Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Changing the fairy tales

Welcome to ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ Carnival This post was written especially for inclusion in ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ carnival, hosted by Mother’s Milk Books, to celebrate the launch of their latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience: The Forgotten and the Fantastical. Today our participants share their thoughts on the theme ‘Fairy tales’. Please read to the end of the post for a full list of carnival participants. ***



If you'd asked me a couple of years back, I'd have told you vaguely that I liked fairy tales. I liked the idea of them, and had fond memories of stories with my grandmother, and of one particular book of illustrated Grimm tales (I think) with the most perfect, detailed pictures you could imagine. I can still bring to mind the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, such detail on the cakes and sweets and biscuits, oh, and the frog sitting by the princess's golden plate and asking, horror of horrors, to drink from her golden cup - in the picture there was drool dripping from his mouth, and horror on her princessy face. I remember a boy covered in treacle and feathers, too, though I've no idea what the story might have been.

It's only getting back to them now (and sadly, not in such a beautiful edition) with a nearly-four-year-old that I realise how crude the basic premise is in so many of the classic fairy stories.

Princess and the pea - prince waits in his castle, auditioning princesses, hoping to find one of unprecedented fragility and girliness
Princess and the frog - man frog buys you dinner gets your ball out of a pond so you're morally obliged to bonk him let him sleep on your golden pillow - but it's ok because he turns out to be a prince so you grit your teeth
Rumpelstiltskin - dad sells his daughter to a king, who locks her up, sets her impossible tasks, and says if she's really really good then eventually he might marry her. (No wonder she promises she'll give his baby away to a funny little stranger)

I could go on, but it's been done before, and with greater skill. It's easy to defend them as just stories, as being simple fun and as also having other more uplifting messages (the princess made a promise to the frog, and you must always keep promises; Rumpelstiltskin was foolish enough to offer a loophole, and you must always take advantage of loopholes). But I really do fear the way we've internalised these messages. Most right-thinking modern people wouldn't agree to the idea that women should wait to be chosen by a man, but we can't stay away from this narrative, the one where the ultimate reward is marriage, obviously to a prince. Sleeping Beauty has her fate set from the beginning, and her redemption is through the kiss of a stranger who she ends up shackled to - she is the powerless woman, her whole life's structure fixed, only freed by a man who effectively gives her the freedom that should have been hers.
I'm struggling to put any of this in an original way, but it's an honest reflection of my unease with fairy tales, and my difficulty with sharing them with my boy. He questions so much but this is also the time when all his values are being shaped, when he is so receptive to everything that comes into his world. I'd not show him violence on the television, or swear in front of him; I try to model gentle and respective interactions with people and ways of talking about them. And yet here the only goal, if you're a woman, is to find someone who will marry you and keep you in style, and if you're a man you only want the princesses, the beautiful, unachievable, hyper-feminine ones, who come with a dowry.
I don't know, in real life, mothers of girls who tell them they need to find a prince. But if we don't argue with the stories, point out the problems and the stupid assumptions and the ridiculous value systems embedded in them, we're not doing right by our children. We tell them not to worry, ogres aren't real, trolls aren't real, witches aren't real; we should add that princes who make it all ok aren't real, women who are worthwhile just because they're pretty aren't real, and there are better ways to start a relationship than being rescued from a dragon.



*** The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2015 book cover
The Forgotten and the Fantastical is now available to buy from The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (as a paperback and PDF) and as a paperback from Amazon.
It can also be ordered via your local bookshop.
Any comments on the following fab posts would be much appreciated:
In ‘Imagination is quantum ergo fairies are real’, Ana, at Colouring Outside the Lines, explains why we should all believe in fairies and encourage our children to do the same.

 ‘Wings’ — Rebecca at Growing a Girl Against the Grain shares a poem about her daughter and explains the fairy tale-esque way in which her name was chosen.

 In ‘Red Riding Hood Reimagined’ author Rebecca Ann Smith shares her poem ‘Grandma’.

