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Category Archives: Culture

Nursing in Public – Tips for Avoiding Problems

As requested, here’s a direct link to the graphic version of my list:

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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?

Indecent comic book art!

Comic book artist Dave Dorman evidently has a very perverted view of breastfeeding, as he complained this week about a comic book cover depicting a very understated act of nursing, saying “Rather than a family-friendly heroic saga, this promo art is telegraphing to the world that it’s a series I cannot share with my 7-year-old son. Is the comics industry really so dead that they have to stretch to these desperate, shock value measures to incur readers? Really?”  Evidently he’s gotten quite a bit of backlash, as he’s scampering to backpedal via Twitter, and has removed the original blog post.

For those like me who want to run out and buy this “shocking” comic immediately, sorry, but it hasn’t been released yet.  It’s called Saga, and it’s by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrator Fiona Staples.  It’s set to be released by Image Comics on March 14.

But just to make sure we understand his stance, let me go over it.  Dave is concerned with images being family-friendly, and appropriate for a 7yo, whether or not they’re actually for “mature readers.”

So, according to Dave, that image above is “offensive.”

But this is OK

And so is this

And this is fine

Is that all clear then? Presumably those images are OK, because they depict breasts serving their proper function of sexual stimulation of viewers, and aren’t supported by “The Breast Milk Mafia,” as Dave and his wife call La Leche League.

Becoming inured to nipples

Image via Library of Congress prints & photographsToday I was walking on the track at the YMCA, and I was saying in a none-too-quiet voice such things as, “If she gets cold, does her nipple pop out?  Because if so, then you could try putting a cold washcloth on it.”  It only occurred to me later that people might find that strange and possibly offensive.  While I was exercising and listening to tunes on my iPhone, a friend had called me to get help for a mutual friend who just had a baby and needed some breastfeeding support.  And nipples are not taboo to me anymore.

A few weeks back, some anonymous person posted a survey on The Straight Dope Message Board.  It asked female users to give lots of detailed information about their nipples – size, shape, and color of areolas, flat or inverted nipples, and so on.  My first reaction to this was to click through to the survey results to learn about the variety of nipple shapes and sizes, and wondering what the most common traits were.  Nipples are interesting – did you know that (very rarely) some moms have nipples that are too big for their newborn to latch onto?  Or that inverted nipples can often be everted through suction, but some have a tough band of connective tissue holding them in?  Or that the little bumps on the areola are actually glands that secrete an oily substance that keeps the nipples from drying out, while also providing a scent cue for newborns to find the nipple?  Do you realize how much of the nipple/areola is pulled into the baby’s mouth during nursing?  Nipples are amazing, and not just in the way our culture normally thinks of them.  So anyway, I was kind of fascinated at this cool project until I looked at some of the thread responses under the survey.  Responses such as, “What is wrong with you, you perv?” and “The level of detail you’re asking for, especially from complete strangers, is truly creepy.”  Finally I realized that this was some dude with a nipple paraphilia asking inappropriate sexual questions.  Oh right.  Nipples are just sexual, to most people.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that nipples and breasts are a sexual thing too.  It’s just that for me, they’ve gotten to the same place as other female body parts that used to be considered too sexually inflammatory to expose, such as knees.  I can look at Sofia Vergara and I don’t think, “Hmm, she probably could use a rolled washcloth for support since she has heavy breasts,” but rather, “Wow, that woman is sex personified!”  It’s just that breasts aren’t necessarily sexual to me anymore.  They have different import depending on their context.

Another case in point: I recently illustrated my unassisted childbirth post with a picture of a woman giving birth without anyone hovering around her or catching the baby.  And oh yeah, I realized quite a bit after posting, she is totally naked, with her breasts right out there.  I briefly wondered if I should change it, because some people might be offended – something that truly had not occurred to me in the slightest while I was choosing the picture and putting up the post.

So I was thinking, if I’ve become totally inured to nipples, perhaps the Percy Pecksniffs and Prunella Prudes of the world could get over themselves, learn a little about breastfeeding, and get used to moms nursing in public.  Sure, it might feel uncomfortable at first.  You might feel afraid that you’ll accidentally see a flash of nipple when you encounter a mom nursing.  It’s OK – you can get through it.  It will become normal as more women nurse for longer periods, and refuse to be shut up in their homes, and you will get inured to it too.

