A Guest Post by Anna Deligio, MSW, LCCE, CD(DONA)
Today’s post is the second in an occasional series on welcoming all families to your childbirth class and honoring the diversity that different family models bring to pregnancy, birth and parenting. You can read the first part in this series here, to learn about the non-biological mom’s experience in a childbirth class from Anna’s partner, Cathy Busha. Look for more on this topic of diversity in future months. – SM
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust
There have been variations on the definition of family for as long as there has been a definition of family. It is not news that there are women creating families without partners – either by choice or because the male involved is not involved. Nor is it news that lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgendered folk have been quietly having and raising children for generations.
What is news is the increase in the number of women choosing to parent without partners and the increase in LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual, transgendered) families in the last couple of decades. According to the New York Times article, “For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage” from February of 2012, now more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside of marriage[i]. Studies done by the Family Equality Council, a non-profit that works to connect, support and represent LGBT families, show that there are currently an estimated 1 million LGBT parents in the United States raising an estimated 2 million children[ii].
Are these increases evident in the students and clients you serve as a birth professional? Do you see more women choosing friends or family members as their labor support people rather than the male who supplied the sperm? Have you worked with any LGBT couples as they prepared for and experienced the birth of their child?
If your answer to the above questions is “no”, there might be an opportunity for you to examine how welcoming and affirming of diverse family structures your materials and teachings are. We know these families are out there, so why aren’t they in our classes (if they are not)?
My partner Cathy and I recently had the opportunity to attend a two-part childbirth preparation class offered through our insurance. We are pregnant (I am carrying) for the first time and expect a birth sometime around the end of July. Like many pregnant people, we chose the class that was offered through our insurance and attached to the hospital where we will be birthing.
As a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator in a hospital setting, I came to the class open to learning strategies I could take back to my classes. As a pregnant lesbian, I came curious if the materials would reflect our family and wondering how inclusive the language would be.
As expected, the materials lacked diversity because diverse materials don’t exist. I have searched for posters and videos that include diverse families and have come up with a few that involve young, single mothers but none that show LGBT families or more mature women who chose from the start to parent without a partner. This is a real problem to me. You can be as inclusive as possible in your use of language, but if the materials you use show only female-male dyads, you continue to give the message that they are really your intended audience.
Lack of materials would be an insurmountable challenge if birth professionals weren’t such a crafty and persistent lot. Make your own. Search online for images of diverse family structures and use them (with permission) on your websites and in your handouts. (See notes below.) Make your own posters with these images. Use your persistence and advocacy skills to lobby InJoy and other video manufacturers to include diverse families. Let them know you want films with diverse families – LGBT families, families of women who choose to parent without partners (not just pregnant adolescents who are forced into single parenting). If you’re super-crafty, create your own birth films with these families (and then please link them far and wide so we all can benefit from your wild talents).
As for language, our instructors, like a lot of professionals, used the term “partner” rather than “husband” or “father”. Partner creates a little more space for diversity, but maintains with a couple of problems: if the subsequent pronouns are all male, it suggests that partner doesn’t include females, but just men who aren’t legally married to the pregnant woman; partner continues to exclude women who are not parenting with an intimate partner, regardless of that partner’s gender.
To that end, I believe that “support person” is the most inclusive term available. Some might think that it diminishes the role of the father. Fathers have a lot of privilege in the birth world, so the impact on them is minimal. More than that, their role during the labor and birth is about being a support person. It does not matter if they supplied the sperm or if they will be parenting the child – those actions address their past and future relationships with the baby, not their relationship to the birthing person during labor.
During labor, their relationship is as support person to the birthing person. This applies to any who will be supporting – female partners, mothers, best friends, husbands, etc. Once the baby is born, they can go on to be mother, father, grandmother, aunt, etc., but during the labor their role is support to the birthing person. (Their potential inability to separate those roles during labor speaks, always, to the value of having a Labor Doula).
Just as with any language that challenges the mainstream, it is important to be explicit. Take a moment at the start of your class and in your materials to explain why you are using the term “support person” rather than “father” or “partner”. Demonstrate your dedication to inclusivity and create a space that is affirming to all the stories in the room. Spread your educating beyond the stages and phases of labor to teachings on the importance of honoring all families. Do this whether or not you think you have any diverse families in your class – it’s dangerous to assume another’s story and, at the very least, you’re educating a new batch of allies to diverse families.
