The words we use

“Is ‘jerk’ a swear word, Mom?”

“Can I say ‘Hell’ if I’m talking about a place, Mom?”

“Mom! George said a bad word!” 

More than ever, my kids are experimenting with words. Exposure to new phrases– especially through media and books, friends at school, even us parents, etc.– requires the careful navigation of appropriate vernacular. What one might consider distasteful, hurtful, impactful, another may consider harmless or meaningless. These are murky waters we travel! 

Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash

Take this exchange offered by Ravae Sinclair, JD, CD (DONA), LCCE in her presentation at the International Breastfeeding Conference for example.

A white-presenting lactation professional working with a black mother and her baby shortly after birth exclaimed something along the lines of, “Awww, look at him, he looks just like a little thug!” commenting on the slight sag in his newborn hospital cap. 

Photo by Andrae Ricketts on Unsplash

“Little thug”– a heavily loaded term generally carrying negative connotations– was understandably a trigger for the mother. She shut down no longer feeling safe in the space and asked to be discharged early. Most likely, the lactation professional did not intend to offend, but the impact of this short exchange has much further reaching consequences than the intention itself. 

As Sinclair points out, there are potentially life-threatening consequences associated with early hospital discharge, especially for a first time mother and a woman of color. The ripple effect of one word, one phrase can be traumatizing and immense. 

A Rough Translation podcast entitled We Don’t Say That illustrates this phenomenon, the power of words, poetically. 

We’ve written about the power of words as they relate to maternal child health in the past. Here and here for example, but this topic is ever-relevant. 

Just a few weeks ago, International Breastfeeding Conference goers were invited to participate in an Ask the Experts session. One question read as follows: 

My kids tell me I am the furthest thing from woke. What should be my first step?

Healthy Children Project’s Cindy Turner-Maffei shared her reflection:  

“The wording of this question made me, as the emcee of this session, uncomfortable. To me, it implies that the questioner does not understand or perhaps respect what this term refers to. I avoid this term myself, as a white woman, it seems to me that it’s not my term to use. (I’m assuming here that the questioner identifies as white, which is, in itself, not very aware as assumptions go.) We are all on a journey…we hope to be welcoming and inclusive to all, no matter who we are, where we’re from, how we identify, how we dress, how we look. We are all perfectly imperfect human beings.”

A fellow maternal child health advocate (who is black) shared with me recently that another fellow maternal child health advocate (who is white) approached her after a presentation and exclaimed, “I had no idea you were such a great public speaker!” 

This language is considered a microaggression. And again, while the intent isn’t to cause harm, it often can. Here is a detailed article on microaggressions, but if you’re looking for something shorter, Fusion Comedy presents a punchy video on microaggressions (Note: the video contains some strong language.) 

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

Even when we aren’t talking about charged topics, language matters in maternal child health. Dr. Abla Al Alfy has dedicated herself to improving maternal child health outcomes in Egypt through Our Dream Initiative. One strategy she has employed is Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), but in Egypt, she explains, most mothers don’t know what a kangaroo is. And when they find out, they tell Dr. Al Alfy that they don’t want to be likened to wild animals. Instead, Dr. Al Alfy and her colleagues adopted Warm Hug Care, a term more culturally applicable.  

Language has been studied by Virginia Schmied and colleagues in their work ‘This little piranha’: a qualitative analysis of the language used by health professionals and mothers to describe infant behaviour during breastfeeding  which reveals some of the ways care providers describe the newborn baby during the first week after birth and how that language can affect breastfeeding. 

The authors found that the most frequent personality trait ascribed to newborn infants was impatient and/or lazy.

Photo by Aix Style on Unsplash

The authors also found that “the impact of this type of negative construction of the baby was evident in the interview data collected some 4–6 weeks after birth. There were a number of occasions where women were noted to repeat the same language that the midwife had previously used in their interactions with the woman, in those early days after birth.” 

You can find a commentary piece by one of the study’s authors here

Choosing our words in whatever capacity we’re working in should be a careful craft.  This may be quite a challenge on occasion, but let us remember this quote: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

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