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In the Guardian today, Jessica Valenti wrote an excellent piece about breastfeeding, bottlefeeding and judgement.  It was a lovely article, making making points well.  But it’s central point – namely that all parents are making the best choices for their families – is flawed.  Hang on, before you grit your teeth to prepare to read a bottle-feeding smear article, hear me out.

Choice in infant feeding is a myth

Valenti asks why we clamour to celebrate breastfeeding and why we don’t show the same adoration for bottle feeding.  The fact is, breastfeeding is still the underdog.  If you doubt that, simply look at the numbers – in Canada only one quarter of infants are exclusively breastfed for the recommended six months.  In the United States that number is below one in five.  Feeding artificial milk is thus the normalized, if simultaneously derided, ‘choice’ simply by virtue of the numbers.

The real question though, is whether or not bottle-feeding is a choice.  Do we think that nearly 70 percent of the mothers who first ‘chose’ breastfeeding simply switch their choice to artificial milk a few weeks later?

In her article, Valenti gives us this beautifully personal and detailed account of how her feeding decisions were made”

In my case, when my daughter Layla was born, nearly three months early and weighing just 2lbs, breastfeeding wasn’t on the table. Instead, she was first fed intravenously and then later by feeding tube with milk I had religiously pumped. But the stress of having a very sick child does not do wonders for milk production and, by the time she came home two months later, I had to supplement breastfeeding with formula to make sure Layla got all the nutrition she needed. I felt like a failure and a terrible mother.

I enlisted the help of a lactation consultant and started pumping 15 minutes every hour (six hours a day!). Even as I cried in pain and was thrown into a horrible depression, I kept it up because I fully believed not only that “breast was best” but that formula was ruinous. It was only when I stopped – in part, because of the legitimate concerns raised by, among others, my extremely worried husband – that I truly bonded with my daughter. I had to give myself permission to be okay with bottle-feeding for nutrition and still breastfed Layla for comfort, for both our sakes.

Valenti sandwiches her story in sentences about her supposed choices, but her words make it incredibly clear that although she certainly made decisions, the circumstances were entirely too constrained to call those decisions choices.  When your traumatic premature birth leaves you unable to produce enough food for your baby, you are not ‘choosing’ artificial milk, it’s simply the only feasible option available to you.

A friend and I once co-wrote a blog post about our nearly identical early feeding journeys and their very different ends.  Ultimately we both made different feeding decisions, she bottle-fed her beautiful daughter and I’ve gone on to breastfeed both of my children.  Did either of us ‘choose’ the diverging routes we took?  No.  I got adequate professional support for my challenges and Kelly did not, that’s it.  In the early days of parenthood, when our bodies are recovering from the intense, and often traumatic, exertion of birth; when we are on a hormonal roller-coaster; when we’re abruptly left without a primary health care provider for either us or our babies; when the care providers we do seek out dole out bad advice on a topic they have absolutely no training in, are we really at liberty to make choices?

Going forward, our feeding decisions continue to face constraint.  In Canada, if we are conventionally employed, we enjoy 50 weeks of paid parental leave.  But in the US, the number is as low as six weeks and without any financial support.  I am as determined a breastfeeder as anyone, but I’ll be the first to admit that I wouldn’t have spent two weeks struggling to get breastfeeding to work if I knew that it would probably go out the window four weeks later anyway.  I would have bottle fed and enjoyed my meagre time at home, then left for work free of the stress of finding the time, physical space and bodily ability to eject milk into a whirring machine.  It would have been my reality, but certainly not my choice.

Then there is the social treatment of the two feeding methods.  It sickens me to hear of bottle-feeding mothers being scorned.  It shouldn’t happen, yet we live in a world where we think we can know a person, their history and thoughts from 140 characters or a sepia-toned snapshot.  We’re ready to not only form an opinion in an Instagram, but are desperate to voice it.  But here again, breastfeeding women are still at a disadvantage.  Not only is their feeding method critiqued, those critiques are often encased in an additional and disgusting layer of sexualized commentary.  Anywhere from comments about the size, shape or desirability of the breasts, to accusing the woman of an act akin to public masturbation.  I have often heard women name anxiety about such harassment among their reasons for bottle feeding and if their inner sphere of family and friends isn’t supportive enough to counter this, it becomes a serious factor.  If fear of sex-based harassment is a motivator for a decision, that decision cannot truly be called a choice.