Writer Clare Cooper explores the messages the hit movie Frozen offers to our daughters about women’s experiences of love and power in her Beautiful Beginnings blog post ‘Frozen: Princesses, power and exploring the sacred feminine.’

 ‘Changing Fairy Tales’ — Helen at Young Middle Age explains how having young children has given her a new caution about fairy tales.

In ‘The Art of Faerie’ Marija Smits waxes lyrical about fairy tale illustrations.

 ‘The Origins of The Forgotten and the Fantastical — Teika Bellamy shares her introduction from the latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience published by Mother’s Milk Books.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Loving challenges and unsisterly sneering

There are two books I want to write about here, in such contrast to each other. I'm torn about how to go about it, because I loved one, and didn't love the other. I don't want to dedicate pages and pages of space to the one I didn't love, but at the same time I want to explain myself.

Perhaps I should start with the love: Kiss me! How to raise your children with love by Carlos Gonzalez.

I wrote about this, briefly, for the LLLGB magazine, and I don't want to repeat myself. He describes it as "a book in defence of children" and it's not got a complex premise, but it leaves a conscientious parent with a complex challenge.
Very briefly, the book's about treating children as people, not as a separate species, some kind of monsters that need to be controlled. Again and again, he uses the device of a paragraph describing some abominable way of talking to a woman, (ignore her if she cries, tell her to ask again in a nice voice, drag her if she doesn't walk quickly enough for you) and asks why, if this is so shocking when it's about an adult, it doesn't also shock us as a way of talking about children. Somehow this doesn't get hackneyed - perhaps it would if there was much more of it - but instead really made me bang my head up against the way I talk to my own children. I'm definitely on the hippy, attached end of things but I find myself slipping into shouting, impatience, and worst, abusing my power as the adult, the physically stronger one, the one with all the decision making ability, that controls all the resources. No, I don't lock him under the stairs or feed him on dry bread, but reading Kiss me has provoked some real soul-searching, right in the middle of some "transactions" with my boy, and later, in the troubled small hours of the night.
Part of my brain says this is all ridiculous, that of course we need to control children, and teach them who's in charge, and mould their spirits so they're good at taking orders for when they enter the real world. I can't actually justify that, though, can't rationalise it beyond a vague "well, surely...." or "what if...".
If I had to choose one passage that sums it all up for me, it would have to be this piece on limit-setting:

      If our child asks for something which isn't harmful to him, which doesn't destroy the environment, which we can afford, which we have time to give him, let us not say no simply "in order to set him limits" or "to accustom him to being obedient"

How liberating! I love the permission throughout the book to back down, to give in gracefully, and most of all to love your child just as much as you want to. I already knew this stuff, of course I did, but it's hammered home to me the message that my main job, my only important one really, is to love him, as hard and as truly as I possibly can, and to show him that love, and be stable and honest and generous with that love. Any decisions I make from that position will work, and they might not give me quick fixes, but actually will get us there.
(I suppose it's all phronesis really, or that kind of thing - we aspire to the best, and hone our faculties to discern this best. The better, and purer, model of love and lovingkindness that I can show to him, the better able he'll be to apply and demonstrate this himself. I don't want to demonstrate rationing love, or needing to earn it as if it was a salary; I want to show it richly and freely given, from a place of joy, and spreading that joy).

Ah, a segue! What I did there was a bit pretentious, because I dropped phronesis in there, as if I was trying to show I'm clever. But - and this is important - I didn't write I suppose it's all what old el chief Greeko philosopher Aristotle would have called phronesis.

On that note, let's talk about Breast Intentions!

So much hype for this book. In her internet-persona of "The Alpha Parent", Allison Dixley has built up a loyal following for her blog, where she writes mainly about breastfeeding with a focus on how breastfeeding goes wrong and what is wrong with formula feeding.
It may have seemed, on the face of it, that this would expand nicely into a book, and perhaps it could have done, but this isn't nice, and it isn't fair, and for me, it wasn't even entertaining.

