The Labour Word

This week, we've learned that the Duchess of Cambridge is suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum. She's pregnant too, by the way.

Medical language is at its best when describing pregnancy and birth. It may be sexist, misogynist (depending on the dictionary) and sometimes just plain silly.

Because it's her first baby, Kate is a primigravida in medical terms, gravida from the Latin gravidus for heavy burden. Gravid is also used for reptiles with eggs. So that's all right then.

With her first heavy burden (I guess they didn't count joining the Royal Family), Kate also has very bad nausea and vomiting (hyperemesis), which some women understand through bitter experience.

But at least Kate isn't an elderly primigravida. Many of my friends were over 35 and pregnant with a first baby. They were elderly. Oh, how I laughed. Until I was told I was a multigravida, which is not a form of sociopathy. It meant I'd been pregnant more than once. This is medical shorthand in pregnancy. We're not just gravida. We're para too, referring to number of births. When pregnant with my son I was G2P2, not a Star Wars robot, but a woman in a second pregnancy who'd also given birth twice.

In labour, primigravida often gets abbreviated as primip, which sounds like a frog, the redgroined primip, fitting in with the reptilian (or amphibian at least) theme. But primip's not strictly correct, as until you've had a baby you're a nullipara, a nullip, not a primip. But they still yell it down the corridor: 'Elderly Primip in Three!!!!!!!'. Maybe it's doctors and midwives being sensitive. They know those elderly women wouldn't like to be called primigs.

So Kate is a nullipara or nullip at the moment. After the birth, she'll be a primip. Oh God, what am I saying? With Kate, surely decorum will prevail and they'll call her Your Royal Primip.

If medical speak is strange in pregnancy, when you get to the labour ward (sorry, birth suite, but don't be fooled) it gets more focused on blaming you and your heavy burden.

Why is it called labour? I don't know. It does feel like hard work and if I had to do it for a living, I'd quit. But the less used medical terms of parturition or partus aren't much better.

And the thing is, you don't just labour. Firstly, you may have an incompetent cervix. Incompetent means 'not having the necessary skills to do something successfully.' That will fill you with confidence. And then, you can 'fail to progress'. Failure to progress happens to an awful lot of women in labour, and who could blame them? Knowing you're being assessed for a grade when what you thought you were doing was a miracle, and then being told you're incompetent. Who wouldn't fail?

Then there's the choice. You can have an episiotomy (is that the bit that hangs down in your throat?), or you can tear, like paper tears. Take your pick. Uh huh. It's just words, dear, a midwife said to me. Uh huh.

Some of my friends underwent trial of scar (Bear Grylls, eat your heart out), now more usually called VBAC, which is not a portable cooler for Victorian beer. It's a vaginal birth after caesarean. They risked uterine rupture, they were told, which you just know isn't going to be pleasant. Trial of scar followed by uterine rupture. There's always AAC, abstinence after caesarean, dear.

And then there's the managed third stage of labour. You with the incompetent cervix who failed to progress. We're bringing in the receivers to manage your third stage.

These words to describe women in pregnancy and labour are sorely in need of review, but when someone with some sense revises all those antiquated terms, I do hope they keep 'grand'.

The grand multipara is the woman who's given birth five times, and the grand grand multipara hasn't won the lottery (or ordered something off-menu at Starbucks). She's given birth seven or more times.

Because a baby is the outcome, however they describe the process. After it's over, you get a baby. And a baby, well a baby is grand, and who cares what anyone says after that? 

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