26 Aug

Book review: (M)otherhood, by Pragya Agarwal

In a note at the end of the book, Pragya Agarwal accurately describes this work as “somewhere between a memoir and a scientific and historical disquisition of women’s reproductive choices and infertility.” (p343) Throughout the book she wanders, with intent, between her own reflections and experiences, and a huge breadth of culture, history, and contemporary research, to explore the massive topic of motherhood and choice, and to wrestle with the impossible definition of woman, and its relationship to motherhood.

This is a book that is unafraid, in that Agarwal writes candidly about her own past, discussing such taboo subjects as her abortion, her ambivalence about motherhood, and her infertility. She goes on to pick apart menstrual taboos, transgender parenting, and the impact of our white patriarchal medical system. There are whole chapters that open my eyes to other perspectives, and moments where I feel seen, where our experiences and feelings cross paths. I love to read a well-referenced book, and Agarwal writes as though all the research is at her fingertips, supporting her critical evaluation of motherhood in modern society.

This is so much more than a book about motherhood, and so much more than all the other books about motherhood. It is a painstaking search for identity that shines a harsh spotlight on the normally invisible forces that shape us as women, as mothers, as people who do mothering, and as women who aren’t mothers whether or not by choice, and mothers who aren’t women. Such an impressive and important work, that has changed the map of my world.

[Disclaimer: I am a massive fan of Pragya Agarwal, and was delighted to buy my copy of (M)otherhood at the Also Festival, where she signed it for me!]

09 Jul

A work in progress

I am a white, middle class, cisgendered, able-bodied, educated woman in my 50s. I’m part of some marginalised groups but I pass for a straight cis woman and feel my privilege in that; this is a position of relative power, and it is a position reflected in so much of the subject matter of my blog and my podcast, and so many of my guests. I reach out over and over again to my own community, and it’s time to stretch further and learn more. This is a work in progress because I am working out how to be an ally to marginalised communities, how and when to use inclusive language, and how to include one community without alienating another.

As a feminist, I’ve felt particularly challenged by the idea of transgender. I certainly started from a place of suspicion and fear, which felt deeply uncomfortable because I think of myself as a kind, inclusive sort of person, and I could see myself not being that. I couldn’t sit with this level of incongruence, and knew I had to work it out. I was confused by the loud voices on both sides of a deep and dangerous divide. It took me too long to stop listening and start learning. I’m going to list below the resources that helped me, but I want to particularly highlight two things.

Firstly a real threshold concept for me. I attended a Queer Birth Workshop, and the question was asked, what makes you a woman? How do you know you are a woman? I’ve been trying to unravel this for quite some time, having been railing against the gender binary for a decade or more, certain that I didn’t wish to be defined by my biology, or assumed to be delighted by pink unicorns. The logic in my head was that transgender must require an adeherence to strict gender norms, otherwise how could you know you were *not* one thing but another? Letting go of this logic has been massively helpful. During the Queer Birth Workshop, AJ Silver answered their own question: you know it in every fibre of your being. There’s my lightbulb. All the things I had been reading and listening to suddenly made sense. Every fibre of your being. Transwomen are people who feel like a woman in every fibre of their being, and my feminist objections are simply no longer valid. I was recently asked, how can someone in a male body understand what it feels like to be a woman? This too is something I struggled to understand: how can you know what it feels like to be a woman if you’ve never had your period start just before a PE lesson? If you’ve never walked home in the dark with your keys in your hand in case of attack? If you’ve never experienced the pure joy of discovering that a dress has pockets. There is more than one way to be a woman, and none of us gets to decide that our own experience is the defining one.

This came alongside a second thing which was less of an instant epiphany and more of a slow dawning. In another workshop (this one on neurodiversity) there was discussion of a spectrum as being not so much a scale from light to dark, but ALL the colours. No good/bad, no right/wrong, no broken/whole, but all the degrees and all the subsets of degrees and all the branches off all the branches…. this breadth and fluidity is what gender is to me, and having let go of the idea that transgender presupposes a binary either/or thing, it all just slots together.

I don’t believe that I have figured everything out and now know the answer, but I do believe that uncertainty is good for me, good for everyone really to keep on questioning and reflecting. And there isn’t one answer. There are still questions for me around things like sports where maybe the men’s/women’s model needs a rethink for our modern times. And I’m not here to try to persuade you, if your thinking is not currently aligned with mine; but I’m always willing to have a conversation with you.

