Category Archives: “experts”

This is why I love the internets

This photoset* is amazing. If you’ve ever had body image issues (so: if you’re alive) and most especially if you’ve ever been suspicious about those fucking BMI categories and even MORE especially if you haven’t been suspicious of them, you need to check this out.* (via Bitch, from whom I steal all my best stuff.)

*Note: if you view it as a slideshow, be sure to click the “i” in the center of the first photo so you can see the titles and captions.

Oh: and also – Read this, too.

Lullaby, and good night

So, I know he’s not for everyone, but I bleeping love Dr. Ferber. His sentiments fit really well with our parenting style, and I swear to god his is the ONLY book on children’s sleep habits that isn’t badly written, condescending, or oversimplified. It’s so refreshing to read a parenting book that treats you like an intelligent human being.

Sleep training is one of those awfully fraught parenting issues these days – at least, it seems to be among priveleged middle-class honkies like myself. I get the sense that my parent’s generation didn’t fret about it so much, but parents my age – well, for example, when Dooce wrote about her experience with sleep training, the post got 475 comments! Do you let your kid “cry it out” or do you “co-sleep?” Do you start training at 3 months, at 9 months, or not at all? Are erratic sleeping habits just a phase kids go through, or the mark of uneducated parenting?

Well, I sure as hell don’t know the answers to those questions. And reading most of the major books on the subject hasn’t made me any more of an expert on the topic. But I do know that I don’t function well without sleep, and nor does my husband or my kid. And it makes sense to me that children do well with structure, and repeated rituals, so they know what to expect. So the upshot of it all is that we’re currently “Ferberizing” the Hatchling. Which sounds like some kind of dry cleaning, but actually just means regularizing her sleep habits a little, and putting her to bed while she’s still awake. And I have to say, teething troubles aside, it really seems to be working. There’s not so much crying, which is a blessing, and last night the Hatchling slept from 9pm until 5:30 this morning, and then again until 7:00. It was – well, weird, actually, but definitely a weird I could get used to!

I expect all this twittering about sleep training is making my mom roll her eyes in an “a bunch of fuss about nothing” manner (admit it, mom!), but what can I say? I’m an over-educated, over thirty first-time mom, and while I’m sure we’d survive without the assistance of any parenting books, sometimes it’s helpful to get outside opinions. I mean, honestly, what else would you expect from a professional grad student? If I’d do research for an academic essay, you’d better believe I will for the magnum opus that is my kid.

Which is all a very rambly way to say: what do you all think? Are parenting books worth the time? Which ones did you like best/least?

Quackery

Dear Dr. Weissbluth,

In your renowned book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, you state, and I quote: “Teething, contrary to popular belief, does not cause night waking.” To which my response is:

HA! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! HA! HA! HA!

Translation: You, sir, are full of shit.

Finding Morpheus

So I get these weekly bulletins from BabyCenter.com with information about my baby’s development, links to articles, and of course ads for baby products. In this week’s bulletin (for 2 months and 4 weeks), it noted: “some babies may be awake as much as 10 hours a day!”

HA HAHAHAHAHA! Stop, you’re killing me. No, really, I mean it! 10 hours. Hell, we’re lucky if we can get the Hatchling to sleep for 10 hours a day. I’ve been tracking her sleep patterns for the last week, just to try and get a better sense of her habits, if any. Kids her age are supposed to sleep for about 15 hours in any given 24 hour period, most of which should occur at night. The Hatchling does get most of her sleep at night; the problem is it’s only about 7-8 hours a night. And then her napping is typically 45 minutes here, 1/2 hour there. It’s just plain not enough, and I honestly don’t know what to do at this point to help her sleep more. She’s too young for sleep training (which, thank god, we can start in another month), and we’ve done all the stuff about always having her sleep in her crib, darkening the room, adding white noise, have a regular routine before sleeping, etc., etc. None of it seems to get her to sleep enough. Result: overtired and cranky. The baby, too. Any suggestions for making it through the next month?

