A Short Piece

Midwives and Metaphors

Language is the culprit.

Our third son, Reed, was born on the last day of March, and resembles a great combination of his two siblings, Haven and Grace. We used midwives instead of traditional doctors, and for the last year, whenever I told people that, they looked at me funny. “That’s different,” I’d hear, which mystified me. Midwives generally are more specialized in birth and delivery. So why the suspicion?

Language was the culprit.

The word “midwife” sounds archaic, like something out of the Middle Ages. “Doctor” sounds professional and safe: when people hear that you are using a doctor, they are familiar with the term, and it strikes them as modern and up-to-date. But “midwife” is a word that’s hard to place. It sounds old. It doesn’t sound safe. And why is “wife” in there? Midwives are halfway married? For more on the origin of the name click here.

Susan Sontag wrote a tremendous book called Illness as Metaphor on the power of language to worsen disease. If we talk about a “war on cancer,” then if we get cancer, we think of ourselves as going to war, which can be scary and mentally overwhelming. We don’t talk about a “war on heart disease” even though heart attacks kill more people. Consequently, in my opinion, there aren’t the same anxieties about heart disease. With less anxiety, people can better fight the disease.

Simply put, Sontag wants us to realize that language matters practically.

Language is not decoration.

From Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson) to The End of Education (Postman) there’s a lot of great literature on how metaphors shape perception and reality (Surfaces and Essences by Hofstadter and Sander is in a class of its own). I think something similar is happening with midwives: because of their title, we think they’re “mid-tier” (not the best), “mid-dle ages” (behind the times), and the like.

Perhaps midwives should change their name to “Delivery Specialists.” They deserve more respect, business, and recognition. I suspect language is a reason why they are often questioned.




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