When it comes to being an ally to people of colour, obviously there is less of a philosophical hoop to jump through; but there is a huge amount of work for someone like me, raised in small northern towns where there were no non-white people around me at all; I had no concept of the microaggressions and the deeply embedded structural racism that affects the way I think, the way I act, and the way I speak to people. There were two conversations I had when making Sprogcast that were particularly instructive, one with Alana Apfel and one with Mars Lord; but what I took away more than anything else was that it was on me to do the work.

My pledge is that I will never stop doing the work.

Most importantly, this needs not to be a zero sum game. At the moment it feels as though everyone has to pick a side; and ironically, using inclusive language makes some people feel excluded. This conversation has to be had, and retreating into our corners and yelling at each other will not move us forward.

Here are some resources, in no particular order:
My non-binary life (podcast)
In the darkroom, by Susan Faludi (book)
The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson (book)
Queer Birth Club: LGBT+ Competency Birth & Beyond (workshop)
Slay In Your Lane, by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (I read the book, but here’s a link to their podcast)
Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams (book)
I am not your baby mother, by Candice Braithwaite (book)
Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge (book)
Feel Good (TV programme)
Small Axe (TV programme)
The Safe Zone Project (website)
Responding to JK Rowling’s Essay/Is it anti-trans? by Jammidodger (youtube video)
Meet the feminists championing trans rights (Buzzfeed article)
Seahorse (film)
Pride & Joy, A Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Parents, by Sarah & Rachel Hagger-Holt (book)
Birth work as care work, by Alana Apfel (book)
Mars Lord on Sprogcast (podcast, link to follow)
Jones E, Lattof SR, Coast E. Interventions to provide culturally-appropriate maternity care services: factors affecting implementation. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2017;17(1):267 (journal article)
Pedagogy of the oppressed, by Paulo Freire (book)
Peace and Power, by Wheeler, C. E., & Chinn, P. L. (1984) (book)
Dear White People (TV programme)
Atypical (TV Programme)
Shitt’s Creek (TV Programme)
It’s A Sin (TV Programme)
Sway, by Pragya Agarwal (book)

02 Jul

Book review: Mama, you’ve got this, by Emma Bunton

Mama, you’ve got this is the latest celebrity parenting book, from the pen of Spice Girl Emma Bunton and her team of experts. Emma has her own range of eco-disposable nappies to sell, alongside her advice for the first 12 months of parenthood.

The book is divided into six main sections: life as a new mama, breastfeeding, sleep, nappies etc, growth and development, and self-care for the new mum. This seems entirely reasonable, and that first section has a lovely focus on the fourth trimester and settling in to the transition to motherhood. The ‘expert’ advice in the breastfeeding section comes from NCT’s own super-BFC Fran Bailey, so I can’t fault that. But as we move into talking about sleep, alarm bells begin to ring, as those tired old ‘how much sleep does a baby need’ tables are trotted out. Here we meet a US-based paediatric sleep consultant and author of such unpromising titles as It’s never too late to sleep train. With his connivance, Emma offers two sleep-training alternatives, as though those are the only options, and recommends that new parents shouldn’t feel guilty about using them. It’s quite a surprise given the fairly attachment-orientated nature of the rest of the book, and would put me off recommending it.

We then swerve back into baby care, carrying, and how to buy Emma’s special nappies, before finishing with a guide to the best healing crystals.

I wanted to love this book because my mate Fran is in it, and Fran’s bit is the highlight, but this is a classic example of a mum with a platform thinking that her experience – of which much is shared in this book – is universal and indeed useful. If you’re a fan and want to read the Adventures of Booby Spice, I say go for it; but there are far more recommendable books out there for new parents to read.

[Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book, courtesy of Penguin Books]

08 May

Book review: Mixed Up – Combination feeding by choice or necessity, by Lucy Ruddle

There is no doubt that a book on mixed feeding is very much needed, particularly here in the UK where we have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, and the most common way for babies under six months to be fed is to have a combination of breastmilk and formula.

If baby feeding is a subject area that often seems to parents to be mysterious and inaccessible, combination feeding is the most mysterious and inaccessible of all. It is often (mis)understood that breastfeeding is an all or nothing activity, an idea that certainly works out well for the formula manufacturers. We have plenty of books that include information on both breastfeeding and formula feeding, but few that address the question of doing both.

