Are We Really Choosing to Go Back to Work?

There have been a number of reports recently showing an unexpectedly sharp decline in birth rate in the US and in China which if it continues will lead to nations with very large aging populations and all the social and economic issues that brings. In response to these reports, the general consensus in press articles and on social media, has been that the economics of having a baby is too unappealing for many people. Without progressive policies allowing women to return to work and for fathers to be able to take parental leave, we can’t be surprised that the birth rate is declining. However, this misses the important fact that some of the countries with the best parental leave and most highly subsidised childcare have some of the lowest birth rates in the world. 

According to a super interesting report by the Institute for Family Studies the decline in fertility witnessed in many countries, not just the US and China, is caused by a wider culture of ‘workism’, by which they mean a cultural emphasis on work as a highly valued and meaningful activity. To be clear I understand that we work in order to meet our rent/mortgage payments and feed ourselves and our kids, obviously there are millions of people in the UK who are struggling to meet their basic needs and work is not optional, the growth in food banks alone makes that clear. But there are also millions of parents who have gone way past meeting these needs and still feel the need to work and work hard. 

To make it more complicated, despite this desire to work many women also reported wanting to have more children than they have. (By the way I’m talking mostly about women here because it’s notoriously hard to get decent data on men and birth rate as they’re not always honest about or even know how many children they’ve had.) So, if women would actually like to have more children but don’t even when they’re given financial incentives to do so, what’s going on?

The research for this post has been a particularly difficult topic to unpick because it’s so entrenched in my own thinking and the society in which I’m immersed. I imagine many of you will also be reading this and thinking, what’s the story here? Why are you even talking about this? Yes, we would rather work than spend all day with our kids, what’s the issue exactly? The issue for me is exemplified in a lecture on the social theorist Max Weber I recently watched, in which the professor turns to the packed student hall at Yale and says ‘most of you in this room will never have much fun!’.  Max Weber used to be taught to all undergraduate anthropologists, I’m not sure how popular he is these days but I still think his work is amazing because he does so much to help us understand our own unquestioned, unseen beliefs and values. In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism he lays out how the development of capitalism is intrinsically linked to the emergence of Protestantism.  Working hard, saving money and not having fun are basically the core of Protestant ethics and this has been hugely influential to our own thinking about what a valuable way of living our lives is. Why do we choose to work more when we could be out taking a walk, visiting a relative or reading a book and then going to collect our kids from school? Because this feels like madness to many of us. We don’t deserve fun; we need to be productive. 

All the policies implemented to supposedly help women and families are about returning to work, they reinforce the idea that work is the priority and this ends up paradoxically discouraging women from having more children. As the Institute for Family Studies report states:

“Government policies that try to increase fertility by providing more benefits aimed at workers, such as universal child care or parental leave programs, may undermine their efforts as they strengthen a “workist” life-script rather than a “familist” one.” 

I’ve always felt a bit ill at ease by the statements I’ve heard from politicians over the years like ‘hard working families’, ‘jobs jobs jobs’, ‘supporting women to get back to work’. Not because I don’t recognize the struggle people have just to stay afloat and the right for women to return to work after having children but because I’ve wondered why we assume that working really hard is a good thing. Wouldn’t it be good if we could stay afloat by working just enough?

And then this got me to asking, what is work? Work is often defined as economic activity but anthropologists have long highlighted how ‘the economy’ doesn’t really exist. It’s just people doing things and it’s very much embedded in our emotional, political and religious lives, not a separate sphere where people make choices based on rational mathematical calculations. The work we choose, the way we spend our money etc is not independent of the social contexts in which we exist, there is no ‘rational maximiser’. In this pandemic, late capitalist world it has become ever clearer that in order to work someone needs to take care of our children, we pay them to have that job. But then if we do it is it a job? We’ll hear things like ‘parenting is the hardest job in the world’, or feminists will highlight the invisible labour undertaken by mothers but it doesn’t make it a job – because it’s not valued either financially or socially anywhere near as much as paid work is and legally it doesn’t count as employment either.  

