Monday, December 17, 2012

'tis the season and all that

We are officially on holiday.

The office Christmas parties have been and gone. The Christmas tree has been shedding its fake fir finery over the floor for a few weeks (and that alliteration wasn’t even on purpose!) There are only six windows left to open on our Advent calendar. 

And this will be my last post of 2012 (‘amen!’ sigh the readers in relief)

I’ve been thinking about what to write for this year's final post. Last year, I took a light-hearted look at labour and childbirth in the original Christmas story. This year, I’m not feeling quite so jolly, or, at least, not yet. Each day seems to bring a fresh horror visited on the children of this planet: they are victims of war in Syria, Palestine and Israel, Afghanistan and the Congo (to name a few), a mass-stabbing in China, another US school shooting, as well as the less-headline-grabbing victims of child-trafficking, recession, and poverty.  And even some of those children who are privileged by comparison spend the holidays negotiating new family configurations, and experiencing the stresses and strains of the holiday season. 

As I was wondering what to write about this year, two items on the internet caught my attention: one an opinion piece by a mother on her contented child being the result of good parenting rather than just luck, and the other President Obama’s speech following the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. 

In the first piece, the mother of a young son wrote about the way in which she bristled whenever people told her how ‘lucky’ she was to have such a settled baby. Luck, in her view, wasn’t the whole story, as ‘according to the parenting books, we haven't exactly been the ideal parents’. With a similar antipathy towards parenting books to that described in my previous post, these parents have sought instead to respond to their baby’s cues for food, sleep and clean nappies, rather than try and conform to someone else’s schedule. As a result, the writer concludes, they have a baby who sleeps ten-plus hours a night, has been sick once in ten months and has met or exceeded every developmental milestone. While I wasn’t over-fond of her implied judgement of other parents whose offspring weren’t so co-operative - there are plenty of parents who feed on demand and let their children sleep when they want to sleep who don’t get a good night’s sleep, for example - I liked her broader point about the way in which the work of parenting was met by dismissive ‘you’re so luckys’ that rendered it invisible and inconsequential. Good parenting does matter, it is hard, and everyone - regardless of whether they have children of their own - will reap the benefits from it.

In the second piece, one which will no doubt be read and heard by a great deal more people than the first, President Obama spoke about the need for the US to do better by its children. Without ever mentioning the word ‘gun’, he clearly indicated that it was time for the US to change its gun culture, which, in Newtown, resulted in the murder of twenty six- and seven-year-olds, along with some of the adults who took care of them. President Obama spoke at length about raising children, and about the ways in which children were brought up not only by their parents and immediate family, but also by the wider community. He said:

"It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realise no matter how much you love these kids, you can't do it by yourself, that this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation.
And in that way we come to realise that we bear responsibility for every child, because we're counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we're all parents, that they are all our children.
This is our first task, caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged.
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we're meeting our obligations?"
Obama’s conclusion was ‘no’, that there was more to do, and he was going to do everything in his power to try and achieve that. History will show whether he - and the wider communities that he leads - will be successful.

Both pieces resonated with me: the former emphasised individual responsibility, and the need to ‘teach your children well’ (as Crosby Stills Nash and Young once sang); the latter reminded its listeners of their and our collective responsibilities, that ‘teaching them well is something we can only do together.’ 

It is fitting that both these reminders, albeit the latter in tragic and totally un-wanted circumstances, come at the beginning of the holiday season. 

Christmas - the holiday with which I am most familiar - may be starting ever earlier each year as shops groan under the weight of consumer goods to go under the tree. But, in celebrating the exchange of gifts and the sharing of meals, it is also drawing on something more powerful and less ideological than mere capitalism. In the 1920s, French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote in his most famous work The Gift that the exchange of objects established and cemented relationships between groups and between individuals in a variety of societies. This exchange established the central principle of reciprocity and fostered social solidarity as well as self-interest. In doing so it created obligations, responsibilities and duties between people, families, adults and children.

While we’re counting our presents along with our blessings these holidays, we would also do well to remember the relational responsibilities that are inscribed in every gift: those new socks and chocolates (to our immediate family, friends and neighbours), that yummy lunch (to all the people - locally, nationally, and internationally - that had a role in preparing it), and that statutory holiday (to the national community).

Because if children are a gift, and a gift to their communities as well as their parents, then we all have obligations for their care and wellbeing.

And, on that note, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Books etc

Have no fear, I am not about to launch this post by saying that my two year-old is now able to read. She certainly enjoys books, and a combination of the pictures and (incredibly) repetitive reading means she can now reel off by heart the words in some of her books. But proper reading of unfamiliar words - in fact, of any words - is still a ways off yet.

