Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Copy of a Copy of a Copy: Postpartum Anxiety

We'll go to the zoo. It'll be fun. It's not too hot today, and it's the last week of summer vacation. This is a good plan.

It was a good plan. Despite the whirlwind of getting out of the house with both kids in tow on my own, the frenzy of finding a place to park, and the juggling of equipment, it was a good plan.

Things started out well. The baby smiled happily in the underwater tunnel as the sunlight filtered through onto his face. My daughter leapt joyfully from exhibit to exhibit. It was nice.

Then, she started to complain that she was hungry. "Okay," I said. "We'll go get lunch." The baby started crying. He was hungry, too. No problem. I thought to myself. We'll get lunch, and I'll nurse him while we sit in the cafe. It'll be fine. 

Then we got to the cafe, and the lines were long and confusing. A woman kept getting into and out of the line nearest me, screaming at the man she was with. Her day was not going well. I'll just get in a different line. I scooted over. The line moved slowly, and my daughter danced, darted, spun. "Please stand still." She sat on the floor as lines of people moved around us, inches from getting stepped on. "Come here. Stand still."

I could feel it happening. My heart starts to race, and my throat tightens. My hands were shaking ever so slightly as they gripped the handle on the stroller. The baby fusses as I try again to offer the pacifier and buy a few more minutes. I grab my daughter's arm and pull her toward me. "Do you want to go home?" I hiss. She shakes her head no. "Then stand still." It comes out through clenched teeth. The shake in my hands gets worse.

It's our turn. I order her food first and then mine. They don't have what I want. I order something else. They don't have any prepared. It will be a five minute wait. My daughter is ambling over into the other line again. I'm only half listening. "That's fine," I say as I try to corral her back into our designated two feet of space.

"You'll need to step to the side," the clerk tells me.

"Um," I respond. I try to scoot the stroller over to "the side," which is really a one-foot space between the two long lines. I put my arms straight to try to keep my daughter between them. Then they nudge the tray containing two cups full of drinks and her food at me. "We don't give out lids or straws," the clerk smiles. "For the safety of our animals." I'm balancing the tray with one hand and trying to keep my daughter next to me and the stroller with the other. The shake in my hands has traveled up my arms and into my shoulders. I feel like the walls are closing in on me.

"Oh my God!" I say too loudly as my daughter tries to jump up and grab her drink off the barely balanced tray. "You have to stop! I'm going to spill everything! You have to stop!" The woman in line behind me smiles a smile of pity. When my food finally comes a long, long two minutes later, she kindly offers to carry my tray for me. By now the baby is tired of being pacified and his fussing has turned to punctuating shrieks. Each one feels like a dagger to my throat. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," I tell her. I feel like a failure.

The rest of the day went fine. We left the crowded cafe, and I nursed the baby in the children's zoo while my daughter made a new friend and played in the sand box. As we got in the car to go home, she was jabbering about all the animals she saw and the baby was sleeping deeply. It looked like a success, but all I could do was keep replaying those moments in cafe, and I still felt like a failure.

Even as it's happening--the panic, the shaking, the breaths that catch in my throat--there's a part of me that's outside of it all, watching it. There's a part of me screaming, "This isn't a big deal! Get it together!" But I can't hear her. In that moment, I feel like I am in fight or flight, but the threat is me. How do you run from yourself?

With a quick glance or in the right light, I still seem like myself. I still make wry jokes and plan to meet with friends. I still smile. I still love and enjoy both of my children.

But like a copy of a copy of a copy, if you look closer, the picture isn't quite right. I'm not quite me. The edges break down and the lines start to blur.

That's what postpartum anxiety feels like to me. I can feel like everything is okay, like I can go about life without any problems. But I have nothing left in reserves. Nothing. There is no place to draw from for patience or calm or perspective in the face of even the smallest setback. A single bump in the road and I'm sputtering to a grinding, smoking halt.

And I live on bumpy roads. Life takes place on bumpy roads.

I have the cognitive capacity to recognize it for what it is: some misfiring of nerves calibrated wrong by a particularly ugly cocktail of genetics and hormones. But knowing doesn't make it feel any easier. I keep peering out from behind that copy of a copy of a copy and growl in anger at all the things she's getting wrong, but I can't get in front of her. I can't take my rightful place in my own life. Every time she snaps at the rambunctious five-year-old who is just trying to adjust to life as a big sister. Every time she cries because the dishes are overflowing in the sink. Every time she gets a knot in her throat over everyday tasks like driving to the doctor. I know what the right moves are, but I can't make them in time.

I hold out hope that she will fade, this copy, and I'll burst through with strong lines drawn--any day now. When the baby sleeps through the night, when I get back to work, when my daughter is back in school, when I can run a mile again, when I can lift 150 pounds again, when I lose the weight, when it's not so hot. . .


Images: Jose Maria Cuellar, jypseygen

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Starfish and Sequoias: Why Do You Vote?

I've been having a lot of conversations about the election lately. I've fallen into the role of "liberal stand-in" for many of my libertarian-leaning friends with a penchant for debate, and I think I have a fairly broad swath of the electorate in my social media feeds and day-to-day life due to the wide swing of my life's path. A poor, small-town white girl with extremely conservative extended family getting a PhD, marrying outside her race, and living in a major urban center while teaching at a community college makes for a pretty politically eclectic collection of acquaintances. 

One conversation that I've had a few different times lately involves people who are considering voting for third party candidates because they are so unimpressed with their options. My general response has been that you should vote for the person you believe best represents your political viewpoints, but now I'm not so sure I gave the right advice.

This isn't a political post in the sense that it is going to analyze the candidates and make a suggestion for whom you should cast a vote. What I'm interested in thinking through today is the purpose of voting and its place in a larger narrative of social responsibility.

Voting is often called a "civic duty," and some believe it should be more than a right--it should be a requirement. Undoubtedly, marginalized groups in the past have fought and died for the chance to participate, and there are still barriers placed today to keep many Americans from exercising this right (as the current fight for felons' voting rights marches on). Whether voting should be mandatory or not is rooted in a question of what voting is. Is it a chance to put your individual voice into the larger machine and influence the final outcome? Are you (as "one person, one vote" suggests) simply shouting your wishes (no matter how self-serving or impulsive) into the void and then waiting to see what comes out on the other side? Or is it a collective act? Is your responsibility when you vote to make your individual wishes heard, or is it to weigh out the possible outcomes and choose based on the greater good?

That question, to my ears, was at the heart of the differences between the speeches at the RNC and those at the DNC.

Perhaps one of the places that individualism came through most strongly in the RNC was during Ivanka Trump's speech when she shared this anecdote about her father:
And like him, we each had a responsibility to work, not just for ourselves but for the betterment of the world around us. Over the years, on too many occasions to count, I saw my father tear stories out of the newspaper about people whom he had never met, who were facing some injustice or hardship. 
He’d write a note to his assistant, in a signature black felt tip pen, and request that the person be found and invited to Trump Tower to meet with him. He would talk to them and then draw upon his extensive network to find them a job or get them a break. And they would leave his office, as people so often do after having been with Donald Trump, feeling that life could be great again.
It's a feel-good moment, and it paints her father in a much more positive picture than he paints himself. Instead of being a cold, hard businessman who is only out for profit (an image that Trump seems to embrace even as it is used against him), it shows a man of compassion and charity, goodwill and kindness, a man who wants to help the common people around him.

The problem I have with this kind of individualistic rhetoric is that it absolves us of responsibility for the systems in which we are complicit partners. When we focus on the individual's circumstances rather than the system from which that individual's circumstances grew, we are able to ignore the ways that we unfairly benefit from that same system.

I was thinking about this recently when I saw the news story about a homeless teen named Fred who was biking six hours to get to college. His story was a heartbreaking account of a hardworking individual who desperately wanted to better his life but needed a break. People were moved and donated to a GoFundMe account to the tune of $184,000.

It's a truly amazing account of people coming together to help out this young man. From the police officers who found him sleeping in a tent and worked together to put him up in a motel to the strangers all around the country who pitched in a few bucks to make sure he would never have to live in that tent again, it's a reminder of what it means to come together and support each other.

