Why Parents Are Not Having Enough Sex Part 1

Putting in the Work – Sex in Long Term relationships

Since starting my blog my children have grown beyond the baby/toddler stage and I do now have more time to go on regular dates with my partner and generally hang out in the evenings. Which has got me interested in topics not just about parent’s relationships with their kids but with each other too. So, I’m going to start with the fun topic of sex in long-term relationships.

When I say fun I mean largely unspoken about and assumed to be boring by most, including researchers! Whilst it’s super easy to find countless academic articles about sex work, extra marital sex, pre-marital sex, adolescent sex etc etc. Sex between married or long-term couples does not seem abundant beyond some basic stats.[1]But a sociological study I read did make it clear that many couples feel they are not having enough sex.

The romantic story about being human most of us carry around in our heads is roughly along the lines of, we’re born, we grow up, we meet someone, we have children and then we die.  There’s a lot of research about all these stages (as well as a lot of art about the growing up/meeting someone stages too) but the after we meet someone and before we die bit doesn’t get that much attention. This part of our romantic lives however, can last a really long time so I’ve been digging around a bit and found a really interesting academic paper about the sexual lives of Aka and Ngandu married couples in the Congo. 

Anthropologist couple Bonnie and Barry Hewlett have spent a lot of time with the Aka and Ngandu and they noticed that married couples seemed to have a lot more sex than couples in the US. They were referencing research from the early 90’s that showed couples in the US having sex around 2-3 times a week. More recent UK research was lower than this with once a week on average. Both the Aka and Ngandu however, have sex around three times a week but significantly for us, they have sex around three times on those occasions, not just the once which we consider standard practice.

Why are they having so much sex? And why aren’t we? Or maybe we are? Are you having sex several times a night three times a week with your partner? I’m not one for oversharing but I can comfortably say that I am not doing this. So how do the Aka and Ngandu find the time and energy? As they put it, this is important ‘night work’ which whilst pleasurable it’s done in order to have children. Pregnancy isn’t achieved as a one-off event but is accumulative and the more sex the more likely the woman is to get pregnant and stay pregnant. Both partners climaxing is believed to be necessary and once pregnant, semen continues to sustain the growing baby so it’s worth keeping up sexual activity during pregnancy too.

However, older couples who are too old to have children still have sex and see its frequency as contributing to a good marriage and to show love. It seems like whilst the discourse around sex is that it has a reproductive purpose, in practise it’s also about love and connection and contributes to the overall idea of sex as important ‘work’. For the Aka in particular children are seen as the source of joy and meaning in life so it makes sense to me that frequent sex might then be seen as central to a good marriage as it represents the source of children, whether it literally contributes to having them or not. 

This idea of ‘night work’ reflects UK advice I’ve read suggesting that parents should schedule in time for sex. However, unlike the Aka we don’t see this in an entirely positive light. In the West we tend to have an attitude to sex that is built around the idea of spontaneity, freedom, individuality and expression which sometimes makes the reality in a long-term relationship feel a bit disappointing. We feel like good sex shouldn’t be planned but what if we saw sex as work, nice work, fun work but work nonetheless? It might make us feel more at ease about scheduling it in because whether you’re Aka or British a good sex life is key to a good long-term relationship even if it’s not three times a night several times a week!

Reading List

B Hewlett and B Hewlett – A Biocultural Approach to Sex and Intimacy in Central African Foragers and Farmers (2008)

NHS summary of research data into sexual behaviour in the UK

A nice summary on Foucault and sexuality and his questioning the idea that sex is not an expression of our true selves but a socially mediated activity like any other


[1] I might be missing something and if so do let me know about the great research out there!

Starting Again

It’s been a while since I last wrote but with my kids being back in school and the pandemic holding back any paid work, I’ve got some time and I thought I’d write again. Since my last post years have literally gone by and my interests have changed to reflect my growing children, who are now five and nine. So, I’m less interested in potty training and breastfeeding and more curious about education, gender and even parent’s relationships with each other (we have time for that now!). Also, since doing my MSc in Digital Anthropology* I am super interested in how we as humans make and are made by the technologies we live with. So, there’ll be some posts about that too, especially in relation to how it affects families which is basically everyone.

Image still from Video by Stephanie Gonot featured in from Tear it Up and Start Again NYT article

Living through Covid-19 has been a particularly intense time in terms of our dependence on digital technology. Who’d have thought we could become even more reliant on our smart phones than we were already? Even more monitored than we already felt we were? I spent months home-schooling via various apps and platforms and despite my reluctance have ended up using all the different video conferencing services regardless of what they do or don’t do with my data. 

