Image for ‘Words matter’: the campaign to change the language of maternity care

‘Words matter’: the campaign to change the language of maternity care

A glossary of more ‘empowering’ phrases about motherhood is being made available to health professionals, to help them frame conversations around fertility, pregnancy and loss

A glossary of more ‘empowering’ phrases about motherhood is being made available to health professionals, to help them frame conversations around fertility, pregnancy and loss

Imagine the scene: after nine months of pregnancy, you’ve been in labour for days. You’re more exhausted than ever before, concerned about your as-yet-unborn child and trying to summon the energy for the next contraction, when you hear the midwife or doctor mutter something about “poor maternal effort”.

The phrase has been used at expectant mothers’ bedsides for years, to describe the fatigue of labour interfering with the descent of the baby through the birth canal. But should it be used at all?

The answer from those behind a campaign to improve upon blaming or hurtful labels associated with motherhood, is a resounding ‘no’. It’s one of the 63 “outdated and hurtful” phrases to get a reboot in the Renaming Revolution glossary, published by the parenting app Peanut.

“Terms such as ‘inhospitable womb’, ‘geriatric pregnancy’, ‘spontaneous abortion’, and ‘advanced maternal age’ have traditionally been used to designate a woman’s reproductive standing. But this terminology is outdated,” says Dr Somi Javaid, who advised on the campaign. “The goal with medical terminology should be to educate women and to shift away from blame or hurtful labels, empowering women, rather than shaming them.”

The campaign was inspired by a video that a woman posted on the app, in which she recounts hearing a doctor use the word “geriatric” to describe her, when she was trying to conceive at the age of 38. The post led to an outpouring of support from women and to them sharing their experience of other hurtful terms.

“Words matter. Changing the harmful discourse that’s become so normalised as a way to describe women’s bodies is long overdue,” says Michelle Kennedy, founder and CEO of Peanut.

Maternity care

Michelle Kennedy, founder of the Peanut app, which is behind the renaming campaign. Credit: Peanut

In the glossary, ‘geriatric pregnancy’ becomes ‘35+ pregnancy’;‘inhospitable womb’ becomes ‘uterine lining challenges’; and ‘failure to progress’ – an outdated term that refers to a slowed labour –becomes, well, ‘slowed labour’.

Many of these terms were created by men at a time when medicine seemed to view women’s bodies as objects in need of curing or fixing. Rooted in historic misogyny, it’s time our vocabulary supported women, says Milli Hill, author of the Positive Birth Book and of Give Birth Like a Feminist. Though Hill doesn’t agree with all the changes proposed by Peanut, she welcomes the conversation the campaign starts.

Medical terminology should empower women, rather than shaming them

“Too much of the language of maternity care is misogynistic, dehumanising or infantilising,” says Hill. “Misogynistic language is usually underpinned by the idea that women’s bodies don’t work particularly well, for example phrases like ‘incompetent cervix’. It also very cleverly puts the emphasis of blame on the female body, when we know that most often, it is the system that fails women, and that in many cases they could have had a very different birth experience, had they been given the support and environment their labouring bodies needed.”

Dehumanising language adds to this, believes Hill, “by suggesting that it doesn’t matter that so many women are damaged and traumatised by the current birth system, because women don’t really matter. We see this embedded in language such as ‘a healthy baby is all that matters’, or when women are referred to as ‘mum’.

Some 63 ‘outdated and hurtful’ phrases get a reboot in the Renaming Revolution glossary

“This idea of the woman as ‘vessel’, a disposable container for the baby, has very old, deep roots. We also have infantilising language such as women being called ‘good girl’. This paternalistic approach implies that women must do what they are told in the birth room, as if they are children, and allows for a really shocking lack of understanding by some healthcare professionals about the principles of consent.”

The complete Renaming Revolution glossary is available for free online, with printed copies being circulated to clinics, classes and other centres in the UK and the US.

Motherhood doesn’t come with a manual, but language that doesn’t make women feel as if they have failed before their child is even born, seems an empowering start.

Main image: Anna Hecker

Related articles

Read it and don’t weep.

Headlines about what’s going right in the world are now being shared with millions of people through digital screens on high streets and in shopping centres all around the UK.