Posts Tagged ‘Parenting’

Being as how I’m almost nine months pregnant with my first child, whom I intend to breastfeed, this is not an impersonal topic for me. Though it’s something I’ve felt strongly about for many years, the issue has now gone from being purely academic to immediately personal – which makes it something I’d like to address in depth.

So, to begin with: breast milk is undeniably awesome for babies. It really is the best thing for them, and as such, an enormous amount of pressure is placed on mothers to breastfeed their children for as long as possible (provided it’s not¬†too¬†long, according to the prevailing cultural mores, as Westerners tend to get freaked out by the idea of toddlers and older kids still feeding from mum, despite the fact that this is¬†by no means a universal hangup). At the antenatal classes I attended, for instance, the midwife told us that our bodies were¬†designed to breastfeed, and that very few women failed to produce any milk at all – the clear implication being that, if we found ourselves struggling, it was likely because we were doing it wrong, and not because, as¬†a recent article¬†so eloquently pointed out, our bodies are meant to do lots of things they sometimes simply can’t, like produce insulin or digest lactose.¬†

What this means is that, despite the many benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and baby, there are myriad circumstances under which it’s either difficult or impossible. For instance: newborns have to be fed every two hours, and can spend up to an hour feeding at any one time – a demanding schedule which, apart from playing merry hob with your sleeping patterns, will likely prove insupportable if you return to work soon after giving birth, if your child wants to ingest more per feeding session than your body can readily produce, ¬†if your nipples are a difficult size or shape for suckling, or if the act of breastfeeding is physically painful.

Similarly, it’s often harder for women who’ve had a C-section to breastfeed afterwards; ditto for anyone suffering from post natal depression, anyone whose child was born prematurely, and anyone lucky-slash-overwhelmed enough to have ended up with a multiple pregnancy. Mothers who take antidepressants or other strong medication that can be passed through breastmilk will either have to abstain or feed only on a very rigid schedule, while anyone¬†endeavoring¬†to cope with transmissable diseases or ongoing substance abuse problems will be likewise restricted. And then, of course, there’s the parents for whom breastfeeding simply isn’t an option: transmen or women without the necessary breast tissue, women who’ve had mastectomies, adoptive parents, gay male couples, parents whose babies can’t latch on, and that apparently rare subset of women whose milk simply never comes in. Add to all this the number of mothers who, for reasons of practicality or personal preference, choose to pump from the outset or go straight to formula, and you have a sizeable number of babies who’ll never be breastfed at all.

And you know what?¬†That’s OK.¬†Because as awesome as breastmilk is, and as lovely as it would be if everyone who wanted to breastfeed was able to do so easily and painlessly, life is far more complex than that, and regardless of the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, feeding them formula either partially or exclusively isn’t the end of the world. Pregnancy, birth and parenting are all monumentally difficult, and given the inaliable fact that no two children, let alone their families, are identical, the idea of¬†tut-tutting¬†people who don’t breastfeed as though from a position of unassailable moral highground is utterly unhelpful.

I say all this as a preface because, far too often, pro-breastfeeding arguments have an ugly tendency to devolve into zealous, moralistic displays of finger-waving, not only at those who object to public breastfeeding, but to any mother who dares not to breastfeed at all. And from the bottom of my heart, I want to say: that is bullshit. Breastmilk is awesome for babies, but whatever the scaremongers say, the vast majority of parents are just trying to get by and do their best, usually while sleep-deprived and covered in a thin rime of vomit, week-old cornflakes, talcum powder and crayon. Neither your willingness nor your ability to breastfeed is a magical measure of how good a parent you are, period, and anyone who tries to guilt-trip you to the contrary is probably not a person you should be listening to.

So, with all that out of the way:

I am 100% in favour of public breastfeeding Рnot just because of the health factor for both mother and baby, and not just because breastfeeding of any stripe is difficult enough to merit constant support and encouragement, but because there is absolutely nothing offensive about it. Which is, for me, the key point, because overwhelmingly, objections to public breastfeeding have everything to do with the potential discomfort of onlookers and nothing to do with what it actually is.

