You’re not helping

Sometimes people hold the same basic beliefs as I do, but their presentation of this stance is so combative, so extreme and counterproductive, that I just cringe.

Case in point: Kathy Dettwyler is a talented and engaging anthropologist who has done some amazing work researching breastfeeding.  Then this week she responded to a Facebook conversation about feminism and mothering with this gem:

“But when it comes to children, if you want kids, but don’t want to breastfeed them, maybe you should reconsider why you are having them. It is not necessary to have children to live a happy, successful, fulfilling life. If you want children, and want to do right by them, you’ll figure out a way to be a good mother, which starts with breastfeeding.” 

When I read that, I grimaced and made the noise that Ralphie makes right after blurting out his wish for a Red Rider BB gun: “Oooooh!”

Similarly, I hear tell that one year at a La Leche League conference, one of the founders of the organization was a featured speaker.  During her talk, she told the crowd that anyone who goes back to work when their child is still a baby doesn’t really love their child.  (NB: this attitude doesn’t reflect the actual philosophies of LLL, and in fact went over like a lead balloon in that roomful of LLL Leaders and members.)

I’m very much against routine infant circumcision, but I still can’t believe that some intactivists responded to news of Michelle Duggar’s miscarriage with ruthless glee, opining that a child is better off dying in the womb than living to be circumcised.

I think homeschooling, bed sharing, and gentle discipline can be great ways to support your children as they grow, but too many advocates of these practices state loudly and repeatedly that their way is the ONLY way, and if your child goes to public school, sleeps in their own room, or experiences time outs, you are a failure as a parent, or at least patently inferior to them.

Every movement needs passionate people who aren’t afraid to challenge convention.  A lot of the time, these people are perceived as “militant,” but I think there’s a difference between unapologetically advocating for your cause and going out of your way to offend people.  Telling expectant mothers that formula is riskier than breastfeeding is appropriate and useful.  Telling moms if they really loved their babies, they’d move heaven and Earth to breastfeed is being a presumptuous jerk.

Let me try to rephrase Dettwyler’s message, keeping (what I hope is) the underlying intent, while changing the language so it doesn’t turn off the very people she’s trying to influence.

I think some people consider having children just because it seems expected in our culture.  Having children means putting other people’s needs above your own and being inconvenienced, and it will probably impinge on your career to some degree.  That’s not anti-feminist, it’s just reality, for both parents.  I hope that anyone feeling societal pressure to have babies will consider whether they really want to make those hard choices and have those extra burdens, and if they think it’s not for them, will remain happily childfree by choice.

There.  Now we’re addressing the issue of feminism, the legitimate burdens of motherhood, and supporting free choice, instead of implying that mothers who didn’t breastfeed are failures, and that women who, say, lost their breasts to cancer shouldn’t procreate.

Being involved in the atheist sphere online, I’m all too familiar with tone wars and concern trolling.  I don’t want advocates to feel they have to walk on eggshells and bend over backwards to protect the feelings of mothers, no matter what choices they’ve made.  But I think there is a zone between pussyfooted appeasement and vicious judgment, and most of us can land there most of the time if we put a little thought into what we say.  After all, if we alienate people who don’t agree with us, and prompt them to tune us out entirely, all we’re doing is building mutual self-congratulation societies where like-minded people get together to “tsk” at the poor benighted masses who don’t do as we do.  Aside from bolstering our egos, what good does that do?

About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can reach me through my Facebook page.

Posted on January 20, 2012, in Breastfeeding, Culture, Feminism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Great post! I was upset after reading something she wrote after my last baby. I had some PPD and was dealing with a new baby and was reading that she felt babies sucking their thumbs and using pacifiers was abnormal. Now the pacifiers I suppose I understand because babies aren’t born with them. But I was angry and yet guilty for a baby who seemed to be learning to suck her thumb. That meant I was neglecting her somehow and she should nurse more and not have to self sooth. I remember Dettwyler saying that is may “give mom a bit of peace to cook dinner”, but was bad and abnormal. “The tribes I’ve studied don’t do it!” is always the mantra.