I don't want to spend hours writing about this, because I feel a little exasperated about how much time I spent reading the book, and I want to draw a line under it and move on. It also didn't provoke in me the kind of rage that I thought it might - if it had, I could have had fun arguing with it point by point. In fact, I'm lacking the spirit here, so instead of a long piece I can offer you some headline issues with the book:

1. It's uncharitable, or perhaps cruel
This is by far my biggest issue. Let's be clear: I love breastfeeding. I love doing it, and talking about it, and supporting mothers with it. I can't count the hours I've spent on my preparation to become a breastfeeding counsellor and now my work as one, but it's a huge part of my life, and no one does this without feeling very strongly about the worth of it.
Mothers who use formula aren't the enemy, though! I'm just lost, as a reader, from the outset, with the language of "breastfeeding failure" and all the name-calling that follows. I don't buy into the idea that mothers who stopped breastfeeding want excuses and are desperate to set right their public image by explaining themselves. I don't accept a world view that sneers and dismisses them as lazy, weak-willed, or uncommitted to their babies. I'm not interested in pulling apart people's reasons for doing what they did, or in trying to imply they are lesser parents.
As a breastfeeding counsellor, I want to support mothers with meeting their breastfeeding goals. What those goals are isn't up to me, nor is what they do after we talk. And no way on earth is it ok for me to attribute motives for stopping, or for me to attempt a quantitative assessment of her love for her baby.

You could say this aspect of the book was quite obvious, so I shouldn't have picked it up, and you'd be right in that there is no masking of this attitude. I was still surprised, though, at the plain unpleasantness of the tone. I suspect the writer might dismiss me as wishy-washy when I say I really do blame society, in the widest sense, for low breastfeeding rates: I blame insufficient support in the system, and terrible horrible predatory formula marketing, and the media for their constant fanning of the flames - but I can't find any rage or scorn or anything else for a mother who didn't breastfeed for as long as she'd planned. I can't say you, you gave up too easily, you made excuses, you put your own desire for a spa night over your baby's wellbeing. I can't do this because no one, none of us, not even the crunchiest, can say we're doing it all right, that we're every single moment doing the best for our babies. We're constantly balancing and juggling and doing calculations and taking decisions and incorporating our values, and yes I do think that breastfeeding's a massively important one, and a public health issue, but the book that we need here is one about how we help people get past the pressures, not about what wicked beasts non-breastfeeders are!

2.It was a mistake to try and seem academic
595 footnotes. A glossary. An 8-page bibliography.
An attempt to mask the basic snottiness of the book by presenting it as some kind of quasi-academic treatise would, to my mind, have been more credible if there was any depth to any of it. As it is, citing "the philosopher Nietzsche" (as opposed, presumably, to his less well-known brother, the greengrocer Nietzsche) or "The granddaddy of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud" doesn't lend you academic gravitas, it just makes you look like a wally. So many brief mentions of proper thinkers with proper big brains, mostly glibly summarised in a couple of sentences - it reads like a parody of a PhD thesis. When you then combine this with language like "here's the skinny" and "bring it on mofo" it's just laughable - is the book trying to be academically credible, or to be serialised in a teen magazine?

3. I have no idea who it's for
Who's going to read and benefit from this?
People who support breastfeeding? I don't think so. I can only speak for myself, but as I said above I don't want to think of my "customers" in this way. I think an attitude of disdain would shine out and would stop me from meeting a mother where she is. I see and hear all the time the complex web of reasons that mothers doubt, slow down and stop, and applying an analytical framework doesn't really help me in practice. Reading explanations of why people's reasons aren't good enough doesn't help either: it's not my place to assess that.

Keen breastfeeding mothers? Maybe they'd enjoy the validation, but most breastfeeders I know don't really think this way. They don't self-define like this: they'd seem to, if you only read internet forums, where people quite often do pigeonhole themselves as a kind of shorthand, but in their actual lives it's just a thing they do, one of their choices about looking after their babies. And it's a long book to wade through if all you want is a pat on the back - The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding gives the feelgood factor without having to dismiss anyone else.

