While nursing a baby has often been referred to as “breastfeeding,” there is now language that can be used in the parenting realm that’s more inclusive and representative of all parents. For example, terms and words such as chestfeeding, lactating person, human milk, chest milk, pregnant person or birthing person are now being used more commonly in place of the more common terms like breastfeeding, breastmilk, pregnant woman, and mother/mama.
If the new terms are confusing or even off-putting to you—it’s ok! Taking time to learn the importance of why updating terms can help us all recognize how language makes a difference. Using inclusive and affirming language ensures that all parents feel safe and comfortable, especially during pregnancy and postpartum care.
Recognizing All Parents
Using gender-neutral language to describe feeding an infant recognizes that there are parents who do not fit into our cultural expectations of “man” and “woman.” Birthing and lactating parents who do not identify as women and therefore do not identify with terms like breastfeeding, breastmilk, or mama exist—and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Some of these parents are transgender men and some identify as non-binary or gender nonconforming.
If you’re unfamiliar with what it means to be transgender, here’s an explanation from GLAAD:
“Transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender identity is a person’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or boy or girl.) For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into those two choices. For transgender people, the sex they were assigned at birth and their own internal gender identity do not match.”
Whether you know trans or non-binary people or not, they do exist and many have children, so they are a part of the collective parenting community. Delmar Bauta, a home-birth midwife, first generation Cuban-American who uses they/them/elle pronouns and just had their first baby, explains the importance of using inclusive language in parenting.
“I want you to know that we exist, that we aren’t women, and that using inclusive language is a tiny step you can take to ensure our safety in the world,” they say. “We are not an anomaly. Hundreds of trans and non-binary people are choosing to become pregnant and give birth every year. This is not new. We have been having babies for as long as we have existed, and in many indigenous cultures, we have existed since the beginning of humankind.”
“I want you to know that we exist, that we aren't women, and that using inclusive language is a tiny step you can take to ensure our safety in the world,” they says. “We are not an anomaly.”
A Challenge Beyond Words
While ensuring that the correct language is used in pregnancy and parenting is certainly a challenge for some, the even bigger challenge is the barriers that trans and non-binary parents face in accessing quality reproductive and perinatal healthcare.
For instance, research shows us that transphobia, homophobia, and discrimination in the medical field is very real and many LGBTQ+ folks will delay or avoid medical care due to these barriers. And when trans and gender nonconforming patients do seek out medical care, unfortunately, the challenges still continue. Bauta shares that some of the barriers patients may face include:
- Inability to make an appointment, because untrained receptionists think a man is calling for a prenatal appointment as a prank call
- Paperwork that uses exclusionary language: i.e., “pregnant woman” or “she/her”
- Waiting rooms that are unwelcoming: patients may face stares, or there may be no art or literature that represents their lived experience
- Untrained staff that may use former names, call patients “ma’am” or “mommy”
- Providers that are insensitive to gender dysphoria
When you combine this lack of adequate, safe healthcare with the fact that transgender men who become pregnant have an increased risk for depression and suicidal ideation and an increased need for mental health services, the need for affirming, inclusive language and community is more apparent than ever.
Does this mean you can’t ever use the terms breastfeeding, breastmilk or mama? Of course not! If those are the terms you most identify with, then those are the terms you should use when describing your experiences. No one is policing the language you use to describe your journey in parenthood.
You do however, need to be aware that our language choices have power—and our language choices can help contribute to a space where all parents know they are safe and valued, or could possibly isolate, invalidate, or alienate some of our must vulnerable community members.
While attending a training on perinatal mental health recently, I watched a clip from A Womb of Their Own, a documentary by psychotherapist and filmmaker Cyn Lubow. In the film, Lubow introduces us to several people who don’t fit into our cultural expectations for pregnant and postpartum people. Lubow explains the power of language beautifully by stating:
“We have deep cultural convictions that pregnancy is the ultimate female thing one can do. People who spend their young lives feeling pressured to act female while completely not relating to being female suffer from being constantly misunderstood and not seen for who they are. Once they find ways, with or without taking testosterone, to be treated as the person they know themselves to be, they feel so much relief and validation. Being pregnant can take all that away from them, when, at a particularly vulnerable time, people go back to referring to them with female terms such as ‘she’ and ‘mother,’ their exposed genitals as ‘vagina’ and ‘uterus,’ and their chest as ‘breasts.’”
As we all journey to a more inclusive parenting community, there are steps we can all take to learn and grow together. Along with incorporating more inclusive language into our everyday parenting vernacular, you can also learn from those in the trans and gender nonconforming community who offer education on the topics. Here are a few great examples:
Seek these voices out online, pay for their trainings, read their work, and value the experience and expertise they share. By making an effort to educate ourselves and ensuring the language we use is welcoming, we can all continue to learn–and grow–in the world of parenting together.
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