This is a good start, with some really excellent ideas such as the “quick glance alternatives” and “things to be aware of,” which are nicely phrased ways to help parents explore how things might work for them. It is written with kindness and an in-depth knowledge of feeding babies, and there are plenty of stories from real parents if you like that sort of thing.

I’m not a sleep-deprived new parent, and I did find it difficult to navigate the book. Headings are not very distinct from subheadings and the lack of an index made it difficult to find things that were referred to in early chapters such as paced bottle feeding, but not explained until much later in the book. It doesn’t feel logically organised to me; I really wanted to cut it up and put it back together in a different order. The information is solid and the tone is lovely, so it was frustrating that even with a good understanding of the subject, I couldn’t easily find my way around.

I would definitely use this book for my own reference, and given that there I don’t know of another book for parents that covers combination feeding to this extent I would also suggest it to parents, but my feeling is that this particular market niche is not yet saturated.

02 Dec

Book review: Biological Nurturing, by Suzanne Colson

On reading the second edition of Biological Nurturing, I am reminded of what a powerful influence the first edition has been on my work as a breastfeeding counsellor, both in terms of how I talk about positioning, skin to skin, and the transition from womb to world in antenatal sessions; and how I support mothers with breastfeeding after the birth.

Suzanne Colson has vast clinical experience and research experience of what is now widely known as her method: biological nurturing. Biological nurturing is far more than just laid-back breastfeeding; it is a deep understanding of the needs and abilities of the breastfeeding dyad, almost a philosophy of positioning. It is a mother-centred process, using gravity and both parties’ instinctive behaviour, to achieve comfortable and effective breastfeeding.

It could be argued that this is simply a rediscovery of ancient behaviour: the way women breastfed long before male experts took over all the thinking and management of it, to spare our pretty little heads. Colson describes some of the social and cultural movement away from instinctive breastfeeding, using her own science to show how wrong those 18th and 19th Century men of science were about what we do. As she tells us, “you cannot teach mothers to do this,” (p158) because it is instinctive behaviour, highly dependent on the hormonal environment. So the role of a breastfeeding supporter is to enable that environment to be right for the mother and the baby, and to have confidence that this innate behaviour works.

Colson has a great deal of research to support her work, presenting it here in detail, and yet with accessible language and even QR codes so that the reader can access video clips. She is critical of the deeply entrenched, prescriptive ways that some midwives manage early breastfeeding, and this might be a difficult – but essential – read for those who work in that way. It is a fascinating and useful book for anyone supporting breastfeeding, and for mothers who are interested in a much deeper level of knowledge than they will get from your average book on breastfeeding.

[Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of Biological Nurturing. You can obtain yours, with a 10% discount when you use the SPROGCAST code, from Pinter & Martin].

29 Nov

Book review: Informed is Best, by Amy Brown

This afternoon I opened the latest copy of MIDIRS, and a couple of inserts dropped out of it. They are training modules, one on infant skincare, and one on breastfeeding challenges. I browsed the latter for a moment, noticing a paragraph mentioning a Cochrane review on the treatment of nipple pain:

However, the latest Cochrane review (2014) found insufficient evidence to recommend breast milk or any other intervention for treating nipple pain.”

So I looked up the Cochrane review, and here’s what it actually says:

Currently, there is not enough evidence to recommend any specific type of treatment for painful nipples among breastfeeding women. These results suggest that applying nothing or expressed breast milk may be equally or more beneficial in the short-term experience of nipple pain than the application of an ointment such as lanolin.

The picture above shows who produced this document: Lansinoh. A company with a vested interest in selling an ointment such as lanolin.

With this in mind, I picked up my copy of Amy Brown’s latest book, Informed is Best, a book which purports to help the reader fight their way through the tangle of misinformation, opinion, and hidden agendas that gets deeper and deeper as you wade into pregnancy, birth and parenting. This is a very useful and important book, and is more important than ever in an era of fake news, limited attention spans, and a distrust of experts – as the book itself explains in glorious detail.

What I find amazing about Amy’s writing is her ability to gather so much information, and distil it into meaningful and accessible writing; in fact she quotes a study where a mother describes wanting “mom-level detail from an expert” (p226) and this is exactly what we have in this book. Amy sets the context, looking at how the media, social media, and the patriarchy shape our access to good quality information. She explains different types of research, and even gives us a quick blast of how to understand statistics in a way that didn’t actually make me want to poke my own eyes out. The text is wonderfully seasoned with examples, including unpicking many twisted media reports of research; and presented in her marvellously offhand-but-serious-really style. For a book about research, it’s just such an enjoyable read.

