17 March 2008

Home Economist

I lived in Michigan for 6 years and was invited to a total of two Tupperware-type parties—one Pampered Chef and the other a bath and beauty products party. I’ve lived in Georgia 8 months and I’ve already been invited to 4 of these buy-stuff-so-I-can-get-free-stuff parties. And one “catalog party”—where, you just buy out of the catalog without going to a party. Depending on how you look at it, that means that you either a.) don’t have to suffer through insipid conversation about how great a particular colander is; or b.) don’t even get the benefit of a few drinks for all of your buying efforts. So what’s with all the parties? Is it Southern hospitality? Or is it the new moms’ thing to do? I know we’re supposed to lead the household spending and all, but really, how many gadgets does a girl need?

The truth is that part of me likes these parties, especially as a newcomer looking for a few good friends. If all it takes to meet a hip mama is buying a melon baller, I’ll do it. But I’m not so sure these are the place to meet the cool moms. And I truly hate the feeling that the polite thing to do is buy something already. I just can’t get all googly-eyed over color-coded cutting boards.

So, here’s what’s on my social calendar: Taste of Home Entertaining, which I guess is like Pampered Chef, and Usbourne Books, which are children’s books. I’ve already been to Pampered Chef and Chez Ami (children’s clothes.) I do appreciate the invitations, I really do. I like to be invited to parties. I like the people who are inviting me to these parties, and I’m happy to get to hang out with them. I even like my Chez Ami baby boy bathing suit and my Pampered Chef salad tongs. I’m sure I’ll love the children’s books and find something I didn’t know I needed at Taste of Home. But I’d really like to be invited to a party that’s just a party. Wouldn’t that be Southern hospitality?

18 August 2006

more adventures in the boob tube

My mom attributes my no-dental-work needed pearly whites to my early years spent nursing, and she is super-supportive of all of the new mothers she meets, always offering her aid in the case of breastfeeding troubles. I've heard her tell more than one woman that they can call her anytime, including in the middle of the night, if they need advice or a sympathetic ear. I'm pretty sure she'll go to their side if they need her. This type of communal empathy and advice is is one fabulous step to supporting mothers. My mom sent me the following in response to the first post, and the information she offers is a really valuable supplement to my critique:

"If given the right support and information, there are very, very few women who can't breastfeed. And unless there is a condition such as cleft palate, all babies have the sucking reflex when born and can therefore nurse. And a newborn who is on the bottle will also have to be fed 8-12 times a day - only not only will the mother have to take the time to sit or lie down to feed the baby, she'll also have to fix bottles. Exhaustion can probably be attributed more to the act of giving birth than to nursing. And if the mother gets her rest and pays attention to her nutrition she won't be any more tired than her bottlefeeding sister. Breasts may be tender for a few days but quickly toughen up and the mother experiences mostly pleasurable feelings. If the breasts continue to hurt it's most likely due to baby not being positioned correctly or not latched on correctly. And there is virtually no reason that a woman couldn't produce breastmilk. An excellent source of the latest and most reliable information on breastfeeding is the La Leche League website, www.lalecheleague.org. Breastfeeding is a natural art possessed by woman and strengthened as it is passed on from mother to daughter, from woman to woman. What caused it to get so complicated is the interference of men, primarily doctors who convinced women that birth was a medical issue and not a natural process, and moved it from the home and midwives to their control in the hospital. That's where the patriarchy comes in. LLL has done a great job of reclaiming the "womanly art of breastfeeding". Basically, given the right information and support, any woman can nurse her baby." Later, she pointed out, "It's important for women to know where to get the right info and support, and I don't think that right now, that is always the doctor. Women need to learn about breastfeeding long before the baby is born, and I believe that the best source of that information is LLL and other women who have nursed. "

I want to point out that while bottle-fed babies need to be fed just as often as nursing babies, those members of the society lacking milk ducts are capable of "manning" the bottle. Nevertheless, my mom's comments contain the type of information that ad campaigns should be offering, along with other campaigns to connect women to the support they need and to give them the space and time necessary to make breastfeeding work. We've got to acknowledge the difficulties and discuss the benefits of breastfeeding while finding new ways to help new mothers in both the process of parenting and going back to work. A scare campaign focused on risks is misdirected and serves only to hurt women who can't breastfeed - and they do exist. On the other hand, it seems that many women are getting poor information, and armed with the right education, breastfeeding may be a bit easier. I'd love to see more resources invested in making that the case and fewer thrown away on giving women yet another reason to feel guilty.

16 August 2006

adventures in the boob tube

I’ve been seething since learning of the public health campaign working to change the rhetoric surrounding breastfeeding to focus on risk rather than benefit. In case you haven’t heard, the Office on Women's Health at the Department of Health and Human Services is now advising mothers that feeding their infants formula rather than breast milk puts children at risk for a host of future ills, including ear infections, leukemia, asthma, and obesity. A much-discussed component of this campaign is an ad featuring a pregnant woman riding a mechanical bull at a bar that intones, ''You wouldn't take risks before your baby's born. Why start after?'' Wow, choosing not to breastfeed is akin to subjecting your body to a bull ride in a smoky bar while pregnant. Wow. I'm all for breastfeeding, but we need to support it in another way.

