Sunday, 2 August 2009

Language and Paradox in Childbearing

I was reading a piece of work which commented that a woman had an 'uneventful pregnancy'. That word 'uneventful' appears to be innocent at first glance. What 'uneventful' means in the context of maternity care is that there are no problems with the pregnancy. Labeling the life changing transformative experience of a normal healthy pregnancy as 'uneventful' belies the importance of a pregnancy to a woman, her family and society. That word 'uneventful'diminishes the power and magnificence of what is happening within a woman's body and psyche when she is pregnant.

Being pregnant would have to rate up there as one of the most momentous of events in a woman's life. I was thinking about language and words have so much power and convey so much meaning. The use of the word 'uneventful' together with healthy pregnancy creates a paradox. This paradox is not immediately recognised. The paradox may never actually be recognised by the speaker. With one word the wonder of pregnancy is relegated to the status of an unremarkable and therefore somehow meaningless reality. I wonder if the mindset that word 'uneventful' creates is one of the reasons why our maternity services make pregnant women wait for hours in cattleyard-like antenatal clinics?

Carmel Niland said in 1992 in her Anne Conlon Memorial Lecture “Women, Power and the Political Process” to the NSW Women’s Advisory Council “Words are seeds. Whole worlds lie curled in them. Three words like ‘women’, ‘power’ and ‘politics’ have a universe in ideas curled in them”.

The way we speak, what we say and how we say it is culturally and politically determined and reflects our belief structures, perspectives, values and biases. Language also defines structure, creates thought and gives thought form. It not only embodies our history and culture, it reinforces our values and beliefs in a self perpetuating system of meaning making. Words are carriers for cultural ideology. We see the world through the lenses of our values and belief systems. Spoken language is a major form of interpersonal communication. The words used in oral communication demonstrate power structures and positions of those communicating within those power structures. As Sheila Rowbotham (in Waring 1990:18) comments,
“language … is one of the instruments of domination... expresses a reality experienced by the oppressors. It speaks only for their world, their view.”

Changing our language to ensure what we say truly reflects the magnificence of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding is vital if we want to change maternity services and what happens to women.

Waring, M. If Women Counted: A new feminist economics Harper Collins New York.

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