The myth of choice leaves us with no one to blame but each other

The crux of Valenti’s article is to beg us all to accept each other and the choices we make.  Her final sentence is one of support for parents “making the choices that are right for them and their children”.  I fully support the sentiment, but I firmly believe that the real solution is in repositioning the discussion.  We do need to fully support every parent for the decisions that are necessary for them and their children, but we need to stop masking the external influences on those decisions under the guise of choice.  Those of us who ‘succeed’ at breastfeeding need to admit that it was help and luck more than choice that created that success.  Those who wanted to breastfeed but switched to bottlefeeding need to feel able to say that it was not their choice, it was the necessary route and that sometimes we do what we must instead of what we wish.

It’s complicated and messy to say in the same breath that artificial milk is not optimal but that it’s certainly preferable to starving and that using it gratefully doesn’t preclude us from using it with a degree of sorrow.  It’s hard to say that babies who are fed formula are going to be OK but we need to fight for good and accessible breastfeeding supports so that fewer of them need to be given formula.  It’s a lot easier to say “This was my choice so back off!”.  But that conversation keeps the focus on our internal debate about who is a better mother, and stops us from working together for the things that all mothers need.  After all who wants to talk honestly about the risks inherent in using artificial milk if we’re asserting that those who use it are doing so by choice?  The theme of choice is what leads us to deny the fact that affiliations between healthcare providers and formula manufacturers creates an obscene conflict of interest that lowers breastfeeding rates.

If we don’t start having the messy complicated discussion, then we’ll keep writing articles asking why Olivia Wilde gets more praise than a bottle feeding mother, when we should be asking why some women get paid to breastfeed their babies in couture when other women are too busy worrying about how they’ll stretch their minimum wage to pay back the exorbitant hospital bill from the birth, especially after missing six weeks of pay, to have much time or energy left for worrying about making the feeding ‘choices’ that are right for them.  If we don’t start having that discussion and writing those articles, then we’ll keep having this blame war instead of lining up collectively to make a better reality for us and our babies.  And choice will continue to be a myth, rather than becoming a reality.

 

It has been more than two years since I wrote my less-than-glowing critique of Tizzie Hall’s baby programming method.  Obviously it struck a nerve as it’s still the most widely viewed post on the blog.  I’ve long been uncomfortable letting it dangle there with its unalloyed intensity.  Parenting at night stinks.  If it didn’t, baby programming literature like Tizzie’s wouldn’t be so popular, and movies about sleepless newborn nights wouldn’t make us giggle-cringe so fiercely.  We’re allowed to protect ourselves from loss of sanity by trying to make changes to the way our nights go, but our babies deserve respect and compassion in every scenario.  Here are a few thoughts on what respectful night-time treatment should include and what it might look like.

1. Use what your baby is already giving you.

When I’m talking to expectant parents something I really stress is that their when new parents are fatigued it’s rarely because their baby isn’t sleeping enough.  It’s because the baby and parent aren’t sleeping at the same time. The clinical definition of sleeping through the night for a baby is SIX hours.  So if your baby goes to sleep at 7pm and sleeps until 1 am, then your baby has done exactly what he or she ‘should’ do.  Your baby does not have a sleep problem and does not need to be ‘trained’ to sleep longer.  But if YOU chose to stay awake until, say, 11 pm and are therefore tired for the 1 am wakeup, then that’s YOUR problem. Every parent, myself included, struggles with this.  Isn’t it important to have some grown up time to yourself while baby is sleeping?  Yes, it is, but it’s not a baby’s responsibility to meet the parent’s needs.  Your baby should not be expected to modify her behaviour if you haven’t modified your own first.

2. Make your job as easy as possible.

If you’re getting as much sleep as possible but you’re still feeling like a zombie during the wakeup the next thing you could do is see if your job can be made any easier during the wakeups.  This is the primary reason why I love co-sleeping.  By the time my kids were a couple of months old, night feedings basically consisted of baby wiggling silently, mom pointing chest at baby’s face, baby self-latching, zzzzzzz. But not everyone is as comfortable co-sleeping as we are and that’s fine.  So how about keeping baby next to your bed and feeding in bed even if baby doesn’t stay there?  If you go downstairs to the couch for each feeding, of course you’ll be tired in the morning.  Not to mention, if you’re so tired that you doze off during the feeding, then you’re unwittingly practising incredibly unsafe cosleeping anyway and it would be safer to feed on your flat mattress.