  2. Dettwyler’s been mouthing off this way for years. Her “research” on breastfeeding is severely ideologically skewed, and she’s no better an academic or a person than Darcia Narvaez is. She also apparently thinks Narvaez’s blogpost about mainstream-parented babies having no eye sparkles is great:

    I think comments like Dettwyler’s and the LLL founders aren’t merely unfortunate lapses of judgment – they happen too often – but rather a fascinating glimpse into the ugly motives behind some of the stalwarts of the AP/NFL movement.

  3. @estherar

    Dettwyler and Narvaez may be ideologically skewed, but they are also counterbalance to the equally but in the opposite direction skewed crap that’s been out there for decades, including much of what has been directed at medical professionals and other trusted authority figures who advise new parents.

    There is no informed consent or informed choice when only one end of the pole is being heard from with the only contrast being a somewhat moderate (but often still closer to the extreme pole than true median) voices in the mainstream. Extreme progressives have generally been the way progress has been made, particularly in gender issues, from what I’ve seen.

    That being said, no, I don’t agree with them on several issues, but then again I’m from a slightly different social research discipline, being a sociologist not an anthropologist or psychologist, so I do approach things differently than they do, and I’m also of a different generation I believe – I’ve met Narvaez once face-to-face, I don’t think she’s quite old enough to be my mother but not far off… I’m pretty sure Dettwyler IS old enough to be my mother. I would be quite interested in getting into a conversation about the actual merits and demerits of these women’s work with other intelligent individuals from various viewpoints.

    I cannot condone, however, you casting aspersions upon an entire 2 page article based upon its title instead of its content, as fair play or intellectually honest. I went and read the article for myself. Yes, it has a clear foundation in a mindset that Narvaez makes no effort to disguise. That doesn’t make it bad science or weak observation. It was written for a general audience of people who read blogs on Psychology Today, not an academic journal. Have you actually read any of either of these women’s academic, peer-reviewed writing before criticizing what kind of academics they are? I’m sure you wouldn’t be thrilled with people assessing YOUR professional capabilities based upon what you post on a blog or comment on someone else’s blog. Be careful with your fundamental attribution errors and confirmation bias, please, if you want to be taken seriously.

  4. Ahmie,

    Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because some experts in the early-to middle 20th century gave advice to parents you may not like and isn’t true (e.g., formula is better than breastmilk) doesn’t make it OK for the modern ones to push an equally strident and wrong view coming from the opposite position (formula is poison and will make for a sick, stupid baby and why are you even having kids if you can’t breastfeed?). Informed consent involves presenting facts that have been shown to be correct, and presented in the most accurate way possible, and admitting where gaps in knowledge exist , not ‘balancing out’ two equally extreme and incorrect poles. I don’t know about sociology, but in the life sciences, not every viewpoint is equally valid.

    I’m well aware of how old Dettwyler and Narvaez are, though I’m not sure why this is relevant to you, unless to demonstrate that age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom. I’ve read and critiqued some of the former’s work that discusses breastfeeding (see my blog) and have read all the articles on the latter’s blog (and have skimmed her bio – the overwhelming majority of her scholarly work has much to do with the blog’s topic, but not with its content). It’s precisely because both have written for general audiences that I’m worried. A general audience hasn’t the tools with which to critique the information presented – they see an opinion piece written by a Ph.D (whether or not their actual area of expertise is related to the topic at hand) with a bibliography that purports to be related to what’s written, and voila – it’s a “study” and must be correct.

    And I think it’s entirely fair for people to assess academics’ characters and biases (which are the ‘engine’ behind their scholarship) from what they write in other fora, including their own blogs. In fact, what academics say when they’re talking to an audience of non-academics (who won’t be looking critically at their every last utterance) and HOW they say it can be extremely revealing. Which is why I try to be very precise in what I say and write, especially online – the internet being forever. And I would be entirely OK with you assessing my knowledge base and the way I think based upon what I write.