The problem with stories like these (and this is not meant to discount the kindness of those who gave or those who saw Fred and decided to reach out and help) is that they can serve as a distraction from bigger societal issues and their potential collective solutions.

Surely you've heard the old story about the man saving the starfish so that they don't die when the tide recedes. The key point is at the end when he silences naysayers who say he won't make a difference because starfish will just keep washing ashore by responding, "It made a difference to that one."

And that's hard to argue against. Helping one person is important, especially when you are acting as an individual. Often, as individuals, helping one person is all you can ever hope to do. We can't, individually, fix the education loan system to make sure that Fred has funding. We can't fix whatever societal ills led him to be homeless in the first place. We can't handle those things because they are soul-crushingly huge. So instead we put $5 in a  GoFundMe account. We toss that starfish back into the sea.

But there's something a little darker going on beneath the surface of these actions. In the video of the news report, the reporter is careful to note that a bank is overseeing all of Fred's newfound riches to make sure he spends them in the "right" way. There's something paternalistic about being able to pat ourselves on the back for helping out while casually wink-winking one another with the secure knowledge that Fred wouldn't have been able to do it alone. It took our savior status to get him there. In some ways, our actions are as much about making ourselves feel good as they are about helping the individual before us.

But what if the starfish aren't washing onto the shore because of the inevitable pull of the tides? What if the starfish are washing onto the shore because they're attracted to the lights of manmade condos dotting the beach (I know that's not actually the case; this is hypothetical)? If we're actually the cause of the starfish tragedy, is it really so great of us to go and throw individual starfish back into the sea? Wouldn't it be a lot better to find a collective solution like agreeing to turn off our lights during peak starfish time or replacing our bulbs with starfish-friendly glows?

That action, though, would require collaboration, cooperation, and communication. It would be hard! We wouldn't be able to pat ourselves on the back individually as being more caring and compassionate than our neighbors because our neighbors would have to be in on the solution, too. It would have a lot bigger impact, but it would feel a lot smaller to us as individual agents in the drama. After all, what's changing a light bulb versus triumphantly tossing a starfish through the air?

I'm not cynical enough to believe that people only help others because they want to feel good about themselves. I think that people (and I include myself among them; I've donated to those campaigns, I've given spare change, I've helped on a tiny, tiny level that made no collective difference and felt good while I did it) are genuinely motivated to make a difference where they can. When we see no collective solutions, all we're left with is individual options.

Ivanka was tapping into that desperation when she told her father's story. She was painting him to be someone who would find solutions by plucking those who are suffering out of their pain and giving them opportunities for greatness.

Hidden within that message, though, is another caveat. Only those who are deemed deserving get the help. If you don't seem like you're working hard enough through your struggle, if you've given up or are angry and not humble enough about your misfortunes, well, then, too bad.

The Starfish Method never shifts the balance of power, so be wary when those in power advocate it. If it makes you feel better to donate to a down-on-my-luck GoFundMe, by all means, do it. But don't let anyone tell you that's the best we can do or that it erases our responsibility to think about how the systems around us are set up.

The message at the DNC took a different tone.

Consider how Cory Booker opened his speech:
Our founding documents were genius. But not because they were perfect. They were saddled with the imperfections and even the bigotry of the past. Native Americans were referred to as savages, black Americans were referred to as fractions of human beings, and women were not mentioned at all. 
But those facts and other ugly parts of our history don't detract from our nation's greatness. In fact, I believe we are an even greater nation, not because we started perfect, but because every generation has successfully labored to make us a more perfect union. Generations of heroic Americans have made America more inclusive, more expansive, and more just.
Michelle Obama's speech also contained a call to look at our collective future:
And make no mistake about it, this November when we go to the polls, that is what we’re deciding, not Democrat or Republican, not left or right. No, this election and every election is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.
Bernie Sanders, too, made this kind of appeal:
This election is about – and must be about – the needs of the American people and the kind of future we create for our children and grandchildren. 
This election is about ending the 40-year decline of our middle class the reality that 47 million men, women and children live in poverty. It is about understanding that if we do not transform our economy, our younger generation will likely have a lower standard of living then their parents.

By calling upon problems like poverty, global warming, education, and health care, the DNC speakers pointed again and again to the individual starfish and said, "You're not making a difference!" But instead of saying that as a cynical prelude to, "so stop trying!" they offered a different solution, one full of hope and sustainable, meaningful change.

The trade-off, though, is that we don't necessarily get to see it happen, and we don't necessarily get to pat our own backs about it. Instead, the change will be gradual. It is the future generation for whom we act.

"Make America Great Again" is a nonsense slogan. America has never been "great" for everyone living within its borders. Gross violations of civil rights, slavery, an orchestrated genocide against Native Americans, and institutionalized racism, sexism, and discrimination against anyone who didn't fit the status quo of the era have more than dotted our historical trajectory; they've underpinned it.

But we've chipped away at those violations. We've made incremental progress so that today's world is better than yesterday's. Cory Booker called upon that truth to make the logical conclusion: we benefitted from the right choices of those before us. Now it's our turn to do the same for those who will come after us.

As Wendell Berry puts it in "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front":
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
If you plant a sequoia today, you will not live to see it full-grown. You are never planting it for yourself. At its most pessimistic, it is an act of futility. At its most optimistic, it is an act of immortality.

Today, I read this post from Ashely Wool urging everyone to vote for Hillary Clinton because a Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster. In it, she writes this:
Your conscience only belongs to you, but your vote belongs to everyone
Your vote is not a style statement. It’s not how you express your individuality. It’s not something you do to show all your friends how you think the country should work. You don’t vote to prove a point. You don’t vote to paint yourself in a certain light. You don’t vote for the Facebook likes. You don’t vote for you. You vote as a way to help give your entire country the best chance it can realistically have at this point in time.
Later, she adds this:
Let me say something else, too--if Donald Trump became president, it probably wouldn’t negatively impact my life very much. I am a heterosexual, cisgendered, upper-middle-class white woman with a college degree from a great school, gainful employment, no criminal record, and no student loan debt. In the eyes of Donald Trump, I am not the problem. I am not refusing a Trump presidency to further my own interests
I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of my friends and fellow Americans who are gay, transgendered, black, Latino, and Muslim. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of my friends and fellow Americans who can’t afford to go to college, or who are drowning in student loan debt. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of people who are struggling to make ends meet, who do not have flexible or well-paying day jobs, or financially stable parents to fall back upon if they need to. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of hardworking immigrants who need and deserve a streamlined process to citizenship, instead of being ridiculed and denied opportunity at every turn. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of the millions of Americans who lives and livelihoods were saved by the Affordable Care Act.
In many ways, Wool is likening third party voters to the starfish savers. They're voting for a candidate who cannot win the general election (not this year, at least) because it makes them feel better, because it best reflects their individual desire, but not because they have looked to the future.

She's asking them, instead, to plant sequoias.

There are moments in our lives when all we can do is save a starfish, but there are also moments when we can plant sequoias.

When you have a choice, plant sequoias.

Images: Caleb Wagoner, Jenny DaviesSam Felder, Iain Mitchell

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fat Shaming in Gilmore Girls: What Progress Have We Made?

I'm watching Gilmore Girls again. It's great background television to have on while I'm folding clothes and sweeping the floor and otherwise caught in a cycle of domestic chore-doing while on maternity leave.

This is probably my fourth time through the series, and while I vaguely remember a few of the references from the time before this viewing, I'm definitely noticing the fat shaming that is peppered through the show with alarming frequency.

I'm certainly not the first re-watcher to recoil at these painful barbs in a series I remember fondly and warmly. Courtney Mina takes the show to task for several fat shaming and more general body shaming moments in this post for Bust. However, looking at the show through this lens might ruffle some feathers because the show has generally been seen as a positive display of body (though certainly not racial) diversity (see point number five in this article and the discussion of Sookie's character here).

Sookie, indeed, is a rare find in television: a plus-sized woman whose character development and primary function is never centered on her size. The show served as a launching pad for Melissa McCarthy's stardom, but many of the roles she would come to play afterwards still used her size as a punchline or at least a plot point. To see a plus-size body attached to a character who just exists is still refreshing fifteen years later.