3. Understand the difference between needs and wants – for yourself.

Baby training manuals are all about delineating the baby’s needs from his wants.  He needs sleep and he only wants to be rocked or held.  Well, what if we applied the same thinking to our needs and wants as parents?  Yes we need sleep, but we don’t need it to be 7pm-7am every day of the week, we only want that. As adults we can be a lot more flexible about how and when our needs are met than a baby can.  Maybe we need a couple of solid naps every week.  Maybe we need to be able to hit the sack a bit earlier than baby or get up a bit later.  When we consider what our true needs are, we realize we probably don’t need to make such a drastic change in our baby’s behaviour in order to meet those needs.

4. “Help train” an adult.  

Following from number 3, meeting our own needs might mean help training another adult.  I’m specifically looking at you, partners!  One thing Mr. Fair did when Little Man was little was let me have Saturday mornings in bed.  As soon as the baby started fidgeting, Mr. Fair would whisk him away downstairs and entertain him while I slept (or at least just relaxed.)  Little Man would be brought up when he needed a feed and then whisked away again.  I got caught up enough on those mornings to get me a good half way through the week before feeling super tired again. I recently read a blog post about a woman who was discussing her serious fatigue with another new-mom friend who, needless to say was in the same boat.  So they both decided to pay a sleep Doula to teach them to let their babies cry.  I left a comment asking why they didn’t choose instead to team up and trade off naps?  It seems much more fair to me to seek assistance from another grown up before forcing assistance from a baby.

5. Make changes with respect.

Sometimes, once you’ve fulfilled all of your obligations as an adult, you might still need to exercise your right as the parent to guide how things go in your family.  That’s fine!!! And guess what, even I’ve done it – gasp!!

Picture me pregnant, hit by the Mack truck that is postpartum/prenatal depression, working from home all day and nursing Little Man every 1-2 hours all night.  I needed to night-wean.  It was hard, and there was crying.  Yes, you read that right.  Crying.

But here are some things to take into account when deciding how to proceed:

Calories – if baby is waking less at night, then baby is eating less at night.  There are all kinds of thoughts as to how long babies can safely go without eating at any age.  A decent guide is to use your baby’s self-directed longest interval.  If once in a while your babe will sleep for a long stretch of his own accord, then the length of that stretch is probably a safe and reasonable length to aim for.

It’s important to remember to allow for those calories to be made up.  If you’re breastfeeding, make sure that you feed on cue during the day.  If you’re bottle-feeding, then the bottles that would have been consumed at night need to be offered during the day.

Object Permanence – is a developmental milestone that babies achieve somewhere between 8 and 9 months that allows them to understand that an object (which includes a person) still exists – i.e. is permanent – when it is out of sight.  Until baby reaches this milestone they are cognitively unable to understand that you exist when they can’t see you.  In other words, if a baby is being left alone to cry before this age, he or she is completely unable to deduce that Mom and Dad are just in the next room.  In fact, as far as they are able to know, they are literally the only person left in the universe.  Actual horror movies have been made about being the only person left in the universe.  After this age they’ll at least know you’re out in the hall, even if they still don’t really understand why.  That distinction gets totally glossed over in baby programming literature but it is the difference between a baby who cries to sleep peeved at Mom and a baby who cries to sleep terrified.  If you can hold out for upset over terrified, it’s worth it.

Language – then once you know your baby can understand a good chunk of what you’re saying (for my kids that was about 15 months) then they can understand when you explain to them (simply) why it’s not time to eat or play.  They’ve also known you long enough to trust you.  By this point, a baby has virtually every skill necessary to understand what is happening, to specify his or her needs and to participate in meeting those needs.  That gives parents a lot of leeway to interject our needs back into the relationship.  A year, or maybe eighteen months is really not an outrageous amount of time when you think about it.

 

What approaches have you used to get a bit more rest while still treating your baby’s needs with respect?

Enter capitalism

When I started writing this blog, it was mostly about breastfeeding.  Well, this post is about as far removed from breastfeeding as you can get.  Which served as a really good reminder to me of just how big my kids are getting.  Sigh.

Little Man has been bitten by the ‘buying bug’.  The other day we went to the store and he used his piggy bank money (actually, a random assortment of change that has made its way into a piggy bank over the years) to buy a chocolate bar.  And now he wants to do it again.

The evidence of Little Man's first purchase... all over his face!

The evidence of Little Man’s first purchase… all over his face!

So now we’re in the position of having to introduce money into his regular life.  And with that has to come some notion of additional responsibility.  We’ve talked a bit about how to do it, and obviously it will change as he gets older, but here are my thoughts so far.

