Last week, Time magazine’s cover story “The Goddess Myth: How a Vision of Perfect Motherhood Hurts Moms” spoke eloquently about the impact of mom-shaming and how an extreme emphasis on “natural” birthing and motherhood leads to tremendous guilt, shame, and sadness in new moms. This article got me thinking a lot about language, specifically the words we use to talk about birth and parenting. As a practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), I am always looking at the ways my clients use and cling to language. In ACT, we target language that traps clients in emotional suffering. The birth world is full of language that does just that. 

For example, the term Natural Birth. Natural birth is touted as the holy grail of birthing experiences. We are told we should strive to birth naturally, that our bodies are built for it, and that birthing “naturally” is the safest thing for our babies and for our bodies. That the alternative is, well, unnatural. That is highly loaded language. What are we conveying to women when we tell them their desire for to pain medication, their need for a C-section, or their choice of a hospital setting are unnatural?

What about the idea of a birth plan? Same issue. The word plan implies an element of choice and stick-to-itiveness that does not reflect the reality of many birth experiences. That leaves us with the women that were strong enough to stick with their plans, and those that failed to. See the problem?

There are language issues present in how we talk about feeding our babies. Think about the implication of breast is best. Or even the question; are you breast or bottle feeding? Here the language sets up a paradigm where women have two options positioned in clear polarity. Either you are doing the right thing and breast feeding, or you are formula feeding and it’s wrong.

The language of birth is deeply infused with shaming messages, and I hear it in how my clients speak about themselves. They talk of how their bodies failed them, how they failed their babies, how they weren’t strong enough, and how they feel shame and regret. Their narrative around birth has already defined how they think of themselves as mothers before they have even left the hospital.

That’s why in my practice I make it a point to change the narrative and call out this destructive language. For example, when my clients speak about their births as “unnatural” or their desire for a “natural birth,” I introduce them to the language of “medically assisted” vs “unassisted” or “medicated” vs “un-medicated.” We don’t talk about “birth plans” but rather “birth preferences.” When we talk about feeding babies, I ask about how they are you feeding their babies in broad language, rather than the narrow language of “are you breast or bottle feeding?

Within that, I work with my clients to move through the language and the narrative around birth, and understand the why. In ACT terms, this is essentially a way to clarify values. For example, why does an un-medicated birth matter to client? What is she longing for or what is she afraid of? If we can get past the shaming messages, perhaps we can get to a flexible set of birth preferences that helps her have a positive birth experience and buffers her against the negative rhetoric.

Or when working with a client who has been so bombarded with the message of breast is best that she is suffering through bout after bout of mastitis and pumping regimen that leaves her with little time to sleep, we work to diffuse the message. If we can work through the language and the narrative that leaves her feeling without options and like she is failing her baby, we can achieve a values consistent choice that also protects her emotional and physical health and preserves her bond with baby.

Remember the children’s rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Oh, how wrong it is! Not only does shaming language from others deeply impact us, but language defines how we think about ourselves and how we talk to ourselves. Its due time to offer women a different narrative with language that is supportive, empowering, flexible, and serves to promote emotional wellness.