I have, for instance, seen public breastfeeding compared to spitting ¬†or urinating in the street – as though it’s a disgusting bodily function that ought to be kept out of sight, out of mind. Which is, frankly, ludicrous: firstly, because milk, unlike blood, spit, shit or piss, is not a bodily waste product; and secondly, because it’s being delivered¬†into a hungry child, and not spilled wantonly onto the street. Perhaps more importantly, though, the comparison implies that parents either must or should have a level of predictive control over their children that’s simply impossible: an adult who takes a sly piss in an alley is transgressing, not only by dint of polluting the street, but by failing to do the sensible thing and find an actual toilet, whereas it’s utterly unreasonable to expect a mother to predict, with perfect accuracy, when her child will next require feeding, to say nothing of the fact that – as is highlighted by the nature of the debate – she doesn’t have the option of simply finding the nearest public facility built expressly for her needs. (And lest you suggest that toilets, too, are suitable for the purpose: see above re, how long individual feeds can take, which necessitates, at the very least, a place where you can sit for a minimum of fifteen or twenty minutes uninterrupted and in comfort – which is to say,¬†not a public toilet.)

Then there’s the decorum objection: that women should¬†of course¬†be able to breastfeed in public, provided they do it discreetly, or¬†classily, or sensitively, or whatever other word best suits the sensibilities of the observer without recourse to the practical wants and needs of the subject. This argument, while comparatively benign, tends to imbue breastfeeding with an aesthetic imperative above and beyond its actual function – as though the necessity of transmitting milk to a hungry infant somehow magically vanishes if you can’t live up to the sartorial expectations of your hypothetical,¬†voyeuristic,¬†judgmental¬†audience. Carried to its logical conclusion, then, what begins as an offhand plea to ‘just do it nicely’ ends up carrying the implicit rider of ‘or else, don’t’ – an attitude which privileges the moral and/or aesthetic sensibilities of a single disgruntled observer over not only the bodily needs of a child, but also over the ambivalence or approval of every other bystander who rightly deems the spectacle (such as it is) to be none of their business. More practically, and in response to the specific assertion that mums should just be able to cover both breast and child with a handy length of fabric: children squirm, getting a baby comfortably attached to a nipple requires line of sight, and it’s sort of difficult to tell when they need to detach and burp – let alone support their necks and bodies – if you’re simultaneously grappling with a wisp of obscuring linen. So, no: it’s certainly an option, but it’s far from being a panacea, and expecting all mums to adopt it for the sake of a stranger’s sensibilities is wholly unreasonable.

Well, so what about the assertion that breasts don’t belong in public? Surely that has some merit, at least? Only, no, it doesn’t, because as a society, we¬†love¬†boobies.¬†Images of them are everywhere¬†– often portraying more bare skin than actual breastfeeding would necessitate –¬†and whatever moralising some people might get up to about the¬†depredations¬†of bikinis, crop tops, boob tubes and any other form of cleavage-accentuating dress, the idea that they shouldn’t be allowed in public is risible. Because realistically, the objection here isn’t to breasts, per se, but¬†rather¬†to nipples; or, more specifically, to the prospect that a woman might flash one in the seconds before her child latches on and suckles.¬†Which is where I return to the waste products argument; because more than once, I’ve seen it suggested that being able to breastfeed publicly is a nefarious form of female privilege – that somehow, the inability of men to urinate outside (or rather, the illegality of their doing so, as it certainly happens) means that¬†permissible¬†public breastfeeding would be fundamentally unfair, as allowing women to evacuate milk while preventing men from evacuating urine is… an imbalance, somehow? Look: it’s a stupid argument – as I’ve already said, expelling waste into the street is hardly equivalent to expressing milk into a mouth – but for those who want to play the Double Standards card: how fair is it, really, that men can go around topless for the fun of it, while women can’t show so much as a glimpse of nipple while feeding a baby? Is that not a greater and far more gendered imbalance?

