Academics make new words for ‘mother’, ‘father’


Academics at the nation's top university have told staff to stop using the word "mother'' and replace it with "gestational parent", while a "father'' should now be referred to as a "non-birthing parent" in order to deliver gender-inclusive education.

The Australian National University's Gender Institute Handbook instructs tutors and lecturers to use terms like "chestfeeding'' instead of breastfeeding and "human or parent's milk'' instead of the phrase "mother's milk''.

The guide instructs staff to refer to mothers as the “gestational” parent. Picture: istock
The guide instructs staff to refer to mothers as the “gestational” parent. Picture: istock

"When discussing childbirth, use the terms 'gestational' or 'birthing' parent rather than 'mother', and the terms 'non-gestational' or 'non-birthing' parent rather than 'father'," the book says.

"While many students will identify as 'mothers' or 'fathers', using these terms alone to describe parenthood excludes those who do not identify with gender-binaries.

"This non-gendered language is particularly important in clinical or abstract academic discussions of childbirth and parenthood, both to recognise the identities of students in the class, and to model inclusive behaviour for students entering clinical practice."

The guide acknowledged staff might "make a mistake" but urged them to practise until they got it right.

"Do not worry if you make a mistake, simply acknowledge it and correct yourself,'' the handbook instructs.

"Language habits take practice to overcome, and students respect the efforts you make to be inclusive."

The university also said to refer to chestfeeding. Picture: iStock
The university also said to refer to chestfeeding. Picture: iStock

The handbook states it is "for any ANU student or staff member involved or interested in teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students".

But an ANU spokesman distanced the university from the handbook when asked about it yesterday.

"The guide is an academic output produced by experts who are free to research in their field of expertise under our policies on academic freedom," he said.  

"This document is not an official ANU policy, process or official prescription to staff and students."

University of Sydney sociologist Associate Professor Salvatore Balbones said trying to engineer what people could or could not say was misguided. "For the most part we can all get along just fine, part of what makes societies work is their ambiguity and their flexibility," he said.

"The good intentions behind some of these types of codes just don't take into account social realities."

Prof Balbones said using words like non-gestational parent and human or parent's milk was pedantic and would lead to confusion.

"Most people don't know what parent's milk is and would question what it means. If someone said parent's milk they might be looking for a brand of milk named parent's milk," he said.

Plain English Foundation executive director Neil James said language guides often shaped the way people thought.

"It is very powerful, the way you describe a term can have a loading and can have that social engineering purpose,'' Dr James said.

"Choosing particular terms will steer community attitudes."

He noted a study about euthanasia that found 70 per cent of Australians supported "ending a person's life by some painless means", but only 51 per cent supported the statement "assist the patient to commit suicide".

"The reality is people take a stance on these (issues) and try to frame the language accordingly," he said.

"Birth parent and non-birth parent will probably become more common when dealing with non-binary gender people but I am not sure about chestfeeding taking off."



Originally published as Academics make new words for 'mother', 'father'