No, the subject of this post, is books about child-bearing and child-rearing, more particularly, my antipathy towards them. I’m not the only one it seems. Novelist Rachel Cusk describes them in this way:

There are books about motherhood, as there are about most things. To reach them you must pass nearly everything, the civilised world of fiction and poetry, the suburbs of dictionaries and textbooks, on past books about how to mend your motorbike or plant begonias and books about doing your own tax return. Childcare manuals are situated at the far end of human experience, just past diet books and just before astrology.
It is possible, I sense, to make a specialism out of anything and hence unravel the native confidence of those you address. The more I read, the more my daughter recedes from me and becomes an object whose use I must relearn, whose conformity to other objects like her is a matter for liminal anxiety. (A Life’s Work, p 111)

I don’t want to totally slate these kind of books, nor criticise people for relying on them. At times, particularly in the first year of my baby’s life, I was as much in need of support and advice as anyone. I have talked with many people - other new mothers and fathers, experienced parents, health professionals - and I have read a few books, looked online and dipped into books and magazines. But my forays into child-bearing and rearing manuals - no matter how well-intentioned - have led me to conclude that Cusk, in her supercilious way, may be right: that they can work to undermine confidence even as they seek to reassure; that they can serve to distance a parent from their child - who becomes an object to be analysed or a problem to be solved - even as they emphasise responding sensitively to each child’s individuality and difference. 

I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily a conscious agenda of disempowerment on the part of the writers - much as it isn’t on the part of self-help books that exhort you to ‘Love Yourself’ and then give you tips on how to get your hair and makeup just-right. Rather, it seems to me that these contradictions help drive a process that effectively polices parents, especially new parents, and especially mothers. 

Recent research by historian Angela Davies has shown that childcare manuals by authors from Dr Spock to Gina Ford have been setting the bar too high and, for 50 years, mothers have felt more powerless, not less, after reading their words of wisdom. Davis carried out 160 interviews with women of all ages and from all backgrounds to explore their experiences of motherhood. In Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000, she says every manual designed to offer support and advice to women has had the opposite effect, leaving them dispirited and feeling inadequate. She says:  

Despite all the differences in advice advocated by these childcare 'bibles' over the years, it is interesting that they all have striking similarities in terms of how the experts presented their advice. Whatever the message, the advice was given in the form of an order and the authors highlighted extreme consequences if mothers did not follow the methods of child-rearing that they advocated. Levels of behaviour these childcare manuals set for mothers and babies are often unattainably high, meaning women could be left feeling like failures when these targets were not achieved. So while women could find supportive messages, some also found the advice more troubling. (Davis quoted in the Guardian)
Ordinarily a lover of books, I haven’t immersed myself in these ones, not least because in the weary times I wasn’t caring for my new baby, the very last thing I wanted to do was read about caring for babies. In fact, one of the first books I read after leaving the hospital and figuring out which day of the week it was was not What to Expect in Your Baby’s First Year but Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of PunkI have dipped into them in times when I wasn’t sure about something - or done the online equivalent - but something stopped me from devouring them in pursuit of the secrets of good motherhood. 

Now, as this blog attests, this didn’t stop me reading about experiences of motherhood itself. Far from it. I have read books by novelists exploring their own experiences of motherhood, whether fictional (Margaret Drabble) or non-fictional (Anne Enright, Rachel Cusk). I have read about the experiences of professional women who have combined the insights of their working lives with their personal experiences of mothering (Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Stephanie Coontz, Sue Kedgley). I have read the polemical works of feminist mothers (Adrienne Rich, Naomi Wolf, Elisabeth Badinter). And many more besides. 

Where these books - of which, it sometimes seems there are numbers now to rival the What to Expect, Baby Whisperer and Contented Baby ilk - differ from the how-to manuals is that, where they move beyond the ground of personal experience (and not all of them do), they seek to empower rather than undermine, to foster solidarity rather than individually guilt-trip, to analyse and critique rather than simply accept. One could argue that some of these approaches may alienate mothers who don’t wish to engage with the more political aspects of mothering, rather than the day-to-day business of it. That may well be the case. But what they don’t do is tell you how to do it nor imply consciously or not that you could be doing it wrong and you should be thinking about how you will get it right or pay the consequences at all times.

Elsewhere, Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels trace the ways in which parental advice books have proliferated since the 1980s, as part of the ideology of what they call the ‘new momism.’ This has happened in parallel to the increasing dominance of neo-liberalism and the development of ‘turbo-capitalism’. As Susan Gregory Thomas outlines in Buy Baby Buy, this period also saw an explosion of toys and other materials aimed at parents. Similarly, the profusion of how-to books offer up the enticing proposition that good parenting can be bought and sold, that the secret to raising happy children is as simple as making the right purchase. And no matter how well the books of such high-profile feminists as Naomi Wolf might sell, they would be well below the sales figures and brand proliferation enjoyed by the likes of the What to Expect range.

