If you write (or read) about parenting, please take note.
Too many journalists and authors make rookie errors that can put a major dent in the first few months of your baby’s life.
The first ‘he’ was a shock. I was cramming in a bit of parenting know-how before I gave birth and the author referred to my baby as a ‘he’. Which was odd, because I was having a girl. And because I thought it was a given we use ‘they’ when talking about a person who’s sex is unknown.
The next ‘he’ made me curious. The third left me annoyed. And then the more I saw it, the more frustrated, and angry, I got. I wasn’t expecting the patriarchy to exist linguistically for my daughter before I had even given birth.
Over the coming weeks and months I noticed a few other linguistic trends in content associated with children that, at best, left a bad taste in my mouth — and, at worst, meant I wept again and again. Partly it was from the judgement hidden behind certain words or phrases, partly it was my sadness that parents today are still saddled with outdated biases, given how much what we read and hear has such a powerful effect on how we experience life.
I know I’m more sensitive to the long-term, systematic effects of language on how we experience, and then shape, the world than the average person — my degree was in communications and I spent a shed load of time studying theories such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity. So, with that in mind, I wanted to share some advice for writers, or anyone creating content on pregnancy, babies, children and parenting.
Don’t use the term “normal” to describe certain types of birth (like this NHS PDF from East Sussex does). The NHS says 1 in 4 babies are born by caesarian, so as well as an argument for it being inaccurate, there is just so much judgement in the word. While it might be a “technical” phrase, “normal” is more often than not a term used as a benchmark of how ‘OK’ or accepted something is. I know too many people who look back sadly on their birth because they made the potentially life-saving decision to have an abdominal birth rather than persevere with a riskier vaginal one given the negative chat around caesareans being somehow “less than”. And Shrewsbury has far too many families who look back with grief for women and babies who died because of the obsession with ‘normal’ births. I like “vaginal” and “abdominal” births — linguistically there’s pretty much zero judgement baked into these terms.
Be cautious about your use of “natural” too. Too many authors use it to mean “good”, rendering anything “unnatural” to be “bad”. The hypno-birthing videos I watched would have you believe you’re doing your future child a real disservice if you opt for pain relief during what can be the most physically-demanding event we’ll ever endure, adding to the layers of guilt so many already feel. Breastfeeding is discussed as the most natural thing you can do… but what if, like me, you naturally couldn’t produce enough milk? (It took me a long time to forgive myself for the sin I had apparently committed by not being able to do something that comes so “naturally” to people.) Feeling connected to your baby is “the most natural thing” … unless you’re beset by postpartum, or any other kind, of depression, and your natural state at that given moment is sad, teary, nonchalant, or anything else. I’m not suggesting writers never use it, but do think twice about whether there’s a better way to describe what you want to do.
Avoid the use of binary opposition. Vaginal birth vs abdominal birth, breastfeeding vs bottle feeding, attachment vs parent-led parenting etc. I’m a former journalist, so I understand it’s pull as a handy device, but all-too-often these are false binaries. I’m breastfeeding and bottle feeding. Multiple friends endured 90% of vaginal labour and then had to have a caesarean. None of all stick to “rules” of parenting styles 100%. If you simply must use the device in your articles, please at least take a few sentences to explain why most things aren’t so binary.
“Studies show” must be avoided, especially in opinion pieces. Tell me the detail of these studies. How many? When were they done? Where were they published? How big was the sample size? How valid was their methodology? What about other studies on the same subject? If you don’t, we can only assume you’re using scientific-sounding phrases to persuade the reader of your own argument. Disguising opinion pieces as factual articles via a smattering of “studies show” is always a shitty thing to do, but especially in content targeted at super vulnerable new parents who are often facing judgement from all sides. (Kudos to Emily Oster and the Maintenance Phase podcast for my new-found respect for decent methodology chat).
Don’t use ‘he’ as a catch-all term when referring to a baby. This one is so obvious I needn’t even explain it, but it’s still used by books and sites that should know better (such as this incredible Your Baby Week-by-Week book which everyone I know has, so is clearly incredibly influential. La Leche GB, who do such an incredible job of supporting breastfeeding women, still haven’t got around to changing key articles on their site despite agreeing in 2020 that their policy of using “he” for all babies and “she” for all mothers was out of date. They do, however, assure me they are on it). As I mentioned in the introduction, it’s the patriarchy in linguistic action and we have to avoid it at all costs. They/them is a perfectly suitable term to use in this situation, as you the writer have no idea of the sex that the baby your reader wants to learn about.
Don’t assume the reader (or listener) is the mother, especially on topics that require all parents to understand. For example, the brilliant (and much-recommended) The Gentle Sleep book refers often to ‘you’ while explicitly assuming ‘you’ are the mother — which is odd, as sleep is something all parents/carers need to know about. Authors, please do your bit to speak to all parents/carers when you speak about anything parenting related — you make it easier for non-mothers to feel included, and help tackle the stereotype that it’s always the woman’s job to be the primary carer.
Wise up on inclusive birthing and parenting language. Following on from the last point, not everyone who gives birth identifies as “she”, or a woman. Not every birthing parent wishes to be called ‘mother’. Not every set of parents include the person who gave birth. I’ve used this piece as an opportunity to educate myself on language that supports LGTBQ parents, and here are some resources I’ve found useful to help me better understand how to write about these topics:
- Dad Bod, the column on Vice written by Freddy McConnell
- @Oh_Another_StudentMidwife, a queer student midwife who’s Instagram is a wealth of information about inclusive birthing.
- This piece by Two Dad’s UK which includes some really practical and essential advice.
- A deep dive from the British Journal of Midwifery on gender-inclusive language.
- Read various voices on this topic via this Guardian opinion piece by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
I’m sure I’ve missed plenty of linguistic mishaps common in this kind of content, so please don’t hesitate to DM me with additions, feedback or to flag any mistakes I’ve made.