It’s also revealed how massively social human beings are. All those months unable to socialise, congregate, generally be near each other was and continues to be super tough. Economists, psychologists, behavioural scientists – all the people the government tend to turn to are more comfortable thinking of people as individuals motivated by individual desires. What the pandemic has shown, which has been of no surprise to anthropologists, is that we can’t understand why people do the things they do without thinking about the groups they’re a part of and the contexts they live in.  

And speaking of groups and connection, I look forward to chatting to anyone who comes by the blog or the Facebook page. I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts, or experiences you’ve had and can feed this into my own research. As before my posts will come sporadically but hopefully not too infrequently and I hope you find them worthwhile. I’m going to start by thinking less about our kids and more about our relationships with our partners. 

100 Reasons Why Women Stop Breastfeeding

There are many reasons women stop breastfeeding but one of the most common is that they say their milk either ‘dried up’ or they weren’t producing enough. However, if you delve a little deeper every woman will have a story particular to her that explains why she stopped and it is usually much more complex than there just not being enough milk. There are in fact way more than 100 reasons why women stop breastfeeding but what I want to discuss in this post is what ‘not enough milk’ means and why it happens so much more than medical research allows for, i.e. I found scant evidence for physiological causes of low milk supply in my research.

breastfeeding model
This is how you breastfeed right?

Breastfeeding is a perfect example of how you can’t look at human activity in isolation from its wider context, whether it’s breastfeeding or mathematics, what we do is shaped by our surroundings and shared beliefs. Obviously this doesn’t mean there are no bodily facts, breastfeeding can only be done by women with breasts (apart from the men who breastfeed but let’s not complicate matters), but I wonder if the tendency to just look at breasts and breast milk as almost separate from the woman herself has skewed our understanding and our experience of this essential activity.

Looking for images about breastfeeding for example google rarely brings up any pictures with women in a social situation, it is almost always just the breast and the baby without the rest of the woman!

This reveals the cultural bias in the West to see breastfeeding as biological and nutritional but not social. This explains why so many women despite knowing that breastmilk is superior nutritionally, on a social level it is still an awkward thing to do and in some situations it is actively disapproved of as the poet Hollie McNish expressed so eloquently.

We see breastfeeding as a slightly embarrassing nutritional, biological activity but how do we see nutrition and biology? There are strong arguments that industrialisation and the Enlightenment both contributed to an idea of the body as a machine, a series of processes a bit like a factory, separate from the mind and one that can be understood using the language of economics. What does that have to do with breastfeeding? Well just look at the language midwives and mothers use.

In an ethnographic study in the north west of England the anthropologist Fiona Dykes found several words kept being used by those she spoke to: producing; supplying; demanding; controlling and productive.  Only one woman spoke of breastfeeding using terms like intimacy and nurturing and she was from Gujarat. Nurturing and intimacy imply relationships not just inputting nutrition by providing the right quality and quantity of milk at the correct times. Terms like keeping up your supply, not giving in to controlling babies using you as a dummy (aren’t dummies supposed to be mimicking breasts, not the other way around!?), on demand feeding, producing enough and so on, all contribute to an idea of breastfeeding as a production line. It’s no wonder that some women feel they are failing and have anxiety about ‘producing enough’.

Another ethnographic study in the UK, completed recently, highlighted the effect of regular weighing of newborns. What it discovered is that the centile charts and the often weekly weigh ins were causing unnecessary concern in both health professionals and mothers which often resulted in the introduction of formula. The centile charts used by most health visitors and midwives are based on a study monitoring only formula fed babies in the US. This new study reveals that breastfed babies do have small fluctuations in weight: some weeks they may decrease in weight and others they’ll increase. I emphasise that these are small discrepancies and if you are advised to consider formula this may well be the best choice for you. But it’s another reason why some women stop breastfeeding based on the feeling that there are correct weights, volumes, supplies and demands when in fact they may be doing just fine. Breastfeeding is about feeding and nurturing your baby in your every day life, it is not a production line nor a medical procedure.

I want to make clear that I have no desire to diminish the real experiences of women who did not have enough milk for their babies. For many women stopping does not feel like a choice but an absolute necessity and I have no wish to put their experiences into question. As I expressed in a previous post, bottle feeding is just as natural as breastfeeding and there is no judgement here.

