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.


  1. i feel like i have just been sitting at the kitchen table with you, drinking tea and having a deep, connected, meaningful discussion on books that address two topics very close to my heart. thank you.

    1. Dawn, thank *you*, for reading, and commenting, on this and on my last post. It's lovely to feel heard.
      If you were anywhere near my kitchen table I would definitely put the kettle on. I'd even bake.

  2. Helen, I'm guessing that you may have already read this, but I do think it's worth repeating.

    "Artificial feeding is risky. This basic fact upsets people who feel insulted if they or their mothers did not breastfeed but most women do not 'choose' how they feed their babies: they do what their culture and society expects. Humans are herd animals and we tend to do what everyone else does. Family attitudes, friends' reported experiences and advertising can be far more powerful influences than a woman's own 'choice'. Millions who have 'tried' to breastfeed gave up because general ignorance, hospital and health workers' practices, all interwoven with cleverly targeted product promotion, sabotaged normal infant feeding... breastfeeding." The Politics of Breastfeeding, Gabrielle Palmer p. 47 (also published by Pinter and Martin).

    For me, this above paragraph goes a long way to explaining the low breastfeeding rates in the UK. Also, in Musings on Mothering there was a very good piece by Petra Hoehfurtner 'Tears in her Eyes' about how and why some mothers who haven't breastfed their children still feel pain about what happened with regards to trying to breastfeed/not breastfeeding.

    I do actually think that it is worth exploring the psychology of the ‘successful breastfeeder’ and the ‘unsuccessful breastfeeding mum’ so that we can hopefully discover psychological tips/tricks/change of mindset (whatever) that could be a large part of the determining factor of whether a mother is able to overcome challenges to breastfeeding or not. If we could then pass on those psychological tips/tricks to expectant mothers who wish to breastfeed (and then get health professionals, breastfeeding counselors, and everyone, really, who comes into contact with a breastfeeding mum to reiterate those tips/tricks to the mum) surely that’s a good thing?

    For instance, when I hear mums say they couldn’t breastfeed because they didn’t have enough milk, I think it would be wrong of me (wrong to the mum and wrong to any mum she may come into contact with) to simply say, ‘oh dear, what a shame’ because I’m reinforcing the myth that the majority of western women can’t make enough milk for their babies. But if I say ‘oh dear, what a shame that nobody showed you how to make enough milk for your baby’ I’ve communicated that I’m empathizing with the mother but also saying that her body isn’t inherently ‘broken’ and that with the right support and information she could have learnt what to do to increase her milk supply. If an expectant mother prepares for breastfeeding and already has a seed of doubt about how her body/breasts may not be up to the job, that’s a big psychological hurdle! So if there was more support given to the mother, so that she can get rid of this psychological hurdle, again, I think that’s a good thing.

    But there’s ways of exploring this psychology (and reporting about the finds the research yields) and then there’s ways of exploring this psychology… For me, the best way would be from a position of empathy – with someone who has a solid background in research and truly excellent communication skills (both verbal and written). Perhaps that book is yet to be written… or perhaps the Politics of Breastfeeding is actually enough already.

    Thanks for the fab and thought-provoking reviews :-)

  3. Marija, you're so right, and thank you for such a thoughtful response. I love that passage from the Politics of Breastfeeding and I think that's what I was mainly trying to say - it's such a mass of external influences.
    I agree with you too, though, that there's a place for writing that explores what it is within individuals that makes them more or less resistant to societal push on these things, and more or less able to plough on through - it's just such a shame that (to my mind) this book didn't do it, because it began with the idea of "breastfeeding failure" and saw everything through the lens of failure, with the mothers themselves as failures. It didn't begin from the position of empathy that you refer to, but from a position of superiority, which set it off in completely the wrong direction.
    That piece of Petra's is just wonderful and I think of it every time I'm talking to someone whose breastfeeding journey didn't go the way that they wanted it to.

  4. I love reading your blog, because I'm beyond the years where I think/talk about these things very much (youngest turned 11 a few days ago). It's interesting to remember back, without the intensity, and the underlying desperate need to justify oneself (I'm not suggesting you have that... but I definitely did/do).

    It's interesting, that you use the language "we need to control children, and teach them who's in charge". Another way of looking at that would be "we need to give children boundaries so they feel secure, and act as a responsible parent so they can trust us and feel relaxed in doing so". I guess this has always been a challenge for me. Too un-parent-y with my oldest (wanting to be a friend, and wanting to gain his acceptance and agreement to every tiny decision), too over-bearing with my second (it's better if I set the rules and they just fall in), and who knows what with my third?! I like what you say about us all doing our best, constantly juggling, recalibrating, trying to get the balance right. I think that's the most important thing - that our children grow up sensing that we are trying our best, and that we love them. You can't really do more than that, can you?