And while Sookie is definitely the most cited example of this positive treatment of fat bodies on the show, she's not alone. Babette and Miss Patty are both larger women who are never shamed for their body size.

What's more, all three of these women are given full, successful lives. They aren't turned into women who need to be pitied or wallflowers whose body size makes them shrink into the background, trying to hide from the world. Miss Patty, in particular, is a vivid character whose sexual escapades, bold personality, life in show business, and colorful clothing all scream "look at me" without falling into tried and true stereotypes about large bodies.

Often, fat characters in television and film are shown as lonely, desperately seeking love, settling for a unfulfilling relationship, or going through a physical transformation (which includes losing weight) before finally getting to meet "the One." Miss Patty and her multiple marriages throws a monkey wrench into the idea that there is a "One" but also insists that she will not settle or expect less from her love life because of her size.

Babette and Sookie are both in quirky but completely fulfilling marriages that demonstrate their partners to be worthy and loving. Babette's comments about turning the bedroom into a jungle to fulfill some of her and Maury's fantasies also tiptoes into the realm of a fat woman owning and displaying her sexuality proudly. Again, that wasn't just groundbreaking television in 2000; it would still be rare today.

These large, plot- and character-driven moments are what I usually remember about the show. In my mind it is progressive, woman-centric, body positive, and fun. Perhaps that's why the body shaming that keeps creeping up keeps taking me by surprise. There have been some times where I gasped aloud at what my beloved Gilmores were saying. Here are some of the most egregious offenses:

  • Rory and the Ballerina
This particularly interaction has a reddit thread of discussion. In Season 4, Rory has an assignment for the Yale Daily News reviewing a ballet performance. She is pressured to make sure she doesn't hold back on her opinion, and she makes sure to give it all. While she does critique the actual performance, she also has choice words for the ballerina's appearance, including some discussion of the roll of fat around her bra strap. It's petty, cruel, and hard to watch.  
When the ballerina confronts her, I'm inclined to agree with her anger. 
  • Big Undies
Luke and Lorelai go shopping in Season 6 and Lorelai comes back with someone else's bag by mistake. The misplaced bag contains some large pink panties and bunny slippers. When Lorelai holds them up she comments that they might be hiding from their owner because she would "hate to be wrapped around the woman who fits these." 
  • Treadmills as Punishment
A running gag on the show is that Rory and Lorelai loathe physical exertion and love junk food. Luke is constantly nagging Lorelai to eat something healthy, and the girls constantly make jokes about how little they exercise.  
This as a backdrop makes a snide remark from Lorelai's mother, Emily, even more abrasive. When she's getting staff to arrange chairs for a party, she comments "not that far! If people need that much room to move around, they should be on a treadmill not at a party."  
The idea that people are only allowed in public spaces if they look thin coupled with the idea that exercise is only a remedy for fatness and not for health is particularly troubling. 
  • Fat Thighs 
One subplot involves Paris' affair with much-older professor Asher Fleming. Rory never really approves of their fling, and she gets upset when she hears that Paris is probably only one of many of Asher's paramours. In a conversation with Asher, she gets a dig in at him about the other student she saw him checking out at a book signing by saying, "And the redhead has fat thighs!" 
  • Shaming the Runner
Paris and Rory room with a runner named Janet. Paris and Janet don't get along at all, and Paris is particularly cruel to Janet about her exercise routine (a necessary part of Janet's life since she is a college athlete with an athletic scholarship). At one point, Paris is making fun of Janet as she jogs away and then mumbles, "I hate that she's thin!" 

They're small moments in the show. They're not things that I think about once the show has ended, and they're definitely not the things I remember in retrospect, but they are frequent enough and mean enough that I think they're worthy of examination. 

Maybe it's just a sign that we really have made a lot of progress in this area. It stings now because we have a lot of social movements around fat acceptance, body positivity, and otherwise recognizing that body shaming is wrong. Perhaps my response to these barbs is like my response to seeing old cartoons use blackface for gags: a sign that once we know better, we do better. 

In a show that works so hard to dismantle stereotypes and to showcase feminist messages in other ways, these moments feel out of place, but they really weren't out of place for the time. It was common to use nameless fat people as easy jokes. 

I think we're much less accepting of that kind of lazy writing now (just look at the response to one such scene in Jessica Jones). Does that mean that we are actually getting better at seeing beyond fat bodies as jokes and viewing these characters as full, dynamic, and worthy of respect? Or does it merely mean that we have learned to make our fat shaming a little more nuanced and subtle? I'm not sure, but I hope at the very least that the new episodes of Gilmore Girls (which I await anxiously and excitedly) do away with these kinds of cruel, unnecessary comments. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Gamification of Everyday Life, Self Care, and Neoliberal Shortfallings: What Has Pokemon Go Done for You Lately?

I have a confession: I kind of suck at maternity leave. My son is eight weeks old now, and this is officially the longest I have gone since I was 15 years old without working. I still have a little over a month before I am back to teaching, and I'm staring down those days with something like dread mixed with something like willful determination. It's like I am preparing to run a particularly grueling marathon course instead of spending a blissful month snuggling with my children and making precious memories. That means that on top of feeling overwhelmed by the task, I also have to feel guilty about feeling overwhelmed. After all, getting this much time off is a privilege that many parents are denied. And isn't this motherhood gig supposed to be the most important job of all? Does the fact that thinking of another month of all of this togetherness makes my throat tighten and my chest hurt mean I don't love my kids enough?

But it's not really togetherness that's bothering me. In fact, it's quite the opposite, and I think that I'm starting to place that panic into a larger philosophical context.

At some point (fairly early in the process), maternity leave started to feel like a giant self-care project. It's a time to "get your body back" and make home cooked meals, a time to "nest" by decorating the house, and it's a space for building perfect and unshakable familial bonds.

Of course, maternity leave is not a vacation (as the backlash to that awful "me-ternity" article a few months ago made clear). I think that's the part that is the hardest for me. This time "off" is time that is supposed to be spent hard at work on all of these projects of self-fulfillment, and some of these projects of self-fulfillment feel pretty hollow and, to be frank, like bullshit. It's within this personal context that I came to read Laurie Penny's "Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless."


Penny is trying to tease out some tension between neoliberal notions of self care as a numbing salve for the pain of late capitalism and the fact that (even if we are coming together and sticking it to The Man) we do actually need to take care of ourselves. Her essay is worth a read in its entirety, but I'm just pulling out an early foundational piece of it to build on here. Penny situates our culture's current obsession with self care (which she epitomizes through Instagram gurus who post pictures of themselves doing yoga on beaches and drinking kale smoothies) within political power structures: "There is an obvious political dimension to the claim that wellbeing, with the right attitude, can be produced spontaneously." It's a tried and true method to keep the masses complacent and compliant to convince them that their happiness (and thus also their misery) is of their own making.
The isolating ideology of wellness works against this sort of social change in two important ways. First, it persuades all us that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted, the problem isn’t one of economics. There is no structural imbalance, according to this view—there is only individual maladaption, requiring an individual response. The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are. 
Secondly, it prevents us from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.
Our narratives of self-care (buy this supplemental powder, join this gym, pay for this retreat) are deeply embedded in capitalist pursuits. They're embedded so deeply that even rejecting them often falls into the same system. Take, for example, this post from Nia Shanks that promises to be a "Bullshit Free" way of approaching health and fitness. She promises to do away with the gimmicks and expensive lies of supplements and magic fixes for body modification. If her minimalist approach speaks to you, you can buy her "Train to Be Awesome" guide or enroll in her "Fit Like a Girl Fat Loss Program." You can pay someone to tell you how to stop paying other people to tell you how to be the best version of yourself.

I'm not even necessarily pointing that out to criticize Shanks (or the thousands like her who are using body positivity and self-love as buzzwords to generate profit). I'd even venture to guess that most of those people are sincere about their belief that we need to cast off the yoke of Big Fitness and Big Pharma and Big Diet in order to better pursue health. The fact that they enact that belief by creating books and programs they can package and sell might seem contradictory, but it is a symptom of just how embedded our notions of self-care as individual "projects" really are.

