This past week, I had the chance to talk with two different Mommas 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 with you all here just as a gentle reminder to those of us who work with birthing women: Words Matter. A lot. More than you realize. In the context of giving birth, some words will take on deeper and greater meaning and have such emotional impact that it can change a woman’s whole perspective on her birth. These same words can spark negative memories for her for years to come when they retell this story – to others, or just to themselves.
The two examples I want to share might not seem to include very harsh words or over the top comments, which is why I want to highlight them. You see, it isn’t enough to not be cruel with our words when a woman is giving birth, we need to realize that she is filtering everything that is being said to her through the lens of vulnerability. She is fully exposed, physically and emotionally. And the words she hears have more meaning, more weight. These words which normally might not offend at all, can be taken as judgement in how she is “handling her labor” or “conducting herself” while trying to have a baby. It’s not just our words that we need to soften, we need to create an atmosphere where a woman feels safe and secure while giving birth. Then words, maybe even the same words, would be received differently.
One Momma said that she felt like there’d been little to no encouragement when she started to push her baby out and to her, pushing felt like it was never-ending. She had no idea from her nurse or provider if she was making any progress and she was getting really tired and frustrated. So, as they asked her to give them yet one more push, she started making some pretty loud noises to help her get through her tiredness and frustration. And that’s when her nurse shushed her.
In the retelling of this story, this Momma stopped and we talked about this detail for a pretty long time. She said that she remembered thinking in her mind, “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?” She, of course, didn’t voice any of this – which is a shame, because this will be a detail that this woman will play over and over again and she might feel like she was silenced during her birth. Whether or not this Momma actually quieted down makes little difference. In her memory, she was shushed by this person – at a moment when she needed to roar.
Had she felt some level of encouragement and support during her pushing, her memory of this part of her birth could be very different. If this same nurse had taken the time to tell her what great progress she’d been making or even validating for her that pushing can be tiring and frustrating but that she was actually getting somewhere, she would have established a relationship with this birthing woman. Then, if she’d started to make a lot of noise with her pushes that same nurse might have been able to lean in and whisper in her ear, “Take all of that energy and put it straight into your pushing! Channel that noise and grunt your baby down and out. You are doing such a great job!” And even though, effectively she would still be quieting this birthing Momma, it wouldn’t be received that way. This same Momma might have told this part of the story differently: “I was getting super frustrated and making tons of noise with each push, but when she 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! She totally helped me get focused on my pushing.” Or something to that effect.
The other Momma I talked with had gone through and incredibly long labor – close to 70 hours – and when pushing finally started to happen, she reported that one of her nurses kept telling her, “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 because of the length of the labor, so she might not have been fully clued in to everything this Momma had already gone through. But in the re-telling of her birth story this Momma stopped as well and said that she 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 Momma said that she couldn’t stand this woman standing next to her and wanted her to shut up and leave the room. Again, she questioned whether or not she had actually said any of this out loud (she 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 Momma from one of my recent classes. She ended up having a very fast and furious birth – 8 hours total from start to finish. And her partner told me her story just yesterday. She said that in the midst of giving birth the Momma felt like I’d lied to her! I had said that I didn’t enjoy my first pregnancy much, but that I loved my first birth. Of course, I had a typical long and slow-to-rev up labor with my first, and she felt like she’d gotten no breaks. Her 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.
How and what I say in my classes will come back to women in the midst of their labors. Have I really prepared them as best I can for variables in birth? Have I encouraged them to ask questions and use their voices when and where they feel they need to? I don’t ever want a woman to feel silenced while she’s bringing her baby into this world.
We need to understand that women must be extraordinarily supported while giving birth. They are 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 it’s our words and actions that will have the most impact. She’ll never forget this day. But what will she remember? Each of us who do this sacred and most important work of birth need to remember that we will continue to live on in her memory and in the retelling of her birth story.
How do you want her to remember you?
If you work with laboring women, 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?