If you absolutely cannot get over your offense at seeing women nurse in public, here are some tips for reducing the problem:

1. Plan ahead.  If you’re planning to visit someplace that might attract new mothers, such as a park or a discount store, try to time your visit so that you’re less likely to be there at the same time as a nursing mother.  Midnight is good.

2. Practice in front of a mirror.  At first, your shock may show plainly on your face, so try sitting in front of a mirror and picturing a nursing mother.  Keep trying until your expression stays neutral.  You can also try having a friend or your spouse watch you and provide helpful comments.

3. Dress appropriately.  Try wearing a scarf or a top that has a hood.  That way, if you encounter a nursing mother, it’s simple to pull the fabric up over your eyes, or to pull the hood forward to act as blinders so you can easily avert your eyes and not suffer any peripheral vision of a nursing baby.

4. Be discreet.  Avoid calling attention to yourself, and there will be no problem.  If you’re ostentatious about your disapproval, you’re just inviting a confrontation.

5. Find a private place.  If you absolutely can’t avoid voicing your discomfort with public nursing, there are plenty of appropriate places.  Go to the nearest changing room and let out your feelings.  Almost every establishment has convenient public bathrooms where you can have total seclusion while you vent.  If all else fails, go out to your car – it’s a little inconvenient, but well worth it to avoid making a scene.

By following these simple steps, you can make sure that public nursing never leads to ugly confrontations or public relations battles, and everyone will be much happier.

An opinion piece

I believe that the vast majority of parents love their kids and do the best they can for them.  Parents might make decisions I don’t like based on bad information, or they might have a different set of beliefs that leads them in another direction.  And parents might make decisions I don’t like on first glance, but that I would make just the same if I were in their position.

I believe that babies and children are amazingly resilient and forgiving.  I think babies have a built-in assumption that their moms are doing everything they can for them.  I think babies have strong attachment and a good bond with stay at home moms, stay at home dads, working moms, working dads, divorced parents, single parents, gay parents, foster parents, extended family, and frequent babysitters, .

It seems to me that babies are most often happy, healthy, and secure, whether their mothers had natural birth or planned c-sections, whether they’re fed mother’s milk from the breast or bottle, donor milk, or formula, whether they sleep with their parents or in a crib, whether they’re circumcised or intact, have their ears pierced or not, wear organic cotton or Wal-mart polyester, eat mostly local vegetables or mass-produced beige foods.

It is my conviction that certain individual choices can introduce more risk than others, but the most important thing is the totality of the child’s life.  Sometimes “risky” choices are necessary to allow for other decisions that offer a better overall outcome.  Also, every parent puts a foot wrong now and then.  Some weeks it will seem like we fail to live up to our own standards every day, but parents keep giving it their best shot, and their kids can tell.

I believe it is wrong to spank children.  Yet I have spanked my children on occasion.

I believe routine infant circumcision is wrong.  I also believe that parents who choose it do so because they believe it’s harmless, healthy, and even necessary.

I believe it is better to exclusively breastfeed babies until 6 months.  For me, it hurt, sometimes to the point of agony, every time I nursed for about 3 months.  I’m glad I managed to endure it, but I wouldn’t have blamed myself for stopping.

I believe the vast majority of moms have the phsyiological capability to breastfeed.  I also believe that many moms still truly can’t breastfeed because of bad information and lack of support on a local and cultural level.

I believe we should nurture, love, and appreciate our children.  And I know all of us are going to lash out and be impatient with our kids at some points, when they’ve pushed us to our limits.

Most of all, I believe that parents and children need plenty of good information and lots of emotional and practical support.  If we want parents to do what we think is best, the most useful approach is one of respect and a presumption of good faith.  If we want people to dismiss our information and continue as they have been, the quickest way to do that is to deliver that information with plenty of condescension, scorn, and contempt.

