Category Archives: language

Catch! Who’s really delivering this baby, huh?

This weekend I caught my first baby!

I’d attended a number of births before this one, first as a doula and now as a student midwife, but this was the first one where I had my hands poised ready and caught the baby as they were born.

I “caught” the baby. I didn’t “deliver” it – if anyone delivered this baby, it was the mother. It’s a simple linguistic switch that I see other (often radical) midwives doing and it’s something I try and keep in my mind. The language we use shapes the world as we experience it. and I want my midwifery practice (and the wider world I practice in) to centre the people giving birth. They are the ones doing the work of birthing the baby. In my mind, to centre the midwife and say that they deliver the baby risks disempowering the person actually giving birth.

(I went to a talk last week by hypnobirth educator Katharine Graves, and she pointed out how the first time many of us hear the word “deliver” is in the Lord’s Prayer which asks that we be delivered from evil. And then after that it’s mostly a word we hear used for parcels! It’s a phrasing left over from a world where doctors were in charge of birth as a medical process, and they *did* deliver the babies. And that’s not something I want to replicate!)

Not everyone agrees with this talk of “catching” babies. I was discussing my choice of language with my mother, and saying how I talk about midwives catching babies rather than delivering them. And she told me, in no uncertain terms, that she felt the midwife delivered all three of her babies and she did not find that language to be disempowering at all. And I am *glad* – I wouldn’t want her to feel disempowered at the time of my birth, or at any time! I’m not about to start arguing with her that it was in fact her delivering the baby, because the whole point is to empower the people giving birth – something which seems to have happened here despite her narrative having the traditional language of midwives delivering babies.

But in future wouldn’t it be better not to take that risk with the words we use? Not to hope that the people giving birth will feel empowered and centred in the process despite us telling them that we are the ones delivering their babies, the ones doing the work?

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How do we get midwifery research out of this heteronormative rut?

So whilst I am here writing posts about how we need to stop thinking that all the pregnant people we are caring/all people accessing reproductive healthcare around pregnancy are automatically women, on the other side of the looking glass I am training in a heteronormative world where we haven’t even got to that thought and are still referring to “fathers” rather than partners when we talk about the non-birthing partner.

I tend to use the word “partner”, with the phrase “partners of any or no gender” tripping off my tongue unless we are talking about something that *specifically* concerns non-birthing partners who are male. In which case I say “male partner”. Some other (student) midwives do this, but many just say father.

This week I went to a lunchtime event where researchers showcased their ongoing or current research around the theme of “involving partners and fathers”, and I had hoped from this wording that this would be a showcase that didn’t centre father’s experiences.

And the presentations were good! Important work is being done! But it is focussing on the experiences of fathers. After hearing the researchers speak, I realised that one of the problems we have – even *if* we talk in terms of partners so as not to centre the experiences of fathers and erase all others – is that so much of the research done into non-birthing partners/non-birthing parents is specifically research into “fathers”.

Researchers set out a hypothesis specifically about some aspect of fathers’ role in pregnancy/birth and then recruit fathers into the study and then publish this research and then there we have it, another piece contributing to the body of work that erases the experience of non-male partners, contributing to the heteronormativity of midwifery care. Another piece of research that because of its design can only be applied to fathers – despite the fact that the experiences of fathers detailed within the study may well also be the experiences of non-birthing partners of any or no genders.

I raised this point at the end of the presentations – my concern that research into partners was very heteronormative – stressing that I didn’t think it was any one researcher’s responsibility to fix, but that by continuing the centre research on “fathers” rather than partners of any or no gender, the problem perpetuates. There were a couple of points in response, the first being that it’s because male/female partnerships are traditional, and pointing to a growing minority of research into the experiences of same sex partners.

I am of course aware that heterosexual relationships are traditional. That’s not a justification for seeing them as the only relationships. Regarding the research being done into the experiences same sex partners;  it’s welcome, of course, but that is a separate point, and doesn’t get you off the hook limiting research into fathers when it could be framed as the experience of any partners. Because whilst I imagine same sex partners do have unique experiences (stemming largely from systematic homophobia?) which should totally be researched so practice can be improved, I bet they also share a lot of experiences as non-birthing partners with the fathers that we see so much (comparatively speaking) research about. And also, do you really think by covering fathers and same sex partners that we have covered everyone? Because I have some thoughts on the (falsehood of the) gender binary that you might find interesting…

Until those researching the experiences of fathers stop and ask themselves – is this really something that needs to be specifically limited to fathers, or can I ask the question more generally of partners of any or no gender – then this problem is not going to go away. If anything it’s going to get worse, as the existing body of work about “fathers” available each time someone embarks on a literature search at the start of a new project is gonna grow and grow.

