I was recently asked, “Why do you always say ‘birthing person’ instead of ‘mother’?” The question was genuine (though I’ve heard it been asked sarcastically, often followed by “Aren’t all birthing people mothers?”). The initial answer is pretty straightforward: Not all birthing people are mothers and it is important to me to offer inclusive support in my community. What does that mean? Why does it matter? Read on!
What is inclusive support?
Inclusive support means offering the same non-judgemental, unconditional support to anyone that needs or wants it. That means using inclusive language like “birthing person” instead of assuming that any person preparing to give birth identifies as “mother” because many don’t, such as transgender men, some non-binary people, and surrogates. It means removing all assumptions. Asking for a person’s preferred pronouns instead of assuming. Offering inclusive support goes beyond just saying “birthing person”. It also means asking if they have a partner and, if they do, not assuming anything about the relationship (for example, not assuming that it’s a heterosexual relationship). It means being able to provide resources and referrals to information sources and other professionals that are safe and welcoming. For me, offering inclusive support often means unlearning a lot of things, because I grew up in a heteronormative society where families consisting of a cisgender mom and cisgender dad were considered the ideal family and anything else was “other”. The process of unlearning can be hard and it can be daunting, but it’s worth it and it matters.
Why does it matter?
It matters because it feels awful to be excluded. No one needs to feel left out ever, but especially not during a vulnerable time like pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Even though the exclusion is not typically intentional, the impact can still be hurtful, and the impact matters more than the intent. For example, when I was a surrogate, almost every form that I had to fill out asked for the “mother’s” information. (Which was not only exclusionary, it was also confusing. The baby did have a mother, it just wasn’t me. Were they asking for her info or mine?) Many professionals that I encountered assumed that I was the mother to the baby I was carrying and I was often addressed as “mama”. This lead to awkward encounters where I had to explain the situation, over and over again, often to multiple people in the same medical setting, because there wasn’t a space on their charts to explain that I was a surrogate. Once, I had to clarify to the same person within the same conversation that I was not the baby’s mother at least 3 times. This was at the end of the journey, after baby had been born. If all of the forms and charts that were collected by this particular medical setting had been inclusive and left room to highlight this situation, I would not have been having that conversation in the first place, because they would have known who identified as the “mother” in this case and contacted them instead. Experiences like these left me feeling like there wasn’t space for us in those settings, like our situation wasn’t important enough to warrant being included. These experiences were frustrating, but they are barely scratching the surface in the conversation about inclusion. I only experienced the effects of not having inclusive support during my surrogacy journey, which was – retrospectively – a short period of my life. Imagine you have to experience this every day. Imagine you are often misgendered or it’s regularly assumed that you have a husband when you actually have a wife or maybe no partner at all. And then you’re pregnant and you already have so many emotions and you’re feeling like you’re in a particularly vulnerable place. You go to the first appointment with your care provider or you meet with your doula for the first time and it happens again. You have to fill out a form or sign a contract asking for the “mother’s” information and the “father’s” information. You wonder, is there space for me here? Am I welcome? Am I the only person like me here? Will I be novel to them? Will they know how to care for me? By choosing to use inclusive language, it sends the message that everyone is welcome. It lets people know that effort is being put in to create an inclusive environment. It allows people to feel safe and know that this space will be free from the heteronormative perspectives that so often exclude them.
So, the word “mother” is banned now?!?
No, of course not! There are many people that do identify as a “mother” and they should not feel excluded, either. When I meet with clients, I start off with two questions: “What are your preferred pronouns?” and “What term do you feel comfortable with in relation to this baby?” I use that information as my guide. If the term “mother” speaks to you, that’s how I refer to you. If you identify as the baby’s father, that’s how I refer to you. If you have a different term you prefer, I’m all for it. Typically, though, I just use your name.
I use the term “birthing person” when I am addressing an unknown or general audience. For example, in my social media or blog posts, I use “birthing person” because I don’t know who is reading or how they identify. In my standard forms like contracts and consultation forms, I use “birthing person” because I use the same form for all my clients and it doesn’t make logistical sense to re-write every contract and form for every client. They are also usually printed out or sent before I’ve had a chance to meet with you and discover more about you, like how you identify.
Offering inclusive care is very important to me. I’m still learning about the best ways to do that and frequently learn ways to improve. Using inclusive language is just one way to include everyone and help people feel welcome, because no one should be made to feel excluded by anyone, especially their doula!
*The examples I used in this blog are just some of the reasons a person might not identify as a “mother”. There are many, many reasons and this blog is not meant to offer an exhaustive list of those reasons.