Hazel McHaffie

political correctness

What’s in a name?

You know that point when you think … life can’t get any weirder ….? And it does. Well, I had such a moment this week.

You might have noticed that my beautiful homeland, Cornwall, has been high profile for months – TV programmes, news items, holiday recommendations … now it’s in the spotlight again, this time for re-naming its fish to make them sound more appealing on restaurant menus. Spider crabs become king crab; megrim become Cornish sole. Pilchards have already become Cornish sardine. Made me think about names and what they conjure up. And about competing rights and interests.

But that’s when the ultimate craziness hit me. And it relates to another of my old stamping turfs: the maternity hospital. Midwives in one University Hospitals NHS Trust (Brighton and Sussex) are now being told to stop using terms like ‘breastfeeding’ and ‘breast milk’, and even ‘mothers’ without a qualifying add-on …! Like I say … Hello? OK, I accept that there’s an above average percentage of LGBTQ folk in that area of England, with sensitivities, but still … Has the world gone mad? In a hospital where women are naturally and normally having babies and feeding them from their breasts?

Why, you might well ask. Well, apparently such gender-exclusive terms might cause offence and upset non-binary people.

So, out goes ‘mothers’; in comes ‘mothers or birthing parents’
Out goes ‘breastfeeding’; in comes ‘chestfeeding’
Out goes ‘maternity services department’; in comes ‘perinatal services’
Out goes ‘breastmilk’; in comes ‘human milk’ or ‘chestmilk’ or ‘milk from the feeding mother or parent’
Out goes ‘woman’; in comes ‘woman or person’
Out goes ‘father’; in comes ‘co-parent’ or ‘second biological parent’
Out goes ‘maternal’; in comes ‘maternal and parental’

To begin with, are the folk behind this drive unaware of the facts?
– that men have breastbones
– that men can get breast cancer
– that it’s a biological fact that only women can give birth to babies
– that, in the excitement and responsibility of assisting the delivery of a baby, it’s hard enough to always use acceptable words, without this additional layer of prohibition and verbal diligence
– that in seeking not to offend an Infinitesimally small percentage of the population who object to exclusively female words, they are probably losing the goodwill of the vast majority
– that this attempt to be politically correct and woke, is most likely to put hackles up against the very people it purports to speak for.

I have no wish to attract the venom JK Rowling endured when she challenged a decision to use the expression ‘people who menstruate’ instead of ‘women’, so I will merely leave the matter in your capable hands. As for me, I’m still in recovery stage, and in danger of being left behind with the old dogs beyond learning new tricks.

 

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‘Calm down, dear!’

In a former life I used to be a midwife working in an extremely busy labour ward (I’m third from the right in this photograph). In spite of the fast turn-over, we spent long hours with the couples in our care, and often developed warm relationships. We were, after all, sharing one of the most special, intimate and precious experiences in their lives.  And for me certainly, it was always a privilege and a thrill as well as a relief to see the infants safely in their mothers’ arms. Indeed, I always said that, if it ever ceased to be a miracle, I would quit the job. It never did; I left for other reasons – good ones.

However, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. One day a mother registered a complaint against me with my boss. Why? Because apparently, I had exhorted her to ‘push into your tail end.’ It demeaned her apparently, reducing her to the status of an animal! Now this was fifty years ago, at a time when we’d never even heard the term ‘political correctness’, never mind become obsessed with the notion, but even so, I confess I felt mildly irritated. When you’re spending a good chunk of a day/night with a woman, encouraging, supporting, reassuring; working through official breaks and long past your shift-hours to deliver continuity of care, you don’t tend to doctor every word that comes out of your mouth. You’ve got more important priorities, I’d suggest. Especially if the woman hasn’t a clue what she’s supposed to be doing and has no knowledge whatsoever of the anatomical names for the parts of the body she’s employing for the mysterious but monumental effort of giving birth. But hey ho! I could only apologise and try to learn from the experience. Fortunately the Superintendent of the Labour ward was a no-nonsense, straight-speaking, hugely experienced woman who fully shared my values, and she generously let me know (without words) that I had her sympathy and confidence.

When I watch Call the Midwife on BBC1, I’m often reminded of those days, since the programme’s set shortly before the time I’m talking about. The Nonnatus midwives even use terms of endearment when encouraging the mothers in their care – ‘sweetie’, ‘love’, ‘pet’, ‘darlin’!! Ppphhhwww!!! It’s some years now since real-life carers were told to eschew such expressions, lest patients/residents/clients, felt patronised, although I’m quite sure they were used in all innocence as terms of affection and engagement, not slights.

Nevertheless, all these decades later, I’m feeling a sense of disbelief. The Royal College of Nursing has just issued a document for its practitioners in which it advises against addressing women as ‘ladies’ to avoid causing unwitting offence … hello?! Other terms now off-limits include ‘pensioners’, ‘alcoholic’, ‘mankind’, ‘manning a ward’, ‘gays’ … Oh, and don’t forget to be scrupulous about selecting the preferred pronouns for people who don’t subscribe to the usual binary classifications, and … You get the idea. Nor is the RCN alone in this; it’s about three years now since the British Medical Association deemed the term ‘expectant mother’ to be taboo, lest it offend transgender people …!!!

Really? Seriously? Has the world gone completely mad?

In the security of my own blog, I think I might be allowed to voice a personal opinion and declare that I honestly think the powers that dictate these things would be well advised to concentrate on gaining more time for clinicians to do their jobs, without the colossal pressures currently hedging them about with stress and restrictions. Time for them to save lives, to ensure safety and the best care, in the first instance. Giving them breathing space – time to attend to those niceties and refinements without burning out themselves. Easing the chronic under-staffing and over-working they labour under, instead of putting even more pressure on them to examine every word before uttering it. Pphshaw!

It appears I got off lightly all those years ago!!

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