Chris Maisano writes in his article "Chicken Soup for the Neoliberal Soul" that "neoliberalism has radically transformed our sense of self. . . . the assault on working-class organizations and living standards has led many young adults to adopt a profoundly individualistic and therapeutic view of the world and their personal development." His conclusion is that "only through the creation of solidarities that rebuild confidence in our collective capacity to change the world that their grip can be broken." Meanwhile, all of these self-care project gurus are offering us "solitary bowls of chicken soup" for our damaged souls.

Are we so conditioned by our capitalist overlords to see the world through an individualistic lens that we have lost the ability to see all of the other tortured chicken soup-gulping souls around us as potential allies and friends? Are we about to hit the peak of the "bowling alone" phenomenon? (And did this pervasive loneliness cause the rise of Donald Trump?) Will we soon just be tiny disconnected islands staring into our glowing screens while Amazon's robots deliver us groceries so that we never even have to leave our houses?

(I know what you're thinking. Hey! Didn't you say this was going to be about Pokemon in the title? Was this a trap?! Hold on. I'm getting there.)

In an interview with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the merger of technology with this radically individual notion of self care brings up something that I find fascinating: we may be going full circle.

Vaidhyanathan explains that the major tech companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple) are all competing to become the "operating systems of our lives." He goes on to say:
It’s going to be a closed system, not an open system. . . . It’s actually about our bodies. The reason that watches and glasses and cars are important is that they lie on and carry human bodies. What we’re really seeing is the full embeddedness of human bodies and human motion in these data streams and the full connectivity of these data streams to the human body.
He envisions a world in which every decision and action is embedded into this connected system and our choices are outsourced, ultimately determined by the companies that have partnered with these systems and the influence they have. He is concerned:
We’re accepting short-term convenience, a rather trivial reward, and deferring long-term harms. Those harms include a loss of autonomy, a loss of privacy and perhaps even a loss of dignity at some point. ... Right now, what I am concerned about is the notion that we’re all plugging into these data streams and deciding to allow other companies to manage our decisions. We’re letting Facebook manage what we get to see and which friends we get to interact with.

I started this post by discussing the very grave concerns about a culture of too much individualism. The problem with this kind of individualism is that it blinds us to the social systems in which we exist and the responsibility we have to the other people with whom we are connected. This is why saying "Black Lives Matters" infuriates some people. They counter with "All Lives Matter" which sounds collective and inclusionary but is actually a way of saying "My Life Matters, Individually" and, by extension, "Your Life Only Matters Individually as Well." They are threatened by "Black Lives Matter" because it suggests a community of people who are coming together to insist that we examine the way systemic policies and collective actions are impacting them. Admitting that we need to focus on "Black Lives" instead of each individual life is admitting that we really aren't just individuals getting to determine our own success and failure, admitting that maybe our success wasn't entirely earned and that we did indeed benefit from systems of white supremacy or class privilege and on the other side that maybe someone else's struggle isn't just a sign of their individual weakness but a marker of the ways they have been systematically denied access to opportunity.

That's a scary proposition for someone who has become fully invested in the individualistic notion of self care. Blending some expensive supplement powder into our kale smoothies is a lot easier than trying to dismantle a system of institutional inequality.

But by the end of that line of thinking, I had gotten to someone who fears a complete loss of individuality, a world in which we make no decisions for ourselves and one in which giant corporations use out networked connection to turn us into consuming automatons whose choices are no longer our own.

It's not that one of these fears is valid and the other isn't. We exist in a world where too much individualism and too much collectivism are both a threat. I think that we're quickly approaching a very kairotic moment where these two are going to overlap: the absolute individual with the absolute collective. And I think that a clear place to see the struggle that overlap causes (and its potential) is in the gamification of everyday life.

There is a lot of gamification in my everyday tasks. Walking has become gamified through Fitbit and Pokemon Go. Shopping has become gamified through Target's Cartwheel app. I can earn badges for listening to books on Audible.

Each of these instances represents a place where the individual and the collective are crashing into one another. Tracking how many steps I take in a day on a Fitbit is a wholly individual endeavor. Earning badges for the most steps I have ever taken in a day or the distance I have traveled in the time I have been using the device is an individual accomplishment. But using a Fitbit without using the collective features isn't much fun. The way that it encourages people to move more is through collective competition and encouragement.

Pokemon Go has gotten a lot of criticism for further entrenching us into an individualistic mindset. It can be jarring to see a bunch of people wandering around with their faces buried in a screen. It's a good visual metaphor for the biggest fears of individualism: we will be so consumed by our own concerns that we won't even recognize there is a world around us.

But that's not what's actually happening. Pokemon Go has quickly become one of the most popular apps of all time, and with that many people playing simultaneously, we have the chance to see what this crash between individual and collective through technology can really look like.

And what does it look like? Kind of a beautiful mess.

It has been used to promote messages of love and equality by targeting the hateful Westboro Baptist Church, sell more pizzas, give small businesses a chance to up their foot traffic, and register voters.

It has connected random people together on the streets of New York and given autistic children a way to connect more easily.

Animal shelters are using it to get people to help walk dogs, and police are using it to connect to the communities they patrol.

Not all of the stories have been positive, of course. There have been reports of people using the game to plan robberies, and some of the sites marked as Pokestops are not happy with the designation and the crowds it has brought to otherwise solemn places.

But the one thing that all of the stories have in common is that the interaction between individual and collective is highlighted through the games. People are talking to each other face-to-face because of the game when they get out of their houses and bump into one another (perhaps literally, as we forget to look up from our screens). People are putting Pokemon "lures" on places like children's hospitals in acts of goodwill. We're finding local businesses and landmarks we may have never seen before. (I've personally found three murals I didn't know existed in my own neighborhood thanks to the game.)

All of this to say, there is enough of both individualism and communalism to go around. We do not need to be so lulled by the promise of individualism in the face of seemingly insurmountable social ills that we forget other people exist. Nor do we need to become so enmeshed in the collective that we lose individual autonomy and let corporations choose our lifestyles for us. There is another option, and it's not so much a "middle ground" as it is a constant push and pull between the extremes that will overlap just as Pokemon Go has done.

We've been presented with a dichotomy of individualism and collective as if we must constantly be on a trajectory inevitably ending with complete submission to one or the other, but that is overly simplistic and ignores the collisions between those extremes.

It's in these collisions that we have the chance to escape the dystopian outcomes of either. And it makes me feel optimistic that some of the collisions can be pretty fun.

Images: Jeffreyw, charliepatrick

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The First Post-Baby Gym Visit

He's finally old enough to use the drop-in daycare at the Y. I should go to the gym today. 

"Can you please sing more quietly? You're going to wake your brother up."

If I fold these clothes really quick and start a load of dishes before we go, we should be fine. 

"We're going to go to the gym as soon as I finish this. Will you please put your shoes on?" My five-year-old daughter bounds up the stairs, presumably to find and put on her shoes. The baby snoozes next to me as I finish folding the basket of clothes.

I'll need to change his diaper before we go. I'll do that. Then do the dishes. 

I grab the baby and start climbing the stairs to change his diaper. When I get up there, I put him in his bassinet while I try to find a clean diaper cover.

Didn't I just fold like ten of these? Where are they? 

Then I catch a glimpse of my daughter out of the corner of my eye. She has gone in her room, gotten completely undressed, and is now dancing around in nothing but a tutu and a string of Mardi Gras beads. She is definitely not wearing shoes. "Please put your clothes back on and find your shoes. I really want to go to the gym today, and if we don't hurry, we won't have time."

I find a clean diaper cover and carefully pull the now-stirring baby from the bassinet. As I slip on the new diaper, he pees all over the bed and his clothes.

Shit. Shit. Shit. 

I get his clothes off of him and turn to grab new ones. That's when I realize that the only clean clothes left in his drawer are the newborn sizes he grew out of two weeks ago. I put him back in the bassinet, now screaming, and run downstairs to the laundry I just folded to find a clean onesie.