Good enough should be good enough

I had my first public breastfeeding experience yesterday. The Hatchling and I had met a friend and her baby for a walk around the lake, and towards the end of our journey she started getting fractious. I’ll tell you, it’s amazing how a hungry screaming baby can make you lose whatever vestiges of modesty you had left (not that I was that modest to begin with). I whipped out the boob, clutched the Hatchling across me, and shoved it in her mouth. Most of the tittage was covered either by her mouth or my hand, but there was still enough out to be noticeable if you were looking. Fortunately, I didn’t get any comments or leers (that I noticed, anyway), and the Hatchling got enough of a snack to quiet her down for the ride home. But it served as yet another reminder that breastfeeding requires certain sacrifices (of privacy, bodily integrity, comfort) that they don’t tell you about in the brochure.

Which is why, among other reasons, news like this really pisses me the fuck off:

A two-year national breast-feeding awareness campaign that culminated this spring ran television announcements showing a pregnant woman clutching her belly as she was thrown off a mechanical bull during ladies’ night at a bar — and compared the behavior to failing to breast-feed.

“You wouldn’t take risks before your baby’s born,” the advertisement says. “Why start after?”

Great. Really, just awesome. This is exactly how we should be doing this. Christ. OK, there are two things about this campaign that make me see red. First, it’s the coupling of the notion “breast is best” with the notion “and therefore anything else is harmful.” Look, I think you’d be hard pressed at this point to find any expert seriously arguing that breastmilk isn’t superior to formula. That battle’s been won, OK? We get it. But you know what? To imply that therefore women who don’t breastfeed are imperiling their children is holding mothers to a standard that we simply don’t apply elsewhere – even when it comes to other aspects of raising kids. I mean, can you imagine if we did? “What, you don’t dress your kid exclusively in Chanel? Why don’t you just send them out to play on the highway? Sheesh!” or “You use a Graco stroller instead of a Bugaboo??!!? That’s like sticking your kid in a Pinto that’s about to be rear ended!” Absurd, right? Right! Because in general, we don’t demand that people always and everywhere do the absolute BEST thing possible – we demand that they be good enough. Because we recognize that we live in an imperfect world where there are certain unavoidable constraints that don’t always permit us to choose the “best” option – and, moreover, that being expected always to opt for the best rather than the good enough places an undue burden on the person doing the choosing. So breast is best, OK. But dammit, formula is good enough! Hundreds of thousands of highly functioning, capable, talented adults were raised on formula. Maybe some of them would have had fewer ear infections if they’d been breastfed, but christ on a crutch, people, is that worth making a generation of mothers feel like rotting horse crap? No. No, it is not.

The second thing that bothers me about this campaign is how completely, utterly ineffective it is in its tactics. Let’s think for a minute about some of the myriad reasons why a woman might not breastfeed her baby: physical inability (inverted nipples, insufficient milk supply, etc.); logistical inability (must return to work at two weeks, employer doesn’t allow time off to pump, can’t afford to rent or buy a pump, etc.); psychological inability (postpartum depression, finding the thought of nursing distasteful, history of sexual abuse, etc.); and convenience. Now, of all those categories, the only one even potentially likely to change their behavior as a result of this guilt campaign is that last one, which I’ll bet accounts for the smallest percentage of women who don’t breastfeed. Everyone else just feels shittier without being able to do a damn thing about it. Rivka said it best: if you really want to encourage a culture of breastfeeding, try implementing any of the following:

Making an aggressive push for paid maternity leaves; longer maternity leaves comparable to the recommended length of exclusive breastfeeding; exemptions from welfare-to-work programs and welfare time limits for nursing mothers; insurance and/or public funding for lactation clinics, breast pumps, and milk-bank milk; greater support for nursing mothers doing salaried work, including protected opportunities to pump milk at work, increased flex-time employment options, and greater availability of part-time daycare slots; discouragement of routine obstetric and neonatal care practices which hinder breastfeeding; and, of course, stricter controls on environmental contaminants, such as mercury, known to taint breastmilk.

Of course, those things all cost money and require a shift in cultural attitudes about parenting, so, yeah, never mind. I guess the guilt thing is the way to go after all.

Wankers.