I have a million other things to add and I hope to continue this topic but for now let me finish on a health initiative undertaken in India with 299 women who all came to the medical centre with concerns that their babies were not getting enough milk (it’s definitely not just a Western worry, it’s incredibly common across the world). After 3 months they were all discharged and were exclusively breastfeeding their babies. What did they do? All the usual strategies of correct latch etc that you’re probably familiar with but two further things stand out. Medical staff were told not to use words like ‘wrong’ ‘right’ or ‘enough’ and grandmothers were actively encouraged to advise and support the young mothers. This was because as the report outlined, ‘Casual comment by relatives or health professionals that the mother may not be having enough milk may be sufficient to reduce the mother’s confidence, suppress oxytocin reflex and cause lactation failure’. These women were spoken to in a positive non quantified way and their social relations and context were taken into consideration. I wonder if we can learn something from this project here in the UK.

 

Resources

I read loads of different articles for this post so if you have any questions just ask and I’ll send you the relevant papers.

If you’re struggling to breastfeed then see what your local health visitor or midwife can provide, lots of boroughs and counties have excellent specialist lactation support. If you don’t have access to that or it’s not working for you La Leche League provide excellent if slightly biased advice. This is the UK site but there are groups all over the world  https://www.laleche.org.uk

If you want to try mix feeding or switch to bottle feeding here’s some excellent practical advice on bottle feeding technique: http://nurturedchild.ca/index.php/pumping-bottle-feeding/bottle-feeding/

Helicopter Mums and Weird Parents

woman in helicopter
This is a woman in a helicopter.

There was some research published this week, and reported in loads of newspapers all over the world, stating that helicopter parenting may negatively affect children’s emotional well-being and behaviour. This immediately made me feel a bit smug because whilst I’m pretty dedicated to my kids I definitely don’t hover over them wherever they go and other parents have commented on my laissez faire attitude, so it must be true. But this is exactly the kind of report that motivated me to start this blog. Why the anxiety? And can this report really be true? There are a couple of things that stand out for me about this study. One, that it reveals the unusual and WEIRD habits of Western parents. Two that it’s a perfect example of why I’m sceptical of psychology research in general.

Joe Henrich and his colleagues at Columbia university coined the term WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) to describe the societies that psychologists study. Myself and most of you reading this fit into this category. David Lancy the anthropologist is pretty clear that as parents we are very weird compared to other cultures across the world. We are obsessed with our kids in a way that is unprecedented. For example all our national and religious festivals are now pretty much focused around spending money on our kids.

So what I take from this helicopter parenting report and the subsequent press articles is not that helicopter parenting is a symptom of being WEIRD, which it probably is but what’s more interesting and potentially more weird is how much these articles are shared and pored over. We might not all helicopter parent our children but we probably do helicopter parent ourselves!

The second most interesting thing from my perspective is the study itself. The psychologists conducting the research invited mothers and children into their lab and observed them for a total of six minutes. SIX MINUTES! In that time they decided that if she helped her child complete the tasks then she was an ‘over controlling’ parent. Anthropologists spend around a year and a half with the people they study before they feel they can make any serious conclusions and yet psychologists are quite happy to make generalisations about the whole of humanity based on these kinds of clinical experiments. I don’t want to bash psychology, I’ve been helped by therapists myself, but I do think it’s really important to acknowledge the serious limitations of much of the research that is done which I think this micro six minute study is a perfect example of.

Joe Henrich who I mentioned above, caused a huge stir some years ago when he published his paper revealing that the vast majority of psychological research is done in the US or Northern Europe. Mostly the US, and mostly with not only WEIRD participants but with psychology undergrads. So when famous studies are cited about the human capacity for generosity or altruism, they didn’t study humans, they studied psychology undergrads. Young people with very little life experience from privileged backgrounds and an interest in psychology. This isn’t representative and doesn’t actually tell us about all humans at all.

As parents we’re often reading about how whatever we’re doing is probably bad for our children. We’re even given lists of developmental milestones to measure our children against which let’s face it, more significantly we use to measure ourselves against. What I’m discovering is that a lot of the research used to inform us is based on a very narrow strip of humanity that may or may not apply to our own circumstances. Jamaican children walk sooner than ours, wealthier US kids talk sooner than their poor neighbours, very young Bofi children are more responsible than ours. Why the variation? Because you don’t get a human without culture, you can’t get them in a neutral lab and conduct a neutral experiment, there is no such thing. It is what being human is and any study that says we are damaging our children based on observing our interactions for six minutes should be seriously questioned.

