Searching for a doula on the Internet feels how I imagine online dating must feel. Visiting Web sites, sizing up pictures and profiles, things go from zero to skeevy-weird pretty quickly.
"She's cute. I'd totally have her over to my house at two in the morning."
Or maybe that's just me.
One of the sites is even called Doula Match, which sounds like a specialty dating Web site. Single vegetarian doula seeks same for informational, emotional, and physical support. And much like a finding a potential partner, identifying doulas who might be a good match for you means wading through birth-centered buzzwords and cliches. The biggest one—and the one I have the biggest problem with—is the word "empowering."
At first glance, "empowering" seems like it would be a great thing. Giving women power over the birth process? Awesome, right?
Wrong. What's not awesome about empowerment is the "giving" part. Empowering women to give birth naturally. Empowering parents to take an active role in labor. In these constructions, the women and families being given the power are objects, rather than the subjects of their own situations. "Empower" is a transitive verb; I do something to you.
Empowerment isn't really about the person being "empowered." It's about the person or entity doing the empowering. In terms of birth, empowerment is the opposite of woman-centered maternity care.
I don't think this is what doulas mean when they mention empowerment. I'm sure there are doulas who bring their own agendas into the labor room (ego is part of being human, after all), but most people talking about "empowering" others are actually trying to avoid disempowerment.
Especially within the hospital system, medical care providers may throw around the weight of their experience, claiming the power in the situation and therein disempowering an expectant mother. The presence of a doula can support a woman in advocating for herself. That's not empowering someone; it's "anti-disempowering" her.
Why does this matter? It matters to me because I love language and I care about how we use it. It matters to society because how we talk about birth—and how we talk about transforming maternity care in this country—shapes our cultural attitudes towards women in labor (and women in general). It's not just a misogynist medical community we're dealing with here. Our choice of words in our homes to our friends, and to strangers on the Internet often supports the pervasive image of childbirth as scary and dangerous, and mothers as powerless and in need of rescue. Even when that's not the intent.
It's clear that doulas need a new word. One that reflects more accurately what happens with power during labor and birth when a loving, skilled, woman-centered support person is present. "Avoiding disempowerment" is incredibly clunky.
The word "doula" comes from Ancient Greek by way the the 1970s. Perhaps there is another new-old word that could take the place of "empowerment" in contemporary birth language. If it weren't already such a loaded word with multiple associations, I would suggest "matriarchy"—which literally means "government by mothers."