Keen formula feeding mothers? Not sure they'd want to buy a rant against themselves.

Those who wanted to breastfeed, or to breastfeed for longer? Just no. Everyone dissembles and self-deceives, and no one wants to read about it; more to the point, everyone makes complex decisions, doubts them later, questions themselves, takes the chance to feel terrible about themselves, and most violently doesn't need a bossy stranger hypothesising about their true motivations and dismissing their lived experiences.

  It seems I could, after all, write all night on this  - my copy is packed with post-its marking factual mistakes, heinous copy-editing errors, infuriating assumptions, and offensive language ("schizophrenic" to mean "changing from one point of view to another", really????). But I've spent too much emotional energy on it now.

Fascinating for me to note that Pinter & Martin published both of these books, one so strong and gentle and lovingly challenging, the other trying so hard to be provocative but really just lost in the middle. I didn't hate it, I don't want to go round there with a flaming torch, but I do want to ask "what did you really think this would achieve?" in much the same way as I ask it of my three-year-old when he mindlessly takes a toy from his brother.







Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Slownesses

Next post was meant to be about books: I was going to do two or three posts on fiction I'd read so far this year, and one on a couple of parenting books, including my thoughts on "that" Alpha Parent book.

And I wanted to do an update on my digital footprints project, and to talk about how interacting more deliberately really does change and enrich your experience.

And my babies, well, my baby and my boy, I wanted to talk about them.

Somehow I'm not managing any of it though. I've been casting around for ways to explain it, and I can't get any further than this:

My heart is so heavy

Everything is slow, and everything is difficult. I can't find a lightness in anything. Actually it's not just my heart, it's all heavy, I'm in thick gloves and a bodysuit and it's all muffled and padded and muted and just sort of bleak.

There's nothing wrong as such. We're getting through, the boys are growing and flourishing, I'm doing my work (just about), the house is in one of its tidier phases, we're dutifully getting through our austere winter veg box each week.

I just can't quite think forward, somehow. I'm one for buzzing with projects and thrilling full of ideas (yes, thrilling is a verb, in this sense, in the engaged way that I mean it, I don't just get thrilled, I thrill). I invented the "Kaffe test" for myself, for when I feel a bit down and gloomy - does looking at a picture of something Kaffe Fasset-y (either his, or in his style, or with some intensity of colour, actually anything from Attic24 will do the job too) give me a lift, a fierce desire to MAKE IT NOW and LICK ALL THE COLOURS?

  
Nope.

Experience tells me that the way forward is to act as if. Keep doing all that daily stuff, nurture the babies, read the books, collect the projects, sign up for the work and hope that at some point the days start to be differentiated again. I'll write on here about some books, and pretend I'm an aspiring writer, an aspiring anything, and if previous doldrums like this are anything to go by, I'll suddenly find myself inadvertently aspiring again, daydreaming about quilts and crochet and blankets and textures and colours, galloping through books, churning stuff out. Suddenly and, I hope, soon.




Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Sunday night feeling

Oh, how I love Mondays, and mornings, and new terms, and new pencil cases, and best of all new years. All chances for a fresh start, for looking back on the day/week/month/term year before and saying what can I build on, what should I discard, what am I proud of, what have I learned.

So I've no idea why I've not been able to call up this spirit yet for 2015. It may be the horrible timing of the baby being ill - he started grumbling and fussing on Christmas day and just got more and more miserable, pretty much a week of constant crying, desperate need to sleep but inability to do this without a half hour lead in of rocking and swaying, only staying asleep if held, and in exactly the right position. I'd been hoping for a few days of gathering myself up, tidying things inside and out, reviewing and reflecting and restoring and consolidating and preparing, and instead I paced for hours and hours, and I'll admit to some weeping and cursing too - it was just a grim week, and it's taken from my already sparse resources.

