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8 gender-neutral birth terms and how to use them

February 13, 2017

 

I had the pleasure of auditing the Infant and Pregnancy Loss Doula Certification program offered through the Home Hospice Association for inclusive language, and recently a colleague asked me for some advice on gender-neutral birth terms so I thought… why not make a list?

Birth workers and mommy groups are all too often hyper gendered and use language that can make it seem like families only occur in heterosexual nuclear configurations shown on 1950’s ads… or most modern ads. We know better by now, don’t we?

 

Families have always formed from all sorts of parts! Single-parent families, trans-parent families, extended families, polyamours families, married couples, unwed common-law couples, queer families, straight families, families of colour, interracial families, families formed from friendships, arranged marriages, families within families– with all of this variety, why do we keep using such limited language? Who do we serve by cutting “others” out of the family portrait?

So here it is! These are some of my favourite inclusive birth terms and how to use them.

All terms are gender neutral, some are inclusive in additional ways:

Birthing person instead of mom or woman.
    •    Appropriate for some people who place for adoption and do not want to identify as a caregiver (though often those who place for adoption still feel a strong attachment as a caregiver during the months of pregnancy and immediate postpartum, and sometimes beyond depending on adoption arrangements. As always, asking how a person wants to be referred to is key).
    •    “It is important to respect the birthing person’s wishes during labour.”

Labouring person or person in labour instead of mom or woman.
    •    Appropriate for some people who place for adoption and do not want to identify as a caregiver (though often those who place for adoption still feel a strong attachment as a caregiver during the months of pregnancy and immediate postpartum, and sometimes beyond depending on adoption arrangements. As always, asking how a person wants to be referred to is key).
    •    “The labouring person typically doesn’t appreciate loud noises or bright lights during labour.”

Individuals with childbearing reproductive organs instead of female sex organs or female bodied
    •    “Individuals with childbearing reproductive organs don’t always choose pregnancy as a means to parenting.”

Parent or co-parent instead of mother or father, wife or husband, girlfriend or boyfriend.
    •    Someone who is choosing to parent may not identify as a mother, father, or be a biological parent
    •    “Sheri, Kale, and Meghan will be co-parenting their child Rae.”

 

Caregiver or primary caregiver instead of mother or father, wife or husband, girlfriend or boyfriend, or friend.
    •    Someone who is choosing to care for the child may not identify as a mother, father, parent, or be biologically affiliated to the family.
    •    “My Oma was one of my primary caregivers growing up.”

Partners instead of partner, husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend
    •    If you change “partner” to “partners” in training manuals, the reader can take it to mean you’re talking about multiple couples and generally their partners, or you could be talking about one person and their multiple partners (which recognizes polyamorous families).
    •    “Partners can sometimes feel doulas will replace their role during labour, but often come to appreciate the doulas unique skillset.”

Families
    •    Families are self-defined. This word, in and of itself, doesn’t mean anything other than a group of people that operate as a unit and take care of each other and/or dependants.
    •    “We met many different kinds of families this weekend during our prenatal classes!”

Person/people and they/them pronouns
    •    My favourite. It’s as neutral as it gets.
    •    There are a number of different pronoun types that different people use, but in terms of go-to pronouns for training manuals and when pronouns are unknown and cannot be determined right away, they/them is a safe solution. Once pronouns are known, it's important to use the language the person identifies with.
    •    “In Canada people can either birth at home, in a birthing centre, or hospital.”

 

You definitely want to steer clear of language like, “the real father” (i.e., John will be parenting with Stacy, but he’s not the real father. Vs. John will be parenting with Stacy, though he is not a  biological parent or sperm donor.) Not sure how a person should be addressed? You can always ask, "what pronouns do you use?" If someone is confused about why you’re asking for their pronouns or ways to address them, you can say, “I try not to assume gender or titles for others.” If they want to have a further conversation about it, you can. If they don’t, move on.

It’s a lot more simple than it can sometimes feel. It just takes practice!

 

This post was updated on Feb 16th, 2017 to incorporate feedback regarding the use of "preference" when referring to pronouns. Since "preference" suggests gender is a choice, this use of language was found to be invalidating of people's experiences and has thus been changed.

 

This post was updated on Feb 18th, 2017 to incorporate feedback regarding the language around adoption and to acknowledge the breadth of experiences for those who choose to place for adoption.

 

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