Breastfeeding: maybe less miraculous than you think

So, breastfeeding. Whoa. Certainly one of the more fraught areas of modern motherhood, no? It’s gone from “only crazy hippies/po’ folks do that” to “formula fed babies will never get into Harvard” in one or two brief generations. As the daughter of one of those crazy hippies (and po’ folks, if it comes to that), I grew up thinking of breastfeeding as pretty much the norm and never really considered other options for when I had my own kids. But as I’ve watched my friends have kids and tackle the feeding question I’ve come to a whole new appreciation for the complexities of the choices involved. While I was breastfed and regularly witnessed the breastfeeding of my siblings and playmates growing up, most of my friends weren’t and didn’t. I never really thought about the implications of this until Mr. Squab and I went to our breastfeeding prep class and the instructors talked about how there really hasn’t been much of a “culture” of breastfeeding in this country, and we still have one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. This, of course, was presented as little short of a national tragedy by the instructors, who were very much of the “breast is best” school of thought, where “best” means “only possible choice any half-decent, semi-moral, quasi-sentient mother can make.” They regaled us with all the conventional wisdom about why breastfeeding is so totally awesome and miraculous, all the health benefits it has for the mother and baby and how important it is to do it, at least for a little bit, if you possibly possibly possibly can. To their credit, they also acknowleged that although it’s often touted as the “natural” method, “natural” should in no way be conflated with “easy.” Because for MOST women, it’s really fricking hard! This is another one of those childbearing and rearing things that for some reason don’t get talked about anywhere NEAR as much as they should: that breastfeeding isn’t something that comes “naturally” to most women: it’s a skill, and one that has to be practiced. I have four friends who have had babies in the last three months, and every single one of them has had problems breastfeeding. They’re all committed to doing it, and getting the hang of it one day at a time, but it was by no means a simple process.

At the same time, I have several friends for whom breastfeeding was so difficult that they opted not to do it at all – and faced really ludicrous amounts of negativity and pressure to change their minds for doing so. It’s a polarizing topic, with advocates tending to be quasi religious in their fervor, and people who opt out being stigmatized for not choosing what’s “best” for their child. As a feminist, this squabbling bothers me because it tends to emphasize the woman’s function as feedbag to the exclusion of the other, much more significant, parts of her identity. Breastfeeding is a great thing, sure, but should a commitment to it trump all other concerns? If you ask La Leche Leaguers and their ilk, the answer is pretty much “yes.” And, frankly, I think that’s nuts. I can think of plenty of circumstances under which a woman is perfectly justified in choosing not to breastfeed – whether because of the physical limitations of her own body, or because of external concerns – or because she just doesn’t damn well want to. At the same time, women who do choose to breastfeed deserve all the support that they can get, in private and in public. Basically, my attitude is: we all need to chill about it. Women are smart, you know? Like, we can make up our own minds about this stuff.

Of course, one thing that’s helpful in making up one’s own mind is having accurate information about the topic at hand. That’s where breastfeeding, like so many other areas of womens’ health, gets kinda complicated. Because what we “know” about breastfeeding keeps changing. It wasn’t too long ago that formula was considered a far superior option, having been “scientifically” engineered to be the perfect foodstuff for a baby. We now know that’s not true, and it’s pretty clear that breast milk is a whole lot more complex than we used to think it was, but it appears that some of the “miracle” claims that have entered into the common wisdom about breastfeeding might be worth reconsidering as well. Take, for example, the role of breastfeeding in preventing infection. Go to any breastfeeding class and you’ll hear all about the wonders of colostrum, the “pre-milk” that you produce before your actual breast milk comes in. “Colostrum is choc-full of antibodies,” our instructors told us. Put your newborn to suck and empower their immune system right out of the gate!! Sounds like a deal, right? Who wouldn’t want to do that? Just one problem: that ain’t quite how it works. A recent article in Slate Magazine details the problem:

When you ask a bunch of doctors about how breast-feeding prevents infection, they get it wrong—I know they do, because I’ve asked the question. Doctors tell you that colostrum (produced in the first three days or so after a baby is born) and breast milk are full of maternal antibodies. Next, doctors say that these maternal antibodies are absorbed into the infant’s blood circulation and thus serve to protect infants from disease.

That’s the correct description of the immunology of breast-feeding for most mammals. It’s also true that human colostrum and milk are rich in maternal antibodies—colostrum is pretty much antibody soup. And babies take in these antibodies as they nurse. But human babies are never able to absorb maternal antibodies from milk or colostrum into the bloodstream, except perhaps in the minutest amounts. Maternal antibodies in milk and colostrum protect against infection—but only locally, working inside the baby’s gastrointestinal tract.