1) The base layer

Some people feel the giving of a monetary reward for everyday activities sets kids up to refuse to do anything they’re not directly compensated for later in life.  I can totally see that.  On the other hand, I know that I’m not the type of person to enforce a wishy-washy sort of ‘there are generally things to do and there is generally money to be had’ existence.  It would end up with the kids doing nothing – or at least protesting everything they did do – and still getting allowance.  So we’ve decided there needs to be a base layer of ‘responsibilities’ to accompany the allowance.  It will be an all-or-nothing deal though, not a chore-by-chore accounting.

2) Room to grow

I read an article in a parenting magazine years ago – before I had any reason to be reading parenting magazines – that gave a bunch of different strategies that parents employed and one of them I loved so much that I remember it to this day.  The basic allowance was modest and required the kids do the things that make the house function.  But in addition to that, they let the kids earn extra money by doing jobs that were larger or occurred more sporadically.  It’s something that I think I can incorporate pretty early on by specifying an extra job that could be done.  Then, as the kids get bigger we can move towards them spotting and proposing their own jobs.

I know it’s pretty much that direct compensation thing I just talked about, but I like that it gives choice, it also encourages the kids to see all of the things that happen in the house, not just what they’re responsible for, and it allows them to develop entrepreneurial skills by identifying those areas of unmet need.  And let’s face it, as adults, we do work for compensation, so it would be absurd to leave that lesson out entirely.

3) Spend, Save, Share

Have you heard of the Moon Jar?  Because if you haven’t, you must go look it up now.  Money management was something I came to quite late in life, after I got out in the world and racked up a bunch of debt.  I don’t want that for my kids.  There will be an expectation that some money is saved and some is shared with those who have less.

So there’s the general plan, but there are still a lot of questions I haven’t answered:

- What is a reasonable amount of responsibility (in terms of chores) for a 3.5 year old?

 – How much money is reasonable for a 3.5 year old? Especially considering he’s going to buy candy with it…

 – What interval for getting allowance is best? Once a week might be too long to hold his attention, but daily seems a bit much. 

 – Is it OK to make ‘give Mommy a backrub’ a chore???

Anyone with older kiddos care to share some wisdom?

Nerd Reminiscings

Just a heads up, this post has absolutely nothing to do with anything.  It’s just that lately I’ve been feeling very nostalgic.  Maybe it’s because of the return to school (after over a decade).  Maybe it’s just because my ever-increasing repertoire of grey hairs is making me feel old.  Or maybe it’s because the kids are getting old enough that we can actually start introducing them to some of the kid things we like.  Who knows.  But I’ve added “Getting Jiggy With It” to my Grooveshark playlist.  And I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of stuff:

Do you remember Mathnet?  Ya, you know Mathnet.  Monday and Frankley solve “crimes” using geometry and calculators.

I loooved that show.  Because I was a big nerd.  I’m still a big nerd, but now that I’m grown up (and married to another nerd) it doesn’t matter so much.

The nerdy Mr. Fair and I actually bonded early in our relationship over the revelation that we both grew up wanting to be marine biologists thanks to “Danger Bay.”  The fact that Grant Roberts was a veterinarian, not a marine biologist seems to have escaped both of our notices.  Neither of us did become marine biologists, but we’re actually planning to retire to an Island off of Vancouver, and I can’t claim I don’t secretly dream of rescuing seals and busting polluters when we do.

I also loved Star Trek.  TNG, of course.  With Voyager in second place, and DS9 a distant third.  The original series was just before my time.  I’ve always wanted to own a Star Trek uniform.  If I did, it would be blue.  And now that I actually do own an iPad, I totally pretend I’m sitting in 10-Forward, looking at subspace messages on it.  Also, the fact my smartphone has an app that takes my heart rate just by touching my finger to it makes me think of it more as a Tricorder than a phone.

And although this is not nerdy at all… I’ve been seriously jonesing for a Lick-M-Aid lately.  That one has to stay under wraps.  I can’t give Little Man any more reasons to pester me for sugar.

Viruses are jerks

Viruses.  As a molecular biologist, viruses fascinated me to no end.  So tiny and so simple.  Often with such narrow, narrow habitats that you wonder how they can flourish while orangutans, who can live anywhere in the whole damn jungle are dying.  As a parent, viruses piss. me. off.