I’m not a researcher (yet), so I imagine their are complexities to this I may be missing. Like what happens if we say we are studying the involvement partners of any or no gender but then only fathers come forwards to participate – can we still generalise our results? But surely it’s better make a commitment to moving away from heteronormativity, and to tackle these questions as them come up? To at least start ?

Specialist butch pregnancy wear from Butchbaby & Co – Good Bye Maternity, Hello Alternity!

I spend a lot of time thinking about pregnancy and birth, often through a queer lens, so I was pretty excited to hear about US-based Butchbaby & Co, a new enterprise between Vanessa Newman & Michelle Janayea, with the tagline “Don’t change, just because your body does.
The first ever alternity wear for pregnant masculine, transgender, and queer individuals.”
recite-yz6boi

Their philosophy is that “Comfort is essential. Not a luxury. Pregnancy can be scary for anyone. But when you don’t fit the prototype for average, feminine woman, the experience can be less accommodating and even scarier. Butchbaby & Co. is designed to provide holistic comfort to one’s clothing and one’s lifestyle throughout the pregnancy experience. We strongly believe no individual’s identity should change just because their body does.”

I’m not butch myself, but I recognise there are going to be people who present masculine of centre, or who are just straight up masculine, who are gonna need clothes to wear during pregnancy. It makes me so happy that these two are making the clothes they want, not only for themselves but for people like them. And I really like the shifting of ‘maternity wear’ to ‘alternity wear’ – the kind of language hacks I want to see more of to shatter the idea that pregnancy is inherently womanly or feminine!

The expected due date (ha!) for the first collection is autumn 2015, and they are are planning an initial line of 8 items, comprising of:

  • Nursing T-shirt
  • Oxford button-up
  • Jeans
  • Pullover sweater
  • Zip-up hoodie
  • Sweatpants
  • Boxer briefs
  • Nursing sports bra

They are just starting out, so you can subscribe to updates through their website at http://butchbaby.co/. I am excited to see how their baby grows!

“Je suis une étudiante sage-femme” – adding midwifery-related language to my French vocabulary.

Last week I looked after a French-speaking woman who had been admitted into hospital early in her pregnancy. She didn’t speak much English, and her French-speaking partner spoke some English but couldn’t stay with her. I am so glad that when her partner told me she didn’t speak English, that I asked them what language they did speak. I am no longer completely fluent but I still have a high level of conversational French, so I could say – “I speak French. Would you like me to speak in French to you?” to which she said yes and smiled.

We do have mechanisms in place in the NHS for getting interpreters for those in our care who don’t speak English (or who speak a little but need someone to interpret the medical language that goes along with midwifery care). We can either use Language Line – a confidential telephone service whereby the interpreter is on the other end of the phone and it is passed between the health care worker and the person receiving care – or an interpreter can be booked to attend appointments, or to explain procedures for limited amounts of time, or to be present once labour is established. Interpreters through either/both of these channels are completely essential and I have no jumped-up ideas about taking over from them!

But whether on the phone or in the room, these interpreters cannot be here all the time. So when we do our observation rounds to see how the people in our care are doing, or when we respond to one of them pressing a buzzer, if they don’t speak English and we don’t speak their language then in the immediate term it’s harder for us to understand what they are saying and for them to make themselves understood.

And I realised that something I can do, as someone who can already speak French, is to learn the midwifery-related language in French too so that on the occasions where I am caring for a French-speaker who doesn’t speak English, I can make sure that at the times an interpreter is not present, that they can understand what we are saying and that they are understood. It may not come in useful often  – this is only the second time I have looked after a French-speaking woman who didn’t speak English (and the first time was when I was training in the community so we had booked an interpreter for every appointment she had with us) but on the occasions it does come in useful it will be invaluable.

The Cissexist Language of Midwifery Care and Reproductive Justice.