So if a nanny takes your kid to the playground after school it’s considered work but if you do it it’s what, leisure? A lifestyle choice? If you go to work at a call centre every day that’s work but if you spend all day on the allotment that’s leisure? If I sit at a computer reading about Weber it feels more like work than going for a walk does but is it? This, is why I love anthropology, because it helps me to think about the world I live in and to question whether the way things are, are they way they have to be. Maybe work can be more than just a job. This quote by David Graeber puts it so well:

“I was drawn to the discipline because it opens windows on other possible forms of human social existence; because it served as a conscious reminder that most of what we assume to be immutable has been, in other times and places, arranged quite differently, and therefore, that human possibilities are in almost every way greater than we ordinarily imagine.”
From Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (2007)

There are women (and a few rare men) who choose to work very little or not at all but they pay a big price, not just financially but socially. Stay at home mums report higher levels of anger, sadness and social isolation. I wonder if that would be different if we didn’t see work as the source of our sense of meaning and social value. It’s hard sometimes to see the cultural wood for the social norms trees but for me, after a year of looking for work during a pandemic and feeling a bit unmoored, I’ve been thinking more and more about why we work and what work is. Is my life valuable even if I’m not working? I hope so.

Further Reading

The Institute for Family Studies is called More Work Fewer Babies: What Does Workism Have to do with Falling Fertility by Laurie de Rose and Lyman Stone

Weber and Anthropology
Author(s): Charles F. Keyes
Source: Annual Review of Anthropology , 2002

Washington Post article about US birth rate decline

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/05/05/birth-rate-us-japan-korea/

This lecture on Weber by Iván Szelényi  is pretty great, especially from around 35 minutes in. It’s where I got the ‘most of you in this room will never have much fun’. 

Are Your Kids Addicted to Gaming?

There have been a number of worrying reports lately about young people spending detrimental amounts of time on their phones and gaming in particular. The pandemic has meant a lot of parents’ rules around gaming have been abandoned whilst they try to keep up with work, leaving them feeling guilty and often with grumpy, gaming focused kids. In this post I wanted to investigate what gaming addiction is and how we can work out what to do if we’re not happy with our kids gaming. 

First of all, is addiction to gaming a real thing? Yes and no. On the one hand the WHO  officially recognized it as a condition in 2019, on the other there’s quite a lot of controversy around how ‘addiction’ is defined. Addiction is often looked at in studies centred on dopamine and whether something stimulates its production and therefore makes the person want more and more of it. However, reading some of the literature on addiction I’ve found that it’s all a bit tenuous as dopamine is produced by lots of nice things like running or breastfeeding which doesn’t necessarily make a person behave compulsively. For me what’s important is not whether gaming is physiologically addictive or not, but more that for some people compulsive gaming can have a very negative impact on their lives and the word ‘addiction’ helps them describe their feelings and importantly to also get other to take their problems seriously. 

So, if it’s not that helpful to think about dopamine production how can we define when gaming has become addictive? Having read through various papers as well as speaking to Joe Tulasiewicz, a PhD student at UCL researching internet addiction, it’s seems like it’s less about the number of hours spent gaming but how it is affecting the rest of the players lives. Is gaming all they really want to do? Do they avoid activities that will take them away from gaming? Is it paradoxically not that much fun for them, ie they’re not particularly happy when gaming? If the answer is yes then perhaps, they have a problem.

There’s a great study on gambling addiction in Las Vegas, titled Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schull which has become a keystone in understanding all sorts of digital addictions. It might also be useful here when trying to understand our kids and their relationships with gaming. Most gambling addicts in Las Vegas are addicted to the machines, the digital one arm bandits (it is also where the majority of casinos make their money) and one of the most striking findings is that they’re not interested in winning money. Gamblers tell Dow Schull that the aim of playing is to get ‘into the zone’, where nothing else matters and they can forget about everything for a while. This goes against the idea that gambling is about highs and lows and always hoping to win big. The aim is not to win big but to play in such a way that they get to lose themselves for a while and it’s this feeling that is so compelling. This is why we scroll through social media for so long, not because it’s great, or we want to find a really great post to get stuck into but to just generally while away some time on nothing too taxing or too engaging. It’s because it’s not that stimulating that we keep scrolling. The same goes for gaming, where players often find themselves in a sort of fugue state where the player is not really themselves nor in the space they’re playing in but ‘in the zone’.

Dow Schull attends gamblers anonymous sessions as a researcher and finds that many addicts focus on their own psychological weakness. However, what she reveals is that from the road design, to the lobby architecture, from the lighting, to the music playing and of course the game designs themselves – Las Vegas and its machines are designed to make people addicted to machine gambling. The vast majority of the money spent in Las Vegas casinos is spent by locals who are constantly navigating this landscape, not the tourists who come and go. This is something we can recognize from gaming too. 