Case in point, my kids have the croup.  It’s my daughter’s first ever time having croup and it’s the worst croup we’ve ever seen in our house.  Almost ER visit level of croup.  Lady Fair has a beautiful, complex genome.  Her tens of thousands of genes make everything from intestines to eyelashes.  Gorgeous eyelashes, if I say it myself.  Her genes let her walk, talk and think.  Imagine that, we think because of the structures our genes build.  Someday her genes will let her build a whole different person right in her body.

And then she got croup and it kicked her ass.

A teeny tiny virus.  It has like six genes, did you know that?  It has a gene (or two) to make the tools to copy itself.  Basically a microscopic photocopier.  No, not even a photocopier, more like carbon paper!  Then it’s got a couple of genes to sew itself a coat with.  Poor virus doesn’t want to get cold, don’t you know.  And maybe, maybe it’s got a gene or two to help it get around in the world.  That’s it.

Then let’s consider the habitat.  Croup takes up residence in the upper airways of the itty-bittyest people on the planet.  Lady Fair’s whole neck is about 26cm in circumference and this little jerk of a virus has not only found its way in there, it has also found her even smaller larynx.  Think about that.  And think about those orangutans with all their own beautiful genome and all of that jungle.  And really, it’s the virus who wins this game?

Pretty much proof of Darwinian evolution.  If there were a supreme being up there (wherever ‘there’ is) putting all of this together, that being would have done a much better design job.  Then again, maybe the being is there, and he’s a giant jerky virus in the sky.

Parenting Progress

This post is a bit of a sequel to Parenting Pipedreams.  Some of them are starting to look a little less Pipey.

—–

I love babies.  I really love my babies.  I love the squishy-ness, the contact, everything.  Parenting very small people is fantastically delicious.  It’s also INtense.  And as much as I love it, I have to admit that I’m also a little bit happy that the intensity is starting to subside a little.

As of the last time I risked putting a finger into Lady Fair’s mouth, she had 15 teeth.  That makes us 87.5% done teething.

Since Lady Fair is super into doing EVERYTHING like her brother, I estimate we are also about 88% done diapers.

The kids sleep in (read: >6:30 a.m.) more often than not now, so we’re about 75% done with ridiculously early mornings.

We’re 99.9% done with baby gates.  In fact, I had taken the gate down, but Mr. Fair inexplicably put it back up.

I am 50% done wrangling small arms into seemingly smaller shirt sleeves.

Now that I leave the house three whole days a week for school, I get to drink 14% of my coffees while they’re still hot!  That might not seem like a lot, but let me tell you…

(Mis)Representations?

School has started, making me officially a midwifery student.  YAY!!!  We’re all trying to get to know our 29 classmates (well, 28 as we’ve had our first withdrawal already) and little by little we’re succeeding.  On the first day of orientation we did the obligatory introductions where everyone, myself totally included, gave the most impressive parts of their resume to the group.  It was intimidating.  But the faculty themselves freely told us that they’re intimidated by the exercise every year.  The faculty have pretty impressive resumes and they’re probably pretty excellent midwives.  So if they’re intimidated by us, what’s the deal?

In our first Working Across Differences class we were asked to introduce ourselves again, but this time not with a credential, with an interesting tidbit.  We all did it.  But again, we all chose something that was impressive even while we tried to be nonchalant about it.  Then we spent a good chunk of the rest of the class talking about Fact Sheets (on groups of people) and how they’re inevitably incomplete.  It’s funny because introductory tidbits are very much like fact sheets.  They’re inevitably incomplete.  That’s not to say they’re incorrect or, worse, deliberately deceitful.  They’re just incomplete.

If we think about my Twitter Profile.  What did I choose to say about myself in 140 characters (or less)?

One time geneticist. Student midwife. Tandem nurser. Feminist. Thinking Mama.

It’s not inaccurate.  That definitely talks about me.  But it’s not all of me.  I could have just as easily written any of the following and they would have been equally true:

Jane Austen lover, crumpet eater, sometimes Royal watcher, all-around Anglophile.

or

Mediocre gardener, laundry denier. My food is always delicious, but a little too soft.

or

Nose picker, fart connoisseur.  Many other things too gross to admit publicly.

or even

Trader of stock options, keeper of endless spreadsheets. I already have my cash flow projections for 2063.

So there we go.  Some of the many and varied facets of my personality.  I’m sure the girls in my class will get to know them soon enough… although perhaps not the fart bit, unless they find my blog.  And it will be interesting to find out more about their many faces too.

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