Somehow the year ahead doesn't seem to be brimming with possibility: it looks like a trudge, a series of days where success would be treading water, keeping my mouth just over the surface, not letting anything get any more chaotic. And it's pretty gloomy to have your goals being no more ambitious than staying just about level with entropy.

So what now?

I don't think I'm quite in the place for massive "stuff" goals, not for this year. Big boy will be four in May, little boy one in June, so they need me a lot, and their day to day needs are going to be consuming no matter what I do. My maternity leave is over so I'm back to working in the evenings - at an absolute minimum I need to get in 15 hours each week, but if we want any wriggle room then it needs to be more than that. I'm aware this sounds like nothing, but that's 2.5 hours a night with Sundays off, and if the children aren't both asleep until 8 that means I have to work till 10.30, or later if (ha!) I have to stop and resettle them several times. It exhausts me just thinking about it.

Looks like it needs to be the year of attitudes, and cultivating my ability to "act as if". I've let myself off the 1st January hook - obviously I missed that boat - and instead am going to deem my own new year to start on a Monday, on 5th Jan, just after I get through one more weekend. And in this new Helen-year:

1. I will act as if I am a patient and tolerant mother, even when there's an inner scream and I'm bored of glitter and dirt and bodily fluids and I don't want to carry anyone around and I want to be asleep.
2. I am a writer. There are things out there, published, with my name on, and I write this blog, and I'll be doing all sorts this year - I will think of myself as a person who writes, which will let me carry on being one.
3. All the reading stuff that I wrote about in my last post - I'll read what and when I can, without a big self-important goal of covering Great Literature, but choosing what I'll enjoy and benefit from, and being sure to reflect on it and acknowledge it. Whenever I have a gap in my fiction-reading I forget how much it does for me, and how much I need that mental escape, the transportation to somewhere else.
4. Must remain conscious of the need to avoid bitterness: again, I've written about this before, but it's still warping me with no obvious benefit. I've got to learn that other people's happiness doesn't steal mine, and that we all have different opportunities and resources, and that, most importantly, there's nothing at all fruitful about comparing my insides with other people's outsides. Yes, on Facebook everyone's always beaming, and their three-year-olds had rosy-cheeked saintly Christmases where they played blissfully and absorbedly and gratefully with their toys, and ate without a fuss, and of course doted, as they always do, on their baby siblings - but that's not what happened here, and there's no point wishing it had. And everyone else's blog is beautiful and they have artistic coffee breaks every day and they take pictures of themselves making gorgeous craft projects and of their children smiling (those rosy cheeks again!) and they just get so much done and have so much exciting going on....STOP. It just doesn't get me anywhere. I can't know how complete the picture is from others, and even more importantly it doesn't matter, and all that thinking about it does is make me bad-tempered and ungrateful about my many blessings. So this year I will enjoy my friends' happiness, and maybe quietly daydream about having an aspirational lifestyle, but I will be on constant guard against allowing jealousy or negativity creep in.

What a gloomy, self-absorbed post, but it's honest, and it's a sort of purging - just one more day now of my version of this year, and a fresh start on Monday, and new shelves to fill, and my new diary about to come, and time to continue being at the centre of two small boys' universes, and so much to read and learn and do....there's hope yet.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book shame

Just a quick one here, though I'm hoping to be back tomorrow-ish with some words about my hopes for 2015.
For now, though, an issue that's been vexing me: what do I feel about the books that I love? Or, can I get over my apparent need to write or talk only about the more literary, impressive, books that I enjoyed, and be more open, with readers of this blog but also with myself.  Repeat to self: if you enjoyed a book, you enjoyed it. They don't all have to be great literature, and there is no need to be ashamed of anything that I'm reading.