When it comes to childcare books, it seems that making parents feel bad is pretty good for business.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

review: Mother Nature

I was prompted to read this book after wondering about a gut reaction I had had to a picture of a dog suckling a cat posted on a breastfeeding support website. The picture made me uncomfortable. Well, not so much the picture itself, as the context in which it appeared, particularly as it was posted shortly after a woman’s story of how she found comfort and connection in her role as a newly-nursing mother by watching the nursing chimpanzees at the zoo. ‘I am not an animal,’ I raged to myself. ‘I am not a chimpanzee or a dog or a cat.’  

Now, of course, the latter might be true, but the former is not. I am an animal of the species called homo sapiens. But I am also aware - given my human facility for reasoning, empathy, and symbolic language - that ‘animalising’ other humans - that is, seeing them as somehow less than human - is a means by which gross atrocities such as colonialism, slavery, and genocide have been committed. The basic concept that all homo sapiens are human underpinned the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the end of the second world war.

And, as Hillary Clinton powerfully said in 1995, ‘women’s rights are human rights’. Seeing women as not quite human, then, can potentially lead to the denial of human rights, including basic rights to life, liberty, security of the person and self-determination. This has been appallingly demonstrated recently in the case of Savita Halappanavar, a woman who this year died of blood-poisoning after doctors refused to uphold her right to life over that of the slowly dying fetus within her. With a gruesome irony, the fetus was female. 

Now, de-humanising women is by no means what either the new mother or the breastfeeding support people were advocating. Rather, they were emphasising the no-less political point that breastfeeding is a normal biological function that human females share with other mammals. As such, it should be respected, celebrated and normalised, both on the level of societal comfort and societal support (e.g. statutory parental leave, paid breastfeeding breaks). I support that position and have little argument with it. 

And yet ...

I couldn’t silence my gut feeling that something did not quite sit right with me about the comparison. Perhaps it was being likened to a ‘dairy cow’ when I was breastfeeding myself. Perhaps it was something more. 

Elsewhere, during the course of my reading, I had come across several references to primatologist, anthropologist and sociobiologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s book Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and the Shaping of the Species (2000 - interestingly, I have come across several different subtitles for this book!). Perhaps this book would help me find some answers.

Or perhaps not.

French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter - whose early work Hrdy admires - criticises Mother Nature for its perpetuation of the ideology of ‘naturalism’, which has ‘as its core a belief that the world is governed by natural principles‘ (The Conflict, pp 29-30). Despite Hrdy’s nuanced approach and her demonstration of social, political, cultural and historical maternal diversity, Badinter contends that Hrdy refuses to let go a belief in innate instinct. In response to Hrdy’s discussion of lactation as the crucial ingredient in mother-infant attachment, the source of so-called maternal instincts, Badinter asks ‘if breastfeeding is the trigger for maternal attachment, what of those who have never breastfed, as is the case with millions of mothers. Do they love their children any less than those who breastfeed?’ (The Conflict, p 53). Hrdy does, in fact, address this later in her book when she categorically dismisses the idea of the critical bonding period immediately post-birth: ‘Children can be adopted days after birth and loved just as intensely, as ferociously, as those babies whose bodies passed through their mother’s birth canal and then pressed against her right after birth (p 538).’ 

Judith Warner, by contrast, thinks that Badinter got Hrdy’s argument wrong:

Hrdy ... has argued ... in ... “Mother Nature” (the chief argument of which is badly misrepresented in “The Conflict”), that a life combining both nurturing and providing for family is not only the most satisfying, but also the most traditionally natural for mothers. Hrdy’s research teaches that the split, or conflict, between a woman’s nurturing maternal role and her out-in-the-world, family-­provider role is a false one that flies in the face of the mothering practices of our primate ancestors, and that has been greatly aggravated by the work patterns of the modern industrialized world.
Having ploughed through the 540 pages of Hrdy’s book I’m not so sure that Badinter does mis-represent her argument. Warner’s account might be what Hrdy gestures at throughout but nowhere does she put it as baldly as this, partly, I suspect, because it would not be ‘good science’ to be so overtly political. What she does say is that field research shows that animal and human mothers continually make ‘trade-offs between quantity and quality, managing reproductive effort in line with their own life stage, condition and current circumstances’ (p 350). The care of allomothers (‘other than mothers’, including the father) is particularly critical to reproductive success. Mothering in nature, then is diverse, highly dependent on circumstance and support, and subject to threat from male attempts to control female fertility. Badinter is concerned less with Hrdy’s depiction of biological diversity, than with the political ideology to which it is in service (whether consciously or not). Given its breadth, I think Hrdy’s book supports both Badinter’s and Warner’s account of it.
I found much that was of interest in this book - e.g. its accounts of infanticide in different primate and human societies (pp 288-318) and the reasons why it is sometimes considered to be in both a mother’s and a community’s best interests (this was particularly interesting in light of debates about late-stage abortion) - and I think her point is well made that feminist critiques of sociobiology often critique the field as it was not as it is (p 535). Her own research and that of others shows that in nature, mothers of many species are not ‘all-sacrificing’ and passive, but ‘multi-faceted ... flexible actors whose responses were contingent on circumstances’, who sought varied ‘maternal alternatives to caring for their own infants’ (p 535). Here the science finds a ready audience in feminists and, you would think, anyone with half a brain. 

Despite this, parts of this book really challenged me, much like that initial picture. At first, I checked myself: as a non-scientist, and indeed, a ‘cultural critic’ was I guilty of knee-jerk disciplinary bias? Perhaps. I will certainly concede that I don’t have the disciplinary knowledge to challenge the science of what Hrdy writes about. I do, however, have the ability to critique and challenge the cultural meanings that she makes from that science (i.e. the recordings made of the observable habits and practices of animal and human societies). There were two particular things that played on my mind as I read the book: a lack of an overt awareness of the wider cultural and political context of her work, and a lack of any overt self-reflexivity about it.

Taking my first point, Hrdy nowhere acknowledges the legacy of social Darwinism and scientific racism nor the reasons why feminists or other cultural critics might have distanced themselves from it. What is now discredited as ‘scientific racism’, for example, categorised humans in stages of modernity, likening those at the bottom to ‘less-evolved’ apes and using dubious scientific experiments to support their theories. To be clear, I’m not accusing Hrdy of doing this, but the lack of acknowledgement of this legacy while drawing on primate societies and contemporary hunter-gatherer societies to draw conclusions for her audience (primarily Western and middle class) is astonishing. 

In that context, consider this sentence from the end of the book: ‘Over the next twenty years, Pat Draper ... studied the transition of the !Kung from a nomadic Pleistocene lifestyle to settled living amongst other African villagers’ (p 520, my emphasis). What is extraordinary about this statement, is not that contemporary !Kung people have adapted the way they live to changes in their environment, but that their previous life is described as ‘Pleistocene.’ ‘Pleistocene’ is the name given to the geological epoch which lasted from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago. Its use as an adjective to describe a contemporary human society suggests traces of the legacy of scientific racism still remain. The woman who studies them, by contrast, is named and individualised. Furthermore, the transition to a lifestyle that might be considered ‘settled’ from a Western point of view, may well be profoundly ‘unsettling’ from the point of view of the !Kung. This is, however, difficult to gauge without hearing their testimony, of which is there is little in the book. 

My second point, closely related to the first, concerns the little overt acknowledgement of the power-relations between anthropological field workers and the ‘objects’ of their study. This was particularly disturbing to me when she cited, without any context, examples from work on the Yanamomo people of the Amazon basin to support her argument. I say ‘on’ quite deliberately. A couple of years ago, I saw the excellent but disturbing documentary Secrets of the Tribe (2010) which explored the devastating effects a handful of anthropologists had had on the Yanamomi people. Some of these effects included sexual abuse and the (knowing) spread  of epidemic diseases. 

I can only conclude that, like me, this book is confused. I wondered about the other book - glimpsed in personal examples offered periodically throughout - that Hrdy didn’t write. The one that began with her own experience of being both a scientist and a mother, the trade-offs she had had to make. She mentions at one point that a respected male mentor challenged her decision to continue working once she had children on the grounds that research in their field had shown that this was not good for child development. Surely, this is the place to start a book intended for a general audience? It could then have moved back and forth between developments in scientific research, how it is given meaning culturally, historically, and politically, and what that might mean for the lives of real women. Perhaps Hrdy’s belief in ‘dispassionate analysis’ (p 349) does not sit so well with the cultural idea that the personal is political. 

Did Hrdy’s book help explain my profoundly un-scientific reaction to the nursing dog and cat? Not really. Writing this review, however, and trying to find the words to describe my disquiet has. In trying to figure out what bugged me, I’ve come to this conclusion: I may be an animal, but I refuse to be animalised - whether positively or negatively - if it in any way means being defined as less than human, as an object who is acted upon rather than a subject who acts.