Soft controversy of wise women

It is wonderful to have people keeping an eye and ear out for interesting things for me – my Mum and Dad both go above and beyond the call of duty by pointing me to interesting articles and issues for me. This week Dad suggested I listen to the morning interview on Classic FM which was with Robin Barker, nurse and midwife and author of Baby Love one of the classic baby care books.

It was an unexpected delight to listen to her talk, I think I was expecting her to be a knowledgable expert from whom I might learn something. What I didn’t expect was a that she would strike such a chord with me by being so expertly ambiguous.

Robin Barker discussed some of the most controversial areas of parenting with the clear and incisive voice that spoke of someone who has seen much and learnt that it is ok to change your mind and it is ok to admit that you were wrong or mistaken.

Robin was asked to talk about a number of key issues for parents, such as: sleep; discipline; childcare; and the role of mother and father. Interestingly the common theme of her responses seemed to be that these things are all influenced by the way we have structured family life in our society. For her, it seems, we have put too much emphasis on life outside the home and this has had an impact on our children,

What was most telling and therefore made me feel she was insightful was that she recognised her role, and the role of other women and mothers in structuring the family in this way. She was not attributing blame but rather pointing out that she now realises where things might be better. I think it takes a brave and humble person to understand why things have taken a certain turn and admit some the culpability.

For example, She risked controversy by suggesting many children (and their parents) would be better off if they were at home with their mother in the early years rather than in group childcare. She did this from the perspective of someone who worked in childcare and advocated for it for many years. Through this understanding she touched on something I see as a key part of the feminist legacy and that is it was about creating choice for women and only now are we realising the importance of legitimising childcare and mothering as a valuable choice.

What I learnt from listening to this interview was that we are moving on because some people are able to put their ego and self-promotion aside in order to reflect on their experience and come to conclusions that might be controversial and might cause other, less reflective people, to criticise and alienate them. I think this is a fundamentally important process for a strong and democratic (in the broadest, pluralistic sense) to engage in – and, I hope, not just because I happen to agreen with Robin Barker’s interpretation!


Subtle is as subtle does

This weekend I read an article criticising the way young women are choosing to dress. The general gist of the article was that young women are not leaving enough to the imagination as skirts are getting higher, tops lower and clothes in general tighter. One older woman commented that she wished there was more subtly in the way these young women dressed.

Before I get to my point about subtly I think I need to make an aside regarding the constant cry of ‘leaves nothing to the imagination’. I have an issue with this because to me it misses the point. I know this is supposed to mean that the person has revealed their body and thus their sexuality and that by covering up this would not be so much on show. In reality though I think this statement has an implied meaning that you are right to be focused on your sexual attractiveness and it is ok for others to identify you as a sexual object it is just not ok to do it blatantly. Clothing, of lack of it, for men and women should not be about hiding your body and thus engaging in a teasing game. It should be about fun, expression, comfort or sex if that is what you want but the key point is it whatever you want it to be.

Anyway, back to my main topic – I agree wholeheartly with the need for subtly but do not think we can expect young women to display this triat when it is so absent from our culture in general. How can young people learn subtly if every message they receive is blatant, bold and unambiguous?

From sitcoms, to music, to advertising, to radio, to politics, there is no subtly – the messages are simple and the meanings are even simpler.

I have to go and play with my little woman now but I just wanted to start thinking about the double standards that we continue to apply to our young people – do as I say, not as I do.

Redefining wonder

I am starting to feel like a broken record and so have not posted for a while. I have been caught up in a cycle of disappointment in the public, political comment and events, including:

  • my disappointment about the rejoicing at the death of Bin Laden. I have no sympathy for him or his cause and can understand, to an extent the reaction of the USA but cannot support our Prime Minister’s comments welcoming his death because we are a country with a strong anti-execution stance and do not believe we can rejoice at the death of any person no matter how terrible they were in life. I do not see it as justice but as revenge (again, however, I understand the desire for revenge and do not deny it to be a valid reaction). Having said all that I must acknowledge the wisdom of my clever brother who asked “what would we have done with him had he lived?”, created more of a circus perhaps?; and
  • my concern about our government’s latest attacks on the most vulnerable in our society and continued race to the right of centre political perspective (aka the bottom).