It's so hard! And it's all about the constructed self-image, not that I take a great deal of care about this but I do like to think of myself as someone with good taste (I suppose we all do) and I'm also aware that I go on about how little time I have. Maybe my imaginary reader scorns me for guzzling my way through the Susan Hill series of Simon Serailler books, or for having enjoyed  All Hallows at Eyre Hall as much as I did. I look at these and am fairly confident they're not going to win prizes or be widely known in 100 years, and one of my inner voices says that this must mean they're not "worth it"...worth what? My reading time, or my writing time, or the reading time of anyone who visits this blog or my Goodreads page? Or is it even more laughably conceited than that - "these books do not merit my endorsement, because I am a Serious Reader who must only be associated with Very Serious Books"?

I am packed with self-loathing when I find myself suspecting this is how I'm thinking, and so an early resolution for next year is this: I will read what I enjoy, which might sometimes mean a fine aesthetic appreciation, sometimes a furious socio-political engagement, sometimes a happy nostalgia, and sometimes the pure reading pleasure of something I can't put down. I will not engage with the part of me that wants to put the books in boxes as worthy or unworthy, "high quality" or "low quality", and will test out a new assumption: a book is "high quality" if it made me involve myself with it, and kept me reading - I can trust myself on this, and share my thoughts on it. It will improve me as a reader, and as a writer, because the more I can identify this magic ingredient, the better I'll be at spotting it as a reader, at helping to draw it out as an editor, and even trying to produce it myself as a writer. I'll go back again to Francine Prose, and learn from her every word, and I will get over myself a bit!

All this will work with the help of my glorious new Paperwhite (reading! All the time! In the dark! One-handed! New books at a single click!) and I swear I will write about them all, even if they only get a few lines, and this sort of honesty will improve everything. Though I'd never admit it if I read Fifty Shades of Grey.... 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Adding a phrase

My singing teacher gave me a piece of wonderful advice.

Sometimes you're learning a song and the breath control is hard, because the phrases are long. Take, for example, the first line of Linden Lea, an English classic and grade 4 piece, I think:

"Within the woodlands, flow'ry gladed, by the oak tree's mossy moot"

Even if you're taking the whole song at a bracing gallop, it's a long one, and because it's right at the start of the song you're not quite in flow yet, but it spoils it if you breathe in the middle. When I started singing this I'd always be turning a bit purple by the end, and "mossy moot" would come out as a hissy, last-bit-of-air-escaping-tyre, squeak.

How to get this better? Practise the phrase, not as it stands, but with an extra sub-clause at the start, so sing, again and again:

"Within the wood, within the woodlands, flow'ry gladed, by the oak tree's mossy moot"

Your breath budget now has to last a few syllables longer, and you get used to spreading it right to the end (with perhaps still a tiny bit of hissy squeaking at the end). Then, sing the phrase again with the extras cut off the start, and wonder of wonders, you've got loads to spare, you cruise through it easily and triumphantly, so much that you're not even having to take in a massive gasp before starting "the shining grass blades, timber-shaded, now do quiver underfoot" (another long one).

As with singing, so with life. When I had a small baby, who rapidly became a toddler, I thought my life was full to bursting. Meeting his needs was consuming every scrap I had to offer, aside from what I spent on work. Then I had baby 2, and more than double the demands on my time (surprisingly, the existence of a smiling, disney-eyed snuggly mother-magnet doesn't make a three year old less clingy), and gosh, these six months have been hard. But when Bonzo goes off to playgroup some mornings, my time sighs and stretches into the space, I revel in the slowness of life with the baby, we potter and chatter and burble and tickle and it is easy, so easy.

That was step 1, the first extension to the phrase, and it was building up my strength and skills at handling two. Then, enter the scruffy dog, a beautiful shabby needy lurcher, and now there are three warm bodies that all want to be touching me, three potential danger sources all of whom could hurt any of the others (and themselves - so there are nine different hurting combinations available, before you count one of them hurting several at once). The chaos levels have stepped up further, and the carpets are hairier, but the big blessing turns out to be the way that it's just drawn my breath out for longer. Now, when H goes to work and takes the dog with him, "all" I have to deal with is two children and there are "only" two sets of needs (mine don't count). I feel foolish at how well this mind-trick is working on me, but at the same time it's wonderful. I don't feel more overwhelmed with three dependents; I feel more capable at all the times I only have two, or one.

