We have a problem in maternity care. Well, several problems to be honest. But the one that is most EASILY fixed relates to language. I have heard the most ridiculous language used in a birthing room. I could honestly write a book on all the inappropriate things I’ve heard people say! But by far the most damaging, most insulting and most unnecessary two words that I hear are…..
Why is this phrase so demeaning?
Whilst I’m sure most care providers mean well, this is a seriously messed up thing to say to a grown woman. Even more infuriating is that every woman is relegated to a little child when she becomes pregnant. She could be a lawyer, doctor or engineer. She could have a PhD in “How to have a baby”, but, all of a sudden her knowledge, her experience and her intellect are deemed null and void when it comes to making decisions about her body. (Sidenote: For the record, you shouldn’t need a degree or doctorate to warrant respect.)
And it MUST stop!
Wider usage of this phrase
This is a phrase I say to my 2-year old daughter frequently. I doubt though, that I’ll say it to her when she’s 10 and I DEFINITELY won’t be saying it to her once she’s an adult. You see once we turn 18 we no longer fit the definition of a “girl”. We are a “woman”. But our language betrays a different set of rules…
I have caught myself occasionally referring to a woman as a girl, if I didn’t know her name. E.g. “the girl at the checkout”. Usually I do this if they appear young-ish, but to be honest, I don’t know at what point I start saying “the lady at the checkout”. But do you know what I don’t do? ...Ever refer to a man as a “boy”. Think about it, we quite easily transition our language to refer to men as MEN when they become of age, yet women are “girls” until they are well past their childbearing years! It’s completely condescending and mostly unintentional. But we need to be aware of it and make the conscious effort to change.
Heck, maybe I should be rethinking whether I say it AT ALL to my daughter, even while she’s little, because what message is it really sending? Do I really want her to grow up to be a “good girl”? I want her to be fearless, to challenge the status quo, to lead, to reform, to invent. None of that is likely if she aspires only to be a “good girl”. You may have heard the quote “Well-behaved women seldom make history” (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). Whilst this wasn’t said in the same context, it seems quite apt nonetheless.
What to say instead
What you could say instead really depends on the context of the comment so I can’t provide a definitive replacement to this phrase. I’m sure I can trust your own intellect and your command of language to select a suitable alternative. But here are just a few suggestions:
If you want to say “good girl” as a way to show your approval of or agreeance to the decision she is making, I suggest you say something like “that’s a great idea”. (Sidenote 2: This is quite unnecessary though as whatever decision a woman makes, is the right decision for her and she doesn't need your approval!)
If you want to say “good girl” as a way to congratulate her for the effort she is making and encourage her (e.g. during the pushing phase of labour) you could say “great work” “you are doing so well” “keep going” “you can do it!” etc.
All the other contexts, I will leave in your capable hands.
I have also witnessed many care providers – midwives and doctors alike – who have displayed impeccable communication skills. Their language was always respectful, caring and empowering. Honestly whenever this has happened I have wanted to hug them!! They do exist! It's just that we can do so much better. We need all care providers to be like this! Welcoming a child into the world is one of the most important events in an individual’s and her family’s life and it shouldn’t be marred by disrespectful language.
Language MATTERS. The words we use MATTER. They shape our perception of the world and people around us. They influence how OTHER people feel. You can use your words to lift people up or to demean them. All I ask is that if you are around a pregnant woman and CERTAINLY if you are in a birthing room, you NEVER EVER use the phrase “good girl”. And if you are a birthing woman, do not tolerate this phrase. If someone calls you a good girl, call them out on it. Or you could even reflect it back and call THEM a “good girl” or a “good boy” (depending on their gender). They will stop pretty quickly saying “good girl” to you!!
About the Author
Christa Buckland is a Pregnancy and Childbirth Coach. She has a Bachelor's degree in Health Science (Health Promotion) and 20 years experience in community education. To read more about Christa, click here.
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