“Women’s innate wisdom. Breastfeeding. Maternal fetal transmission. Motherly instinct. Woman-centered care. Maternal antibodies. Woman in labor. Mother”
All words we hear in the birth world. Some clinical, some warm and fuzzy. All describing a woman’s experience of growing and birthing and nursing her baby.
But what if these words used in our professional language—used in textbooks and workshops and conversations and posters and memes and childbirth education and in doctors’ and midwives’ offices—exclude some pregnant and birthing and lactating people?
It is not only women that have babies. People have babies. People who identify as male, people who identify as gender-queer, people who identify in a multitude of other ways, or people who don’t want to identify with sex and gender at all.
Does our automatic gendered language include these birthing people? Do our websites and training organizations and workshops and meetings and birth activism respect their lived experiences and let it be known that supporting them is a priority to us as birth workers? Is there a universal effort to change this?
In a word? No.
Not yet. But there can be.
We speak about birth as a woman’s transformative moment. About her breasts and her vagina and her instincts and her becoming a mother. And so many of these words mean so much, carry the weight of a life changing transition, and so many heroes have fought to create sacred woman-centric spaces and ways of speaking. A woman should describe her body, her lived experience, her birth in whatever words are right for her. But should the professional birth world use those words exclusively when talking about the entire birthing community?
It may be awkward at first to say “birthing parent” or “pregnant person” instead of mother, or “chest feeding” instead of breastfeeding when you are teaching a childbirth class, or writing your website copy. At first you stumble over the words. But it is okay to sit with that bit of uncomfortableness, remembering that the discomfort you are experiencing is quite minor compared to the experience of a pregnant man walking into a woman-centric birth space.
Remarkably, there is a backlash to the effort to make birth culture more inclusive to trans parents. Just like in the campfire music festival scene in Transparent, we see a tension between the desire for exclusive woman-centered spaces, and the desire to include trans men and women in those spaces. In 2015 MANA bravely made some relatively minor changes to their language in its core competencies document as a first step towards creating a safer space for trans pregnant people in the midwifery world. A surprisingly large group of very well respected midwives responded with an inflammatory letter denouncing those changes as a threat to women and woman-centric spaces. Their argument echoes one side of a long standing feminist debate between trans exclusionary radical feminists and more inclusive branches of feminism. If trans parents can’t turn to these midwives for compassionate personalized care, do they have other choices for respectful and safe birthing options?
Inclusive language simply harms no one. A woman can refer to herself and any other woman with the words that resonate the most for them. But exclusionary language used by birth professionals can directly harm those very pregnant people who would benefit from more birth choices and social justice minded birth workers.
Where to go from here? To start, we can plant ourselves on the side of history where we always end up eventually—progress. Be open to change. As birth workers, challenge yourself to wrestle with new language and be okay with feeling awkward in the process until it rolls off your tongue.
And join DTI as an organization as it commits to gender inclusive language and trans-friendly curriculum in all of its original training materials and videos. Here you can see a few clips from DTI’s online materials implementing gender neutral language.
Join DTI as it unveils a new scholarship program: DTI’s Trans Health Initiative. DTI believes we need more trans doulas so that more trans parents will have access to doulas who can support them with commitment, advocacy, knowledge, and love.
And then? Use our passion for social justice and our activism to transform the birthing culture and birthing locations into places where trans parents are listened to, respected, and welcomed. We don’t need to erase the safe feminist spaces the birth community has tirelessly worked to create, we just need to roll the welcome mat out a little bit wider. What will that look like? Become part of that conversation in your own birth community and with your clients. Open that space up by talking about it and sharing with others in your community that this matters to you.
Be fierce. Take a stand. Challenge yourself to take this leap with us. Be an advocate for humanizing birth—all births, for all bodies and all people.
I am doula, you are doula, and we can do this.
Becky Alford is a DTI educator and doula who lives and works in NYC. She considers herself an advocate for all birthing people. Her website is www.downtowndoulanyc.com and she has upcoming DTI doula trainings in Syracuse, Brooklyn, and Colorado.