Of course all this sends me back to my terror in pregnancy about whether I could possibly hold enough love for both of my boys, whether there was enough of me to go round. It turns out that there is, that actually the "me" has grown (no, "I have grown" doesn't say what I want it to), and that my mothering muscles are strengthening with each day of (tear-inducing, soul-breaking, exhausting) exercise. 


Now all I need to do is work out what to use all that spare breath on...

Monday, 17 November 2014

Dr Jack Newman's Guide to Breastfeeding

Dr Jack Newman's Guide to Breastfeeding, Jack Newman and Teresa Pitman, 2014, Pinter & Martin

Shout it from the rooftops! The famous "Dr Jack" has issued a new edition of his breastfeeding book, and I was thrilled to get a review copy because he's such a well-respected man, has coined so many of the phrases that have been incorporated into the narrative of breastfeeding, and has some fantastic material available online.

It's a huge book, and dense, and I couldn't stop myself from opening it straight away. I've really taken my time reading it, though - partly because there's so much of it, and partly because I feel so many different things about it so I've been trying to sort these out in my head before writing about it.

One-line verdict? Yes, buy it if you're interested in breastfeeding, particularly if you're involved in any way at all with supporting breastfeeding mothers. But, don't make it your only breastfeeding book.

I could expand on it like this or, more easily for me, give you a few examples of what I loved and what I didn't.

I loved the authoritative tone. This man is an expert, and not afraid to say so. He has vast experience of mothers in his clinic, and writes with extreme confidence about what has worked for them and what will therefore work for others. It's an exciting contrast to most other current breastfeeding books, which are written by women and tend to reflect that in their tone and style. Now, let's be clear, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding is hands-down my favourite and is, as the title might suggest, exceedingly womanly in tone. It might have been written by a favourite sister or aunt, and I love it so much for this - I feel the authors are standing right alongside me. But, (and this is a big, personal, FOR ME, but) it's refreshing to read a man's point of view, when I spend most of my time these days communing with women.

I didn't love the flipside of this tone, which is the description of "the mother" and "the baby" rather than "you" and "your baby". It's one thing that suggests to me that the book is best suited to breastfeeding supporters rather than breastfeeding mothers. It also, to my mind, doesn't do justice to Teresa Pitman's contribution - she's listed as co-author but the book is written from the "I" point of view but that "I" is clearly Dr Jack, even though I've no doubt she's contributed significant amounts to the book.

I loved the challenge of some of the assertions, making me think more about some of the breastfeeding truths I have held to be self evident...the best example would be the assertion that if a baby of, say, four months, isn't growing sufficiently on breastmilk alone, it's better in many cases to introduce solids rather than formula milk (this is a gross simplification of the argument - you'd need to read it in full for the nuances, and the intermediate steps that are suggested). I subscribe to the "middle of the first year is usually the right time for the gentle introduction of solids" idea, and was slightly shocked at seeing an expert advocating introduction at four months. The argument sort of makes sense, though, and challenges me to think harder about what is "best" in a situation where breastfeeding isn't going too well.
He also writes in such a powerful way about the virtues of at-breast supplementation, and the evils of sippy-cups, and again this isn't the only truth, but it's just wonderful to see such strong views expressed so consistently. It forces me to examine exactly what I believe and why.

I didn't love the way that claims are sometimes flung about without citations to support them. Another thing about the WAB is that, perhaps because it is so warm and fuzzy, its authors take great pains to support all of their factual statements with proper, up to date, references to research. Dr Jack doesn't feel the same need to do this because, well, he's Dr Jack, and what he says goes. I've no doubt that there's science behind the factual statements, but I was frustrated by not being able to flick to a reference and then go and read more behind a claim - I don't want to believe it just because he says so.

