On my very first day of midwifery school, the director of my program said something that I will never forget. She said, “Above everything else, as a midwife, you are the guardian of safety.”
Since then, I have woven the notion of guarding safety into every aspect of my midwifery practice: how I care for clients and their sweet babies, how I make decisions during a birth, how I write about birth.
I have also learned that a significant part of my work as a midwife is guarding how we talk about birth. Because words are deeply powerful—and there are a lot of words we use in medicine, particularly in obstetrics, that are unhelpful at best and harmful at worst: “geriatric pregnancy,” “failure to progress,” “incompetent cervix” and so many others.
Simply put, these commonly used words and phrases imply failure on the part of the birther.
For some, it’s merely semantics, but I argue that it goes much deeper than that. The words we choose are a reflection of the beliefs and priorities surrounding us. When it comes to pregnancy and birth, our words reflect a society that doesn’t trust women.
So it’s time to critically assess our use of language and the ways our words harm women and nonbinary birthers.
A phrase that I have chosen to eliminate from my practice is “natural birth.”
Please know that if you choose to use the phrase “natural birth,” I will fully support you (I’m a midwife, that’s my job). This is your birth, and you get to choose the words that resonate most to describe it. But here’s why I don’t use it.
“Natural birth” seems innocent enough at first; it’s usually used in reference to an unmedicated vaginal birth. The implication is that a birth that happens without medicine or intervention is natural, or the way nature intended. And listen, as a midwife, I do understand and support a movement towards fewer interventions when it’s safe to do so.
But here’s the problem: If unmedicated births are natural, does that make medicated birth or Cesarean births “unnatural?”
Because I refuse to tell someone who has just given birth—someone who grew and loved a baby into existence and then brought that baby into the world VIA THEIR BODY—that their experience was anything less than the most breathtaking feat of nature we could possibly imagine.
Yes, if they had an epidural.
Yes, if their baby was born through an incision and not a vagina.
Yes, if their baby was born from another person’s body and joined their family via adoption or surrogacy.
When a baby is born—however a baby is born—the earth shifts. A brand new human being has been brought into existence. To create a story. To change the actual course of history.
The person who brought that force into the world is nature personified.
When someone crosses the threshold that is birth, they are at their most powerful and most vulnerable. The words that surround them become their inner voice, and it is up to us, midwives or not, to be their guardians of safety. We must guard against the words that sow doubt and lavish them with words that inspire strength
In the natural course of life, communities rally around birthers and their babies. We don’t make them feel guilty for the type of birth they had; we make them feel like warriors for it.
Medicated or unmedicated.
Cesarean or vaginal.
Birth is beyond our ability to describe with words. Let’s be careful as we try.