So what am I to do? I have to refocus myself and remember that this is not actually how I experience life. Most mornings when Ivy wakes me up it seems to me that we are living in a wonderful and exciting world. Watching Ivy learn and wonder at this world of ours reminds me of Charles F. Kettering’s famous quote that “our imagination is the only limit to what we can hope to have in the future”.

Ivy’s wide eyed enthusiasm for our visit to the bakery or chat to the chicken inspires me to imagine a future that is as wonderous as she believes this present to be. Once I imerse myself in the playful world I can see the spiders on the roses and their beautiful patterns, I can see kind and generous people who give a little of themselves to my smiling child who draws them into a game of peepo across the cafe.

So I engage in imagining the world is beautiful and full of fun. But what happens when the imaging gives way? Well, wonderfully, miraculously, joyously I find that what I imagine shapes my reality and good old W.I. Thomas pops into my mind again with his statement that ‘If [wo]men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’ (the Thomas theorem).

For me the consequences of defining these situations as exciting, challenging, fun and interesting are that this is exactly how my days play out.

Am I allowed to hope?

I have turned my cynical side off and decided to hope that Prime Minister Gillard’s announcement regarding welfare policy is about ensuring the disengaged provided with opportunities to access training and support to enter or reenter the workforce.

In her speech entitled The Dignity of Work to the Sydney Institute yesterday the Prime Minister carefully describes those she sees as the ‘human face’ of the Australia’s ‘patchwork’ economy that has benefited many and has isolated others. I agree with her when she highlights the disparities between the employment rates in boom areas and those in other communities. I also understand that it seems logical that ‘The Salisbury teenager who has drifted from education…could get a job if he got a trade’.

It also seems so very hopeful. The speech lists, seemingly endlessly, those whom the system currently fails, and allows to become the young and the mature aged long term unemployed.

The Prime Minister even went as far as to say: ‘I will fight the prejudice that says some people’s lot is drawing a fortnightly cheque, that we should not expect anything more of them and it does not matter if they are forgotten by policy makers and the society around them.’ Yipee!

Then comes the bit that must have been copied from my last blog post (or maybe it is the redhead vibe): ‘In today’s economy, inclusion through participation must be our central focus. It’s not right to leave people on welfare and deny them access to opportunity.’

It seems that our Prime Minister has worked it out – a booming economy and lots of jobs do not mean anything if those who are looking for work have not been supported to develop the skills they need to take the job opportunities.

But then comes the bit I was waiting for, the bit that makes me worry and the bit that nibbles a little at the perfectly constructed chocolate cake that was my hope…’And every Australian should pull his or her own weight.’

And it is too late, the cynicism for our fearless and her fellow politicians has been switched back on. Before I know it I am hearing Abbot’s words echoing in my ears and know that the focus of the debate will probably be on bludgeoning the so-called bludgers rather than supporting those in need.

Having said that, I think I might let myself hope for a bit longer…their might be room for a little bit if our Prime Minister can lift herself above the rhetoric of cheap shots to say ‘We can genuinely entrench a new culture of work and opportunity in families and communities who have been denied this for so long.’

Abbott’s cheap shot

I was going to write a post criticising Tony Abbott, his Liberal Party colleagues and sympathisers, for thinking that attacking those receiving welfare payments is a valid policy perspective and not just a cheap shot that undermines trust within the community. But I have decided I cannot be bothered.

