Monday, May 14, 2012

Time Magazine's May 2012 Cover - The Power of Social Conditioning

First off, to those who have already commented and wouldn’t know me from Jane, I am a mother, a lactivist, and an attachment parenting evangelical.  So, you can prolly guess what lines my response will follow.  However, I also want to invite some critical thinking on a subject that underscores all of this:  social conditioning.

Humans, by nature, are social creatures.  We are wired that way.  It is at the essence of what makes humans, as competing creatures on this planet, so darn successful and it’s a very strong part of what makes us-- human.  What social mores are imprinted at infancy and through out childhood determines our morals, values, and judgements we make as adults.  ‘Evil’ things have come from social conditioning such as child soldiers, cult followings, those sort of aspects.  Many ‘good’ things have come from social conditioning as well: rights of man, the rule of law, etiquette, religion, etc.

Right.  Having said that, I think it’s already been mentioned how sexualized women’s breasts are in Western society.  Consider for how many generations this has been going on.  Consider what Eastern and African societies say to this.  Consider any personal discomfort that you have towards seeing a baby nursing and seeing a 5 year old nursing.  Don’t fear any discomfort you might feel, just be honest about it to yourself about it, even if it is outright revulsion.  Its okay to feel discomfort—that’s because women’s breasts as a sexual fetish is pretty well institutionalized in our society.  This is the result of social conditioning—much like babies aren’t born racist—it’s learned… social conditioning is VERY powerful.  And then consider that even held latent in our own language there is evidence that nursing and even extended nursing (nursing beyond the age of 6 months, or 1 year) was once a normal part of everyday life for everyone.

Women are made to bare and nurse children.  WHO’s offered some guidelines on how long to nurse… it was once 6 months, then 1 year, now 2 years ‘and beyond’.  They keep bumping out this guideline as more and more scientific evidence comes to light (preventing disease, some forms of cancer, obesity, development disorders), that negates what’s been social practice for many generations and it’ll keep getting bumped out until we get into the neighbourhood of when children are meant to wean, by nature, as more societies become more comfortable with extended breastfeeding.

Do you remember when you were a kid and the tooth fairy came to visit?  You might have been somewhere between the age of five and eight.  Do you remember what they called those teeth that the tooth fairy came to collect?  They were called, “milk teeth”.  Do you ever wonder why in the hell would anyone call them ‘milk teeth’?  Because women in Western society at one point, around the origin of our language, was nursing children until they were five to eight.  Mind you, children don’t nurse as often as babies and toddlers do since their primary source of nutrition is food like what the adults eat—not even once per day.  But nurse they shall for comfort, closeness, proximity, and for the natural relaxants found in prolactin.

Speaking of great hormones like prolactin, I want to talk about oxytocin.  A gentleman above already suggested that extended breastfeeding was akin to child molestation; based on the social perception that breastfeeding is sexual in nature.  I want to introduce a very fascinatingly true view upon that—nursing is sexual.  But not in the strict sense one may assume right off the bat.

Nursing kicks off a chain reaction of psycho-physical events that releases many hormones—prolactin, to produce more milk is one.  Oxytocin is another.  Oxytocin is responsible for the BIG O in women (for a long time, was my FAVORITE hormone, just for this reason alone!); it’s also a big part of what kicks off labor; and one of its most important roles—it is the bonding hormone.  Ever wonder why she likes a cuddle after sex?

Ever heard of some full term pregnant women initiating sex with their partner or doing nipple stimulation to kick start labor?  Post partum, nursing helps the mom’s uterus get back into shape in the same way that labor is kicked off, by causing the uterus to contract and shrink down in response to oxytocin that’s released during nursing.  But then, nursing also encourages bonding and imprinting between mother and baby as more oxytocin, the bonding hormone, is released while nursing.  I encourage independent research of studies comparing how close and confident breastfeeding mothers feel towards their children versus bottle feeding mothers—how long it took for each on average to feel bonded with their babies.  Oxytocin affects a woman’s sexual organs—same organs responsible for carrying and sustaining a child.

Therefore, nursing is sexual—but part of a larger cycle wherein it’s viewed that conception, pregnancy, delivery, and child rearing is included along with the sexual encounter itself.  Not in a way where the mother is sexually attracted to her child or vice versa (many women who have experienced nursing can vouch for how false that notion is), but rather in the way that this larger lifecycle is completed and brought full circle.

To bring social conditioning back into this monologue, we are socially conditioned to view the breast as strictly for sexual encounters—to the point where a knee jerk reaction above assumes that breastfeeding beyond a certain age is child molestation.  I understand where that perception comes from and I’d probably share in that myself to this day, had I not become a breastfeeding mother.  Extended breastfeeding is a subject that not many research until they’re faced with that question, much like many finer points in parenting in general.  However, I do want to assure readers that it’s natural for children to self wean between the ages of five and seven when the children are left to their own devices (and if the mother is willing!).  Nursing as children is far less frequent than nursing as babies or toddlers—they may nurse once a fortnight, if that.

