As part of my doula training, I’m completing some units on communication skills. Now, I tend to think of myself as quite a skilled communicator, but there’s always plenty to learn. New and expectant mothers are perhaps more vulnerable to criticism or scaremongering than most and the sheer volume and weight of information thrown at them is in itself a health hazard. I’m happy to study up.
So much of the language used by health professionals is alienating and even frightening, and it belies troubling attitudes towards mothering and mothers. Chemical pregnancy, blighted ovum, incompetent cervix, boggy uterus, hostile mucous – these are not respectful phrases. They are frightening and judgemental and downright nasty about women’s bodies and the delicate but deliciously natural art of reproduction. A labouring woman may be told she is only five centimetres dilated, or that she is failing to progress. And no bloody wonder, since it’s hard to surrender to hormonal surges and do the work of labour when people in white coats keep pursing their lips at you and saying things that sound suspiciously like a Year 9 PE report. A new mother might again hear that word failing in relation to her efforts to raise a satisfactorily plump baby, if her child doesn’t fit the numerical definition of thrive on weigh-in day.
Those who try to cushion the apparently terrifying reality of birthing and mothering with euphemisms can make matters even worse. You’re going to feel a little tingle now is never a true statement! I’m just going to give you a little snip is a nice neat lie designed to trick us into thinking that an episiotomy is just a nice, neat thing that makes all our lives easier. (The most insidious and disempowering euphemism of all, delivery, probably warrants a whole essay of its own.)
And then there are the popular euphemisms used to avoid speaking the truth about our bodies. The ones that keep us all in the dark about the natural physicality of mothering. My mother-in-law can’t bring herself to say breast. To ask about breastfeeding, she must say ‘are you still feeding her yourself?’ I feel like telling her that no, I’ve decided to employ a wetnurse. Bean’s Great-Grandmother has remarked that I do a good job ‘being a cow’, as if it is somehow more natural for cows to be provide milk for babies than for humans to do it ourselves. As if cows invented lactation.
Those last examples are more humorous than worrying. I’m not about to demand better communication from my in-laws – I figure it comes with the territory. But I’d be happy to lob a few copies of my communication skills manual to my health providers. Sleep deprivation, anxiety, an overload of information, hormonal disruption and a sense of isolation make new mothers particularly sensitive to the language used by people they are supposed to be able to trust. Yet the disconnect between what professionals believe they are saying and what is heard is sometimes pretty staggering.
Minutes after the birth, the midwife says You have flat nipples, she can’t latch on. I hear You’re already a failure, you won’t be able to feed your baby.
Another midwife says is that all you can express? I hear it’s not enough, it’ll never be enough.
The Maternal and Childhood Health Nurse says she has very slow weight gain. Have you thought of giving her formula? I hear You’re starving her. All those hours you spend feeding are a waste of time. Artificial milk is better for your baby than anything you could make.
The Maternal and Childhood Health Nurse says she’s a very shy baby! She doesn’t like being held. She gets so upset. I hear Your child is emotionally strange and needy, you have made her into a clingy, spoiled thing.
Absolutely everybody says Gosh, she’s so tiny/thin/little! I hear don’t you ever feed that child anything?
The doctor says Nine Months! Babies don’t need milk by her age. I hear You weirdo, why would you want to breastfeed such a big baby?
The doctor says New mothers are always so anxious about these things. I hear You are being neurotic and wasting my time.
But it’s not all bad news. I have finally found Dr. B – a doctor who speaks to me as if I am a real person with a real brain, and of me (and my mothering) as if, after almost ten months at it, I might have something worthwhile to offer my child.
Dr. B says It sometimes takes a long time to check these things out, but I like to be thorough. I hear your baby’s health is more important than my schedule.
Dr. B says What a lovely little girl! She’s so alert. I hear your daughter is intelligent and delightful so you must be doing something right.
Dr. B says Isn’t she tall for her age! I hear your baby is long and thin instead of reassuringly chubby, but she is growing so it’s okay.
Dr. B says It is very good for babies to play in the dirt – helps reduce their risk of allergies and boost the immune system. I hear your failure to mop the floors regularly is not only acceptable, it’s virtuous.
Dr. B says You are giving her the very best medicine she could have: breastmilk. I hear your hard work is worthwhile, your instincts are correct, your mothering is valuable. You are doing the right thing.
Exactly what every new mother wants to – needs to – hear.
It’s time we banished the disempowering language of body-conquering obstetrics and paternalistic peadiatrics into the pre-feminist vault where it belongs. We need realistic and reassuring language; praise and encouragement, not of the Hallmark Mother’s Day card variety but of the type that acknowledges the real and challenging work that mothers do, without belittling or cajoling or scaring the bejeezus out of us.