Fortnite was in the news a few years ago for its addictive properties and there’s a growing awareness that players of many games are manipulated into playing for longer and longer. However, what’s fascinating about Dow Schull’s research is the importance of the physical environment. How the right music at the right volume will make players play for that extra hour, for example. 

This is something we can think about with our kids at home. How easy is it for your kids to play video games rather than do something else? When our kids are at home perhaps we need to acknowledge how we have arranged our rooms, what alternatives are on offer and how much easier we have made gaming as opposed to other activities. I for one know that my kids room is often untidy, making the floor less usable for playing and the living room is big and largely absent of anything to do except watch TV or be on a device of some kind.  So that’s where the often end up being. Seeing as we’ve built a society in which kids are rarely let outside to roam or wander, then gaming becomes one of a limited number of options for occupying them. Perhaps we can make other activities easier to do and their rooms nicer to be in rather than retreat from?

Beyond our actual physical spaces there’s also what’s going on in our family lives that might contribute to compulsive gaming. PHD researcher, Joe Tulasiewicz told me about his own addiction to gaming as a teenager. He explained that during that particular phase in his life he didn’t have many friends at school and his family life was quite tumultuous too. Gaming was an escape where he didn’t have to challenge himself too much and he could just eat up the hours without having to think. Similarly, the pandemic has shown that it’s not just the addictive properties of the games, nor the way we’ve arranged our homes but the fact that many parents have had to work and may be unusually stressed. Hopefully as some semblance of normality returns some parents will find their kids gaming reduces without too much effort. 

The other way to look at it, is to consider whether it’s a problem at all. Alex Golub is a World of Warcraft enthusiast and an anthropologist. He asks whatever happened to passion? What’s wrong with getting a bit obsessed? On what criteria have we decided that gaming is a waste of time or bad for our kids? He plays around 15-20 hours a week and doesn’t see a problem with it. According to Nardi, another anthropologist researching WoW, maybe life in multiplayer online games is just better than real life a lot of the time. She asserts that playing the game is a valuable aesthetic experience as much as a book or a film is and seeing as most younger kids aren’t allowed out on their own to play, it’s way more interesting than mooching about the house. Also, there is an important social dynamic to some of the games and it’s the place many young people get to spend time with their friends or distant family.

We have a long tradition in the West of fearing technology and what it does to us but it’s worth bearing in mind that we’re not always passive receivers but creative users and shapers of technology. It’s important to not fall into the trap of thinking gaming is worthless or less good than other interests our kids might have. At the same time if we do think that gaming has got out of control, there are games which are more addictive than others (link) and a lot of effort is made to hook players in and keep them playing for as long as possible. So, we need to bear in mind the environments in which our kids our playing and seeing if there are things we could potentially change in order to diminish the power some of these games have. And finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that most addictions are beaten and however bad things may seem now they’re very likely to change for the better. However, if you’re worried about your kid I’ve got a few links below where you can get professional advice.  

Further Reading

Advice

https://gamequitters.com/most-addicting-games/

https://www.cnwl.nhs.uk/services/mental-health-services/addictions-and-substance-misuse/national-centre-behavioural-addictions/National-Centre-for-Gaming-Disorders

Non-academic articles on the topic

https://theconversation.com/could-playing-fortnite-lead-to-video-game-addiction-the-world-health-organisation-says-yes-but-others-disagree-98458

https://www.parentingscience.com/video-game-addiction.html

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/the-machine-zone-this-is-where-you-go-when-you-just-cant-stop-looking-at-pictures-on-facebook/278185/

https://savageminds.org/2009/09/08/anthropology-internet-addiction-and-care/

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/gaming-addiction-covid-19-pandemic

If you don’t want to buy the Dow Schull book then this is a good summary

https://socialmediacollective.org/2012/09/06/addiction-by-design-review/

Academic articles on gaming and addiction

Addiction by Design : Machine Gambling in Las Vegas
Natasha Dow Schüll 
Princeton University Press
(2012)

Alex Golub 
The Anthropology of Virtual Worlds: World of Warcraft 
(2014)

Bonnie Nardi
My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of 
World of Warcraft 
(2010)

Frank W Paulus; Susanne Ohmann; Alexander von Gontard; Christian Popow
Internet gaming disorder in children and adolescents: a systematic review
(2018)

Why Do We Remove Our Pubes?