    • estherar,

      I never said two wrongs make a right. I am merely indicating that I trust and respect the average woman enough to be able to read both ends of the spectrum and figure out for herself there’s a middle ground. And that wasn’t early-to-mid 20th century thinking, I am 35 years old and it was what my mother was told both when I was born and when she birthed my brother 12 years later, and it was in plenty of the advice I got when I was pregnant the first time, from medical experts as well as lay people. The opposite end of the spectrum is not heard other than people like you disparaging it as outlandish and blowing off the other end as ancient history. This is a disservice. I have read the work of these women and your caricature of them is not a full portrait of their perspective. I have seen them be MUCH more compassionate to individual differences than many on the “other side”. Dettwyler herself is a breast cancer survivor from what I read.

      As for general audiences, that’s a problem in our culture that is not specific to these writers. These authors are trying to write in an accessible way that counters the flip attitude in popular books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting (a book I threw across the room while pregnant with my first because of its flippant attitude toward women who chose to birth without an epidural. I had herniated the lumbar spaces where an epidural is placed 8 weeks prior to conceiving, I was NOT interested in risking going through THAT or worse with a newborn to contend with, and so found the attitude extremely offensive and unhelpful). As academics, it is very easy to fall into the trap of only writing for the ivory tower. Seriously, peer-reviewed journals are filled with some of the worst English writing samples I’ve ever come across, and I used to be a fan fiction editor for an engineer and several teenagers, so that’s saying something if you’ve had experience reading the writing of your average teens or engineers. They are making an effort. They are not perfect, but they do make their biases VERY well known to anyone who does the LEAST amount of looking, which can’t be said for a lot of the medical literature (i.e. where are their financial investments, where have they received funding in the past and where are they currently applying for grants). Perhaps I hang around the medical sociologists a bit too much (that is not my specialization, just a side interest, but it is the primary research interest of my undergraduate mentor, Sue Hinze at Case Western Reserve University, with whom I am still in contact).

      I wasn’t saying age brings wisdom. Far from it. I was saying they are of their generation, I am of mine. I am a tail-end GenX/nose-end Millennial, and this colors how I see the world and seek answers to questions. I think the two women we’re discussing are both part of the Baby Boom generation (Darcia might be early GenX, I don’t know for sure), and that colors the way they perceive the world around them, as do other exposures in their lives. That doesn’t make any of us more or less wise than the other, just viewing the world differently. I try to bear that in mind while reading ANYONE’s words, regardless of their academic accomplishments.

      You indicate that you’ve read their general audience writing. Have you actually read their academic writing other than the article titles and publication names? Do you actually read the medical articles of any studies that you do trust, or just the general science magazine? Do you even read the abstracts? You’re very confident in your opinions for someone who is not demonstrating any evidence of having actually read what you’re judging.

      Yes, words have power – I completely agree with you there. I think perhaps these academic women are assuming a higher level of intellectual comprehension and curiosity than you are. It’s rather hard to say who is right without doing costly research into it, but my general opinion is that people tend to live down to the expectations placed upon them as often as up. I have met a lot of women who society dismisses as unable to understand PhD level discourse, who have no problem keeping up as long as we academics don’t slip into jargon (some of us do this intentionally, some unintentionally from the habit of being primarily around other academics day in and day out, and some of us are just huge word nerds like me who can’t seem to help dropping SAT words at random in everyday conversation).

      Bias is only a REAL problem in research if it’s not acknowledged. That’s Research Methods 101, particularly with human subjects and especially in the social sciences. There’s always a placebo effect to consider, and other factors. We all have our blinders and none of us can ever really know with absolute certainty that another person is being completely honest. I find life is a lot happier when I assume good intent. I am doing that with you, and really enjoying this discourse.