I loved the scientific explanations of areas such as how drugs pass into breastmilk, and how breastmilk helps immunity. These were pitched at the right sort of level for me, written with the same authority as the rest of the book, and have enhanced and deepened my own understanding. I've not seen another popular breastfeeding book that does this, and it's a really positive dimension to the book that would on its own justify adding it to your library. I'm not in a position to tell mothers a drug is safe or not to take, but where she's got information about it already, I like it that I'm in a better position to explain this to her and help her understand it - it's a new go-to reference for me, along with a copy of Hale that I was lucky to inherit.
In general, all the technical stuff is just great - I've not seen anywhere else a step by step set of instructions on using gentian violet, or such a thorough systematic explanation of reasons for breast pain, or such good illustrative pictures of positions and techniques (though I didn't much like the one that showed Dr Jack's white-sleeved arm reaching in and expressing an anonymous breast).

I didn't love the "case studies". Some of them made useful points, but I felt that some were included mainly to illustrate the way Dr Jack heroically stepped in and saved a foolish woman from the error of her ways. Actually, that's slightly unfair - they're generally about how other healthcare providers didn't give good advice, but the structure of some of them - a straight telling of the story, with interjections in italics describing what Dr Jack thinks is wrong with what a mother had been told - is a little bit sneery. I suppose again this tells you about my own background and my previous loves - I want to read mothers' stories in their own words, like the two fabulous Flower books (Adventures in gentle discipline and Adventures in tandem nursing), with a bit of heart to them. And the mothers I work with, on our helpline, or in meetings, or one to one on my sofa, or at a noisy dropin - they're not case studies to me. They're rich and complex and often vulnerable people, or at least they're in a vulnerable time of their lives, and for the time I'm with each mother I'm really "with" her, not detached in the way that would let me see her as a case study. You'll see this isn't something wrong with the book - it's a very natural reflection of who the author is, ie a proper real clinical doctorman, not a provider of mother-to-mother support. But for me, as a person, it was less appealing.

I loved the pieces on colic and on late-onset low milk supply. On colic, there's nothing revolutionary in there but it's warm, reassuring, sensible, and feels reassuringly systematic, a sort of "try that, then this" - it's a chapter I'd be really happy to recommend directly to a breastfeeding mother, rather than needing to be mediated through a supporter. And the stuff on late-onset supply problems is fascinating because he essentially says that you can sometimes get away with sloppy technique in the early weeks if you have a great supply, but the effects then can show later, when your supply stabilises but your baby's not taking milk well (there are other reasons too). Again, challenging, and a difficult way of thinking to present to a mother, in fact I think I misjudged it the other day with someone, making it sound as though she was storing up problems - but it's informed my thinking, and deepened my knowledge, and will be a section I go back to again and again. 

In summary I really did enjoy it, and it's already got some pages bookmarked and has taken a place on my reference shelf: in fact, I've already had cause to pull it out in conversation with a mother. I'd unequivocally recommend it to someone who already has WAB and wants to expand their library to give them more technical information for supporting mothers, but I'd then say well, read it with your critical eye on, question whether all the facts are truly facts, and don't forget that it's legitimate to come to breastfeeding support from a different place, a motherly place - don't be so dazzled by his masculine authority that you forget there are many ways of skinning a cat. Mothers are, in my view, the ultimate experts on their own babies, not in a brainless "happy mummy, happy baby" way, but in a careful learning of listening to your own instincts and your own baby, and learning each other's language. Nothing can override this, not even a very knowledgeable doctor.

Maybe only one reader of my blog will "get" this last line, and he may not have made it to the end of this post, but if he has, just for him, the line that springs to mind is "Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me". Anyone else, I'm happy to expand on that if (as seems unlikely) you're interested.


I should make it clear that I had a review copy from Pinter & Martin, my favourite publisher in the whole world apart from Mother's Milk Books, though I'm also developing quite a crush on Praeclarus Press, and these are only the ones that cover mothering-y stuff, don't get me started on my fiction list. Also, in case this looks familiar, I wrote a shorter review of the book for inclusion in LLLGB's "Breastfeeding Matters" members' magazine, with one of my other hats on.