the baby. She may catch the baby herself or just provide a soft lading place. Doctors extract or pull or otherwise forcibly remove babies.

  4. Andrea says:

    Here’s one that drives my crazy:

    “They ‘took’ the baby by c-section.”

  5. Wonderful!

    You’re singing our song. In Hypnobabies, we address the “Power of Words” in class one with our couples. “Pizzas are ‘delivered’, not babies…our mothers give birth to them!”

    Thank you for your insights! I love your blog posts. Been following you for a while, and had to comment on this topic…near and dear to my heart.

    Carole Thorpe, Hypnobabies VP

  6. Chrissy says:

    Excellent blog piece. Thank you!!!!

    I am huge on the words used surrounding birth. One particular hate of mine is the word delivery/delivered, a passive word. A woman births her baby as she is active. Babies can only be delivered via extraction (venturous, surgery or forceps) as a woman in labour BIRTHS. (you put it much more eloquently).

    3 years ago I wasn’t aware as I am now to how words are positive and empowering or negative and disconnecting. My first birth was intense. My second birth was amazing.

    I think you can take it even further, the language used to describe body reactions and sensations can either be disconnecting or empowering. When I hear words that are associated with real pain used to describe a birth I tense up and shut down. I believe that if these words are heard that as emotionally charged human beings our bodies react and ‘feel’ these words by tensing and fighting.

  7. Sue Gorman says:

    Beautiful article!
    Six of our ten children were born at home, with the loving assistance of my husband, and in one case, my mother.
    There was always an intensely spiritual quality to the birth and it is an experience
    of unmeasurable joy!!!

  8. Courtney says:

    so very true! when talking about my midwife and my upcoming home birth I say “she’s HELPING me give birth at home” not “she’s letting me give birth at home” because really.. that’s why we hired her, so she can help us achieve what we want, and help us if something were to go wrong. She’s not there to LET me do anything.

    I always felt my OB (with my first pregnancy) was “letting” me.. not that it ever really happened. She basically did whatever she wanted without ever asking me my opinion or telling me options. It was horrible :( I definitely use the term “delivered” with that birth…. *sigh*

  9. Thank you for this!

    I’d like to add something:
    We know that when a woman has a doula at her birth, it reduces her risk of having needing pain medication, a cesarean, a forceps delivery, and the length of her labor. But in reality, having a trusted woman helper with you during labor is nothing but NORMAL. Therefore, NOT having a doula actually INCREASES all these risks.

    for more info:

  10. All good stuff – YOU ARE GIVEN AUTHORITY OVER YOUR BIRTH! Or you can give it away; sad.

    A little etymology on the word “delivered”: Ancient texts have the mother delivered from birth not the baby, or some read: she was “delivered of a child” also “she should be delivered” (see Luke chap 2 verse 6). This shows that, in my mind, as every birth is potentially life-threatening for the mother, especially in by-gone days, she needs help. THANK GOD FOR MIDWIVES!

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