This information will surprise farmers, veterinarians, and strongly invested proponents of breast-feeding. After all, if a newborn piglet is deprived of its mother’s colostrum for the first eight hours of life, it is almost guaranteed to become sick and die. Similarly, newborn horses, cats, dogs, and most other mammals are not likely to survive long if they are deprived of colostrum. The reason is simple: Most mammals are born without any antibodies, or only the tiniest amounts, circulating in their blood. That leaves them defenseless at birth against viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Fortunately, for a brief period after birth, the antibody molecules in colostrum can easily pass through the bowel walls of babies of each of these species.

But human newborns, it turns out, differ from most other mammals in the way they acquire maternal antibodies. (Before the creationists get too excited, I should point out that everything I am about to say applies to monkeys as well as to people.) Newborn infants get their maternal protection before birth, via an active transport system in the human placenta that carries maternal antibodies from the mother to the fetus. Unlike all those other animals, human babies are born with all the maternal antibodies they will ever have. That’s why we don’t need to absorb maternal antibodies from colostrum. And it’s why formula-fed babies are not at a disadvantage, compared with breast-fed babies, in their supply of circulating maternal antibodies.

Interesting stuff, no? Also could be highly useful for a parent trying to make informed choices about her baby’s foodstuff. But this is not represented in any of the mainstream, widely-available sources for new parents. And here’s the kicker: this isn’t new information. According to the author of the article, this was well-documented in immunilogical literature as much as forty years ago, but for whatever reason has fallen out of common knowledge to the extent that many practicing doctors have forgotten it or never knew it to begin with. It’s hard to stay an informed consumer if even the experts don’t have the facts!

This article doesn’t change my mind about my own feeding choices – we’re still planning to breastfeed exclusively for at least the first three months, if we can. But it does reinforce my belief that there are lots of good options out there for new parents, and that fanaticism on either side is both unwarranted and insulting. What do you think?

Patriarchy = evolutionary advantage?

Gah. This is the kind of “scholarship” that makes me want to spit. Phillip Longman has a piece in the latest issue of Foreign Policy called “The Return of Patriarchy” in which he appears to argue that only those societies operating along patriarchal lines can survive and flourish. “Jigga-who?” you may be asking, and indeed, it’s not what I’d call an intuitive argument – at least not unless you’re a sexist twit – but wait: you haven’t grasped the jist of it. See, the reason why patriarchy is necessary for the survival of the species is that it’s the only social model (according to Longman) that encourages high rates of reproduction. Because once the womens gets a taste of self-determination and agency, you can kiss the childbearing and rearing goodbye!

Throughout the broad sweep of human history, there are many examples of people, or classes of people, who chose to avoid the costs of parenthood. Indeed, falling fertility is a recurring tendency of human civilization. Why then did humans not become extinct long ago? The short answer is patriarchy.

Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles. Yet before it degenerates, it is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents’ investments in their children. No advanced civilization has yet learned how to endure without it.

Boy. Well, that sure is a downer for a Monday morning. So, once again we can see that the decline of civilization is women’s fault. We’re just not reproducing enough, or … not investing in our children enough? … or … something, and so we’ll soon be taken over by those societies who “get” that strength lies in numbers. Patriarchal, conservative numbers.

The greatly expanded childless segment of contemporary society, whose members are drawn disproportionately from the feminist and countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s, will leave no genetic legacy. Nor will their emotional or psychological influence on the next generation compare with that of their parents.

“No genetic legacy.” Um. I thought, like, enlightenment and progressive politics was more, you know, nurture than nature, no? I mean, there’s no guarantee that my progeny will be liberal just because I am. Ima have to work a little harder than that, right? And as far as the “emotional and psychological” influence goes, gee, I’d love to see a little actual evidence on that one, Phil. From where I’m sitting it seems like the progressive baby-boomers have had a pretty fucking HUGE emotional and psychological influence on the culture. And isn’t that, in fact, what has Longman worried? I mean, if they haven’t had the influence then how come I’m not safely ensconced, barefoot, in the kitchen? You can’t claim little influence from the generation on the one hand and then blame it for declining reproductive rates on the other.

But the piece really gets going when Longman starts describing how patriarchy functions (emphasis mine):

Patriarchal societies come in many varieties and evolve through different stages. What they have in common are customs and attitudes that collectively serve to maximize fertility and parental investment in the next generation. Of these, among the most important is the stigmatization of “illegitimate” children. One measure of the degree to which patriarchy has diminished in advanced societies is the growing acceptance of out-of-wedlock births, which have now become the norm in Scandinavian countries, for example.

