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April 14, 2021
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Today’s blog is a takeover by Dr Danielle Schoenaker, researcher at the University of Southampton, who has been doing some work with us recently. I hope that you all enjoy it as much as my usual blogs.

 

Danielle writes:

Gender identity is shaped by language, and the constant references to binary male and female groupings in everyday language – in particular when talking about pregnancy and parenthood – can be alienating and make people who don’t fall into these two categories excluded. Sounds familiar?

Last month, I spoke with several members in small online group discussions as part of my work to develop meaningful and acceptable language to communicate about being healthy in preparation for pregnancy. We talked about why being healthy before becoming a parent is important, about ways to increase awareness on this topic, and about gender-neutral language options related to pregnancy and parenthood. I’d love to share with you some of the things I learned from these inspiring conversations.

As a researcher studying the health and health behaviours of people before pregnancy, I am very much aware that people who are healthy before pregnancy are more likely to have a healthy pregnancy and baby. Through the group discussions, I learned that this is not common knowledge for everyone.

Most people were aware that being healthy during pregnancy would benefit the health of the pregnant person and the baby but improving health in preparation for pregnancy is not something many people think about. Did you know for example that quitting smoking and alcohol, optimising weight, and feeling well before pregnancy are things to consider for both people involved in making a baby, to increase their chance of becoming pregnant and having a healthy baby?

I also discovered that, while people were not aware of the notion of ‘preparing for pregnancy and parenthood’, this is something they were very interested in learning more about. The use of messages, infographics and videos on social media and trusted websites, as well as posters in public places and at health services, were all suggested as ways to educate and increase awareness.

To be able to educate people on the importance of optimising health before pregnancy, we need to effectively communicate about this topic though – and that’s where it becomes more complicated!

Language about pregnancy and parenthood often refers to pregnant women, to mothers, and to fathers. People told me that “To become pregnant, you need a uterus (womb) but you don’t need to be a woman”. Also, not everyone who aspires to become a parent identifies as mother- or father-to-be. So what are alternative language options?

People came up with lots of ideas on inclusive and gender-neutral language:

In the statement “All women who could get pregnant should take a daily folic acid supplement to help prevent birth defects” – why not replace “all women” with “all people” or “everyone”?

An alternative to “A men can improve his sperm health and prevent infertility issues by optimising his weight” could be “Optimising weight can improve sperm health and prevent infertility”.

Why not replace “mothers and fathers” with “parents” in the statement “Mothers and fathers who smoke and are planning to have another baby should support each other to quit to improve their chance of a successful pregnancy and healthy baby”?

While these examples may sound like easy solutions, people also mentioned the potential push back on inclusive language from cisgender people who feel strongly about being referred to as woman, man, mother or father. We agreed it will not be possible to please everyone, and that having multiple messages and language options would be needed as part of public awareness campaigns.

In addition to these campaigns, healthcare professionals may have a role in educating and counselling people to improve their health. People felt very strongly that it would be critical for these professionals to not make assumptions about people’s gender identity and to ensure everyone feels comfortable seeking advice about pregnancy options.

Getting everyone on board to move away from a binary perspective on gender in everyday language will take time and effort. It has been a fantastic opportunity to work together with Chrysalis to get these discussions started. The next step in my project is to develop recommendations on meaningful and appropriate language around health before pregnancy. I look forward to discussing these new recommendations with members again to make sure that what we develop reflects everyone’s needs and contributes to normalising the use of inclusive language.

If you have missed out on the discussions so far but are keen to contribute in the future, please get in touch with me at engage1@soton.ac.uk.

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