When I come back upstairs and rush to scoop up the screaming baby, I peek into my daughter's room and see that she has put on her shirt but no pants and has dumped every Crayon in the house onto her floor as she searches for the perfect shade of "primrose" (not pink) to color the picture of her imaginary friend. "Please put your clothes on. You can finish your picture when we get back, but I really, really want to go to the gym, and we're going to run out of time." I rhythmically bounce the baby up and down and hum to him until his screams fade to punctuated chirps with a clear message: he's hungry.

I'll just put his clothes on him real quick, feed him, and then we're out the door. I can still make this work. All I need is half an hour to lift weights. I wonder if that's really a good idea. I haven't lifted in so long. What weight should I start at? Should I do my whole body or just legs? Will I be too sore tomorrow if I . . . 

The chirps have turned back into screams as I try to pull the onesie over his head. I pick him back up, navigate onto the bed, position the Boppy, and start to nurse.

Damn it! 

I forgot that I put on the new sports bra that I bought yesterday even though it makes me self conscious to look at the size XXL tag. I hold up the face-sized cups and cannot for the life of me make it match the image I have of my body, the body that could not squeeze into the pre-pregnancy sports bras. There's no way I can nurse in this monstrosity.

Maybe I should just skip the gym today. . . . No! I really want to go. I'll just take this off, feed him, get dressed again, and then we're out the door. 

As I'm nursing, I can't see into my daughter's room, but the sounds of singing and dancing suggest that all might not be going smoothly. "Are you dressed? Did you put your shoes on?" She says she did, but I am skeptical. "Come in here." She comes bounding in with a propelled bear crawl. Shirt. Pants. Shoes on the wrong feet.

"Good work! But your shoes are on the wrong feet. Can you switch them real quick?" She leaps back out as quickly as she appeared.

The baby's done nursing. I burp him and then scramble to get my gym clothes back on. I carry him down the steps and strap him into the car seat, which he hates, so he immediately starts screaming. I call upstairs. "Come on! Let's go! I want to get him in the car so he stops crying." My daughter comes down the stairs. Shoeless.

"Go put your shoes on! What are you doing?" She disappears again.

Shit! The dishes! 

I try rocking the car seat back and forth a few times and them give him a pacifier. He glares at me over the top of it but stops screaming.

I could go to the gym tomorrow. But I have that doctor's appointment, and then she needs to be ready for roller skating class by 5 so I would have to . . . NO! I'm going to the gym! Just skip the dishes. 

I start checking to make sure I have everything I need. Diapers in the diaper bag. Phone. Headphones. Wallet.

You can't skip the dishes. You don't have any clean bowls, and dinner tonight is soup. 

I rush into the kitchen and start tossing the dishes in. The baby starts screaming.

"Shh. Shh. Shh," I rhythmically shush and rock, trying to get him to tolerate just a few more minutes in the car seat. Finally I take him out, finish loading the dishwasher with one hand while I hold him with the other and then realize my daughter never came back downstairs.

"Come on, please! We really need to go!"

"I'm finishing my picture!"

"You can finish it when we get back. I need you to come here now."

I strap the baby back in the car seat and my daughter comes down, shoes on the right feet, pouting about her picture.

"Please, please, just go to the car." I glance at my watch. Thirty-five minutes have passed.

Is this even worth it? You're spending more time getting to the gym than you're going to spend at the gym.

We get to the car. I snap the car seat in, buckle my daughter up, and finally start to drive. The baby starts screaming. My hushing, humming, and one twisted hand rocking attempts are futile.

Ten minutes later, we're at the gym. The baby's asleep, and I carefully lift the car seat out to try to keep it that way. My daughter is picking flowers.

"Please, please stay with me! I want to finish before he wakes up."

"Look! It's a bee. Bees make honey. Do you know how they make honey? Did you know that bees live in hives? Did you know they have a queen? But she doesn't wear a crown. Did you know . . ."

"Baby, I want to hear all about the bees, but right now I need to get into the gym. Please come on."

We're through the door. I check them both in to the childcare room and step out. Free. Fifty-five minutes have passed since I said I was going to the gym. Fifty-five minutes for a thirty minute workout.

Ah! I didn't ever figure out what I was going to do once I got here. I have no idea how much weight to use. I don't remember what weight I started with when I first started lifting, but surely I haven't lost all of it. Ugh. I hope I don't try to lift too much and hurt myself. How bad would that suck? First time back and out with an injury. 

I'm in the weight room now, and I'm feeling remnants of all those insecurities that I thought I had long ago put to bed.

There are no other women in this entire room. Look at that guy. He's bench pressing as much as I weigh! They're going to laugh at me when I go over there and start squatting just the bar. This is silly. Maybe I should come back at a time when it's not so busy. Maybe I should just go walk the track. 

I was thinking these things, but my feet were still moving. Inside, I was on the verge of backing out, but my body had fallen back into its old groove. It was confidently adjusting the squat rack for my short frame.

And then my hands were on the bar. I felt the ridges against my palms and ducked my head under the bar, and I smiled at my reflection squatting the empty bar in the mirror.


A week ago, I had my postpartum check-up with my OB. I had been instructed by my son's pediatrician to tell her I had scored high on the postpartum depression screening they had given me in their office. I had tried to ask questions: What was "high"? Did the screening account for the fact that I had a preexisting anxiety disorder? What warning signs should I be looking for? 

The nurse who had called to tell me about the results seemed a little embarrassed. She was hushed and rushed. I'm really glad that they do these screenings in the pediatrician's office (where new mothers are typically seen earlier and more frequently than their own OB's office), but I also sensed that they were a little uncomfortable with handling results that suggested a problem. "Just be sure to talk it over with your OB."

So I did. As we talked through what symptoms I might be exhibiting, my OB assured me that she didn't think I had postpartum depression. Closer inspection revealed that my symptoms were much more aligned with anxiety than depression, and it turns out that postpartum anxiety is even more common than postpartum depression

As we talked over treatment options, it was clear to me that I couldn't really figure out how much of this was a newfound anxiety rooted in my postpartum hormones and how much it was my same old lifelong anxiety that was particularly unruly because of the stress of parenting an infant, being home all day with my precocious five-year-old, and not really getting much sleep at a time. 

My doctor suggested that I get back to my exercise routine (which has always helped my anxiety before) now that I was physically cleared for it and see if my symptoms improved in two weeks. 

I made a goal to work out (which I'm using as a loose term that can mean anything from a thirty-minute walk, to running as part of the couch-to-5k program, to weightlifting) every day this month, and I've stuck to it so far. I already feel so, so much better. It's not just the exercise itself but also the act of carving out some space that's solely my own in a day that is otherwise dedicated entirely to childrearing. I'm completely convinced that it's making a positive difference. 

However, as my first attempt at going to the gym (rather than walking in place while carrying three-pound hand weights around my living room and dodging my daughter's dance moves while pausing every two minutes to replace a rolling pacifier) showed me just how much this necessary self-care practice is going to require diligence and commitment. I need to make sure that I remember that this time is not a luxury but a necessity. It is necessary for me to be a present, functioning, and caring parent, and I have to find a way to stop relegating it to the "maybe" pile on the day's activities. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Money on My Mind

Last week, my car broke down. I'd venture to guess that I have more experience than a lot of people in a car breaking down. As I have catalogued previously, I have driven more than my fair share of clunkers. For a lot of my life as a driver, a broken car meant an abandoned car. It was simply not feasible to pour more than the cost of an oil change or so into cars that were so clearly on their last leg. I have vivid memories of being so upset when one car died right after I had filled up the tank with gas. It seems silly to think about now, but it was a $200 car with $20 in the tank, that was a full 10% toward my next car that was now wasted unless I wanted the treat of siphoning it back out and saving it for my next heap of junk.

But I'm no longer 17, and I no longer scrape together minimum wage at a string of jobs between classes. I have a stable income. I am married to someone who also has a stable income. I can drive a car that has the credentials to back up the reasonable expectation that it will arrive at its destination.

But all those years driving cheap cars plucked from someone else's junkyard for what I'm sure they considered pocket change (but what represented months of savings for me) has messed up my head when it comes to money and cars.

