I cannot say how much I enjoyed Bryna's contribution. Isn't there enough of a language gap in the birth world? Dilation when we could say open, and effacement for thinning? What about other terms, such as advanced maternal age (which perhaps is a step up from geriatric pregnancy!)? Or fragile pregnancy? Often these terms serve to make the distinction between doctor and patient. What about words that make the distinction between doula and parent? I hope this gets us thinking!
I’ve worked in the birth world for 10 years, this year. At first, I had what I thought was “burnout” or getting tired of being so emotionally and physically available for clients -- which causes a sort of cynicism and laissez-faire attitude toward one’s responsibilities. I went to work for a couple of weeks thinking this -- visiting clients and being as helpful and present as ever, I realized how happy this work continues to make me, and how capable I feel -- without cynicism. So, if I’m not burnt out, what am I?
I can’t figure it out -- and I’m still sorting through my feelings on this, but let me lay out for you what I’ve discovered so far:
Our language as birth workers, as a general whole, sucks. I’m sick of it. I am so tired of “trust the process” and “it’s not stronger than you, it IS you,” and a thousand other cliches we fall back on as birth workers. As doulas, lactation consultants, midwives, and other affiliates in this world...if I hear about one more person “re-centering” I might scream!
Is there a place for self-care and energy work? Sure. Is it imperative we learn the language and speak circles around our clients? No. No. No. When you tell a client that their “energetic blockages might hold back their labor” you are not giving them information. You are disempowering them, at best, alienating them at worst.
Maybe your particular client needs to move past a fear, a worry, or whatever the heck before they can go forward -- we have all seen this happen. Once, I had a parent hang out at 6cm for HOURS until we FaceTimed their blissfully sleeping kid at Gramma’s house. Baby came within the hour. Was it their “energetic blockage?” Maybe. Or maybe they just needed to know their kid was ok. Or maybe those are the same thing -- but which one uses the flowery language?
Why do we feel called (even saying “feel called” makes me twitchy) to use this flowery prosaic speech when we discuss birth? Some of us use it our whole lives! What difference does it make? What harm could it possibly cause?
I’m working on that part.
I suspect it does make a difference and it can cause harm. I’ve made an active shift away from the “birthspeak” this past year or so. Working to actively remove the embroidery from my words, I am seeing more and more that it’s elitist, exclusive, and I think, harming our communities.
To use “birthspeak” (which I’m shortening to BS for brevity) you need to be trained in BS. Which means you need the disposable income and the funds, as well as the childcare (potentially) and the time to be taking these workshops in which BS is heavily featured. I am acutely aware of the time, money, and support it requires to attend these things -- and the privilege afforded me as a cisgender white woman with an employed partner, higher education, and middle-class income.
This doesn’t make me bad, nor does it make me better -- but it does give me an unfair advantage over someone who doesn’t have the same opportunities due to circumstances beyond their control. Using BS means having learned BS. If you were able to learn and are able to use BS, check your privilege.
To understand BS, you need to have an education which requires introduction to concepts well beyond Reading, Writing, & Arithmetic. For example, you’d need to know what “energy” means outside the status quo definition -- which means you need exposure somewhere in your experience and education. In the same way that you’d likely have had to attend a yoga class to know how to “yoga breathe.” These concepts are not something you run across in everyday life!
Even if you say “let’s do some yoga breaths” and go on to explain the concept and action in an easy-to-grasp way, you’re reminding your client (who needed to ask you for an explanation) of somewhere they don’t have access -- whether by financial or social exclusion. You have also brought forward a lack of knowledge in a way that isn’t necessary. This can cause more feelings of exclusion. Perceived or real, exclusion is exclusion. You have already lost a little bit of common ground with your client. This is harmful. I won’t go into microaggressions here, because they’re much better explained here and you can see the impact on those who have experienced them here. These things can add up, and diminish your client’s self-efficacy, or pride and feelings of capability.
Perhaps the internal dialogue of your client then goes like this: “How can I be a good parent if I don’t even know what a yoga breath is?! Once she explained it, it was so simple -- just breathing in my nose and out my mouth! There’s too much to learn, I’m too overwhelmed…”
Was this your intention? Of course not! Is it sometimes the unintended consequence of BS? You betcha. That sentence above is taken directly from the experience of a former client of mine, describing their experience with one of their childbirth educators. BS can impact us all.
Something else to consider as potentially harmful -- a lot of the language is appropriated from other cultures without thought or permission. Co-opting other cultures’ sacred rites & rituals because it feels “more spiritual” is not okay -- especially if you don’t know the significance of the words you are using. Think about it. Think about the things that you do every day as a birth worker -- do you really need that “Namaste” email signature?
How to remove BS from your vernacular:
Real-life example time! One of the things I do as a doula is “holding space.” Holding space is a concept, and doesn’t quite fall into BS territory, in my mind. It can be explained easily and doesn’t draw unfairly from any specific cultures who do not benefit from its use, and can be explained without presumption or condescension to clients.
In practice, it can look like an awful lot of doing nothing, but it can be a really powerful tool in an emotionally fraught time. To “hold space” you simply remain focused on your client while they process something difficult. In most folks’ vocabulary, it’s called “being there for someone.”