I feel so strongly about the importance of supporting one another and also the negative impact the implication that those receiving support are unworthy that it is just making me cross and unable to articulate the issues properly. All I really want to say is that the negative consequences for the individuals receiving payments and the community as a whole far outstrip any financial benefits – if a perception is created (or amplified) that those receiving benefits are undeserving then all that happens is we further marginalise that group and make those paying taxes resent doing so!

I am more than open to debate about how to support participation and engagement in the community but I do not think that it begins and ends with employment and I know it will be a more expensive process that the current welfare system. It would involve quality education and support for training, it would require employers (including the governments) to adapt workplaces and work practices to fit a wide variety of workers. But more importantly it would work to support the development of active and engaging communities that worked to undo the marginalisation of so many Australians.

I believe it is only through community that we will increase engagement and reduce the current isolation of welfare. I think that it is communities that education, employ and support each other and that if we support communities we can work  towards sustainable employment structures Abbott claims to be seeking. Without community one-off pilot schemes with thrive and even if employers can be enticed to take one a new batch of employees they will only keep them as long as the incentives last. With a more sustainable structure we can do so much more – and benefit all rather than undermine us all by diminishing trust.

Motherhood and emancipation

Ivy will be eight months old this week and already I have learnt the cliche is true – nothing will ever be the same – but luckily for me that is exactly what I had hoped.

I find I am more interested than ever in the work of feminists such as Ann Oakley and am finding that my little woman is reigniting in me a passion for debates that seek to explore the impact of a biology on the emancipation or oppression of the mother. In particular, I am interested in Ann Oakley’s statement that:

‘…first-time mothers… discover that it is not just a case of having the baby and carrying on as though nothing had happened: something has happened, a historical event….producing a baby is re-producing, looking differently at one’s body, one’s identity, one’s way of living….And in becoming a mother a woman takes her place among all women, conscious in a new way of the divisions between men and women….Motherhood is a handicap but also a strength; a trial and an error; an achievement and a prize.’ Becoming a Mother, 1979, p308.

I certainly did not desire everything to be the same but I heard much in the lead up to Ivy’s arrival about how to ‘return to normal’ – ‘normal’ including how to get back your body, how to get back to work, how to get back personal space. It seems to me that there are some who see this return to normality as an essential part of post-baby adjustment.

I am interested, however, that so many of the women I talk to recognise that in seeking to have a child they were seeking a new reality. These women do not want to go back to anything but rather to move forward into this new reality. I thought I would point to these women who have positively engaged with a new future before introducing the main motivation for writing this post which is actually my need to address something Anne Oakley argued in 1980 (Women Confined: towards a sociology of childbirth). She said that ‘…women are oppressed because they lobve children; or (alternatively put) that, if they didn’t have children, women would no longer be oppressed’.

I have found this statement has played on my mind over the last few months and it has left me pondering. I wonder weather it means that we who, thirty years after Oakley’s comment, are embracing motherhood are a disappointment for our feminist mothers and grandmothers. But that does not seem right to me, instead I think I have been led to the conclude that for some motherhood is a choice that is liberating and thus the ultimate form of emanciaption.

For some, motherhood provides an escape from the masculine structures of work and leisure that do not suit us (or many men). For this group of women, motherhood and our biology becomes a liberating mechanism because it provides permission for us to remove ourselves from these structures.

While Anne Oakley and her peers might have seen the biological requirement for women to give birth as the key to continued oppression of women, for me it is the key to my emancipation. As I was lucky enough to be able to give birth to and feed my baby, I am lucky enough to have an excuse to be outside the world of paid employment.

I know that these statements are those of a priviledged woman, everyday I feel how lucky I am to be able to be here with Ivy and to want to be. I know there are women who would read these and feel I am deluded and an example of one who has internalised the messages of oppression so that I am suffering from a kind of Stockhom Syndrome. I also acknowledge there are many women who are torn between family and work and find both arenas to be filled with guilt and compromise.

