This is just going to be a quick one, as I am writing this at my kitchen bench during lockdown the middle of the Sydney COVID outbreak, while attempting to assist three children with home learning and keep the lid on a very bored 4 year old who is pining for pre-school and grandparents.

If you haven’t yet read about the disclosure by UK author and birth activist Milli Hill regarding the targeted bullying, harassment and vilification to which she has been subjected for taking the completely reasonable stance that pregnancy & birth is something which is experienced by female people on a basis of biological sex rather than gender identity – you can read what she has written about it here, and here.

There has also been some excellent (and execrable) media coverage since Hill courageously published her story, and plenty of discussion in online forums.

What I want to talk about here is not the bullying, which I witnessed at the time and as it has continued with new vigour in the wake of her statement. The way in which Hill was treated which mirrors with horrible familiarity the inquisitions and duckings that women are being subjected to in birth and breastfeeding organisations in the UK, USA, Canada, and Australia. Milli Hill is doing a stellar job of drawing attention to the pack savagings and pusillanimous public statements wrapped up as throwing other women under the bus in the hope they won’t come for me ‘calling out’ and ‘allyship’.

I’ll come back to that another time, because a version of that has happened to me too, and I’m not anywhere near ready to dive into it yet. For now, I want to take a moment to explore an idea which is of key relevance to the discussion about gendered vs sexed language, and which Hill has summarised with particular clarity:

‘women and birthing people’. As I said in my original blog, I’ve got no problem if another individual wants to use that phrase – as I don’t agree with the policing of language. But will I use it? Only if I’m asked to by someone in the room with me – only at an individual level. Because I feel that, if we change this language at the population level, and use it across the board, we are changing the meaning of the word ‘woman’, and the ramifications of this are huge.

If we say ‘women and birthing people’, we are agreeing that ‘woman’ no longer means ‘biological female’, but instead is simply an ‘identity’. We are saying not only women can be pregnant. We are no longer using the word in the ‘sexed’ sense to mean ‘adult human female’. We change the meaning, and ‘woman’ therefore becomes a category to which anyone who wishes to belong, can belong.

Think about this. I mean really ponder it- because it is so, SO important. So-called ‘additive’ and ‘inclusive’ language is not just ‘adding more ink’ – it is an ideological and political act which profoundly changes the meaning of the word woman, and therefore has significant ramifications. This is also true when it is done to the word ‘mother’, particularly when the word ‘mother’ is substituted for ‘parent’ in a gendered manner, i.e.:

If we say ‘parent’ instead of ‘mother’ we are agreeing that ‘mother’ no longer means ‘a female parent’, but is simply an identity. We are saying that not only women can be mothers, and that not all mothers are women. We are no longer using the word in the ‘sexed’ sense to mean ‘a female parent in relation to her child’. We change the meaning, and ‘mother’ therefore becomes a category to which anyone who wishes can belong- or not.

The status of ‘female parent’ is surprisingly broad, encompassing a range of biological, social, and legal relationships. However all of them are a variation of what it means to be a female parent in relation to a child. Existing as a mother is not something a woman does in and of herself, but in terms of her relationship to her child/ren- meaning that the perspective of her child, and the impact on children of more broadly redefining motherhood, is a fundamentally important consideration.

Prioritising a gendered rather than sexed interpretation of the concept of a mother is argued on the basis of including all parents (specifically, those who prefer a gendered understanding of language). However the nature of the mother-child relationship is one which necessitates both a sexed understanding of language and an appropriate degree of exclusion, in order to clearly specify who a baby’s mother is and ensure that a baby’s access to their mother is respected and protected.

A newborn baby interacts with their parents biologically, following primal instincts which are satisfied primarily at the breast and in the arms of their mother. It is irrelevant to a baby if their mother prefers a gendered concept of self and parenting; what matters to a baby is that the person they instinctively know to be their ‘mother’ in a sexed definition, is physically proximate and responsive in ways which meet baby’s needs. This is what is at stake – the risk that, in rejecting a sexed understanding of ‘mother’ for the sake of a baby’s parent/s, we may unintentionally create situations in which a baby’s right and need to be with their mother is misunderstood or impeded.

This is not alarmism or a slippery slope argument, but a circumstance which is playing out with terrible regularity during the COVID pandemic or other instances where policy and guidance has failed to properly identify the mother-infant relationship. It emerges, for example, in moves to replace maternity leave measures with ‘parental leave’ – currently happening in Australia – which treat parents as interchangeable and thus frequently result in a baby’s father (or non-birth mother) accessing carer entitlements at the expense of enduring maternity provisions for a baby’s mother. And unintended consequences will continue to emerge, should we play along with the fiction that ‘parent’ or gendered concepts can replace a sexed definition of ‘mother’.

We can, of course, maintain a sexed use of ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ while offering clarity that these terms refer to female people and female parents and thus by definition do include those who prefer a gendered understanding of language. Meanwhile most midwives and breastfeeding services already are quite well prepared to understand and provide for a mother’s specific circumstances and preferences in individualised settings – a completely reasonable standard of care which all mothers deserve. The question at hand is whether we will navigate this with integrity and nuance, of the kind which Milli Hill has shown, or whether we will allow the rights of mothers and infants to be determined by intimidation tactics.