I’ve written before about language, birth, and women survivors of child sexual abuse. I’ve mentioned how words matter, and certain words are very upsetting for those of us with a history of child sexual abuse.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sitting with a pregnant woman and her husband. As a survivor herself of child sexual abuse and multiple rapes in her teens (sadly, revictimisation is a phenomenon that is not uncommon), she’s doing all she can to prepare herself for her impending birth. Part of that preparation included having a chat with me. We spoke about language and how words matter in labour. She used the word ‘surges’ and I had a reaction to it that I didn’t quite understand. Until now.
‘Surges’ is a word that is used to describe uterine contractions in labour. It was popularised by Ina May Gaskin and adopted by many in the birth community in the past few decades. It is deemed more ‘positive’ than using ‘contractions’, and sold as a reframing of the pain of labour, and it’s never sat comfortably with me. Here’s why:
As abused women, we had our experiences – our lived, physical, experiences – ‘reframed’ by our abusers. They would touch us and say things like ‘That’s nice, isn’t it?’, ‘You like that, don’t you?’, ‘I would never hurt you,’ etc. Their words were incongruent with our experiences and that – in and of itself – is damaging and needs work to undo. Telling abused women that calling contractions by another name will make them a more positive experience isn’t helpful. For the vast majority of women, labour hurts. That’s the bald truth of it. The extent to which it hurts, and how we deal with the pain, is individual. Personally, viewing labour pain as ‘pain with a purpose’ helped me. It wasn’t like a migraine (migraines are more painful), where pain doesn’t produce anything except more pain for at least 24 hours.
I think that midwives and doulas working with women who have a history of abuse might want to discuss the merit of using ‘surges’ instead of ‘contractions’ with their clients. Then, the women themselves should use the word that suits them best;that they are most comfortable with.
Labour hurts, and it doesn’t do women who have experienced abuse any good to tell them otherwise. What is helpful is talking about how to get through the pain, how to be present for it, and how the best thing about labour is that it ends. And that it ends with a baby in your arms. The wonderful woman I met with earlier this week also made the point that there is a difference between ‘pain’ and ‘harm’. As abuse survivors, we associate pain in our bodies with (often long-term) harm, yet the pain of contractions is not harmful, and reminding ourselves of that can be hugely helpful in getting through it while still remaining present, grounded, and participative in our own labours.