Under patriarchy, “bastards” and single mothers cannot be tolerated because they undermine male investment in the next generation. Illegitimate children do not take their fathers’ name, and so their fathers, even if known, tend not to take any responsibility for them. By contrast, “legitimate” children become a source of either honor or shame to their fathers and the family line. The notion that legitimate children belong to their fathers’ family, and not to their mothers’, which has no basis in biology, gives many men powerful emotional reasons to want children, and to want their children to succeed in passing on their legacy. Patriarchy also leads men to keep having children until they produce at least one son.

Well. Here we go! Now, first, we have the claim that fathers will only “take an interest” in a child that bears his own name. Mr. Longman, I believe you have your cause and effect reversed. It’s certainly the case that under patriarchy, the “ownership” of the child becomes extremely important. Mr. Longman, however, seems to think that the ownership issue is a given. He acknowledges that it has no basis in biology (gee, thanks!), but indicates that only the knowledge of legitimacy and ownership can give men the powerful emotional drive they apparently need to keep reproducing. (How the women feel about it is clearly of no consequence. I guess we don’t need an incentive to reproduce until we’ve been tainted by the subversive notions of feminism.) I’m sorry, but there’s no there there. It’s too easy to find examples of social organization where this isn’t the case. And if what we’re interested in here is sheer numbers, wouldn’t the advantage lie with the social organizing principle that led to care and attention being lavished on all children, regardless of parenthood?

But wait: there’s more to patriarchy than just stigmatizing “illegitimate” children! If you act now, we’ll include a side of female repression absolutely free!!!!

Another key to patriarchy’s evolutionary advantage is the way it penalizes women who do not marry and have children. Just decades ago in the English-speaking world, such women were referred to, even by their own mothers, as spinsters or old maids, to be pitied for their barrenness or condemned for their selfishness. Patriarchy made the incentive of taking a husband and becoming a full-time mother very high because it offered women few desirable alternatives. […]

Under patriarchy, maternal investment in children also increases. As feminist economist Nancy Folbre has observed, “Patriarchal control over women tends to increase their specialization in reproductive labor, with important consequences for both the quantity and the quality of their investments in the next generation.” Those consequences arguably include: more children receiving more attention from their mothers, who, having few other ways of finding meaning in their lives, become more skilled at keeping their children safe and healthy. Without implying any endorsement for the strategy, one must observe that a society that presents women with essentially three options—be a nun, be a prostitute, or marry a man and bear children—has stumbled upon a highly effective way to reduce the risk of demographic decline.

Right. So he’s not “endorsing the strategy” (and he does a pretty careful job of not overtly endorsing most of the crap he’s spewing), and yet … the whole tone of the article makes it clear that Longman doesn’t really see any other ways of “reducing demographic decline.” Rhetorically, he’s very clever – note the introduction of a “feminist” quote! See, he’s totally taking all sides into account! But what we’re left with is the notion that a society which values women as anything other than reproductive vessels is doomed to extinction.

What bothers me most about “scholarship” like this is how dishonest it is about its precepts. Longman clearly wants to present himself as a thoughtful, rational, historically informed commentator on an important cultural trend. But dig into the structure of his arguments a little, and you’ll find that it’s predicated on the following notions:

1) Only under patriarchy will fathers take a vested interest in their offspring,

2) Only under patriarchy will mothers (be forced to) reproduce enough to ensure the survival of the species,

3) Only under patriarchy will those flighty women (be forced to) care enough about their offspring to invest the time and energy necessary to create quality future citizens, and

4) Socio-political perspectives are genetically transferred: conservatives always have conservative children and progressives always have progressives, or near enough to always as makes no difference.

Called out like this, the absurdities of the argument, I think, become clear. Patriarchy may be good at reproducing itself, but it’s not because of some “evolutionary advantage” – or, at least, Longman hasn’t made the case for that. And we haven’t even gotten into the moral questions Longman is begging. (I mean, even if he were right, what are the implications? Incentives for progressives to start humping like rabbits? Just say “fuck it” and enjoy your enlightened existence while you still can?) If the only way a culture or species can survive is through patriarchy, then, frankly, maybe survival ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Put that in your Freudian pipe and smoke it.