As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I recently switched from freelancing to a more steady form of employment. I’m lucky enough to have found a job which allows me access to some of the foremost experts in the parenting world, as well as an incredible roster of parents with unique situations and viewpoints.
These past few weeks, I’ve been a fly on the wall as these folks have been interviewed about their areas of expertise and experience. It’s been truly enlightening, both as a parent and someone who finds it fascinating to pick apart the human psyche. Some key observations:
1. Just because someone is a “world-renowned expert” does not necessarily mean they understand the real-world implications of what they are advocating.
For obvious reasons, my favorite example of this is the Male Breastfeeding Expert. There’s nothing like having someone with testicles school you on why it isn’t that big a deal to breastfeeding exclusively for six months. Or the 75-year-old parenting expert who tries to compare the way the world was at the time she was raising her sons to how it is now. Oh- and the expert who was born and raised in wealth and privilege, scoffing at the idea that poor, urban parents can’t find ways to feed their children healthier meals and get them 2 hours of exercise.
Look. These days, it doesn’t take much to be proclaimed an “expert”. You write a few books, get a few prominent clients, get yourself on the Today Show, and viola! World-renowned expert. Degrees help, but even these can be misleading – a PhD in philosophy can call herself a doctor and become an expert on child health with nary a pre-med course under her Prada belt. (Think of Dr. Linda Folden-Palmer, the woman who claims that formula feeding has killed more American babies than anything else in the world. She wears that “Dr.” title like a badge, neglecting to mention she’s a Doctor of Chiropractic.)
Even for those select few who really do have the research, education, and experience behind them to qualify as experts, it doesn’t necessarily follow that these folks have a clue what life is like outside their ivory towers. Theory and practice are two different animals, altogether. This doesn’t mean they don’t know what they are talking about – to the contrary, they can probably speak eloquently and informatively on their given subject. But academia tends to be insular; psychologists aren’t necessarily talking with anthropologists; biologists aren’t always having brainstorming sessions with sociologists. It’s a shame, really, because when it comes to parenting “science”, we need interdepartmental cooperation. As someone who has read research from a variety of fields on infant feeding, I can attest that hardly anyone is listening to anyone outside of his or her field. Even within the medical field, there’s stuff happening in gastrointestinal journals that is barely referenced (or likely noticed) by those who read Pediatrics. It’s a real shame.
2. Personal bias is universally prevalent
No matter how open-minded you may be, it’s very, very difficult to stop your own experience from coloring your opinions. This happens on a subconscious level, so while you might make a concerted effort not to do so, you’ll have visceral reactions to certain ideas which will in turn inform your point of view. For example, last week, we interviewed a well-respected expert on fatherhood. He was a great guy with an impressive resume and plenty of relevant life-experience to boot – the ideal parenting expert, if you will. At one point, we asked him a question about what to do if your partner isn’t taking care of herself during pregnancy. I took this question to mean, “What should I do if my partner isn’t eating enough, taking care of her health, stress level; working too hard; not following doctor’s orders in regards to pregnancy complications, etc.” The expert proceeded to give a speech about making sure your wife doesn’t “let herself go” during pregnancy – i.e., what men can do to ensure that their wives/girlfriends aren’t packing on too many pregnancy pounds or forgoing the gym. Obviously, what “taking care of herself” meant to him was something quite different than it meant to me. It’s all about perspective.
As for the parents we’ve interviewed, they have all been lovely people, but they’ve also shown me how our own hangups, successes, and failures end up informing our parenting philosophies. A woman who had a successful first pregnancy in her mid-40s spoke freely about how if other women just did more yoga and ate better, they’d be able to conceive as late as they wanted to, and that there’d be no need for extra precautions or the label of “high-risk”. I bet she would have been singing a different tune had she spent seven years in fertility treatments, or actually had a high-risk pregnancy. (As I’ve had. Twice. And I did plenty of yoga.) She also had an a-hole doctor, and a wonderful midwifery experience, which made her an advocate for home-birth and low medical intervention. The things that went right gave her strong opinions, as did the things that went wrong. It’s human nature.
3. To change minds, accentuate the positive
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from my job thus far, though, is that no matter what your experience is, you need to own it.
The company I work for is committed to showing all sides of the story when it comes to parenting issues; this has exposed me to people on every end of the spectrum. The ones who are passionately positive are the most effective speakers. I personally had no interest in cloth diapering, but after I saw our cloth diapering expert interviewed, I ran home and tried to convince Fearless Husband it would still be worth doing for our one-year-old (I abandoned the idea as soon as I saw how expensive the cute accoutrements were – that was really what attracted me to the prospect. Those diaper covers are freaking adorable). She was non-judgmental, sweet, warm, and so excited about how she covered her baby’s ass that it was infectious.
The ones who live in a space of negativity come across as overbearing and unlikeable. They may convince someone to change out of fear or insecurity, but I believe that in most cases, they end up simply preaching to the choir. The people who are not already following their philosophy feel judged and condemned; that’s not a healthy space in which to make changes.
Once I realized this, I began worrying. As bottle feeders, we spend so much time defending ourselves; fighting against untrue stereotypes; struggling with guilt and fear and grief over not being able to breastfeed, or not being able to conform to what society has decided is Good Parenting.
Defending. Fighting. Struggling.
Not very positive words.
Which brings me to the end of this post, in which I will implore you to start using some positive words in regards to bottle feeding. Doing so is not anti-breastfeeding; it’s pro-doing- what’s- best-for-your-baby-and-you (not a catchy slogan, but I’ll work on it). I’m working with the brilliant team over at Bottle Babies to create a video using our beautiful combo-fed, exclusively pumped-fed, tube-fed, and of course formula-fed kids to show the world that bottle feeding can be a beautiful, strong, healthy choice. It’s time to give ourselves permission to feel proud of our method of feeding, whatever that method happens to be.
We’re trying to keep the details a bit under wraps for now, so if you are interested in participating (it would require taking a specific type of photo of your kiddo or kiddos) just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you the details.
I hope some of you will be willing to take a stand, because what could be more fearless than telling the world that you don’t have to feel guilty or incomplete – ah crap. Scratch that – what I meant to say is, what could be more fearless than telling the world that you feel proud and complete as a bottle-feeding mother? (This turning negativity to positivity is harder than it looks, people.)