Breastfeeding surely does provide lots of benefits to both infants and the mothers who can avoid the tiresome and repetitive task of mixing formula and washing endless cycles of bottles. And, women should be provided with information explaining the benefits of breastfeeding. But, this campaign completely ignores the trials and tribulations of suckling that baby, and even worse, it works to make mothers who cannot breastfeed feel guilty. Though frequently hyped as a “natural” process, lots of kiddos leave the womb without an inkling as to how to latch on to the breast. They just don’t get it, and many mothers end up feeling like failures as they beg and plead with their little cutie pies to work that sucking reflex. One solution to this problem? Breast feed all the time. We’re not talking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ha! According to La Leche League, babies in the early weeks breastfeed 8-12 times a day.

There’s lots of barriers to such frequent nursing, one of which is that breastfeeding can hurt terribly and another of which is that it’s totally exhausting. Babies, unfortunately, don’t stick to nicely timed schedules that align with the demands of a capitalist society. Another barrier? Plastic surgeries, whether undertaken to augment breasts and make them “sexier” or to relieve sore backs incapable of carrying triple-D size girls, frequently make women physically incapable of producing enough milk. Other women, for myriad reasons, do not produce breastmilk. Bring on the guilt train.

But beyond being tiring, painful, and sometimes impossible, breastfeeding, it seems, is also disgusting.
BabyTalk magazine was recently inundated with a barrage of letters scolding them for their “gross” cover shot of a blue-eyed, chubby-cheeked, white babycakes nursing while, gazing into the mother’s eyes. We only see the side of the woman’s breast, but this, apparently, was just going too far. One concerned mother explained that her 13-year-old son just shouldn’t be exposed to such gratuitous skin: "A breast is a breast,” she said. “It's a sexual thing. He didn't need to see that." Beyond the obvious retort that her 13-year-old has surely seen more during MTV’s Spring Break programming – or even more on E!’s Girl’s Next Door, where mere pasties seem to keep censors happy – the reification of the breast as first-and-foremost a sexual object and the reduction of boys and men to drooling slaves to heterosexual hormones is simply offensive.

The thing is, the responses to BabyTalk’s critics aren’t much better. The first reaction is: breastfeeding is natural, and therefore not gross. Even more, breastfeeding is natural, womanly, and therefore sexy. As one enlightened husband posted on an
MSNBC board: “I'm 53 and my wife breasted both of our daughters. That is like major sexy...in a natural way of course. If you view this in any other way, your [sic] simply perverted.” Okay, nothing wrong with finding your wife sexy - or even with finding breastfeeding sexy. It’s the suggestion that matters of the woman’s body can be viewed in one of two ways: a.) gross; b.) natural/sexy. It’s as if we must imagine breastfeeding women with a halo over their heads, gazing lovingly at their infants as they tug and bite on their mommies' breasts day after day. Some women do feel a particular sense of peace or intimacy while breastfeeding. That's a great experience for those women, and they're lucky to have it. But it’s not all the time, and it shouldn’t be a requirement for the acceptance of breastfeeding. This response also smacks of snickering teen boys’ declarations of particular women as “Hot Moms” and “MILFs.” Cool, let’s stop suggesting that women lose their sexuality as soon as they give birth. But who gets to be called a hot mom? What are the requirements for entrance into the MILF club? And to whose sexuality does MILF really refer?

The second type of response, unfortunately, simply blames American women’s puritanical streak. As womenshealthnews.blogspot.com bemoans, “women really are each other's own worst enemies.” Really? Shouldn’t we consider the contradictory, patriarchal culture to which these women are responding?

This brings me to my final point. Amy Spangler, head of the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee and key player in the above-mentioned campaign-to-make-not-breastfeeding-risky, told CBS’s The Early Show that the point of the campaign is to agitate for more institutional support for breastfeeding women who also work outside the home and well, want to get out of the house at all. The campaign, she said, showed that workplaces and other public places, such as shopping centers, should have clean, quiet rooms where women can breastfeed. Awesome. But if that’s the point of the campaign, why does it work so hard to make individual women feel bad? Why isn't it targeting the institutions that can provide such amenities?

Women need to hear that breastfeeding has many benefits, and they also need to hear that it can totally, well, suck. More importantly, they need to have loads of institutional support for making it work. Canada gives its new mothers a full year off of work. So does Norway. Not everyone wants that much time away from work, but it sure would be nice if it were an option. Within that more flexible space, this culture, frankly, needs to shape up and regard both breastfeeding and formula-feeding mothers with the respect, empathy, and support they deserve.