In this particular case, I knew that I couldn't justify spending a whole lot to fix my ten-year-old car. I had to do mental gymnastics to prepare myself for the possibility that I would need to be visiting a dealership (my least favorite rhetorical playing field) and buying a new (to me) car. Luckily, the repairs fell under the threshold and my old car lives to fight another day, but I know its days are numbered, and I will once again be forced to overcome the mental hurdle to spending actual money on a car. (And don't tell my car that I know its days are numbered. My history with cars has also left me very superstitious about their vindictive and jealous nature.)

This isn't my only odd money-related mental hang up.

As I've written about in the past, I grew up poor. We were on food stamps. I was used to watching my mom struggle through low paying jobs to keep our household running. I attribute my witnessing these struggles to the development of a rather healthy work ethic and the drive that made me the first person in my family to attend college and later to attain a PhD. I have no shame about growing up poor, but I am proud to be able to give my own children opportunities and experiences that I didn't have.

My mom has her own cyclical saga with money that she's living out. She grew up with seven siblings in a poor rural family. She often talks about living in houses without indoor plumbing . . . in the 1960s. She lived a life of hand-me-downs and scraping by, and I know that her experiences shaped her choices as much as the experiences she made possible through her hard work shaped mine. It's why she now can't throw anything away and can never pass up a "good bargain" even when the item she's purchasing has no use for her.

Case in point, I once came to visit and saw an oddly shaped collection of plastic tubes that looked like a baby tent without the cover. "What's that, mom?" I asked. She hemmed and hawed and tried to come up with a good answer for an object with which she clearly had no familiarity. "She doesn't know," my brother cut in. "She bought it because it was cheap at a yard sale." "But it was only a dollar!" my mom came to her own defense.

My mom's response to an impoverished upbringing is to surround herself with "good deals" and never let go of them, and that makes logical sense, I suppose. My response has been a little more complex.

It's not that I don't like to spend money. In fact, I will spend quite a bit of money on things that were absolutely out-of-reach luxuries to my childhood self. I have a cleaning service that comes in twice a month. We eat out at mid-tier restaurants with some regularity. I have no problem dropping some cash on a decent hotel room. Gyms, streaming video and music services, and memberships to children's attractions are all budget items that I don't feel a bit of guilt or remorse about purchasing.

Me, at the children's museum.
But something about spending money on physical items, especially physical items for me, gets to me.

After the car incident, I was reflecting on this phenomenon, and I realized that I do this with clothes, too. I buy cheap clothes that I don't particularly like and then wonder why I never feel good in what I'm wearing. I am particularly bad about refusing to buy expensive shoes. Instead, I buy a pair of cheap shoes that are uncomfortable, so I don't wear them. That means I still need shoes. So I buy another pair of cheap shoes that are uncomfortable, so I don't wear those either. So I still need shoes. So I buy another pair . . . you get the idea. I could have easily bought one pair of nice shoes with the money I spent on four pairs of awful ones that have been worn three times and are now collecting dust in the closet.

Somehow, my internal expense gauge for clothing myself is still set to the days when 90% of what I wore came from Goodwill. (The other 10% was from Hot Topic, but we'll leave that in the past, thank youverymuch.)

I can intellectually see these problems, but when it comes time to make the actual purchases, I freeze up. I feel a swelling in my throat, a sense of dread. This is disproportionately true. Even if I'm only buying a $30 shirt, I feel like I am wasting money on an extravagance I don't need. There are $5 shirts in the store down the street! What kind of monster am I?!

I read an article on Cracked by John Cheese about how growing up poor makes you develop stupid habits, and I recognize several of these tendencies in myself. Some of them I have consciously managed to break and don't have to think about too much anymore, but some of them are still a regular struggle. And some of them, like recognizing that I might need to spend a little more money on the physical items that I have to interact with on a daily basis in order to avoid being surrounded by clothes that literally unravel or cars that are going to leave me stranded on the side of the road, have yet to click for me.

I know that this is a good problem to have and I know (very, very well) that I am privileged and fortunate to have the kind of financial stability that lets me worry about such a thing. (Though those student loans are making sure I don't get too cocky about it. Gulp.)

I think the thing I worry about the most is that this cycle is continuing, and I'm not sure what I'm passing on. My own children are learning by watching me. They are learning how to think about money and how to value quality by seeing the choices that I make. I know that my own habits developed out of my environment, and I know that my mom's choices developed out of hers.

We consciously teach our children (well, one of them is only a month old, so he's a little behind on his studies) about saving, giving, and earning. I think that our parenting choices have made for a positive environment when it comes to understanding how money works. My husband and I both work hard at jobs we love and have planned carefully to have. I think in many ways we are setting good examples and teaching valuable lessons.

Still, there are these things I do that make no sense, and I fear I'm passing that on, too.

Images: Jay Kleeman401(K) 2012

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Flaunting, Feeding, and Feminism: The Politics of Breastfeeding in Public

I breastfed my daughter until she was fifteen months old, an act that I am proud to have accomplished because it was hard work--especially since I went back to work when she was seven weeks old and had to pump to give her a supply of milk for daycare. I spent a lot of time and energy (physical and emotional) into making sure that she was nourished.

But I didn't spend much time breastfeeding her in public. Since I was already pumping for work, I tended to use expressed milk when we had planned public outings. When either her hunger or our being out caught me off-guard, I would reluctantly nurse her as quickly as possible, always under a cover and often in my car, occasionally in a bathroom.

I was relatively young (25), a first-time mother, living in the Midwest, who had very little exposure to breastfeeding women because virtually everyone I had seen raising infants while I was growing up had used formula, including my own mother. It was very rare for me to see someone breastfeeding in public, and the headlines about public breastfeeding were always about someone getting kicked out of a restaurant or even threatened with arrest for indecent exposure.

I armed myself with my legal right to breastfeed and felt solidarity and support for the "lactivists" who were fighting for changes in public perception and legal protection, but I did little to participate in the act for myself because I was uncomfortable.

Fast forward to today. My son is one week old, and nursing is going well. I've been hunkered down in my bedroom like Rapunzel in the tower, somewhat trapped by the realities of a newborn, which include everything from my physical recovery from delivery to his erratic sleeping schedule to, yes, the fact that he sometimes nurses every hour. Thinking to the very near future, though, the steps I took to avoid public breastfeeding with my daughter are not going to be practical this time around. It's not just me and an infant I have to worry about; I have an incredibly social five-year-old who is going to be home with me all summer long, and I can't expect her to be locked in my tower with me. She needs to get out of the house. We need to be at parks, zoos, and museums. And it's going to be a lot harder to corral everyone in the car so that I can nurse when we're on these outings. I'm also not pumping yet because I'm not going back to work until the end of August, and I'm in no rush to add that task to my daily schedule if I don't have to.

If I have remaining hangups about public breastfeeding, I'm going to have to get over them.

That left me thinking about whether or not I do have hangups about public breastfeeding. In theory, I don't. I am 100% in support of the practice in pretty much any form. Want to cover up? Great. Don't want to cover up? Also great. Want to retreat to a quiet and private corner? I completely understand. Want to stay exactly where you and nurse without otherwise disrupting your day? I completely understand that, too.

Breastfeeding as an Individual Choice

But I can also feel the anxiety rumbling in the pit of my stomach about having to put this theoretical support for public breastfeeding into individual practice. My own comfort level and modesty means I'll be using a cover and trying to limit the amount of public exposure I have, and that can be awkward and clumsy (especially for someone like me, who is already kind of awkward and clumsy). I know that I'll be hyper conscious of side eyes and glares, and I'll be internally steeling myself against rude comments.

