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Have you noticed any difference in the things other people (family, friends, or complete strangers) will feel comfortable saying to you while you're pregnant? Have you been a target of the 'parenting peanut gallery'?

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The Observer and 21st Century Motherhood

Last Sunday (October 1, 2006), the Magazine section of The Observer ran an excellent essay by Miranda Sawyer on being a mother in the 21st century. The essay is an introduction to a group of short profiles of mothers meant to showcase the many paths and faces of motherhood. A close friend who became a mother to a handsome boy this year sent me the essay, and it is still circulating by email. I thought I would post it here because, in contrast to the usual mother-guilt drivel that seems to replicate itself incessantly in the media, I found it honest and upbeat. This segment seems to be particularly on point:

The one thing that really irritates about becoming a mother is the assumption that your child wipes away what you were before. Though it's vast and important and utterly life-changing, though you move into another world and the door locks behind you, having a baby does not make you into a different person. You are still you. I am still me, I still have the same likes and dislikes, I still argue and engage with the same things, but I'm me with a 11-month-old son. As he grows and changes, so will I, but I won't become another person. I don't know how.

And, looking at him chowing down on the sofa arm, I know that he won't become someone else either. He might be young, but he is his own independent being, in and of himself. He's happily, obstinately, constantly doing his own thing. All I can do, as a mother, as a human being, is help him do it.

I hope you will enjoy it, and that there will be more essays like this in the future.


Worth More Than A Thousand Words

An interesting discussion has been going on about a photograph taken on 9/11, and though it isn’t directly related to the topics I usually cover, I think it brings an excellent issue to the forefront: namely, the power of images and how easily they lend themselves to manipulation.

On September 10, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote the following about a photograph taken on 9/11 in his column “Whatever Happened to the America of 9/12?”. (You can see the photograph by clicking on either one of the links to the Slate articles below, which is easier than finding it through the book website mentioned in Rich's column.)

But there’s another taboo 9/11 photo, about life rather than death, that is equally shocking in its way, so much so that Thomas Hoepker of Magnum Photos kept it under wraps for four years. Mr. Hoepker’s picture can now be found in David Friend’s compelling new 9/11 book, “Watching the World Change,” or on the book’s Web site, watchingtheworldchange.com. It shows five young friends on the waterfront in Brooklyn, taking what seems to be a lunch or bike-riding break, enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away as cascades of smoke engulf Lower Manhattan in the background.

Mr. Hoepker found his subjects troubling. “They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon,” he told Mr. Friend. “It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.” The photographer withheld the picture from publication because “we didn’t need to see that, then.” He feared “it would stir the wrong emotions.” But “over time, with perspective,” he discovered, “it grew in importance.”

Seen from the perspective of 9/11’s fifth anniversary, Mr. Hoepker’s photo is prescient as well as important — a snapshot of history soon to come. What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.

I read this column on Sunday and was interested enough to follow the link at the website (and keep going and going) until I could see it for myself. Once I did, both Hoepker’s and Rich’s reading of the photograph struck me as odd and a bit dissonant. To be fair though, I assumed Hoepker had other reasons for his commentary and left it at that.

A few days later though, I came across this column in Slate magazine by David Plotz, titled “Frank Rich is Wrong About That 9/11 Photograph”, and was happily surprised to find a third reading of the photograph that articulated what had perhaps made me uncomfortable about the negative interpretations put forth by Hoepker and Rich. Here is the relevant passage:

But wait! Look at the photograph. Do you agree with Rich's account of it? Do these look like five New Yorkers who are "enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away"? Who have "move[d] on"? Who—in Rich's malicious, backhanded swipe—"aren't necessarily callous"? They don't to me. I wasn't there, and Hoepker was, so it may well be that they were just swapping stories about the Yankees. But I doubt it. The subjects are obviously engaged with each other, and they're almost certainly discussing the horrific event unfolding behind them. They have looked away from the towers for a moment not because they're bored with 9/11, but because they're citizens participating in the most important act in a democracy—civic debate.