I started trying to write a post on the way my pro-choice views on abortion intersect positively with my midwifery practice, but I realised that first I needed to address the way that the language of midwifery care and reproductive justice is cissexist. Lauren Rankin spells it out when she says

We must acknowledge and come to terms with the implicit cissexism in assuming that only women have abortions. Trans men have abortions. People who do not identify as women have abortions. They deserve to be represented in our advocacy and activist framework. Honestly, I am guilty of perpetuating that harmful myth, both in my rhetoric and framing. I often frame abortion restrictions as misogynistic attacks meant to control women’s reproductive lives, and that is true. But abortion restrictions also affect the lives of people who aren’t women, and they hinder trans men and gender-non-conforming people and others who were Designated Female at Birth (DFAB) from accessing abortion care, as well.

Lauren Rankin, Not Everyone Who Has an Abortion Is a Woman – How to Frame the Abortion Rights Issue

I went to a training day on abortion activism (run by Abortion Rights) last year, attended by feminists and anarchists involved or interested in grassroots activism and campaigning. And it was refreshing to talk about “people wanting/needing abortions” without the discussion stalling when the other people in the conversation couldn’t understand why we weren’t saying women, or worse refuting the fact that it’s not only women getting pregnant (radfems, I’m looking at you again). And yet even though the space we made challenged the cissexism of typical reproductive justice dialogue, the cissexist language was still was inescapable. The news clips we watched, the stats on how many abortions are performed in the UK each year all talk about women and women only. The statistics we have for UK abortion rates take into account every registered abortion, but they do not record the person’s gender because it is assumed they are women. These statistics we quote, that “1 in 3 women will have an abortion by the time they are 45 years old”… these statistics implicitly misgender all those people who are not women who have abortions.

The same happens in midwifery. Language misgenders, both implicitly and explicitly. Because, on both an individual and systematic level, the possibility of trans men and non binary people becoming pregnant is either not considered or wilfully ignored; all language is inherently cissexist.  As midwives we talk constantly about “the woman” (or worse, “the lady”) as though it had not even occurred to us that not everyone who is pregnant is a woman, or that these people do not exist, or that they are such a small minority that it is ok for our language to erase them.

It is not ok. But everyone does it. I am even finding myself doing it.

A couple of weeks into my training I started to realise I wasn’t imagining it, midwifery lecturers were constantly talking about “the woman” and as students we were picking it up too. I queried it, explaining that I realised we said “the woman” rather than  “the patient”, because midwifery is about providing care through a normal physiological event (pregnancy and birth) rather than treating illness. But what about those people who aren’t women who are pregnant..? After clarifying that I didn’t mean cis men who have a developing embryo implanted in their abdominal cavity(!), the lecturer told me there hadn’t been any non binary people or trans men who had accessed midwifery care in our city and this seemed to suggest my point was moot. I didn’t believe her (because I imagine there must have been people who were not women, but were read as such by staff who didn’t feel safe/comfortable/have the energy to come out) but the discussion moved on.

Aside from the obvious problem of potentially misgendering (implicitly or explicitly) individuals accessing maternity care by talking only about women, there is the further problem that the language we use shapes the way we think and the way we see the world. By talking only about women, we are conditioning ourselves to think only in terms of women, to assume womanhood of everyone in our care. It is both habit-forming and world-shaping. When I started my training I always said “pregnant person” but everything I read, everything I am taught is saying “women”, and I am starting to slip up, to give up, and it’s not good enough.

I want people of all genders to be able to access midwifery care if they need it, without worry that they will be misgendered. I want NHS midwifery staff to have awareness raising sessions so they understand what is meant by trans, non binary, cissexist, misgendering. I want to rid policies and guidelines of their cissexist language. I want space on the paperwork we fill in at initial midwifery booking appointments to have space to ask about the person’s gender so we don’t simply assume they are all women.

In the same way that there seems to be a slow but sure shift away from heteronormative language in midwifery care (as both policies and practitioners start to talk about “partners” rather than “husbands/fathers”) I want to see a shift away from cissexist language. A lot of the times when we are talking generally and we say women, we can instead more accurately say “people who menstruate”, “people with uteruses”, “people who are pregnant”, “people needing abortions”. Instead of saying “she” we can say “they”. We can find new ways to convey meaning.

And don’t tell me it’s too hard – it can’t be any harder than having to navigate a maternity service designed for women when you are not a woman – which is what we are essentially asking of some people unless we sort this out.