      I will check out your blog when I get the spare moments (right now I really need to get to bed, I’m in EST so it’s nearly 1:30am). There’s not much point in checking out mine but you are welcome to, I don’t update very regularly. You might enjoy some of what I have to say, some of what I have to say may leave you thinking I’m as big an idiot as you seem to think the other two are, but I will engage with you in respectful dialogue as long as you give me that same courtesy. The more I respect someone, the more I challenge what I perceive to be their faulty assumptions, just so you’re forewarned. And I also have no concept of linear time so I sometimes take months to reply if I don’t notice the initial notification or can’t reply when I get it. Allegedly that’s part of my dyslexia, but I’ve known it as a general character quirk for much longer. The dyslexia can also slow down my response since I read slower than about 75% of the population. Please don’t take a lack of or very delayed response as lack of interest or respect on my part.

  5. by the way, Christine, I think I forgot to mention in my original comment… I think your rewrite of Dettwyler’s words is brilliant and I strongly agree with the stance you take in this post. You’ve earned me as a fan with this and the nursing in public advice parody. I am recommending you to friends (inside and outside academia).

  6. Ahmie,

    We seem to be talking at cross-purposes. I really couldn’t care less where Dettwyler, Narvaez and their ilk “are coming from” (generation-wise or otherwise); I do, however, care whether their very definitive prescriptions for parenting have equally definitive proof of superiority to them. When you (ab)use your position as a Ph.D to preach to women that formula is equivalent to junk food, or that CIO harms babies’ brains and stunts their development, you need to prove it scientifically, either by running well-done scientific studies on the subject, or quoting sources which have done so and their results support what you’re claiming. Dettwyler is somewhat better than Narvaez in that regard (though her work has other problems). The sad fact is that many otherwise intelligent people are lacking in scientific literacy and really can’t tell whether the author’s thesis is sufficiently supported.

    Also, there’s bias and there’s BIAS. If one is the kind of person who thinks all babies not parented/birthed/fed the way one thinks is right look like dull automatons, then perhaps one’s grasp on reality is too tenuous to take one’s academic research – or any other thing one says – seriously on the subject of children.

    I’m not an academic, just a doctor with a good idea of how science works and how to read scientific studies critically, and can tell the difference between rank speculation and actual research. I deal with real live people, in real live situations, who need real answers, now. When someone who looks like an authority makes far-reaching claims they apply to ALL children and not supported by science, people believe them and harm can be done. ( I don’t know that the authors of ‘What to Expect’ carry quite that kind of clout, mind, being laypeople).

    You (general you) don’t want an epidural? No problem – though epidural injections are one of the ways to treat chronic pain from herniated discs (just FYI). If you inflate the risks of epidurals or misrepresent them to scare ALL women out of one? That’s where I take issue with you. If you use studies to bolster your position that epidurals are very deadly, but cherry-pick studies involving extremely high-risk women or studies that deal with general anesthesia? Watch out!

    I’m pretty busy myself right now, so I don’t know that I can engage in a long debate. But you’re welcome to see what I’ve put out and email me on the subject (my email account is on the “about me” page). I’ll do my best to answer in a timely fashion 🙂 .

  7. Esther, why did you have to link me to another stupid Narvaez article and make my blood pressure go up? She really is irretrievably loony. I’d love to see a JREF style test where she identifies babies who are ultra-AP parented versus mainstream parented, using their eye sparkles as her only guide. Ow, I just sprained my superior rectus muscle from too much eye rolling!

    Just skimming that article, it leapt out at me that she bases one of her recommendations on the “fact” that “breastmilk is mostly amino acids.” I’m just a lowly breastfeeding counselor without a PhD, but I’m pretty damn sure the chief components of breastmilk are water, sugar, and fat, in descending order of percentage.

    In discussions of her “Danger” article, I saw WAY too many people introduce it as “this study.” Your cautions about the average person giving too much credence to a writer just because they have letters after their name and a sciencey-sounding platform are right on the money.

    Ahmie, I understand your frustration with the poor information “the other side” has been doling out for decades, but I think that’s one reason we should be even more scrupulous about demanding honesty, accuracy, and a modicum of diplomacy from people supporting AP. It’s all too easy to gloss over major problems when someone is saying something you want to hear!

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