I was recently asked about why I’ve been using “partner,” “pregnant person” and the singular “they” as my default terms in both speech and writing when I talk about birth and families. My response was somewhat clumsy (which is very like me) because I had so many reasons both personal and professional for using language this way, and when I get excited about this stuff I stumble. Let me say that I love language. I love it so much for its ability to not just express thoughts, but indeed shape them. Language also has limitations and when we as a society change it to reflect our reality, it has a bit of an awkward phase before our mouths and eyes and ears get used to it. Besides the fact that I’m a huge language nerd and have been thrilled to discover that writing these blogs scratches a long-dormant writer’s itch, I want to make it super clear that I am welcoming both personally and professionally to ALL people however they self-identify along the spectrums of gender and sexuality. This is probably partly because, thanks to my mother, I hate seeing anyone not feeling at-home or welcome and will literally fall all over myself (because I am that clumsy) to make sure they are comfortable. And also because, without making this post all about me me me me, I have spent a lot of time feeling different and “other” for a variety of reasons at different points in my life. Lucky for me I found my people, and among them Lee, who is incredibly like-minded about this stuff (and also a lot of other amazing things; she’s literally one of my all-time favourite people).
In creating Two Doulas, Lee and I talked extensively about our vision for this company and we knew from the beginning that we were going to be an explicitly inclusive business. This also meant that we were opening ourselves up to some criticism, both from a language front (my granny, an English teacher, has A LOT of trouble with the singular they,) and an ideological one. We’re okay with it. We won’t refuse to call you a mother or wife when we know that is how you identify, but being a mother and wife is also being a parent and a partner. So rather than starting off gendered and old-fashioned, assuming most people are married heterosexuals in monogamous relationships just because one of them is having a baby, we start with the premise that if you’re growing a baby, you’re a person, and therefore deserving of respect and support. The language we use is a conscious choice. Words are powerful.
Since we know that regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other defining feature, our clients (and everyone else) deserve to be treated with respect, this means referring to them properly, with correct pronouns and names. Inclusive language means acknowledging that cisgender women are not the only people growing babies, and that families do not need to have a mommy and a daddy. This memo has not trickled down to every healthcare provider yet, and so LGBTQ parents may face some extra challenges while pursuing perinatal care. Doula Trainings International recently published an article, Around The Transparent Campfire: Why We Need Trans Doulas and Trans Friendly Doulas, about training trans and trans-friendly doulas. All the yes!
Adopting inclusive language means sometimes making mistakes and being open-minded and humble enough to learn from them. As I write this I keep thinking of a magical evening my family spent a few years ago with someone I grew up with but hadn’t seen in a long time. They made a point of explaining to me in an email before our get-together (it had been many years) that they no longer identified with a specific gender, and to please use “they” or their name. Easy peasy, I thought! I expressed that I hoped they’d understand if my small children stumbled or struggled, and my friend assured me it would not freak them out if a tiny kid accidentally gendered them. So the kids were total champs. They asked “What are you?” to which my friend responded “I’m me. What are you?” So simple! My children were enthralled and they got it right away. I, on the other hand, made a mess of it. I kept forgetting (thanks a lot, wine), and reminiscing felt so natural that I found myself misgendering them over and over! And I apologized every time while feeling like a complete noob. But my friend, in their amazingly open and cool way, made me feel safe and loved as I learned the vocabulary and tried out talking about our memories of each other without using gendered pronouns that didn’t apply to my friend. It was an important lesson and a wonderful, if a bit sloppy, evening.
I’ve gotten a lot more natural-sounding when I use inclusive language, though I’m sure I still occasionally mess up. I love the way language is evolving off the tongues of the diverse people who are clearly and uncompromisingly themselves. Not all healthcare providers or institutions that expectant parents interact with will have practised and made a habit of using inclusive terminology, and it can be very discouraging for these parents and the people who love them. Wherever possible, a trans/genderqueer/any LGBTQ person should find a care provider who will honour them and not be a creep. But, this is the real world and it can be hard to get any doctor, let alone one you actually like (Quebec, you can be such a downer sometimes) so unfortunately really lovely people often have to put up with some unpleasant and hurtful crap in the name of healthcare. This sucks. I want them to have someone to call if they’ve had a tough appointment or a bad day and that someone could be me: their incredibly understanding, if a little clumsy at times, doula.