Ask yourself: What are these five people doing out on the waterfront, anyway? Do you really think, as Rich suggests, that they are out for "a lunch or bike-riding break"? Of course not. They came to this spot to watch their country's history unfold and to be with each other at a time of national emergency. Short of rushing to Ground Zero and digging for bodies, how much more patriotic and concerned could they have been?

So they turned their backs on Manhattan for a second. A nice metaphor for Rich to exploit, but a cheap shot. I was in Washington on 9/11. I spent much of the day glued to my TV set, but I also spent it racing home to be with my infant daughter, calling my parents and New York relatives, and talking, talking, talking with colleagues and friends. Those discussions were exactly the kind of communal engagement I see in this photo. There is nothing "shocking" in this picture. These New Yorkers have not turned away from Manhattan because they have turned away from 9/11. They have turned away from Manhattan because they have turned toward each other for solace and for debate.

Rich and Hoepker and I have all characterized what these five people were doing and how they were feeling, but none of us really know. Wouldn't you like to hear from the five themselves? I would. If they're out there and they'd like to respond to Rich or me, they can e-mail me at plotzd@slate.com.

To my great delight, one of the five people in the photograph did find out about the controversy over the photograph and wrote back to Plotz. Slate has published Walter Sipser’s own account about the captured image in their latest article “It’s Me In That 9/11 Photo”.

A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they're having a party.

Thomas Hoepker took a photograph of my girlfriend and me sitting and talking with strangers against the backdrop of the smoking ruin of the World Trade Center on September 11th. Earlier, she and I had watched the buildings collapse from my rooftop in Brooklyn and had made our way down to the waterfront. The Williamsburg Bridge was filled with hundreds of people, covered in dust, helping one another make their way onto the street. It was clear that people who ordinarily would not have spoken two words to each another were suddenly bound together, which I suppose must be a fairly common occurrence in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

We were in a profound state of shock and disbelief, like everyone else we encountered that day. Thomas Hoepker did not ask permission to photograph us nor did he make any attempt to ascertain our state of mind before concluding five years later that, "It's possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it." Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened. He instead chose to publish the photograph that allowed him to draw the conclusions he wished to draw, conclusions that also led Frank Rich to write, "The young people in Mr. Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American." A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one's own biases or in the service of one's own career.

Still, it was nice being described as a young person. I was forty at the time the photograph was taken.

It should give us pause that a single image from 9/11 can be so easily transformed into four different meanings (so far) through the narratives of four viewers (one of whom is a participant). This highlights the problem of ascribing absolute meanings to images and of believing that a photograph (or for that matter video) is an objective recorder of life. Given the unrelenting use of images in our culture and the many agendas that they serve, it is to our advantage to process them critically, and to keep in mind that they are as subjective as words.


Recent news (and stay tuned for future postings)

I am happy to be back after an unexpected hiatus during the month of August. Several recent stories are worth notice (and regrettably, I let a few pass by). A new study has found that Cesarean births triple the risk of maternal and infant death due to surgery-related complications. In an interesting follow-up to the recent push by the government and the medical establishment to promote exclusive breastfeeding, a New York Times article chronicles the vast differences in the opportunities and resources available to women in the workforce in order to pump their breast milk. It will come as no surprise that women in higher-income jobs have an easier time doing so (though I would venture to say, for many it is still far from ideal), whereas women in lower-income jobs face many more obstacles and are often forced to quit. Which brings us back to the same issue: rather than using guilt to promote guidelines, why not make sure that women, all women, have the support they need to succesfully breastfeed? Finally, over the last ten days Slate magazine has published two interesting articles, the first one on the sudden spike in the price of birth-control pills faced by thousands of family planning clinics in the United States, and the second one on the just-as-sudden price roll-back. I'll be back with more...


