The things that pregnant bodies can do is nothing short of a miracle. We grow human beings inside of us and give birth to them as tiny little people who grow up to be adults who do great things. I mean, seriously. That's amazing.
Yet there are still terms that are used frequently today that inspire a lack of confidence in a pregnant and birthing body that suggest there is something inherently wrong; that as we age we lose our value; or that we are doing a "bad job" bringing life into the world.
As a therapist who specializes in treating perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), I can't tell you how many women that I have treated that say to me, "I can remember the exact moment when I was introduced to perinatal anxiety or depression. It was when a doctor or nurse said fill in the blank about me or about my body."
Words carry significant power. The medical lexicon and labels we use during the most vulnerable time a pregnant person may ever experience bear unquestionable weight and can lead to a sense of shame, failure, and incompetence. We don't need negative terms to contribute to new and expecting parents feeling that way. We have a whole culture that glamorizes motherhood and makes it look blissful, easy, and wonderful, so that when it's far from that experience (which it often is) women feel like they're making mistakes left and right and that they aren't cut out for parenthood.
Here are five terms we should do away with for good.
This term was coined years ago to describe pregnancy over the age of 35. It was meant to take into account the "high risk" for miscarriage or complication due to the age. Yet this term was derived at a time when women were having babies much earlier—unlike now, where waiting later in life to have children is common. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of women who became first time mothers between the ages of 40-44 doubled between 1990 and 2012.
There are certain pregnancy-related complications that are more common at 35 and above, including gestational diabetes and low birth weight, but they're not a guarantee. High risk simply means higher risk than those giving birth in their 20s and early 30s. Most pregnancies in the late 30s and early 40s end up totally OK, particularly if a person sees their doctor regularly and remains health conscious.
A replacement term that has been growing momentum for some time is "advanced maternal age." Albeit far from perfect, at least it doesn't suggest that women are having babies in their 80s.
Miscarriage means the natural death of an embryo or fetus before it can survive on its own. It's made up of two words: "mis," a prefix which means "wrongly" or "badly," and "carriage," or "the act of conveying." The second part makes sense, but the first misses the mark. Having a miscarriage does not mean that a woman's body has made a mistake or bad action. Most miscarriages are the result of spontaneous chromosomal anomalies that make human development impossible. It's a healthy body recognizing a pregnancy that is incompatible with life.
"Pregnancy loss" is a better term and does not carry the same negative connotation. It instead reflects a basic understanding of what the experience truly represents.
The term, also called cervical insufficiency, certainly doesn't evoke confidence in one's body. This happens when the cervix (the structure at the bottom of the uterus) is weak and therefore can widen during pregnancy. If undiagnosed and untreated, this condition can result in pregnancy loss or premature delivery. Doctors diagnose most cases after a loss in the second trimester of pregnancy.
Webster's Dictionary defines incompetent as "lacking the qualities needed for effective action; unable to function properly; not legally qualified; inadequate to or unsuitable for a particular purpose." Associating this tragic experience that impacts about 1 in 100 women with a term that begins with "incompetent" only perpetuates a sense of shame and disdain for oneself and her body.
Failure to Progress
Also known as "poor maternal effort," this happens when labor slows and the delivery is delayed. Basically, the baby isn't moving down the birth canal at the expected pace. There are a number of reasons why this may occur—none of which have to do with the "failure" of the birthing parent. Reasons include a large baby size or large head or the baby is in a difficult position.
Oftentimes failure to progress leads to a C-section or other procedures to extract the baby. This is almost never a part of a pregnant person's birth plan, and it can make them feel like their body didn't do what it was supposed to do. A replacement term being used is "slow progress in labor." At least that one doesn't imply that the parent-to-be did anything wrong.
Hostile Cervical Mucus
This is one of my favorites. How, you might ask, can cervical mucus act maliciously? Well, when cervical mucus problems stand in the way of getting pregnant, it's medically referred to as hostile cervical mucus. Hostile cervical mucus can mean vaginal dryness, vaginal secretions that are too acidic, or refer to immunological problems. There are cases when the cervical mucus in a woman will attack and kill sperm before it reaches the egg. This is called—brace yourself—cervical hostility. Maybe the mucus knows what's up and is protecting the egg from a hostile sperm?
The Bottom Line
These terms and many more carry a negative connotation regarding a woman's body and effort to conceive or give birth. When I think of terms that are used to describe a challenge that a man experiences regarding procreation—the term "low sperm count" comes to mind—can you imagine if this condition was referred to as "sperm production failure" or "hostile testicles"?
Pregnancy and birth deserve terms that capture beauty, strength, and amazement. Using more positive words can make all the difference, especially for those who have had difficulty becoming pregnant, lost a baby, or experienced complications during childbirth. Words can make all the difference.
Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, is the founding director of The Motherhood Center located in New York City. The Motherhood Center provides education, support, and clinical treatment to new and expecting mothers experiencing perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs). If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or anxiety during pregnancy or in the postpartum period check out The Motherhood Center.