Words Matter

Words Matter

Recently, I spoke with two different folks about their births.

Even though their births were very different from one another, there was one aspect that they both felt compelled to share in the re-telling of their birth story. Each of them stopped and dwelled on it long enough for me to recognize how important it was to their overall experience.

So, I’m sharing it here as a gentle reminder to those of us who work with birthing folks:

Words Matter. A lot. More than we may realize.

In the context of giving birth, some words take on deeper and greater meaning and have such emotional impact that they can change a person’s whole perspective of their birth. These same words can spark negative memories for them for years to come when they retell this story – to others, or just to themselves.

The two examples I want to share don’t include harsh words or over the top comments – which is why I want to highlight them.

You see, it’s not enough to avoid being cruel with our words when a person is giving birth, we need to realize that they’re filtering everything that is being said through a lens of vulnerability.

They are fully exposed, physically, and emotionally. And the words they hear have more meaning, more weight. These words – which normally might not offend at all – can be taken as judgement in how they’re “handling labor” or “conducting themselves” while trying to have a baby.

It’s not just our words that we need to soften, either. We need to create an atmosphere where a person feels safe and secure while giving birth. Then words, maybe even the same words, would be received differently.

One of them said they felt like there’d been little to no encouragement when they started to push their baby out.  And that, to them, pushing felt like it was never-ending. They had no idea from their nurse or provider if they were making ANY progress and they were getting really tired and frustrated. So, when asked to give yet another push, they started making some pretty loud noises to help them get through their tiredness and frustration.

And that’s when their nurse shushed them.

In the retelling of this story, this person stopped and we talked about this detail for a pretty long time. They said they remembered at the time thinking, “Did you just tell me to be quiet? Are you kidding me? I’m trying to give birth here and I need to do it quietly? What, am I embarrassing you?”

They, of course, didn’t voice any of this – which is a shame, because this will likely be a detail that this new parent will play over and over again. And the result may be that they end up feeling like they’d been silenced during birth. Whether or not this person actually quieted down makes little difference. In their memory, they were shushed – at a moment when they needed to roar.

Had they felt some level of encouragement and support during pushing, their memory of this part of the birth could be very different. If this same nurse had taken the time to tell them what great progress they’d been making or even validating for that pushing can be tiring and frustrating but that all of this work was actually getting somewhere, they might have established a relationship with this birthing person.

Then, if they’d started to make a lot of noise with their pushes that same nurse might have been able to lean in and whisper in their ear, “Take all of that energy and put it straight into your pushing! Channel that noise and grunt your baby down and out. You’re doing such a great job!”

And even though, effectively the nurse would still be “quieting” this birthing person, it wouldn’t be received that way. This same story could be told very differently: “I was getting super frustrated and making tons of noise with each push, but when the nurse told me to grunt my baby out and let me know I was doing a great job I just got really serious after that – and then the baby was born! The nurse totally helped me get focused on my pushing.” (Or something to that effect.)

The other parent I talked with had gone through an incredibly long labor – close to 70 hours! And when pushing finally started to happen, they reported that one of their nurses kept telling them, “You’ve got to grab your legs and pull them back if you’re going to be able to birth this baby!”

Now granted, this was maybe their 4th or 5th nurse due to the length of the labor, so they might not have been fully clued in to everything this birthing person had already gone through. But in the re-telling of their birth story this person stopped as well and said that they wanted to tell the nurse “Why don’t you get up in this bed and pull your legs up after 60+ hours of labor? And then you can tell me what to do!”

This person said that they couldn’t stand the nurse standing next to them and wanted them to shut up and leave the room! Again, they questioned whether or not they had actually said any of this out loud (they hadn’t).

As birth workers we might not realize that what we say and how we say it matters so much – and it’s not limited to the actual birth itself.

I feel like I owe an apology to a new parent from one of my classes. They ended up having a very fast and furious birth – 8 hours total from start to finish! And their partner told me the story. They said that in the midst of giving birth they felt like I’d lied to them!

I’d said that I didn’t enjoy my first pregnancy much, but that I loved my first birth! Of course, I had a typically long and slow-to-rev up labor with my first. And this person ended up feeling like they’d gotten zero breaks. Their partner told this to me kind of jokingly, but I take it to heart. My experience is only that – my experience. And I need to be aware that my words matter, as well.

How and what I say in my classes will come back to those in the midst of their labors. Have I really prepared them as best I can for the variables in birth? Have I encouraged them to ask questions and use their voices when and where they feel the need? I don’t ever want a person to feel silenced while they’re bringing their baby into this world.

We need to understand that laboring people must be extraordinarily supported while giving birth. They’re already doing so much! Everything else they perceive during their birth must be supportive, encouraging, respectful, kind and loving.

During birth, this window of vulnerability opens wide, and our words and actions will have incredible impact! They’ll never forget this day. But what will they remember? Each of us honored to do this sacred and most important work of birth need to remember that we will continue to live on in their memory and in the retelling of their birth story.

How do you want them to remember you?

If you work with laboring folks, does this ring true? Have you ever witnessed, or unfortunately found yourself speaking, words that now you realize to be less than positive or helpful? What words do you use that seem to have a lasting, positive impact?


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