Are your kids aware of their body hair? Entering their teens and starting to feel self-conscious? Are you in a long term relationship and can’t be bothered anymore? Well, for some reason I’ve always been quite interested in pubes and body hair and quite resentful of having to remove so much of it. It got me wondering whether women elsewhere remove their pubes and if so why. 

Growing up in the 90’s body hair was a political issue. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth was still big when I was a teenager and the pressures on women to conform to strict beauty standards were being scrutinised and questioned in the mainstream. I resisted shaving my legs for a while as I entered my teens and was generally very annoyed at having to spend ages shaving and waxing in order to wear shorts or swimwear. Some of my more alternative friends didn’t shave their legs or pubes and I thought that by the time I was my age now, hair removal would be optional and things would have progressed in terms of female beauty standards. Instead, my 90’s triangle seems positively hirsute these days and having no pubes at all is incredibly common. Body hair removal for women is so normative now that it’s abnormal for a woman to not modify her body. Body hair removal goes without saying. And what goes without saying is often what anthropologists hone in on.

So why do we remove our pubes? I think a lot of you will have an answer for this. It’s marketing, it’s porn, it’s new and pernicious and women didn’t have to do this in the past but what can we do? We just have to shave up and shut up. Germaine Greer wrote in the 70’s about how hair removal infantilised women (1970, p. 38) and this has also been super influential. I’ve said it myself in conversation and have heard a lot of other people refer to removing pubes as trying to make women look like children. However, it seems this feeling that it’s a new phenomenon, linked to late capitalism, ways of selling dissatisfaction, plus the ubiquity of infantilised shaven porn stars isn’t enough to explain why we do it.

Unsurprisingly perhaps pube and body hair removal doesn’t seem to be a widely researched area but I have found some interesting articles. One of the best and most recent is by Craig and Gray who raise the paradox of pubes. On the one hand evolutionary biologists say we have evolved pubes as a sexual attractor and to prevent infections, yet many cultures state that pubes are unattractive and ‘unclean’ – the total opposite of what we supposedly have evolved to like and need. I’ve never been a big fan of biological determinism and this does seem to be a good example of why we have to be so careful when we say things like ‘humans are progammed to like this or that’.

They also found that in the wide range of societies they studied, pubes are seen as dirty, unattractive and their removal is a sign of sexual receptivity, much the same as we do. For example, Bosnian Muslims and Kurd women are seen as not sexually active if they haven’t removed their pubes. Muslims in general, both men and women, remove their pubic hair and its even part of Sharia law to do so.

In all the societies they studied, women removed more hair and more frequently but it wasn’t uncommon for men to remove or cut their pubes. The Ona for example indicated pubic hair as “unattractive,” while the Tukano indicated pubic hair, on women, as “unsightly”. “San women had their pubic hair plucked out by their husbands, and the opposite was found among the Tapirapé: women plucked their husbands’ pubic hair. And among the Badaga, men of higher social status had their pubic hair removed by men of lower social status”, which is all intriguing isn’t it? Who removes your pubic hair?

There were a few notable exceptions, including the Igbo who “considered pubic hair a source of pride while lack of pubic hair in women was a punishable offense associated with promiscuity” and the Kwoma for whom “the ‘thickest and most luxuriant’ pubic hair was considered a ‘traditional mark of female beauty’”. Of course, there will be plenty of research that just doesn’t mention it and there could be loads of examples of non pubic hair removal but as it isn’t the central topic of any ethnographic research I’ve been able to find, it’s hard to know.

What we do seem to know is that in the studies Craig and Gray reference none of the societies had access to porn and as mostly central African horticulturalists and hunter gatherers, not very exposed to mass marketing if at all. So, if they don’t have Instagram influencers and razor companies persuading them to remove their pubic hair, what’s it all about? 

Body hair removal is very intertwined with sexuality and understanding why humans do it is asking to understand sexuality and gender. How and why hair is removed is a lot about performing gender. I am a woman but I’m somehow less of one if I don’t remove all of my body hair. There’s a long history of body hair in the West being seen as masculine and therefore removing it, paradoxically makes women complete. It’s good to know that it’s not just us that do it but I would like there to be more of a resistance to it and that when my girls enter puberty they won’t feel like every hair on their body is an aberration.  Maybe they should move to Korea where according to this rigorous piece of research on Youtube, adults don’t remove their pubes:

Reading List

The Last Taboo: Women and body hair
edited by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein – 2006

National Health Service (2016) Grooming pubic hair linked to increased STI risk. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/news/lifestyle-and-exercise/grooming-pubic-hair-linked-to-increased-sti-risk/ (Accessed: 01/12/2019).

