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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Language of labor

Women get pregnant.

They have contractions.

They're in labor.

They give birth.

In this long, 40-week process, women are in charge of growing and nurturing another being inside of them and the language we have to describe that process is...passive.


Mothers and mothers-to-be are an incredibly active sect of people. While terms like "laboring" and "birthing" are finally starting to come into the common vernacular, it has taken decades, nay, centuries for society to admit that a woman has an active role in the birth of her child. And women have had to fight for it.

The slow change in the language represents a large achievement in the way women are representing themselves--as autonomous beings. Finally no longer the passive receptor of a man or gestator of his baby.

My husband and I recently had a discussion about this because my children currently say "borned a baby". We simply thought it cute at the time, but the truth is, in the incredibly action-packed, very deliberate, very active "birthing" there is no commonly used active verb. In fact, women are given no verbs at all for the whole process. Let's take them one at a time.

You get pregnant.

This implies that you are receiving something. Sperm perhaps, or the embryo or fetus? But a man impregnates and a woman becomes impregnated. Passive.

When the baby is just about ready to come along, they say you're having contractions.

Now, I suppose you could say you're contracting, which would be just as accurate and more active in tone, but hardly anyone does. Instead, contractions become a condition foisted upon the yet again passive woman. Contractions happen to her, rather than her body contracting.

As those intensify, the phrasing turns to you're in labor. Again, laboring could be used and would be accurate, but it hardly ever is. Instead of a woman actively laboring, she goes into labor. A state of being. Passive. And there is nothing passive about labor.

Finally, you give birth. The emphasis here is on the baby. The woman is finally giving something, but it's the most passive form of action one can muster with the object receiving the attention. And, yes, birthing is used, and perhaps more commonly than contracting or laboring, but the main phrase is still 'giving birth'. Passing something on to something else.

In fact, the only common active verb in pregnancy/birth is delivering. Which at first I thought made this entire blog irrelevant. But then I realized that a doctor does that. A doctor delivers a baby.

Is this a big deal?

Not really.

But words carry intense meaning and the way in which they are used paint a picture of how our culture views its people. And women, particularly pregnant and birthing ones, are active.

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