Which leads us into the biggest argument against public breastfeeding, and the most frustrating: female sexualisation. Because¬†obviously, lady-boobs are different to man-pecs in that the former can provoke arousal in men, whereas the latter are supposed to be sex-neutral, and therefore exempt from the same rules of cover-uperage. Some men even find breastfeeding itself arousing, lending a pornographic sheen to the public act, and seriously, I cannot even finish this sentence, because you know what? That is¬†your fucking problem,¬†hypothetical observer!¬†I mean, do you know how many men find school uniforms arousing, or nurses’ uniforms, or nuns’ habits, or any other specific form of dress/behaviour/activity you’d care to name? Are you honestly suggesting that, because Person A finds Person B to be sexually appealing in Context C, then Context C ought to be publicly prohibited on the offchance that Person A is present when it happens? Are you seriously contending that a hypothetical¬†voyeur¬†has more of right to abstain from self-control – and, subsequently, to complain about unanticipated arousal – than the subject of their voyeurism does to simply exist in the world without an enforced awareness of the sexual peccadilloes of strangers?

Because, here’s the thing: if you sexualise, feel attracted to or are otherwise aroused by someone? That does not mean they are obligated to care, to reciprocate, or even take steps to make themselves less appealing to you. To paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet’s famous reproach of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, they have every right¬†to act in a manner which will, in their own opinion, constitute their happiness, without reference to you or any other person so wholly unconnected with them.¬†So by all means, be aroused: just don’t expect it to matter to anyone other than yourself, and least of all to strangers.¬†

Beyond all these objections, however, the debate about public breastfeeding invariably ties into the current angry panic about the presence of parents and small children in public spaces – cafes, planes, theaters, pubs – and the extent to which some areas should be designated child-free zones. And while that’s whole other argument in many respects, I can’t quite shake the suspicion that at least part of the pushback against public breastfeeding can be attributed to the widespread belief that any form of parental exceptionalism is wrong: that, as having a child is neither an outward expression of moral superiority nor a public service, expecting any special treatment or concessions on behalf of said child is nothing more than baseless, greedy entitlement. Parenthood (this argument goes) should more rightly be equated with self-sacrifice, and if that means abstaining from adult pleasures while chaperoning your young’uns, then so be it.

And, look: without wanting to come down irrevocably on one side or the other – this being the sort of issue I’m much more inclined to deal with on a case by case basis – the thing that always bugs me about this attitude is the implied belief that certain public spaces rightly and innately belong to the childless, such that entering them with children is, by itself, a species of invasion. And while there are certainly some specific instances wherein that holds true, in general, public spaces are so named¬†because they belong to the public¬†– which means that it’s just as reasonable for a childless person to expect the parents at table three to shut their toddler up as it is for the parents to expect tolerance from the childless person. It’s all give and take, is what I’m saying, and while I’ll be the first to admit to having eyerolled at a clambering, chattering preschooler in a busy cafe, I also dislike the assumption that parents are alone in feeling unreasonably entitled to the use of public spaces, when clearly, the desire to police their usage is itself a symptom of entitlement. So when it comes to kneejerk reactions to public breastfeeding – or, for that matter, kneejerk reactions to the concerns of childless persons – we could all do much worse than to think about who really owns the space we’re in (if anyone), and why it is we so often assume our own priorities are universally the most important.

Because at the end of the day, while having children is certainly a choice, our insistence on categorising the decision as a mere affectation of lifestyle – as though, if parenthood were to suddenly drop out of vogue like 70s decor or the poodle perm, we’d all just move on to shoulder pads and rollerblading instead – is a blinkered refusal to acknowledge its necessity. It might be an ugly, dirty job as far as some are concerned; but like rubbish collection and sewage maintenance, we still need someone to do it. Allowing for the inevitable, ongoing presence of children in public – and, as a consequence, admitting that their best interests must are also the best interests of society – doesn’t mean you have to worship at the altar of parenthood. Rather, it’s simply an acknowledgement that public spaces are shared spaces, and that sometimes, our personal comfort levels are going to be transgressed or trumped by the rights and needs of others. Public breastfeeding might seem like a comparatively small issue, but it’s one that matters – and one which I wholeheartedly endorse.