Craig, L. & Gray, P. (2018) Pubic Hair Removal Practices in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Cross-Cultural Research. 53 (2) pp. 215-237. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1069397118799298#

Untangling the Meanings of Hair in Turkish Society
Carol Delaney (1994)

Magical Hair. 
E. R. Leach (1958)

Gender And Body Hair: Constructing The Feminine Woman 
Merran Toerien AND Sue Wilkinson (2003)

And for a historical angle on the same topic this is a great post with lots of good references:
https://www.theexploresspodcast.com/episodes/2019/10/10/thehairdownthere

Why is there a stigma surrounding miscarriage?

Why do women feel ashamed and embarrassed about miscarriage? Why don’t we talk about it? Towards the end of last year I read Caroline Criado Perez’s visceral and heart breaking account of her miscarriage in her widely circulated newsletter. She talked about the humiliation of having to go to hospital alone because of pandemic conditions but essentially she was revealing the humiliation of miscarriage under any circumstance. As she bluntly described it, “try not feeling humiliated bleeding with your pants off in front of strangers while being told that your body has failed in one of its most basic functions”. This is a really striking statement which on the surface is totally understandable, bleeding from your genitals is more embarrassing than from anywhere else but why did she feel her body should at the very least be able to reproduce and the failure to do is humiliating? Having a heart attack is also your body failing at one of its most basic functions but I don’t think she would feel humiliated by it, nor embarrassed. This is what I wanted to focus on, why is miscarriage a taboo and what does the stigma reveal about our understanding of what it is to be a woman?

There’s been increasing public discussion about miscarriage and last year celebrities including Meghan Markle and Chrissie Teigan ‘went public’ with their experiences. They wanted to end the stigma surrounding miscarriage and felt that by being open about what had happened to them and allowing themselves to grieve publicly they would help others in similar situations.  What I found interesting about this is that the power of stigma is that no-one really talks about what the stigma is. Just saying you’ve had a miscarraige will indeed break the silence that accompanies miscarriage but it doesn’t actually look the stigma in the eye. Why do women feel ashamed in the first place? I’ve looked into miscarriage in three places to get some different perspectives and found some interesting research that’s been conducted in Tanzania, Qatar and the UK.

Despite the cultural, economic and social differences between these places I found that when it comes to miscarriage there were a lot of similarities and it’s these themes I’ll be exploring. Whilst shame wasn’t quite the same in Qatar as in Tanzania and the UK all three places encouraged women not to announce their pregnancies ‘too early’, emphasised women’s responsibility for miscarriage, placed a taboo on public grief and that statistics or any kind of research on miscarriage is scant at best right across the world. In looking at all these factors I want to properly acknowledge the shame around miscarriage and show that it won’t go away just by saying it’s okay to talk about it – we need more than that. The first step is understanding where the shame comes from and the wider context of pregnancy.

‘Henry Ford Hospital” by Frida Kahlo

The Shame of Miscarriage

In Tanzania whilst an involuntary miscarriage carries no social stigma a miscarriage which is perceived to have been caused intentionally, ie an abortion, carries a heavy social stigma. How can people tell if a woman has induced an abortion rather than had a miscarriage? According to one respondent, A woman who had involuntary pregnancy loss will recover quickly, she is not sick, she won’t even stay inside to sleep for many days…if a woman has an abortion she will get very sick”. As you can imagine this means women make very little fuss and do their best to hide miscarriages as best they can despite the obvious risks to their health. Up to half of the research respondents were accused of having carryied out abortions when they miscarried and were the subject of local gossip and recriminations in a society in which women already have a low social status.

In Qatar however, miscarriage doesn’t carry the same social stigma. It’s considered a normal part of pregnancy which whilst it may have been inadvertently caused by the pregnant woman it is nonetheless not something she will be ashamed of. Women are encouraged to have a lot of children so as a consequence of many pregnancies, frequent miscarriages are accepted. Miscarriage it seems, is just considered part of the process of ultimately becoming pregnant.

In the UK study women reported feelings not just of shame but also guilt that perhaps they had caused the miscarraige. Whilst Qatari women mentioned similar potential causes as those mentioned by the UK women, such as lifting a heavy object or being very stressed, the British women did not feel this was normal and often felt responsible. 

