Cesarean section. Two words that come together to form a surgical term that is sterile and pretty emotionless. That’s why some mothers say it’s a poor way to describe one of the most emotional experiences possible.
There is power in language, and some women say there is a two-word phrase that much more accurately describes the experience. They call it ‘belly birth.’
What is a belly birth?
Yes, C-sections are surgery, but when we describe them in surgical terms we erase the fact that they are also a form of birth. That’s why Flor Cruz, the birth doula behind the popular @badassmotherbirther accounts, counts herself among the women who are renaming and reclaiming birth experiences that happen to occur in operating rooms. She says the surgical nature of the term “C-section” perpetuates the idea that such births are not “real” births.
“We take away the celebrating of a birth of a baby and mom’s hard work because the stigma cues us to immediately frown,” she tells Motherly. “It screams ‘medical procedure’ and does not prioritize that a birth happened. ‘Belly birth’ includes birth. It speaks positively.”
Jordan Grissom, a client of Cruz’s, understands firsthand the power of reframing a birth experience through language. In 2016, after 20 hours of labor, she was advised she would need an emergency C-section to deliver her daughter. Prior to that day, a C-section wasn’t on Grissom’s radar. She hadn’t really thought much about it when planning for her birth, as she didn’t want to put it out into the universe as an option. Suddenly, the birth experience she’d expected was no longer an option, and that was terrifying.
“I was wheeled into this bright room. No one was talking to me. It was freezing. My husband had to wait outside. I was absolutely terrified,” Grissom tells Motherly. “I was so scared and it was my doula, Flor, who came and told me, ‘you know what Jordan? You need to look at this as a belly birth. It’s not a failure, it’s still a birth. Just because you’re not birthing your baby vaginally doesn’t mean you’re any less of a mother or that your birth is any less of a birth.’ That was really what got me through my belly birth and it really empowered me.”
Related: A brief history of the C-section
Cruz says she first started using the term ‘belly birth’ occasionally a few years ago, recognizing that people can be “triggered positively or negatively by words” and that saying belly birth is a lot “gentler, kinder, [and] inclusive” than saying C-section.
“I didn’t use it very often up until around a year ago. I started using it more heavily and purposefully once I realized that a big reason why I felt so down about my own belly birth was that I was calling it something that felt so cold to me. The word ‘cesarean’ or ‘C-section’ felt like just a procedure. It wasn’t connecting me to the fact that I gave birth. I started plugging it into my vocabulary vigorously,” she explains.
Why call it a belly birth?
Cruz wants other women to be able to skip the disconnection she felt and embrace their births from the get-go by using celebratory terms, because “a large amount of families have belly births.” Indeed, a recent Instagram poll by Motherly found about 41% of participants had experienced a C-section.
According to the CDC, almost 32% of all births in America are C-sections. In Canada, the rate is just under 29%, and the UK sees a similar rate. With this kind of birth being so common, there should not be a stigma, say advocates.
Cruz and Grissom suggest changing the language so that birth is recognized first in a woman’s experience. The surgery is secondary to the welcoming of a child and is certainly not an indication of failure. Depending on the medical circumstance, there are all kinds of things that can be done to help women own their birth experience, even if it’s different from the one they’d initially imagined.
Many hospitals now offer the option of clear surgical drapes (instead of the standard opaque blue) to allow women to witness the moment their child comes into the world. When combined with peaceful, or mother-assisted delivery techniques, this is often called a “gentle C-section.”
“You can ask for a maternal assisted delivery where you see the birth and pull your own baby to your chest. You can ask for skin-to-skin immediately. You can ask for no severing of the cord, delaying clamping of the cord, or milking of the cord. You can breastfeed immediately. You can bond on another level. You can call it a belly birth,” Cruz explains.
As Cruz says, there is power in language, and by renaming and reframing their experience, these mothers are taking back their power and empowering the mamas who will follow.
A version of this story was published June 7, 2018. It has been updated.