Note: this post was originally written in response to a question on tumblr.

Despite the vehement protestations of my formerly nine-year-old self, chances are that I’ll have kids of my own at some point in the future. Even were that not the case, I’m still the kind of gal who routinely plunges her head into the ice-cold waters of the blogsphere, and am therefore reasonably up to date on the current furor vis-a-vis motherhood. Specifically, the fact that nobody seems to know what to make of it. As Lynn Harris points out, a lot of hate for the feminine side of parenting is being bandied about by non-parents; Emma Gilby Keller is making the case for women who haven’t heard the ticking of their biological clocks and refuse to see this as a personal failing; Gen Y mum Nicole Madigan is, not unreasonably, fed up with being treated as though mothers as a demographic are still entrenched in the 1950s; and more than one person is wondering about how children should (or shouldn’t) fit into the public sphere. No matter whose side you’re on, any discussion of modern motherhood seems to imply a certain amount of outrage, anxiety and general handwringing, which, given that the prospect of giving birth is already terrifying, let alone being responsible for a tiny helpless being encoded with an unspecified, potentially lethal mix of yours and your partner’s DNA, is about as close to notions of ‘helpful’ or ‘comforting’ as the Oort Cloud is from Earth. Which is to say, very fucking distant.

I’ll admit to being fascinated by the whole malarkey – not just because I’m an opinionated snark, or because the entire buisness reeks very faintly of rubbernecking, but because it’s something in which my future self is, presumably, invested. Like everyone else, I want to know how to do this right, but despite my historical belief in the idea that moral/social absolutes are arbitrary if necessary human constructs rather than universal fixtures, it is still something of a rank shock to discover that there is no inviolable Way of the Parent, let alone Way of the Responsible Adult. Except for that part about not sticking forks in electrical socks, which, really, is only common sense.

But I digress.

The point being, there’s a lot of parenting turmoil to wade through, most of it directed towards or inflicted upon mothers themselves. And while I’m hardly about to cut in on the stroller-bashing queue, I think I’ve finally pinned down what makes me, personally, uncomfortable about the whole buisness. It’s not the idea of the Yummy Mummy that stings, although I dislike the emphasis it puts on what are frequently unrealistic standards of beauty. It’s not the helicopter, cotton-wool parenting, either, although it makes both my inner sixteen-year-old and my outer twentysomething roll their eyes. It’s not even the obnoxious, ignore-the-kids-as-they-go-on-a-public-rampage non-approach to parenthood, or the designer stroller brigades. I might lament each one in turn, but they’re not trends I feel personally threatened by: call it crazy, madcap optimism, but I’d like to think that whatever neuroses I develop as a consequence of motherhood will have less to do with social ephemera than the quirks and peculiarities of my own offspring. No: what makes me edgy in all of this is the idea that motherhood has once again become a lifestyle.

It’s a thought which simultaneously intrigues and repulses. On the one hand, everyone has the right to choose their own life. Who am I to criticize anyone for wanting the best for their children, or for taking pride in the process? Feminism has failed, and failed roundly, if it says that a woman ceases to be a feminist the moment she decides to be a stay-at-home mother, or if she cares about the type of stroller in which she perambulates her child. But on the other hand, it feels as though the current argument that children should comfortably pervade every facet of adult life – pubs, restaraunts, movies – is a reprimand on the notion that parenthood is something adults might want to take a break from. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be easy for parents to take their children places, but even within the realms of shared public space, some areas – like parks – are more intuitively child-friendly habitats than cramped pubs. Children aren’t a disease or a nuisance, some squalid facet of humanity to be sequestered from polite society until their debutante ball: they are people, they are important, and every adult, no matter how vociferous on the subject of ‘breeders’, was one once. But neither are children accessories, undetachable scions that can’t be left off the parental radar without risk of permanent personality failure.