One thing I especially love about this book is her exploration of her own bias, along with sections that really should make the reader reflect on their personal biases. The Dunning-Kruger effect really gave me pause for thought. How often do I dismiss someone’s work because of a connection with something I didn’t like reading or hearing? It definitely happens.

Each chapter ends with a practical list of ways to keep informed, summarising the detail within. My favourite is: “To any female expert reading this, I urge you to have the confidence of a mediocre White man.” (p124). Oh yes indeed.

If you want more, I interview Amy about the book in episode 56 of Sprogcast. To get your copy of the book, use our 10% discount code SPROGCAST at the Pinter & Martin checkout here.

27 Nov

Book Review: Inspired Parenting, by Dorka Herner

Dorka Herner is a Hungarian psychologist and mother of five, and this is her book of reflections on motherhood. Divided into six chapters, such as “Reshaping the patterns that shape us,” it seems to be intended as a tool for learning or developing the reader’s own parenting; however it really is just a series of daily writings, from funny little aphorisms about saying a nursery rhyme and realising it is intended as a tool of mind control; to longer vignettes about her twins getting into a good school. Nothing in the book asks the reader to consider how it relates to them, or to reflect on its meaning. It doesn’t advocate a particular style of parenting, or offer advice on any of the many challenges described – just tells you about them.

Inspired Parenting may offer some insight into someone else’s parenting, and it’s always useful to try to understand how other people live. It’s a pleasant book to dip into now and then.

[Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of Inspired Parenting by the publisher. You can get a copy here, with a 10% discount using the code SPROGCAST at the checkout.]

11 Oct

Book Review: Give Birth Like A Feminist, by Milli Hill

I tried to narrow down who I thought should read this book. Expectant mothers? Their partners? Midwives? Doctors? All humans? Pretty much the only people who don’t really need it, are those of us already actively calling for recognition that birth is a feminist issue, within our working community. I fervently hope that the latter are not the only people who read it.

Milli Hill has a strong history of writing well about childbirth, rooted in her own experiences and capitalising on her work as an established journalist. She is able to talk to more mainstream audiences than many of us, and her writing style is passionate, informed and accessible. A strong tenet of this book is that the truly feminist perspective is to support and respect all birth choices, even if they would not be our own.

In case that isn’t a persuasive enough argument, Give Birth Like A Feminist provides a feminist historical and cultural context of birth, looking at why certain things are done just as they have been done for centuries, with no real evidence base. From induction to lithotomy, she examines the assumption behind birthing protocols, which is essentially that women’s bodies are badly designed and ineffective when it comes to reproducing the species. It’s astonishing that we have survived so long. And can I just say, the Husband Stitch? WTF.

From this context, Milli develops the argument that societal attitudes to women’s bodies and behaviour pressure us to conform to a stereotype of being weak, helpless and incapable. In fact, images and stories that represent women as capable and powerful are often repressed; take for example Facebook’s banning of certain images of birth and breastfeeding, that are no more revealing than apparently acceptable images of underdressed celebrities. Women are both infantilised, and expected to be available for sex/pleasing to men in particular and society in general. A good woman, like a good baby, is quiet, undemanding, and has no leg or armpit hair.

Give Birth Like A Feminist furthers a new narrative of childbirth and women’s bodies, elevating women above the mere vessel for and caretaker of the next generation. Milli Hill is constantly kickstarting this conversation, and challenging the way birth is presented in the media and in the world. Just carrying this book into a room last week gave me an insight into attitudes to both birth and feminism, when people around me raised eyebrows and chuckled at the very idea.

This is a well-referenced book, and Hill supports her points with case law and evidence. She has a tendency to write about her own experience, and I find this a distraction from her important argument that this happens to most women, in one way or another. She also fills the book with other women’s voices, and points out that she does not have to ask around for long to find stories where women felt their choices were shut down, belittled, or never discussed at all; where women are abused and coerced, where midwives are unable to work, where we’re all either baby brain or birthzilla, not human beings at all.

There are also some small practical sections describing actions to take or ways to look at evidence, and the BRAIN decision-making tool used widely by NCT is shared again, which can be no bad thing. This is not a practical manual like the Positive Birth Book, but very much a book I would give to a pregnant friend.

