Language – is what we do more important than what we say?

Welcome to our latest blog post.

My name is Andrea and I am one of the founders of Agnostic Scotland. I am a midwife and an Agnostic Celebrant. Over the last few years, while weaving the threads of both practices through my life, I have discovered so many parallels. One of the comparable areas, that I couldn’t help noticing quite quickly, is language and specifically the use of the word my.

Definition of my – of or relating to me or myself especially as possessor, agent, object of an action or familiar person

merriam-webster.com

In early 2018 the British Medical Journal published a blog which explored language used in maternity care. The authors put together an alternative language guide for midwives and medical staff and, of course, the media picked up on this with headlines in UK newspapers stating that midwives were “BANNED” (sic) from using certain terms because they could be disrespectful to women.
Well, as you know, you can’t ban people from using certain words and language but you can inspire people to reflect on their communication and the words and language they use.
This discussion is not new to the maternity services. Midwifery language and communication has been researched and written about repeatedly. There is still one specific area we can’t quite agree on though – what we call the women we care for.

Detail from The Great Scottish Tapestry

Patients – could be disempowering, the majority of pregnant women are not sick but well and healthy, they just happen to be pregnant. Ladies – is thought of as patronising. Clients – more suited to hairdressers and therapists. I have even heard midwives call women ‘birds’, or sometimes just ‘Room 8’ or whatever room/bed number the midwife is assigned to.

Personally, I call a woman I care for by her name.


For me what is even more irksome is when midwives talk about ‘my lady’ or ‘my woman’. The woman doesn’t belong to anyone and this kind of language is paternalistic. How we frame things, how we say things influences how we practice, what we do and ultimately how we treat people.

I have noticed a similarity in the wedding sector with celebrants, photographers and other ceremony suppliers often talking about ‘my couple’. Even though this is likely unconscious, and very well intended, it is the kind of language that has the ability to disempower and can influence a relationship.

The individuals that make up a couple don’t belong to anyone.

In our work and practice as celebrants we are not owners of the two people who, may function socially as a unit, but are individual autonomous adults and decision makers. We must promote working in partnership and recognise we are not owners but facilitators. Our language should regard and respect the current social norms, expectations and rights of the people we work with.

I know that in the past I have slipped into the negative terminology that dominates the culture I work in & failed to appreciate the impact my words have had, but after many years working with women, couples and families I feel I know I have made a shift and on the whole I am now mindful of the language I use. That shift came with self-awareness, reflection and a fundamental belief in respecting individuals, choice and equality.

Why not start reflecting on the language you use, the words you utter and type, make a shift if need be. When we are authentic and grounded in our practice it is not difficult to make the language we use about, and around, couples and families appropriate and respectful.

Changing the way we think can change our words and changing our words can change our way of thinking.

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