Co-Sleep If You Want To (to the tune of the B52’s)

Just a quick one to highlight an article in the New Scientist on co-sleeping. Helen Ball is quoted quite a bit and the research she sent me formed the basis of my post on sleep. 

This article explains why co-sleeping has been advised against by doctors in the UK and the US primarily. It points out that there has never been any definitive association between co-sleeping and SIDS but how nonetheless this became gospel. The only clear cut risks are for co-sleeping on sofas or after drinking and/or smoking.  Otherwise it’s up for debate with some people recommending it.

I wanted to co-sleep more but found the only way I could relax enough to actually sleep was if my partner wasn’t also in the bed which we did do for a while, poor guy was on the sofa bed but in the end I had to chuck her out. I now end up getting into her single bed with her at about 4.30am every day when she wakes up for some milk.

Here’s the article: Lullaby and Goodnight

NS baby sleeping

(Sleep well: Sandra Seckinger/Westend61/plainpicture)

Fat Vaginas and Hot Springs – being pregnant in Japan

 

japanese pregnant women

(Slightly condescending image of pregnant Japanese women; it was this or stock shots, sorry)

Do pregnant Japanese women eat sushi? The quick answer to that is yes, they do. The longer answer is that as a developed nation with modern medicine and the kind of modern economically privileged lifestyle we are familiar with the fact that pregnant women are not told to avoid raw fish is one of a number of recommendations that makes it clear how medicine along with all human endeavour is culturally mediated and some recommendations have more to do with culture and tradition than medical science. And that medical science is inextricably tied up with culture so it’s hard to separate the two anyway.

For example, here in the UK and across much of the West pregnant women are advised not to overheat. When I was pregnant with my first child we decided to go on a big holiday before all the fun was extinguished from our lives (as we feared). We went to California, hired a camper van and went on an amazing road trip. When we stumbled across some natural hot springs my excitement was ruined by the recommendation that pregnant women were not allowed. Signs around the springs stated: Continue reading

Potty Training in Different Cultures

1512-chinese-baby-crotchless-pants-kaidangku

A Chinese baby in of a pair of kaidangku. Photo courtesy of http://www.strangepersons.com

In some of my reading for my last post it was mentioned in passing how Chinese babies were traditionally potty trained pretty much from birth. From birth! I have often wondered how babies in cultures that don’t use nappies are kept clean and here was an account that briefly mentioned that babies cues were read early on and they were taken to the bathroom whenever they needed to go. So no nappies needed and no later toddler potty training conflicts, accidents, negotiations, just dry bottomed babies that turn into dry bottomed toddlers.

Continue reading

Why Chinese Grandparents Are The Best

ChineseGrandfatherRaisingGrandchildren-56afb08a3df78cf772c77eec

Whilst around a quarter of grandparents in the UK provide regular childcare for their grandchildren, it is normally out of choice. Either because they’d like to help out and spend time with their grandchildren or because there is a special need, perhaps their child is a single parent and they feel duty bound to help out. In China this is a formalised tradition, ie it’s expected of grandparents. Continue reading

Is Breastfeeding Natural?

(This is me breastfeeding (it isn’t))

Of course it is but the whole question of what is natural can cause a lot of damage when discussing breastfeeding. I recently had a bit of a ‘debate’ on FB with a friend of a friend about breastfeeding. A modern phenomenon and not the best place for reasoned discussion, I succumbed nonetheless. The friend used the word ‘breastapo’ to describe breastfeeding advocates, which I took umbridge with but after stewing for the best part of a day I decided to look at things through an anthropologist’s eyes Continue reading

Bonding With Your Baby is a Luxury

brazilian-mother-and-baby

(Brazilian mother and child)

Sometimes I wonder whether I love my children too much. The intensity of feeling can be overwhelming but then I reassure myself that this is natural. This is part of my biological, prehistoric nature to bond with and adore my children. To sacrifice myself for them. There is nothing a mother wouldn’t do for her child. Or so the story goes. But this is our story, the story of mothers in the West at this particular point in history. Having just a few adored children and investing heavily in each one is a very particular phenomenon and relatively new to us in the West (although nomadic peoples for example have tended this way for much longer).

Nancy Scheper Hughes worked with and studied mother infant bonding in a particularly impoverished region of North Eastern Brazil in the 60’s and then again in the 80’s. She was struck not only by the very high child mortality rates there but also by the indifference that the mothers showed to the passing of their babies. Continue reading