It’s a mess, in short, one we all have to sort through in accordance with our individual beliefs and intuitions, which goes some way towards accounting for all the different types of motherhood on offer. Sometimes, in the absence of absolute moral certainty, you just have to agree to disagree. But it’s the lifestyle element of modern mothering I baulk at: because lifestyles are all about appearances, and if there’s one thing I think childhood and parenting – and life in general, for that matter – shouldn’t boil down to, it’s an emphasis on how things look to other people, as opposed to how they actually work. And yet, this is exactly what I end up doing: looking at other mothers, who are after all the only rubric available, and judging, via their appearance, how likely they are to be engaged in the persuit of motherhood-as-a-lifestyle as opposed to motherhood-in-general. If I mistrust designer prams, Yummy Mummies and kids on parade, it’s because I worry that these are the trappings of motherhood-as-a-lifestyle, and while they certainly can be, particularly in conjunction, they are not definitive indicators. They are the accessories of stereotype, not its core. But with mothers and motherhood now so visible in public – which is a different part of the debate in and of itself –¬† it is frequently the case that these external signs are all we have to go by.

We are, in short, trying to find a definition for modern motherhood that suits. Women are juggling children and careers, personal lives and dedicated play schedules, the desire to spend time in adult company vs the practical difficulties of foisting one’s offspring off onto anyone else, even for an afternoon, in a climate where childcare costs approximately nine zillion squared to the power of sod off. We are having children at older ages, where an increased amount of disposable income to spend on the trappings of childhood – clothes, strollers, toys – often equates to time poverty, resulting in guilt and the desire to take the kids out wherever possible, even where that means sandwiching adult social time into a playdate at the local pub. And, as was ever the case, there is no easy answer. Society has changed, and mothers, intentionally or not, are changing with it. There is value in trying to stick up for what we think parenting should be, but if all that means is talking about the Good Old Days and judging by appearances, it won’t get us very far.

Visiting friends and meeting their four-month-old son yesterday, I realised that my knowledge of very small children is comparable to my interest in world history: I’ve read a lot about individual periods and ideas, but without the context of an overall¬†timeline. I’ve picked up snippets of data, like the fact that babies can’t initially focus their eyes on distant objects and that learning to smile¬†is part of recognising faces, but I don’t know¬†when these things occur. I have no¬†personal point of reference:¬†I’m an only¬†child, and owing to¬†various circumstances, I’ve never been around the little kids of family or friends, either. This has never seemed like a particularly¬†remarkable thing, but¬†the practical upshot is that while I’m perfectly comfortable talking to someone else’s pet, I have no idea how to interact with their offspring – even when both animal and child are in the same room.

Part of me wants to make this society’s fault (or at least, shift some of the angst in that direction): more than ever, we segregate our lives according to age, creating¬†whole¬†environments –¬†kindegardens, schools, universities, workplaces, retirement homes – geared to keeping young and old apart. Even with siblings, most people are hard-pressed to have contact with people in a wide range of age brackets on anything near a weekly basis, let alone daily, and the norm is now for families to have fewer children. These aren’t bad things, but they do impact on¬†cross-generational interaction. At the same time, there’s a huge amount of cultural anxiety on the best way to raise children, with the result¬†that terms like helicopter parent¬†are entering the common parlance. On top of all the usual reasons given for this mode of uncertainty, many parents are new not just to the world of child-rearing, but to children in any sense. This can’t help but lead to confusion.

Ironically, however,¬†reactions like mine – and, presumably, those of others – are¬†as much the cause of these problems as anything else. In this era, the conventional way to learn is through reading, but¬†nerd through I am,¬†I’m also a big believer in the idea that¬†there are¬†still some things which¬†can only be learned the hard way.¬†Overthinking what we haven’t experienced¬†is only asking for trouble.¬†When we realise how little we know, it¬†startles us: we¬†research, but¬†don’t ask those who are older and more experienced. Possibly, this is another consequence of age-segregation in society – we discount¬†the advice of people who’ve¬†already been there, done that because they are old, and therefore unqualified¬†to comment on current methods. Or so it often seems.

Long story short: in the Information Age, it’s confronting to realise that there are still things you can’t just google. And the sooner we get our heads around that, the happier we’ll all be – myself included.