The other day, I was talking with my daughter, telling her about the research I've been doing at the intersection of doula work and linguistics. I explained to her that linguistics is all about words: what we say, how we say it, why we say things certain ways, etc. And I told her that I was writing about words and why they're important in doula work: what are good, helpful things that we can say to "mommies having babies," and what things aren't helpful or good. I asked her if she had any ideas about that, and her response gave me lots to think about!
She said, "well, it wouldn't be good to say, 'I don't think this baby is going to come out. It's not going to come out. You better just stay here until it comes out.'" I then asked her about what would be good things to say, and she said she could only think of silly ideas. I pressed her, asking what ideas seemed silly that she had thought of. She said, "Well, you could say, 'Are you hungry?'" I assured her that this was not a silly idea, but rather a really important question to ask! A laboring woman may very well be hungry (especially in early labor), and it would be very helpful to check in about that need. I thanked her for her great idea and asked her if she had any other ideas about good things to say. "You could say, 'Are you feeling okay right now?'" When I asked why that was a good thing to say, she explained, "because you want to make sure she feels safe." I again thanked her for her very thoughtful and important idea and asked if she had any more. She told me she had one last idea: "Are you comfortable?" Again, I told her this was an excellent idea and that she would be a great doula! She told me she'd consider adding it to her future plans. :)
As I thought back on our conversation, I really was struck by the simple dichotomy in what she labeled as helpful versus unhelpful things to say to a birthing woman. Few people would actually say to a woman in labor, "I don't think this baby's going to come out; you better just stay here until it comes out," but what's the underlying message here? It's a lack of confidence in the woman and her body and an assumption that birth is something that just happens to a woman while she "stays there" and waits, without confidence that she can actually do this. Are there times when words uttered in the birth space have these unhelpful dubious underpinnings? Instead, let's aim for our words to share Ina May Gaskin's message:
“Birth is something that women do—not something that happens to them. The birth-giving woman is the central agent in the ancient drama of life bringing forth new life.”
So let's turn to the second set of suggestions my daughter gave, of helpful things to say. The obvious similarity among all three suggestions is that they are questions. Rather than projecting a certain sentiment about the birth experience onto the laboring woman, these questions value the woman's role as an important individual with unique needs. The questions seek to discover those needs, with the intent of helping to meet them. I was especially struck with the explanation she gave regarding her second question, "Are you okay right now?" about how it's important that she feel safe. This is so true for a laboring woman! Her physical progress in labor can be impeded if she feels unsafe: physically, emotionally, or otherwise. This is a basic need that all in the birth space should be sensitive to! And attending to her other physical needs of hunger and comfort are helpful ways of showing support for her in the valuable work she's doing. As participants in a birth experience, let's always be mindful about the underlying messages our words send and thoughtful about sharing confidence and support.
I'm grateful for the wise words my daughter shared with me! What wisdom have the young people in your life shared with you?