This individual musing on public breastfeeding has me reflecting on it in a larger way. I remembered a post from blue milk way back in 2012 that brilliantly summed up why the feminist tendency to turn to the individual aspects of breastfeeding decisions tends to gloss over the societal impact (and you should really read it in its entirety). Here is a key passage:
The main reason why the breastfeeding/formula feeding conversation is not moving forward is because it is bogged down with this individualism. I think there are several factors behind that. Firstly, public health messages, like those promoting breastfeeding, are notoriously heavy-handed and don’t deal well with nuance. This is a shame because people’s health is actually quite nuanced. Secondly, the breastfeeding message is, in part, a marketing message attempting to compete with the marketing messages of formula companies. When you do this you invariably make women consumers. Thirdly, we live in an era when motherhood is hyper-competitive and driven by perfectionism. Everyone is trying to Get It Super Right Or Terrible Consequences Will Happen For Their Children, and everything seems to come down to mothers and their choices. This leads to conversations that over-emphasise the role of choice in outcomes and also, that invariably run into the limitations of professionalising motherhood when it is still monetarily worthless.
There are so many individual choices within this conversation, and it is important that we avoid shaming mothers for those choices. However, the desire to avoid shaming people for individual choices often leads to an avoidance of the issue altogether, and that has the side effect of maintaining oppressive systems that go unchecked for fear of stepping on someone's toes. Blue milk continues:
I can’t help but be suspicious that we prioritise solutions to this work-life conflict that suit a model of workplace built around men’s lives and that consistently challenge women to find new ways of adapting without ever questioning whether our economy could be moulded just a little more fairly around care work and dependency. Because, dependence is not deviant behaviour – being young, being old, being unwell, being hurt and healing, being disabled – it’s normal life. And this is not hippy stuff; this is just finding a better way of working with capitalism. For that matter, breastfeeding is not hippy, it just is. It’s not some special gift, it’s not a sacrifice, it is just the way mammals generally feed their young.
But not everyone sees breastfeeding with such simplicity. In an oft-quoted piece from 2009, Hanna Rosin made the argument that the public promotion of breastfeeding was oppressive to women:
In Betty Friedan’s day, feminists felt shackled to domesticity by the unreasonably high bar for housework, the endless dusting and shopping and pushing the Hoover around—a vacuum cleaner being the obligatory prop for the “happy housewife heroine,” as Friedan sardonically called her. When I looked at the picture on the cover of Sears’s Breastfeeding Book—a lady lying down, gently smiling at her baby and still in her robe, although the sun is well up—the scales fell from my eyes: it was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down, but another sucking sound.

Rosin recounts her own frustrations with breastfeeding and the pressure she felt to continue doing it because of the popular literature insisting that "Breast is Best." Eventually, she pored over medical literature that suggested this wasn't such a clear cut case and that the outcomes of breastfeeding were only slightly better than those of formula feeding. She discusses this revelation as if she were a detective looking for the final clue, the clue that would allow her to stop breastfeeding without overwhelming guilt.

Again, Rosin's choices are presented through a primarily individual lens, but when she suggests that the "Breast is Best" campaign is oppressive in the way that housekeeping standards of the 1950's were (and, I'd argue in many ways still are), she moves outside of the realm of the individual and into the socially constructed norms we must navigate as a collective, and that turn makes it clear that we were never really making these decisions as individually as we thought we were. Like all decisions, those surrounding breastfeeding are a combination of personal and communal, and we've all been influenced by the rhetorical constructs surrounding breastfeeding in both popular culture and the medical community.

Breastfeeding as a Collective Experience

Rosin looks at the historical significance of the founders of La Leche League reclaiming their bodies and babies from medicalization in a way that was radical and increasingly feminist. The publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves coincided with this push for radical acceptance of the female body outside of the patriarchal structures that sexualized and scrutinized it. The fact that there was simultaneously research showing poor health outcomes for formula fed babies in South America and Africa (which were later linked to contaminated water supplies and the high costs of the formula) made for an interesting full circle. Breastfeeding had been seen as a radical departure from medicalization and the attempt for women to reclaim their bodies, but as medical literature began to circle back around to the benefits of breastfeeding, the movements found themselves realigned, and thus the "Breast is Best" campaign has a complicated history of motivations and alliances.

There are many who find the rhetoric surrounding breastfeeding oppressive, guilt-inducing, and overwhelming. Stephanie Fairyington examines some of the practical implications of a "Breast is Best" mentality by saying that it stifles workplace productivity and harms the careers of women who attempt to juggle their duties in both the professional and nurturing spheres. She suggests that the solution is to put more effort into improving formula until it is equal with breastmilk as a source of nutrition, but she quickly admits that many in the "Breast is Best" camp would never accept it because of their dedication to breastfeeding, leading her to write:
It’s arguments like these that pretty much convince me that underneath all the pro-lactation rhetoric is a nostalgia and conservative orthodoxy that wants to affix every woman’s destiny to her biology. But as the highest-thinking creatures on Earth, isn’t the goal to move beyond the limits of our bodies?
This is a fascinating argument for me, primarily because I have often felt my goals as a feminist (and, I suppose, "highest-thinking creature on Earth") have often revolved around cultivating more respect for my body and physicality in the face of a society that constantly tries to denigrate and regulate it. For me, issues like body image, fat shaming, birth control, pregnancy, and breastfeeding are feminist concerns squarely rooted in efforts to challenge the societal status quo to align with my biological and physical realities rather than force me to constantly renegotiate those spaces based on patriarchal standards. The goal has been to make space for those bodies, not to escape them.

Plus, as blue milk points out so eloquently, breastfeeding and a full embrace of the biological "destiny" of its physical demands is actually very freeing for many mothers:
Because here is the other thing about breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is lazy. Ultimately, I came to love breastfeeding as a mother because I am quite lazy. Breastfeeding is fast food. Breastfeeding is multi-tasking. Breastfeeding is portable. Breastfeeding is unstructured and unscheduled. All of these elements are very pleasing to lazy people, like me. So, it annoys me no end as a feminist that we, as a Western culture, stigmatise breastfeeding when in the long-run it can often make mothers’ and children’s lives easier.
So, yes, for some women the pressure to breastfeed may seem oppressive and stigmatizing (and I don't want to discount that pressure), but there are also pressures at work from the opposite direction. For many of us, breastfeeding is a way to make the demands of motherhood and multitasking easier, not harder, and attempts to demonize breastfeeding as a tool of the patriarchy designed to keep us trapped ignores those realities and experiences.

Breastfeeding and Capitalism

Underpinning all of these discussions has been a strong, winding thread of capitalism. The "Best is Breast" campaign is just that (a campaign) because it is competing against formula companies. It is oversimplified, direct, and sometimes blunt because it is trying to be effective in the face of predatory advertising practices from formula manufacturers whose primary concern is profit.

The World Health Organization has clear guidelines for why formula advertising is problematic, and there have been a lot of changes to the industry even just in the five years between the births of my children. I certainly was not greeted with bags of free formula in the hospital this time around, and I haven't seen a formula advertisement that didn't equally portray breastfeeding in a long time. For a closer look at this, check out this article from Rebecca Schuman that examines the history of formula advertisement and looks at the most recent Similac ads as a way to promote acceptance of each mother's personal feeding choice rather than push formula feeding over breastfeeding.

In a world where formula advertisements have (voluntarily or through regulation) tamed themselves down to be much more breastfeeding-friendly, it can be hard to see the "Breast is Best" campaign as anything but overbearing, but in its inception, it was fighting much more directly against marketing forces attempting to prey on new mothers' insecurities and frustrations.

Breastfeeding Today: The Selfie and "Flaunting It" 

In this complex web of market forces, personal choice, public shame, and work-life balance, breastfeeding today exists on a precarious edge between them all. Perhaps this is most evident in the frequent social media and blog posts about breastfeeding as a public display of empowerment.

Just last week, a photo of a mom breastfeeding at a wedding went viral and garnered international headlines. This has also been the case for viral "brelfies" like these of a woman tandem feeding. Some of these photos are candid shots of moms doing day-to-day things while also breastfeeding, and some are staged (even professional) photos designed to capture and share breastfeeding as the focal point.

Still other viral posts have been more activist in nature. Take, for example, this post from Ashley Kaidel, a Florida mom who posted a picture of herself nursing in a restaurant while staring down a glaring onlooker.