But it does raise a number of questions for me that feminists and public policy makers should consider. For instance; have the steps towards gender equality in the workplace missed fundamental problems with the structure of work? How can we value parenthood as choice rather than a process to be fitted into one’s working life?

Fundamentally I think we need to reconsider how facilitate choice and how we view success and achievement. For me, gender equality has never been about making everyone the same – I think it should be about providing the opportunities that ensure both women and men can have equally good outcomes. And moreover, this does not mean we can predict the outcome men and women might choose or that there is a magic answer for anyone (or for that matter that the focus will be consistent through time).

The more I think about these issues the more I see that I am confused! I could well be oppressed and just do not know it (and so I am left with picture of a cave and wondering if Plato would think me in or out!) I suppose deep down I feel that I am emancipated, perhaps most importantly because I am lucky enough to have a choice and to be able to choose from positive options rather than the lesser of two evils.

Policy poverty

It really bothers me that there is an absence of debate about policy and the focus is always on personal political gain rather than what is right or good for the country. I think there are two main issues: one the politicians are in a short term cycles based on election and popularity; and the media are stuck in a cycle that focuses on exposing rather that explaining. I am not alone in this and I know there has been much written about it but I just thought I would add my voice!

The example that drove me to my laptop this morning is the media’s commentary on the government’s approach to Libya. The commentary this morning on the ABC has been focused on whether there is a rift between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd over the approach to addressing Gaddafi – not whether a no-fly zone is a sensible solution.

Similarly, as Tim Dunlop pointed out on The DRUM, the debate about climate change revolves around partisan political fighting (and media commentary on that fighting) rather than whether a price on carbon is actually a useful way to go.

As an optimist I hope there is a way back, I think it needs to start with the media – I am sure there will remain a place for A Current Affair-type  reporting but I really think the media needs to decide what its role in our pluralistic society is. We are the first to criticise the absence of freedom for the meida in other countries but I think it is a bit rich to see the current type of media debate as the culmination of freedom! I dream of a day when we can ask ‘what is the right thing to do’ (knowing we will disagree based on our polictal leanings and our empathy for others) but it would be an exciting country to live in.

Breastmilk Ice Cream

This week  breast milk made the mainstream media when a trendy cafe in London’s Covent Garden served breast milk ice cream. Apparently women were paid around $23 for 10 oz of breastmilk.

One of the donors quoted by the ABC suggested that if people realise how tasty breastmilk is they might be more willing to feed it to there children. This is a noble ambition but for me it misses the point. If concern over taste was all that was keeping women from breastfeeding their children then we would have no problems! I think we really have to look at the structures of our society if we are to make any change. For me, this glib little story is a great publicity stunt but really trivialises the huge barriers to breastfeeding in our culture and I wish getting people to accept eating breast milk ice cream is a long way from making women feel comfortable feeding in public or fitting breastfeeding in to their busy lives.

I have tried to think that perhaps any publicity is good publicity but I still feel we need to work out how to support women having trouble feeding. We need to acknowledge that breastfeeding and breast milk may be ‘natural’ but the process and the problems are socially constructed and we need a socially constructed way to support breastfeeding if we are to increase the number of babies receiving breastmilk – as far as I am concerned the trendy, ice cream eaters can look after themselves!


Dealing with the judgment of others is a challenge faced by so many families I meet. It is amazing how many people have stories to share of being judged by others or worrying that they are being judged.

Judgement is an interesting concept and it has multiple meanings. Perhaps the most beningn relates to the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions. In this context judgement is essential to the successful navigation of life. We must exercise judgement in order to make decisions and take action. However, the danger seems to come when we extend our judgement beyond what is helpful to our decision making process and make judgement of others actions or condemn them for reaching different conclusions. It is the latter usage that concerns me.

Since Ivy’s birth I have been exposed to some of the many issues that parents are, or are feel, judged for including: breastfeeding, bottle feeding, working, not working, weight gain or lack of it and so on and on…

The questions for me are: who is doing this judging and why?