Thanks to Milli for the review copy of Give Birth Like A Feminist, and also for sparing time in the summer holidays to chat with me for Episode 54 of Sprogcast.

18 Jul

Book review: Why Breastfeeding Matters, by Charlotte Young

You may be familiar with Charlotte Young, the sometimes-ranty but always well-informed blogger known as The Analytical Armadillo, one of the few reliably evidence-based information sources to be found online. Her wealth of knowledge is collected here into 16 neat chapters on the how and why of breastfeeding.

Like other books in the Why It Matters series, this is small but dense, covering how breastfeeding works; the wide range of normal baby behaviour and parental strategies for coping with it; expressing, formula and mixed feeding; and a couple of good chapters on the socio-cultural context of breastfeeding, and the impact of the formula milk industry.

Young is very aware of being a passionate supporter of breastfeeding mothers, in a bottle-feeding society, so much of her work is around myth-busting, whether she’s addressing the nonsense idea that breastfeeding mothers must eat a bland diet, or the notion that Mommy Wars is a feminist advert. She is careful to reference everything; perhaps a little less careful not to sometimes come across as sarcastic.

If you’re looking for an accurate breastfeeding text that pulls no punches, gives both the practical side of things and the context, and explains all of this logically and clearly, then this book is highly recommended.

[Disclosure: I obtained a free review copy of Why Breastfeeding Matters from the publishers. You can order a copy and get 10% discount using the code SPROGCAST, from their website here]

02 Jul

Book Review: Expecting Better, by Emily Oster

This book has come across my radar a few times, so I finally got round to picking up a copy. I think my lateness to the Emily Oster party may be because I didn’t much enjoy Linda Geddes’ similar book Bumpology, so let’s put that one to bed straight away; this is much, much better than Bumpology.

Expecting Better is well written, with a personal but not annoyingly chatty tone, while also explaining very clearly how to understand some quite complex research, and incorporate that into one’s decision making. It is aimed at parents-to-be and its chronology starts with trying to conceive, and to my disappointment ends at the birth, although I now see that there is a follow up, cleverly named Crib Sheets, which I shall be purchasing as soon as I finish typing this.

The consequence of the book ending with the birth of Oster’s daughter is that I cannot apply my usual test, of checking the tone and accuracy of the breastfeeding section. I have had, instead, to apply my more shallow knowledge of pregnancy and birth, to decide how good I think Expecting Better is.

Oster uses her introduction to explain that, as she is an economist by trade, she likes to make decisions using data. Her model of decision making is to take the data, and combine it with your own personal set of pros and cons. This, then, is how she has set out her book; and while it would be impossible for her to have researched every possible issue that a pregnant woman might face, it’s clear that she has written mainly about those decisions that she personally had to make. So we get almost an entire chapter on caffeine, and two paragraphs on restricted growth and related decisions. However, that is not to say that she doesn’t cover enough; the book is comprehensive, obviously well-researched, and thoroughly referenced., and key points are summarised at the end of each section for when you don’t feel like reading every nuance of the different antenatal screening options.

Language and some content has been edited for UK publication, however Oster is in the USA and this does skew some of what she feels she needs to know about, and her general attitude to birth. She touches on the role of midwives, but knows that a doctor (and a doula – hooray!) will be present at her birth, and she will certainly not be allowed to eat during her labour. The research she looks at are mostly USA, UK, Australian and European, with some cultural comparison as well. The induction methods discussed are definitely american, and there is limited discussion of any pain management options other than epidural.

The implicit message of this book is that informed consent is not possible for the majority of parents-to-be, as the necessary information is not easily accessible. Oster clearly makes up her own mind on a number of issues, after being given scant or even incorrect information by her own healthcare professionals; interestingly she doesn’t seem to question routine vaginal examination, and she is certainly working from an all-that-matters-is-a-healthy-baby point of view.

I sound critical but I did enjoy this book, learned some interesting things about caffeine, and was reminded that I haven’t read so much detailed information on food poisoning since I took my Intermediate Food Hygiene certificate, a quarter of a century ago. Emily Oster is a one-woman systematic review, driven by her own need for evidence to support her decision making; and the book she has produced will undoubtedly be useful for other parents, albeit with the caveat about some of the information being less applicable in the UK.