Indeed, social media has been a common battleground for the rhetorical war to garner social support for breastfeeding with organized campaigns of breastfeeding photos that truly are beginning to make a difference in the way the public perceives the act. Online and in-person ("nurse-in") protests have also helped spread the word about the legal rights of mothers to feed their babies and have hopefully made store managers and meddlesome employees think twice before shaming a breastfeeding mother or kicking her out of a public space.

Social media has not only served as a space to project breastfeeding outward to the world at large. It has also served as a space to cultivate inward-focused networks of nursing mothers who help each other out with struggles and provide a sense of support and community. In fact, participation in such online communities of breastfeeders has been linked to more success with breastfeeding.

I have been struck again and again by comments on these pictures. Go to any of the links above and scroll to the comment section, and you will quickly see several commenters who insist that they have nothing against breastfeeding but don't understand why someone needs to "flaunt it" in everyone's face by posting it on Facebook or making a big deal about it. Repeatedly, I have seen comments like these:
"These Women are exhibitionists , it has nothing to do with breastfeeding. they like showing off their breasts for the attention." (Ethan, from the article on the tandem photos)
"I was in a Bass Pro Shop store recently and saw a woman with 2 kids pushing a baby stroller up one the aisles. She was nursing one of the kids (maybe 2 years old) with her milk factory in the open for everyone to see. She was tongues lashing a guy because he had stopped and stared for effect. He told her that if she had enough nerve to bare herself to the world in a public place then he had the right to watch. She put things away and they both went on their way. I applaud the guy for ALSO standing up for HIS rights since she thought she was the only one who had any rights!" (Hookm49, from the article on tandem photos)
"She hired a photographer to photograph her breast feeding, but didn't want to make a big fuss about breast feeding? Well, which is it?" (ThrottleJockey, from the article on tandem photos)
"When you are a guest at something as important as a wedding, you should have the good manners to make sure it is OK with the bride and groom for you to: a) breastfeed at the table; b) take a picture of yourself with a ridiculous expression on your face; and c) gleefully posting it online without the knowledge or acceptance of said bride and groom. I am an advocate of breastfeeding, including in public, but good manners are good manners. Period." (Judy Furlong, from the article on the wedding photo)
I could go on and on and on and on with comments like these, and I intentionally chose comments that were attempting to take a middle ground, people who suggested they weren't wholly against public breastfeeding. There are also plenty of downright abusive and cruel comments that call the women horrendous names and shame them outright for daring to leave their houses with breasts and hungry babies, but that's not what I want to focus on right now.

I believe that we've turned a corner and that most people understand that (whether they like it or not) public breastfeeding is going to happen because women have a right to feed their babies. I'll go so far as to say that I think most people even agree with that right. However, I do not think we've reached a point where most people accept the reality of it, and that's why these viral "brelfies" matter. Women aren't posting pictures of themselves breastfeeding to "flaunt it." In a world where breastfeeding is truly accepted, a picture of a woman breastfeeding her infant would raise no more eyebrows than a picture of a woman eating a salad. It's the same act (nourishment) and could be posted for the same reason (to share a brief moment of our daily lives).

However, most of these pictures are posted with an agenda, and the agenda is to promote a public narrative surrounding breastfeeding as acceptable. I'm down with that agenda, and I applaud the women who feel emboldened or carefree enough to engage in it.

The comments on those photos remind me of comments on photos of women who confidently and purposely display plus-size bodies. Every time I see one of these body positive posts, I also see people saying some version of this: "It's fine to love yourself, but I don't want to see you loving yourself." If you feel the need to make that comment, you have to accept that you are actually not fine with it. Maybe you know you should be fine with it. Maybe you even want to be fine with it. But the fact that people are drawn to police the boundaries of public displays of these bodies means that the bodies are still stigmatized and shamed.

The Impact of Shame

While nominally accepted and legally protected, breastfeeding is still not a cultural norm. If breastfeeding is oppressive to women (as was argued above), then the oppression comes not from the newborn who needs to eat but from a culture that makes a mother feel like she's trapped by that constraint.

When everything from maternity leave to workplace policies on pumping to the way that women are treated when they nurse in public aligns with principles of equality, acceptance, and support, breastfeeding will cease to have these oppressive qualities. Until then, the pressure to hide away while nursing will continue to have oppressive impacts, and the sense of solidarity and community in seeing other women nursing (whether in person or on social media posts) will help to combat that stigma and oppression.

I asked my Facebook friends what their experiences were surrounding public breastfeeding, and I got some interesting responses.

Helen wrote about her experience nursing her son: "I remember him fussing like crazy on a train once when I was by myself and the women in the carriage saying 'it's okay. You can feed him.' And feeling immense relief that I wasn't being judged. With my daughter I felt empowered by sharing photos online feeding her with other mums and this helped increase my confidence."

Marcy wrote, "My second was a CONSTANT nurser, he fed like all the time. I would have had to just stay home all the time if I had wanted to avoid nursing in public. I think that really helped me get over things." She also noted that she has "often seen other women breastfeeding in public and want[ed] to give them a high-five or as solidarity."

Amber wrote that she spent the first few months pumping to avoid public feedings, but when she forgot her cooler, she had to quickly get over the discomfort: "Living in San Diego, I didn't feel like I faced any issues or judgement - once I let go of my own issues. I nursed with a cover, but plenty of women don't use one. I had some negative experiences while traveling in the Midwest, though. Even with the cover, nasty comments and side-eye. Most of my interactions were very, very positive - from other moms asking where I got the cute cover to waitresses asking if I'd like another chair brought over to prop up my feet."

Candis likewise tried to pump and use bottles in public: "I worried about being judged, but I'm also just really reserved so I didn't particularly want to breastfeed in public. I tried a few times with a cover, but my daughter is easily distracted and hated the cover on her face; I think I gave up trying more from the fact that I felt we couldn't do the whole thing gracefully more than I did from worrying about people judging my body. We were a flailing mess!"

Mary makes her decisions about how to feed in public based on practicality: "Sometimes I pump and bring a bottle based on convenience based on what I am wearing but as I've found more breastfeeding friendly clothes that has been easier (yay subscription boxes!). Mama's Milk Box is what I use."

I see a couple of themes emerging from these comments. First and foremost, seeing other breastfeeding mothers seems to be a positive, affirming, and community-building experience. This is important to remember when we want to question why someone who would share a picture of themselves nursing or decide to nurse in the middle of a wedding. Their actions are not just individual, and these public displays are shaping the discourse surrounding breastfeeding in a way that is making more women feel comfortable and confident in their choices.

Secondly, I think it's important to note that support for public breastfeeding should not become a demand for public breastfeeding. Discomfort over being exposed in public and choices to cover up or to pump are tied up in this complex web of public pressures and personal preferences, and it's just as much a feminist issue to make sure that those choices (as well as the choice not to breastfeed at all) are still supported and validated. Check out this video on why covering up is a feminist issue:

Finally, I was drawn to Mary's comment about clothing, and she mentioned that she uses Mama's Milk Box,  a subscription service that delivers breastfeeding-friendly clothing options to your door. 

That got me thinking about how this whole thing has come full circle. In this post, I started with the article by blue milk that discussed how navigating the demands of working and parenting is a negotiation within capitalism. Capitalism and the formula industry's marketing strategies were also the impetus for the "Breast is Best" campaign rhetoric that made so many women feel oppressed by pressure to breastfeed. 

Capitalism weaves its way into every facet of our society, and I think the fact that subscription box services catering to breastfeeding women exist is a sign that things truly are changing in public perception, and that's because breastfeeding women have fought for the right to be seen, heard, and accepted. While I don't like that money is often the most obvious marker of power in our society, I think that things like subtle changes to the way formula companies portray breastfeeding more positively, the existence of companies like Mama's Milk Box, and the display of breastfeeding supplies in mainstream stores demonstrates that the tide of public perception around breastfeeding is changing rapidly. I hope and believe that market power is a precursor to policy power, and that is how we can begin to address things like maternity leave and other issues surrounding not just breastfeeding, but the successful navigation of parenting and caregiving in general. 

The next time you see a social media post of someone proudly breastfeeding, I hope that you'll see it not as a selfish display of voyeurism but as a public demand of much-needed visibility and acceptance. 

Photos: Josh Ward, clotho98