Language about Labor

By Louise Rachel Quigley
Web Exclusive


Language about LaborThe word “contraction” to describe the working of the uterus during labor has bothered me for a long time. True, it is technically correct: like any other muscle, the uterus bunches itself tight, makes its length shorter, contracts itself in that sense, to do the work of pulling the cervix open. But the connotations of the word “contract” create precisely the wrong psychological effect.


Before becoming a childbirth educator, I earned a doctorate in English; I have taught writing at the college level; I am a poet. Many times I have instructed English students on the difference between denotation and connotation. The former describes the uninflected definition of a word, the latter its emotional associations and the imagery it conveys. Thus “white,” “snowy,” and “milky” all have the same denotation as regards the color spectrum, but “snowy” connotes frozen cold, and a purity that is lifeless or frigid, while “milky” connotes sustenance, warm liquid, and nurturing, and “white” has connotations that are more neutral and ambiguous. Or take “uterus” and “womb:” whereas “uterus” is more anatomical and scientific and devoid of any associations besides technical or medical correctness, “womb” carries all the warm fuzzy associations of ultimate maternal protection and caring and total nurturing. Which word one chooses for a poem–or any writing meant to activate (or avoid) an emotional response–will be both powerfully effective and crucial to the effect achieved.


Now consider the connotations of “contract”: pulling in, pulling tight, making smaller and tighter and more condensed. And consider what a woman’s body and soul do to birth her baby: she softens, opens, expands, dilates, welcomes. Could we possibly find a worse mismatch between the connotations of “labor contraction” on the one hand, and the physical and emotional action of opening up to give birth on the other, if we deliberately tried? And what subtle powerful internal obstacle to opening, and stretching open, and opening oneself to going with the flow, might we be unconsciously inflicting on pregnant and birthing women by the continual use of this so-wrong word “contraction” to describe the work of labor?


I propose that we need some new and different word for the working of the uterus in labor, a word whose connotations are congruent with the psychological and physical reality of working with the process of opening up to give (openly, generously) the gift of life. I’ve thought so for a long time. I think I’ve finally found it.


In the recently-published book, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, there is a birth story which describes one woman’s euphoric and effective labor during which she imagined her vagina and womb as a cavern in the sea, which the ocean surged into and out of as each stint of uterine activity came and went. “Surge” struck me as the right word to convey both the awesome power and the recurrent tidal coming-and-going of the womb’s work in labor, without any negative tightening connotations at all.


I’ve begun using the word “surge” in the childbirth classes I teach, after explaining what I mean by it and why I am substituting “surge” for the usual word “contraction.” It is a bit of an uphill struggle to replace the word found everywhere with a new one, but I think it’s worth trying. I’m definitely convinced that a better word than “contraction” is badly needed. I offer “surge” to anyone interested in using it.


Gaskin, Ina May, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, NY: Bantam Books, 2003, p. 10.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *