If you ask a dozen pregnant women “who is going to deliver your baby?” their answers will likely be the names of their midwives, doctors or medical group. It is rare for a woman to say “I am!” The reality is that while we might say that someone can deliver another person’s child, only mothers give birth to their babies.
Why does this difference matter?
It matters because the way that we talk about birth can transform the way that we think about birth. Naming something is an empowering process because words carry layers of meaning, of emotion, and of understanding. So the difference boils down to who is bringing the baby into the world; who is the one at the center of the process. We would never say that a doctor or midwife birthed someone else’s child. To say that a mother births her child is not to downplay the often-integral support of trusted care providers and a faithful birth team, but the term “birth” shifts the action from something being done to the mother (“delivering her”) into something that the mother herself does.
Let’s get technical for a moment to unpack these terms, “deliver” and “birth,” because the difference between the definitions reveals two very different perspectives on the birth experience. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the primary use1 of the verb “deliver” as meaning to “bring and hand over (a letter, parcel, or ordered goods) to the proper recipient or address.” To have her baby delivered to her means that a mother is the recipient of the action rather than the agent of action.
Now let’s compare this to another viewpoint, one that empowers the birthing mother. The same dictionary defines “birth” as “the emergence of a baby or other young from the body of its mother; the start of life as a physically separate being.”
This difference could not be more telling:
Children are neither parcels nor ordered goods; they are the start of life.
The contrast between these perspectives is as striking as it is beautiful in that not only is birth something that the mother does but it is something that she gives to her child.
So is there a way to use the term “deliver” while still leaving the mother at the heart of the birth experience? Of course there is. Like all language, these words are molded by their use. The question becomes: Who is at the center of the process? Is it the care provider who is “delivering” the baby to the mother? Or is the mother, who is delivering or birthing her child with the help of people who support her, at the heart of the birth experience? Whether a mother chooses a natural birth, a cesarean birth, a homebirth, an induced birth, or any other kind of birth, these distinctions all come secondary to the primary concern of the mother being the agent of action. When a mother is at the center of her birth experience, it naturally follows that she will have both a voice and the respect of her care providers and support team. These are the building blocks of a positive birth experience.
The language that we use carries power; it is up to us, and the words we choose, to determine who holds that power in the birthing process. The postal worker delivers mail; mothers birth babies.
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1The third definition of “deliver,” according to the OED, is to “assist in the birth of” or “give birth to,” but it’s also important to note that this definition is what is considered by linguists to be descriptive rather than prescriptive; it reflects the use of a word within a culture rather than how the word was originally “prescribed” to be used. This in itself demonstrates that they way we use language has not only the power to change the language itself, but to change the way we understand things.
Jennifer Stutzman, Freelance Writer
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