Is it other parents? Perhaps. A positive interpretation is that perhaps parents are looking at other families and making judgements as a way of deciding how they want to bring up their own children. Or perhaps there is an element of judgement that reflects parents’ desire to do what is right for the children and that judging others legitimise their choices for their children.

Is it other members of the community? By this I mean those, beyond other families, with whom we interact on a daily basis – the people who cast a sidelong glance in the supermarket or those who turn on their heal and leave a cafe on spotting a noisy child, as I saw one couple do recently.

Is it ourselves? By this I mean perhaps we interpret the looks and comments of others as judgement because we are our own harshest critics.

I think that there is probably a bit of each of these elements involved: we do need to watch others to learn; there are those who legitimise their choices by judging others; and I am pretty sure we are our own harshest critics.

What I think is important is we work out how to let much of this judgement go, by this I mean we need to try and free ourselves of most of the burden of judging ourselves. I think the much quoted ‘judge not lest ye be judged’ (Matthew 7:1) is appropriate in this context because it recognises the importance of careful and considerate judgement. It does not say we should live without judgement, just  encourages the reader to consider carefully how they judge others because they will also be held against those standards.

Ultimately, I know it is unrealistic to remove judgement from our lives – I just hope for the sake of our families that we can work out how to limit the judgement of others and thus hopefully set ourselves a little bit free.

Tips for a hungry baby

Ivy has taught me that feeding your baby can be a trial. For many people the only simple thing is knowing their baby has to be fed but working out how, when and how much is no simple issue.

Many people I speak to found arrival of their baby the beginning of a struggle to find the answer to these questions.

How? Breast or bottle – or both?

Breastfeeding is a tricky skill and is not for everyone. I think it is important to remember that we have the technology to support you as you work through any issues or to replace breastfeeding if it does not work for you. Formula is a viable alternative or addition for breastmilk and while I have found working to exclusive breastfeeding to be perfect for me I strongly believe it is not the only way to feed your baby.

When and how much?

A real issue for many people seems to be that the milk supply is slow to build up to match the demand of their baby. While it is true that the supply develops in response to the demands of your baby, we all have our limits. One lactation consultant told me that some babies feed as many as 18-20 times in 24 hours (considerably more than the 8-12 times often quoted as ‘normal’). While this is viable for some, some of the time (for example an increase in feeding during a growth spurt that only lasts a few days) it is very difficult to deal with if your baby is demanding to be fed that frequently day in day out.

In my experience it is also difficult because the baby is also tired from feeding that regularly and not getting any substantial blocks of sleep. It seems to be a bit of a vicious cycle because a tired baby doesn’t feed well – often falling asleep at the breast without feeding properly and then waking quickly because she is hungry.

One trick some people use is to use a bottle (or other method such as a cup or syringe) to give your baby some extra formula or expressed breast milk. The approach often used is to feed the baby completely from both breasts (or for about 40-45 minutes). Then provide the baby with some additional milk – until she or he is full. In the early days with Ivy I was providing an extra 30-50 mls of milk after a feed. This technique often provides the baby with additional food and might help to break the cycle of incomplete feeding and short sleeps.

I found that the extra milk enabled me to have some rest too and in the long run supported our breastfeeding relationship. A lot of the breastfeeding advice suggests that bottle feeding can reduce the baby’s ability to suck or interfer with it. This may be true for some babies but my expereince did not support this – you can buy teats specially designed for the breastfed baby and these are very useful, particularly because they have a lower flow rate and don’t make it too easy for the baby to get the milk. There are other tips for breastfeeding and building supply in a previous post.

You can do it

I think that there is a way to help you balance the needs of your baby with your needs. This means you and your baby need to sleep and eat. How you manage this is up to you and following your instinct will take you a long way but if breastfeeding is what you would like to do my experience is that you can do that while also using a top up to help keep the balance.