I don’t have any citations.  I’m not trying to strong arm you into agreeing with me.  It’s just what I believe, and I’m confident enough not to try to make it more.  Maybe Darcia Narvaez could use this model for her next Psychology Today article.  Those who agree with her will still cheer and post links to it.  And those whose behavior she wants to change might actually take her seriously and think about her arguments.

Gay people out-procreating me!

When they were arguing for Prop 8 in federal court, backers claimed “that society is entitled to reserve its approval of marriage for those who can naturally conceive children.”  The Family Research Council lists “The Top Ten Harms of Same-Sex ‘Marriage‘” and number 9 is “Birth Rates Would Fall.”  (Yes, seriously, they list that as a harm.)  The Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated, “What are called ‘homosexual unions,’ because they do not express full human complementarity and because they are inherently nonprocreative, cannot be given the status of marriage.”

Psst, bigots – there’s something you should know.  Gay people be having babies all the time!  S’truth!

Famous gay people who have as many kids as my parents (married in the Catholic church!) do:

Elton John

Dan Savage

Mary Cheney

Clay Aiken

And some who have as many kids as I do:

Wanda Sykes

Sara Gilbert

Neil Patrick Harris

Cynthia Nixon

Ricky Martin

And queer folk who have out-procreated me:

Cat Cora (for two of their children, each partner was implanted with the others’ fertilized egg.  I find this incredibly sweet, as well as a damn good answer to any argument that gay couples can’t both have a biological link to their kids.)

Rosie O’Donnell

Annise Parker

B.D. Wong

Melissa Etheridge

And let’s not forget that lesbian couples make the best parents!

Now, what was that argument about marriage being reserved for procreation and the ideal environment for raising children again?

I’m officially a Robert Price groupie

Robert Price may just be the coolest person on the planet.  I first encountered him through his book, The Reason Driven Life.  It’s a direct response to the wildly popular Christian book, The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren.  I really enjoyed it, especially how he directly addressed Christians, and somehow managed to be gentle and empathetic without pulling too many punches.

Years later, I heard Price on several freethinking podcasts, including as host of Point of Inquiry.  He is a pleasure to listen to, and is obviously brilliant and incredibly well-read.  Yet he’s not the slightest bit stuffy, and seems like a really fun person – someone you’d like to gab with over coffee.  Also on Point of Inquiry, they ran a recording of a talk he did called “Is the Bible Mein Kampf?”  Contrary to what you might expect from a famous nonbeliever, his argument was that the Bible is a highly valuable cultural document, and that freethinkers who assume the Bible is as evil as it’s made out to be by literalist believers are doing everyone a disservice.  It was thought-provoking.  I’ve also discovered that he is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar and runs a show called The Bible Geek.

So, OK, he’s a freethinker, a really smart and educated guy, fun to listen to, and a great writer.

But today I found out something that catapulted him right onto my All Time Favorite People list.  Not only is he all those things – he’s an H.P. Lovecraft scholar and himself a writer of weird fiction!  To give you an idea of how much I love Lovecraft, I keep abreast of everything the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society is doing, I own a copy of their silent film The Call of Cthulhu, and needless to say I own several compilations of Lovecraft fiction, as well as many literary homages.  I also listen to Lovecraft-related podcasts on my iPhone.  This morning I was on the treadmill, listening to The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast.  They were doing their wrap-up show on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and they said they were having Robert Price as a guest.  I figured that’s not such an unusual name, surely this was some other Robert Price.  But no, it was THE Robert M. Price I already knew!  I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to the whole show yet, but I was equal parts pleased and amazed when I realized it was him.

It’s also interesting to me that S.T. Joshi, perhaps the preeminent Lovecraft scholar, is also a prominent nonbeliever.  I wonder if there’s something about Lovecraft’s work that appeals to us nonbelievers in particular – the confrontation with an indifferent or even hostile universe, and the inability of the human mind to grasp the vastness of time and space are constant themes.  Lovecraft himself wrote,

All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.

So maybe we sense a kindred spirit when we read him.  Of course, he appeals to a huge audience, so it could also be coincidence.  In any case, it’s fun to find out that one of my freethinking heroes shares my obsession with Cthulhu and company.