Top 10 Ways to Create an Inclusive Childbirth Education Practice
- Remember that Pictures Say A 1,000 Words – make sure that your website, flyers, handouts, posters, and other promotional materials show diverse family structures. Include images of LGBT families and women who chose to parent without partners. If you don’t have these images from your own client interactions, utilize stock photos and magazine images to create these materials until you can use your own client images, with permission, of course. (See Copyright Information.)
- Use Inclusive Language – change all of the places that say “father” or “partner” to “support person.” Explicitly explain that, while you honor all of the other roles in your clients’ lives that their loved one (husband, female partner, mother, sister, best friend, etc.) plays, you will focus on their role during labor – that of support person. Explain that you use this term to make sure that all families feel welcome in your work.
- Advocate and Advocate Some More – regularly contact manufacturers of childbirth educational materials and videos and tell them that you want materials that include all families, and celebrate diversity. Use your purchasing power to create change.
- Use the Power of Stories – make sure that the stories you share in class include the stories of diverse families. If you don’t personally have any of these stories yet, change the pronouns in some of your stock stories to make the families more diverse. Change the fathers to lesbian partners. Omit the partners altogether and make the story about a professional woman who chose to parent without a partner.
- Put Yourself in a Place to Learn – find where these diverse families are in your neighborhoods. Join their groups, attend their meetings, show up with the intent to listen and learn. Build bridges with these communities and learn how to be an ally to them. Join the email list of the Family Equality Council and learn from the work they do with LGBT families.
- Don’t Guess the Stories of Your Students – take the time at the start of class to learn the stories of your students. Don’t assume because everyone there is in a male-female pair that the male provided the sperm and is planning on co-parenting. Even if everyone in your class falls under that model, use your inclusive language and materials. Explain why you do. Spread your educating past the stages and phases of labor to the importance of honoring all family structures, whether or not they are currently reflected in that cohort of students.
- Stop Assuming Everyone Has Access to Sperm – when talking about ways to naturally bring on labor, avoid the saying, “What got the baby in will get the baby out”, as some women have become pregnant in a very clinical way, and clearly that does not apply in this situation. When talking about sex as an induction tool, talk about orgasm (achieved with or without a partner) and the release of oxytocin.
- Blow Up the Gender Boxes – when talking about parenting, leave out stories and examples that are overly reliant on limiting gender roles. Keep your information to the tasks at hand and assume that everyone in the room is fully capable of equal parenting. Make sure you also speak to women who will parent without a partner and emphasize the need for everyone – regardless of relationship status – to have a community of supporters willing to help out with the raising of the child.
- Be a Good Ally – interrupt limiting language when you hear it from colleagues. Teach them the phrase “support person” and explain why you choose to use it instead of “father” or “partner”. Challenge speakers at conferences to be more inclusive in their presentations. Thank those who are.
- Give Yourself Some Grace – unlearning unhelpful paradigms takes a lot of energy and work. Give yourself some grace as you do the work of unlearning limiting language. Like all good things, it’s a process and takes time to truly integrate.
Diverse family structures aren’t new, but they are growing. If we broaden our eyesight, we will see these families in our communities. The more we create space for them through inclusive language and materials, the more we honor our work to educate and support all families on their paths to parenthood. By welcoming, working with, and learning from these diverse families, we grow our ability to truly be the birth professionals we intend to be.
There are not a lot of books on the subject of lesbian pregnancy/parenting. Here are some that you may find helpful:
- The New Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth
- The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians: How to Stay Sane and Care for Yourself from Pre-conception through Birth, 2nd Edition
- Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All
What have your experiences been as a birth professional? Have you had lesbian couples in your class? What have you done to make them feel welcome and valued along with other participants. Do you have a great resource to share with our blog readers? Do you have a question or comment that other readers may be able to answer or relate to? Please share your personal stories in our comments section.- SM
[i] DeParle, J., & Tavernise, S. (2012).“For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage”. New York Times. February 17, 2012.
[ii] Family Equality Council. (2012). “All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families”.
Anna Deligio is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and Labor Doula through her business Nourishing Roots, work that is greatly informed by her previous experiences as an MSW working with families in crisis and babies in foster care, a Special Education teacher of high school students with learning and emotional challenges, a marketing writer, and a waitress at a French restaurant. She loves working with pregnant people and their support people during the transformative time that is pregnancy and birth. When not enjoying the company of pregnant people, she enjoys relaxing with her partner Cathy at their home in Salem, OR and preparing for their upcoming birth.