Imagine a workplace where a woman is fired because she needed bathroom breaks to change her tampon.  That wouldn’t fly as a part of sexual discrimination and equality protections.  However, it is reasonably the state for working mothers who want to provide breast milk for their children.  A little known blessing from the Affordable Healthcare Act is that employers must provide breastfeeding mothers with a private space that is not the bathroom to pump and store her breastmilk (Would you eat in a public john?  Please don’t ask a woman to nurse or pump there.).  This is groundbreaking in the American workplace.  It demonstrates an investment—not just in working moms—but in their kids too.  And that’s where I believe feminism needs to head.

Okay, let me back track to more science lessons.  Among mammals, there is roughly two types of mammalian lactation strategies… you’ve got your ‘clutch feeders’ and you’ve got your ‘frequent feeders’.  By design, ‘clutch feeders’ have more fats and proteins in their milk to keep their young well fed and sated while the mother goes out and forages for food for herself while her litter stays all together in their clutch.  She might return 2-3 times per day to nurse her young.

In comparison, ‘frequent feeders’ have much lower fat and protein content in their milk, but higher carbohydrates and even higher levels of cholesterol.  This different strategy requires the mother to keep her young with her as they need to feed much more frequently to stay sated and well fed.  This is the strategy that most very socially evolved mammals follow—all of the primates, for example.  It is the milk content that builds more evolved brains.  It’s the strategy that humans were designed to follow, as inconvenient as it can be.  Human mothers must nurse every 2-3 hours, at times even more frequently than that, until her baby begins taking nutrition from other sources.

So, (human) women are frequent nursers—it is a part our biological strategy for success, and encouraging brain development, defending against disease, building and teaching about human relationships, developing empathy, demonstrating and teaching social rules besides mere nutrition is only the beginning of what nursing does for us as a species.

Okay—this is where I need to be careful in framing what I’m about to say next because I’m disinterested in expressing a view that disparages mothers who have chosen bottle feeding.  When speaking in terms of feminism, I don’t believe there needs to be a distinction between bottle feeding moms and breastfeeding moms (or the old working moms versus stay at home moms arguments).  I do believe feminism as it stands today is a very narrow view because it doesn’t fully incorporate the complete totality of motherhood.  There are far many feminists who view nursing as the chain and children as their masters.  In my view, that’s simply not true.  Feminism (and women’s rights… and by extension children’s rights) are not slices that come out of a finite pie.  It’s only as finite as one is willing to advocate for it.

With that said… the fight for inexpensive and easily available contraception is only the first step.  The fight for when a woman gets to choose whether or not she becomes a mother is the next step.  A step that got overlooked or lost along the way is the mother choosing strictly how she will treat her pregnancy and delivery, should she choose that path for herself.  And finally the fight for a woman to complete her natural lifecycle.

Here we bring in, once again, social conditioning.  In Western society, we are by the large part socially conditioned to believe that breastfeeding is a choice because bottle feeding is a readily available alternative.  Formula hasn’t always been around however.  What do you think happened in those times before we had formula manufacturers such as Abbott Labs, Nestle, and Mead Johnson, just to name a few?

Women don’t choose to lactate after pregnancy.  It just happens as a natural consequence of pregnancy, just like she doesn’t choose to menstruate as a natural consequence of puberty.  Lactation is not a choice.

Certainly, you’ll hear stories of women who’s milk ‘never came in’ and in about 95% of those stories, the root cause is poor breastfeeding support at birth and in the first few critical weeks post partum.  The number one contributor to poor breastfeeding support is sabotage done by formula manufacturers.  Go ahead and do some independent research on it—it won’t take too long to find evidence of marketing fraud.  Bonus points to those who find references of these practices in business ethnics textbooks widely used today at colleges and universities.

We’ve endured generations of this sabotage that has promoted breastfeeding in public as disgusting, shameful and extended breastfeeding as taboo; it has promoted that breastfeeding is more difficult than bottle feeding; it has promoted that breastfeeding is a choice; and the worst thing its promoted—the false notion that formula is just as reasonably good for children as breastmilk.

Nursing is what women are designed for and should not be left in the dust as far as feminism is concerned.  Nursing moms, extended maternity, child care vouchers, indeed should all be advocated and supported.

We’re not just investing in women when we do this—we’re also investing in children.  We are investing in our future.  This is a long term investment of at least eighteen years for each child.  Some countries, however, who are investing in nursing moms, extended maternity, and child care vouchers are enjoying some shorter returns on their investments.  Norway does this best, imho.  For 1 krone invested in programs that support breastfeeding moms, maternity leave, and child care vouchers, Norway gets back in tax revenue from working moms 1.45 krones.  What a GREAT investment for keeping those moms productive and their children healthy.

Anyone want to talk about Attachment Parenting?  In spite of Time Magazine’s cover, the bulk of the issue is about AP (and that’s far from ‘Auto Pilot’ parenting Ken rants about frequently ;-)).  But I think I said everything I wanted to say about the breastfeeding portion.

Oh yah, one more thing.  The mom in that picture?  She wasn’t happy that Time chose that particular photo of her from the 4 mothers they did photograph and the many sessions that she herself did.  But she is glad the subject is getting some much needed attention, as provocative as it is.  I hope that other advocates of nursing, nursing in public, extended breastfeeding, and attachment parenting like myself do speak up; do feel brave enough educate; to not fall back defensively in advocating women’s and children’s rights; and do challenge the effects of social conditioning.

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