Capitalizing on boredom in The Daily Mail

One of the pieces being discussed this week has been an article titled “Sorry, but my children bore me to death!” by Helen Kirwan-Taylor (July 26, 2006) in The Daily Mail. As could be expected from the title alone it has drawn many responses, and The Daily Mail itself published another article the next day “Why have children if you don’t like bringing them up?” that condensed much of the critique lobbied at Kirwan-Taylor. The newspaper’s swiftness in capitalizing on the controversy is emblematic of how many of these articles are really just bait, a way to get a polarizing, judgmental debate going. In this particular instance, the shiny, dangling hook is simple: What no mother dares to say is that they would rather not be with their children.

After this generalized (and incredibly presumptuous) statement, the article quickly shifts into confessional-mommy mode, as Kirwan-Taylor recounts her own experience with motherhood. She became a workaholic while her children were small so that she could avoid them, does not find children to be ‘fulfilling, life-changing, life-enhancing fun’, and doesn’t hesitate to describe herself as just a ‘bad’ mom, as exemplified by her being ‘bored rigid’ with reading them bedtime stories. (I must admit I found this surprising, as she makes a living as a journalistic writer. But as that old adage in Spanish tells us “In a blacksmith’s house, the knives are made of wood.”) She then talks about feeling ashamed, unfit, and guilty, and bemoans her lack of entry into the mythical “private club of motherhood”.

It becomes clear that the members of the private club of motherhood are mommies in denial, dark side mommies who are child-centric and have turned their children into the Last Career. Any motherhood club mommies who think or feel otherwise are just keeping a secret from society and themselves, too chicken to be honest and hiding until someone else says it first. Unsurprisingly, that bold new woman would be Kirwan-Taylor, who perhaps doesn’t realize that the argument that children and child rearing are boring, menial tasks has been around for a long, long time. And of course, there is an expert to both validate her confession and pat her on the back because “it takes a brave woman to admit that [that child-rearing can be tedious or dull]”.

So Kirwan-Taylor sets up her own private club, complete with whispered admissions of boredom to the point of depression and madness from both working and stay-at-home mothers. And now that she has her own club and has been validated by experts, she uses mommy-bashing to vindicate herself.

All us bored mothers can take comfort from the fact that our children may yet turn out to be more balanced than those who are love-bombed from the day they are born.

Research increasingly shows that child-centred parenting is creating a generation of narcissistic children who cannot function independently.

'Their demand for external support is enormous,' says Kati St Clair. 'They enter the real world totally ill-prepared. You damage a child just as much by giving them extreme attention as you do by ignoring them altogether. Both are forms of abuse.'

Child experts are increasingly begging parents to let their kids be.

'Parents think they can design their children by feeding them a diet of Mozart — well they can't,' says Dr Rosenfeld.

Sometimes, apparently, the best thing parents can do for their children is to let them be bored.

This, of course, makes mothers like me — who love their children but refuse to cater to their every whim — feel vindicated. By sticking to our guns, we have unwittingly created children who can do things like make up stories (very few kids can any more).

Because I have categorically said: 'I am not a waitress, a driver or a cleaner,' my children have learned to put away their plates and tidy up their rooms. They've become brilliant planners, often inviting their friends to come for the weekend (because I've forgotten to bother).

Frankly, as long as you've fed them, sheltered them and told them they are loved, children will be fine. Mine are — at the risk of sounding smug — well-adjusted, creative children who respect the concept of work. They also accept my limitations.

What is truly a shame about this article is that, predictably, it is of the one-right-way-to-parent variety and leaves no room for difference or tolerance. There are no shades of gray, no middle roads, no other possibilities. If she sounds smug, it’s because she casts herself as superior to other mothers, and not because of how her children may or may not be turning out.

