Motherhood

More Than Words: Changing the Language of Fertility and Motherhood

Guest Post: Malwina Gudowska 25 days ago8 min read

I was 26 weeks pregnant with my second child when my appendix burst. Appendicitis is common, but once a rupture occurs, the condition can be life-threatening. Add a pregnancy to the mix and the stakes are higher. At one point, I thought I was going to die, or at least never recover from the pain. I remember yelling to the doctors, “I had an unmedicated, vaginal birth with my first child and this pain is a hundred times worse!” Recovery post-appendectomy was long and not without complications, but I got better and carried my baby to term.

The Renaming Revolution

It is a privilege to have had access to healthcare and life-saving surgery, and I was lucky. During all the unknowns pre- and post-surgery, I was unquestionably worried about my baby. But when the pain was so acute I could barely lift my eyelids, I was also worried about myself. And yet, I often felt, because of the way I was spoken to and about, not just by medical professionals but some people close to me, I was merely a vessel, a container for my unborn child, sometimes no longer even me.

As a linguistics researcher, I study language every day, but this was personal and gave me an insider’s look at how a person’s fertility and pregnancy are discussed by others, often to the detriment of that person.

The language used—negative or positive—can have long-lasting emotional and physical effects. Language can define power balances in conversations, invalidate a person’s autonomy and control over their own body and care, and in a medical setting, can impact patient safety. Language is and has power, and the use of insensitive language can signify deep-rooted attitudes and prejudices.

The #RenamingRevolution Glossary redefines and reclaims the language around fertility and motherhood.

After thousands of women on Peanut shared their own stories of feeling shamed and judged by language used around fertility and motherhood, it became evident that new terms are needed, ones that inspire and empower rather than degrade and belittle. From medical to mainstream, the #RenamingRevolution Glossary redefines and reclaims the language around fertility and motherhood.

Scrutinizing the language and acknowledging the need to redefine it and reclaim it from patriarchal influences is the first step. But having access to a glossary of alternative, inclusive and encouraging terms, ones that recognize that not every woman or person is experiencing the same reproductive health struggles, and having those terms become part of our everyday English lexicon is the most inspiring part of the #RenamingRevolution.

More than the sum of our parts

There is a common theme in the archaic and offensive language of fertility, pregnancy and birth, still used regularly in both medical and mainstream settings, that identifies a reproductive body part, assumed to be the culprit, and condemns it: “inhospitable uterus”, “hostile womb”, “incompetent cervix.” But these offenders, even if identified with the intention of treatment, are still part of a whole person.

Similarly, “your biological clock is ticking” or, “being sectioned” (having a Caesarean) implies someone is divided, often into defective, or soon-to-be failing parts. It is one thing to be anatomically correct, but another to add insolent adjectives, making a person question their sense of self and worth.

In some cases, the person is of no importance at all: “a healthy baby is all that matters” or, when someone over 35, is referred to as a “geriatric pregnancy”.

The language of birth

When the language should be as anatomically specific as possible, as is the case with “vaginal birth” (or “physiological birth”) and “abdominal birth” (a.k.a. C-section) “natural birth” or “normal birth” is still thrown around as if anything but an (unmedicated) vaginal birth is “unnatural” or “abnormal”.

The bigger conversation around terms “natural” or “normal” is complicated, and beyond the scope of this article. The terminology, although problematic as it can lead to feelings of failure and shame by those that feel they did not have “natural” or “normal” births, has made a comeback recently, to give control back to the person giving birth.

Years of patriarchal rule and control in delivery rooms, the result being at times unnecessarily medicalized births, meant the pendulum had swung too far away from person-centred birth, hence the use of “natural” or “normal” to bring it back.

The #RenamingRevolution provides positive alternatives that consider a person’s autonomy and self-worth.

Autonomy and agency

Consider the pregnancy euphemism “bun in the oven”. While the bun is baking, the oven is watched over, the temperature adjusted ensuring a comfortable environment for the baked goods. Once the bun is done, the oven has served its purpose. Cute sounding, sure, but “bun in the oven” reinforces the idea of the pregnant person as a container or mechanism.

These types of pregnancy tropes also smack of ancient and sexist gender stereotypes. (In German, it is “a roast in the oven”.) The definition of euphemism, and there are many pregnancy euphemisms, is an alternate expression for one considered too harsh or direct. It wasn’t long ago no one dared to utter the p-word and pregnancy was never discussed openly.

When the language does consider the whole person, there is a clear division between accomplishment and failure. Think of “fallen pregnant” and “delivered a baby”. In both, it is as if the person had no part and exerted no effort in either event, taking away the person’s agency. And yet, when there are complications, it is “maternal failure”, “failed to progress”, “poor maternal effort”, “patient refused” or “poor obstetric history”.

In pregnancy loss, terms like “spontaneous abortion”, “chemical pregnancy” and “vanishing twin” suggest—for better or for worse—there was never a child, potentially fostering a sense of shame and stigma for someone feeling a deep sense of loss.

The #RenamingRevolution addresses the archaic and offensive language, providing positive alternatives that consider a person’s autonomy and self-worth. Through the births of both my children (one vaginal, one abdominal, the second while I was of an “advanced maternal age”) as well as complications during pregnancy and birth trauma, I have seen the vast difference that considerate language, respectful communication and being listened to makes, even years later.

Person-centred care and human rights

In parts of the UK, there have been strides made to train midwives and other medical professionals in effective communication and person-centred care in pregnancy and birth.

To humanize the language of fertility, pregnancy and birth, the focus must be on an individualized approach. This is also why inclusive language is vital. Earlier this year, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals Trust in the UK introduced gender inclusive language guidelines adding terms such as “chest feeding”, “human milk” and “birthing parent”. These additions are not meant to erase existing language such as “breastfeeding,” “breastmilk”, or “mother”, but expand terminology to offer person-centred care.

Studies show when people have poor support and communication during pregnancy and birth, there are higher rates of postnatal mental health problems. And far worse can occur as we are continuously seeing the rise of maternal mortality rates, especially among Black and marginalized communities.

I am excited to see how the #RenamingRevolution will bring us closer to redefining the language of fertility and motherhood.

In the UK, Black mothers are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white mothers; In the U.S., Black mothers are three to-four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes. Unexamined biases within the medical systems need to be fully addressed and acknowledged, but it is also about listening to every person and respecting that person’s autonomy and control over their own care.

Changing medical language around fertility, pregnancy, birth and motherhood is paramount, but we all need to be conscious of how we speak and how we listen. The #RenamingRevolution is starting an ongoing conversation and providing new terminology to empower those going through fertility treatments, pregnancy, birth and in the throes of motherhood.

When there are alternative terms for archaic and outdated language, there is a choice of the language we use, and that choice is significant and makes a statement. With choice, we can no longer be complaisant.

In my linguistics research on multilingual mothers, I often hear about the harmful yet common good mother – bad mother binary narrative. Reproductive health and motherhood is shrouded in tales of guilt and shame, many layers deep, and now is the perfect time to put an end to it. I am excited to see how the #RenamingRevolution will bring us closer to redefining and reclaiming the language of fertility and motherhood.

Language change takes time but we can all be catalysts for a revolution. Insensitive language can invalidate a person in a matter of seconds, but the damage done can last a lifetime.