Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mother Knows Best: Talking Back to the Experts

I suppose it's not so different to those mothers that wish to see themselves in their children's books, that I've been looking for me in my own reading. Or rather seeking representations of my experience since becoming a mother, not because I'm so entirely self-interested, but because the politics of motherhood are hard to understand. And motherhood is politicized, the whole of it, which is natural in the case of any group of people lacking power enough to properly go around.

Mothers are also a group of people desperately trying to tame chaos, which makes them perfect targets for authority of all kinds. And these authorities, I've noticed, do tend to be men and childless women, which is probably because these are the only people unlearned enough to think that babies could be a science. In Mother Knows Best: Talking Back To The "Experts" (published by York University's Demeter Press, which also published Motherhood and Blogging: The Radical Art of the Mommy Blog), writers address this notion of "expertness", and discuss the impact of these authorities on modern mothering.

And it is "mothering", which the carefully benign "parenting" is usually an euphemism for anyway. Mothering a baby is scientific like the tide is, natural as anything, tied to the moon, but much more difficult to time by a clock. So that an expert will tell you that your breastfeeding pain is impossible, because Baby's latch is fine, but feeding makes you want to die. Another will tell you that babies don't get fevers whilst teething, even though you've had three children and it was the case for all of them. I read a book by a breastfeeding champion who said that babies do not require burping, that gulping does not cause gas, but he's obviously never met my daughter. A baby's poo (oh, of course I was going to talk about poo! Can you believe I waited until the third paragraph!), says the baby books, will always be yellow, but I've met mothers of the healthiest of babes with veritable rainbows. (And even worse, even the "experts" don't agree with one another. This is very confusing. In making any major decisions about my child's wellbeing, I've found the best solution so far is to throw the baby books out the window. They make a mighty thunk. What fun!)

All of this expertism serves to undermine a mother's instinct and confidence, and the idea that there is just one way to be a baby or a mom is what pits women against one another so mercilessly. The conflict is apparent even in the anthology-- in "Deconstructing Discourse: Breastfeeding, Intensive Mothering and the Moral Construction of Choice", Stephanie Knaak questions studies that find any difference between breastfed and formula-fed babies. In the next article, Catherine Ma begins "If the Breast is Best, Why Are Breastfeeding Rates So Low?" with "The consensus on the benefits of breast milk is undisputed on both institutional and individual levels."

So which is it? But in this anthology, that is not the point, which is instead to examine the politics of these ideas, which it does so effectively. And novelly as well, which is novel itself with arguments that have been rehashed over and over again. In "Making Decisions About Vaccines", Rachel Casiday writes about those parents who "know" that the MMR vaccine was behind their child's autism, just as that mother I mentioned before "knew" that fevers came with teething. Whether or not these parents are right is not the point either, and Casiday's thesis is that this kind of parental "knowledge" has to be taken into account by authorities regardless. These parents have their own particular brand of expert knowledge, and the dismissal of their concerns by authorities is what leaves other parents torn between experts (for it was a scientific study, however now debunked, that made the autism/MMR link) and wary of having their own children vaccinated.

Mother Knows Best also examines breastfeeding and attachment parenting, and how these inform ideas of "the good mother". How many feminists have embraced these practices, though they run so contrary to feminist politics. The fetisization of "the natural", to justify breastfeeding and attachment parenting, though these ideas are out of place in the society in which we live (and in America, in particular, where maternity leave is pitiful). I have become quite accustomed, in the liberal circles in which I run, to turning my nose up at sleep training and Nestle, but it was interesting to interrogate these ideas, and question where they come from. To consider whether it might be egocentric to forego a career to be there for your child, and assume your presence will make up for whatever material goods the child will lack. How ultrasound imagery renders the fetus subject rather than object. How pregnancy guide advice compares to actual women's experiences.

Though academic theorizing is odd to those of us outside the academy, I've found it quite useful to examine the politics of motherhood within this construct. Because discussions of motherhood get so personal, otherwise, and then defensive, mean and ridiculous. And all the experts who claim to come without agenda, but nobody is, so to take a step back is really worthwhile. An anthology like this is the closest thing to "the big picture" that I've been able to grasp yet of the big, big picture that motherhood is, and for that reason among many, I'm glad I read it.