Do you have to call it “holding space” even though the concept itself is called that and is taught with that title? NOPE. If your client doesn’t have a working knowledge of BS and it would not benefit them in any way to know what the technique is called, do they really need to know? Especially when they know exactly what you mean when you say “I’ll be there for you if it gets tough, emotionally -- and here is what that looks like…”
Does this mean you can’t describe your client’s birth to another birth worker as a “totally transcendent experience!”? Not at all! Does it mean rethinking how you describe your work to the general public? I hope so. We all want to “find our tribe” but we don’t often stop to think where those words came from or what they really mean. You don’t need to use BS to be a good birth worker. You can use plain language and continue to witness miracles on the daily.
Obviously, this is not a commandment, nor is it a one-size-fits all manifesto. It’s just a personal exploration of thoughts and feelings on a subject that turns out to be quite sticky. All I know is that the BS is grating on my nerves. Totally anecdotally, I have noticed a significant uptick in my client diversity since I’ve dropped it in both speaking and marketing. I have clients and friends thank me for being more “genuine” and “straightforward.” I had no idea I was being confusing and not coming across as genuine. I’m glad I dropped it.
What has your experience been with BS?
Bryna has 3 kiddos, a seafaring husband, and a sweet pup named Amelia Earhart. She loves to climb rocks, play in the surf, and camp in Big Sur.
She has been working with families since 2006, and became an IBCLC in 2010. She owns Doula My Soul, llc -- a private practice in the Portland, Oregon metro area. She works as a doula specializing in high-risk and surgical birth, a lactation consultant offering home, office, and online consults, and teaches classes through both Doula My Soul and OHSU Center for Women's Health.
Bryna has mentored many students through their IBCLC hours, and loves to share the joy of helping families meet their individual definitions of success!
Are you a doula who likes to write? Join us for the "31 Days of Doulas, 2017," as we enter our 4th year of guest blog posts for, about, and by DOULAS! Not an experienced blogger? That's ok! I will help walk you through your idea to get a great result. Don't even have an idea? That's also ok! I have a penchant for helping early writers find that seed of an idea to nurture, grow, and share as a blossoming story of interest and heart, to others. There are still spaces left for 2017 -- contact me today!
Tesa is a doula who, after my recent move, gave me my first insight into the local birth climate. She has such a passion for helping moms and babies through pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, working with families to ensure they have positive, safe experiences. A mother herself, with a 10 year career in the Air Force, she has an impressive story of how she even ended up in the birth world. She is currently overseas getting practical training to become a midwife; I appreciate that she took the time out of her educational pursuits to share this with us.
I discovered soon after training as a Doula that I wanted to pursue Midwifery. I was told by many my Doula experiences would translate into my midwifery training and the experiences of supporting Mothers in the hospital would be immeasurable. I focused intensely on how to interpret a woman’s body language during labor. I knew from experience that most women did not communicate their emotions or physical discomforts throughout labor. I knew that I needed to get good at feeling what she needed. I did not realize the extent of this intuition that I developed until my experience while interning for my midwifery clinical requirements.
Our family decided that I would take an opportunity to travel abroad to volunteer at a birth home in the Philippines for my clinical experience. I was a bit nervous about the language barrier, even though I was assured that most of the mothers spoke English to a point which we could communicate. I planned to learn basic phrases before I set out. Of course life was busy, and a lot of other preparations became a higher priority. So I landed in the Philippines without even knowing how to say hello. I know, bad planning on my part. Luckily I was met at the airport by an American and was never in a sticky situation where I needed to speak Tagalog (the language spoken by Filipinos). From the airport I was taken to the birth home where I met the other American Interns and the Filipino Midwives. Again no need for language skills there either.
The next morning I was integrated into the prenatal check up routine, and that’s when it all came and smacked me in the face. I quickly realized I needed to learn how to communicate with these women if I was going to assist in their care. So where am I going with this? Well after a few weeks I was ready to start attending births as student under supervision, and again I was nervous about communicating with the mother. How would I know what she was feeling? Up to this point my training had focused on the physiological changes to observe that would help me assess the stages of labor, the health of the mother, and fetal well-being. My first birth was a bit of a blur, but the second birth I settled into a very familiar role as this Mother immediately connected with me.
Reflecting I can recall the moment when I understood not a single word she said to me but I could feel everything she needed from me. My Doula heart took over the emotional and physical care of this mother as she labored hard and just needed to feel safe in her moment of vulnerability. I did not need to speak in her language to support her. I was able to express that I was there for her by not leaving her presence. With sincerity in my touch I think she was able to feel safer and more relaxed. I helped her with breathing patterns and movement, only through demonstrating it myself first. These unspoken instructions quickly helped her gain control of her labor and gave her confidence in her ability. Holding her hand through contractions, reassured her I was not leaving. Simple nods from me seemed to confirm to her that everything was normal. No words were required between us; it was a dance of sharing a common goal to bring her baby into the world safely and peacefully.
It’s now been almost 3 months since I have been here in the Philippines and I have since learned many useful Tagalog words to aide me in communicating with woman in the prenatal as well as labor and birth. Like sakit and pwerta, go look them up. Now more than ever I realize the value of my Doula experience, and how it will always be a part of me as a Midwife. The ability to communicate without words extends across many roles in life. I’m very grateful for my experience here and the woman that have allowed me to stand, rock, moan, and cry with them as they birthed their babies. They have given me more than I have given them, and I will hold it close as I move forward to serve many more.
Tesa Kurin is the mother of 6 wonderful children, each different in their own way. She believes that every pregnancy is different and every Woman’s needs are different. Tesa also believes you have the right to choose your birth path. Whether you choose to give birth in a hospital or home, she will provide you with the support and information you need. Find her through her website.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)