In the end, this so-called confession is a vehicle to polarize mothers and keep the mommy wars fueled. Getting women to fight in public gets an audience and brings in the money. More insidiously, it distracts the conversation from what it should really be about: How do we bring about social changes that support parents, children and families? Ironically, though her children bore her rigid, writing about her relationship to them probably allows her to pay the nanny, the highlights, and the shoes. Not too shabby a consequence for having to deal with such menial, dull creatures.


Coda to public breastfeeding article

The CNN article referenced in my last post is published- verbatim- under a different title in AOL.com "Many Outraged by Breast-Feeding Magazine Cover". Sounds like a different article altogether, doesn't it? How's that for spin?


The acceptance of breastfeeding in public: CNN.com's "Lactivists: Where is it OK to breastfeed?"

On Thursday (July 27, 2006) CNN.com published an article titled “Lactivists: Where is it OK to breastfeed?” that covered public reactions to the recent Babytalk magazine cover featuring a close-up of a baby. The photograph consists primarily of the latched-on child’s face while the mother’s breast is partially visible (side-view, no nipple).

Though the title asks the question ‘Where is it OK to breastfeed?’ it really focuses on the perceived social acceptance of public breastfeeding within mainstream America. From the article one would get the impression that, celebrity breastfeeding bra-watching aside, there is a general lack of support for women to breastfeed in public. Yet a closer look seems to suggest that this may be the result of how the issue is being presented.

For example, the article emphasizes the fact that this particular issue of Babytalk received over 700 letters in response, and goes on to quote some of the negative comments they included. It does not say, however, how many of those 700+ responses were negative, and how many may have actually expressed delight or support for the image. In the same vein, CNN reports that the majority of the free magazine’s audience is mothers, and that “in a poll of more than 4,000 readers, a quarter of responses to the cover were negative”. Notice how a simple switch of that statement creates a different impression: “in a poll of more than 4,000 readers, 75% of the responses to the cover were positive or neutral”. Sounds like a different audience, doesn’t it?

The article contains the usual comments of ‘breasts are sexual’, and of women wanting their husbands and sons to be shielded from these inappropriate sightings of breasts. Even though one woman is quoted as supporting the cover because “it helps educate people that breasts are more than sex objects”, her support is quickly neutralized by her admission that she does not breastfeed in public and her statement that “Men are very visual...when they see a woman's breast, they see a breast -- regardless of what it's being used for."

This last statement is problematic on many levels. One, it assumes that men’s reactions to breasts are somehow biological and not cultural, an idea that can be quickly discarded by noting that there are many cultures where breasts are not strictly defined as sexual (a fact that can be ascertained by a quick stroll through any European beach). It is also demeaning to men, as it reduces them to visual creatures that are unable to control their sexual reactions to women. And not least, it assumes that breasts are just sex objects, and that by education we mean only that people should refrain from publicly reacting to them. Why insist on such limited perspectives and expectations?

In fact, there’s no discussion of the problematic way in which our culture unnecessarily sexualizes young girls and teaches them to feel shame before they have even reached sexual maturity. Do infants and small children really need two-piece bathing suits? Why cover the chest of a baby or little girl who has nothing yet to cover? By doing so, we highlight a future sexuality that has not even manifested itself, and we teach both girls and boys that our bodies are, primarily, sexual and consequently subject to public shame.

One final aspect of this article, and of the breastfeeding debate in general, is that it doesn’t consider what types of positive messages public breastfeeding may send to girls. In a country where distorted media images of female beauty have succeeded in creating countless health and self-esteem issues for women and particularly girls, it seems that an acceptance of public breastfeeding would provide a good antidote –to both boys and girls- to the notion that women’s bodies are mainly sexualized objects to be gazed at by others. A woman breastfeeding her child is a reminder of the multiple capacities of a woman’s body, and of the fact that all bodies are vehicles for many experiences, of which sex is just one. As the last quote in the article states, breastfeeding is a moment between a mother and her child, and precisely because of that it should be an intrinsic, normal part of our social fabric, and not one to be relegated to bathrooms or kept behind closed doors.