The key thing is that in all three places there is a strong belief that in many cases miscarriage is caused by the actions of the pregnant woman whether intentionally or not.

Keep Pregnancy a Secret

Woman are encouraged to keep early pregnancy a secret in all three locations but for slightly different reasons. In Tanzania the women only tell their husbands they are pregnant for fear of gossip about any pregnancy loss and to avoid other jealous women from cursing their pregnancies. Similarly, whilst aware of the medical causes for miscarriage women in Qatar also keep pregnancies secret for fear of ‘jinn’ or the evil eye which can be caused by infertile women jealous of pregnancy. Bit of an unsisterly theme in both places.

In the UK women report keeping pregnancy secret ‘just in case anything goes wrong’ or to not ‘jinx it’ which doesn’t sound that dissimilar. In my own case, at work, I felt it might lead to being excluded from certain projects or generally diminish my role, so I kept quiet. But in my personal life I told most people as I thought I’d want them to know even if I did have miscarriage. However, the second time around I started to think about the possibility of perhaps a medical condition in me or the baby leading me to choose an abortion and how in that case I would rather not have to explain myself so I kept quiet for a little bit longer ‘just in case’.

Again I wonder whether keeping quiet about pregnancy generally points to women feeling that pregnancy diminishes them, puts them at risk from others ill will and they don’t want to have explain or acknowledge miscarriage in public.

Miscarriage Exists Too Much and it Doesn’t Exist Enough
In all three sites the statistics on miscarriage are scant and inconsistent at best. Because of the frequency of miscarriage and the lower status of women in all three sites (just look at the recent history of medical research massively biased against women) it is often not recorded. It both happens all the time and doesn’t exist. In the UK and Tanzania along with the shame and silence which makes it hard to get good data on miscarriage, this is also made worse by inconsistent data collection. For example in the UK if a woman reports a miscarriage at a hospital it is recorded but it isn’t if she goes to her GP. In Tanzania there is no local distinction between a still birth and a miscarriage so WHO surveys do not reflect local categories nor do they acknowledge the difficulty many women have in reporting at all. Health data in Qatar is lacking in general but in particular for women.

All of this points to women’s health not mattering as much as it should and that miscarriage in particular is often not considered worth recording. 

It’s Women’s Fault
I’ve mentioned how in Qatar women are not exactly blamed for their own miscarriages however, they do nonetheless think pregnancy is caused by the actions of the pregnant woman even if it doesn’t quite carry the shame it does here and in Tanzania. Reasons for miscarriage range from eating the wrong herbs, too much physical exertion, letting yourself get too stressed as well as the more familiar medical conditions such as chromosomal abnormalities in the foetus. In some cases the pregnant woman’s in-laws especially her mother in law is blamed for making her work too hard or as I stated, infertile jealous women curse the newly pregnant woman and cause her to miscarry. Although it’s worth noting that a lot of the time it’s considered as an act of God that can’t be helped.

In the UK women are often told that it’s ‘not their fault’ which would only make sense in a context in which it possibly being her fault was an option, otherwise why would they say it? I’m sure there’s historical research on this somewhere but it seems like it’s a relic of a time when women were in fact blamed for miscarriage. Similarly, women respondents were found to go into the most detail about their lifestyle when they felt they might be at fault saying things like ‘I didn’t know I was pregnant when I went to the Hen Do. I normally drink very little.’ Whereas if they were given medical causes they would state them succinctly. So, like in Tanzania, if it’s not ‘your fault’ the miscarriage doesn’t need as much explaining but if the woman felt she’d maybe made a mistake then she felt at pains to explain her actions in order to absolve herself of the guilt.

In Tanzania there’s such a fear of being accused of causing the miscarriage that one of the respondent’s asked the researcher to take her relative to hospital, when she was bleeding, rather than ask a local, for fear of the wider community finding out. Fear of local gossip and bad treatment from their husbands mean women are loath to tell anyone about their miscarriages. 

You cry only silently, kimoyo moyo (in your heart) 
In all three locations there is very little to no public grief over miscarriage, there are no rituals or ceremonies that I know of. The heading of this section is a quote from one of the Tanzanian responders about her own miscarriage. In Qatar the absence of grief is largely explained by the frequency and acceptance of miscarriage as a part of becoming pregnant. However, I don’t know how still births are experienced and as I said the research is scant so there may be more to it. As one woman in the UK stated “Most people treat miscarriage as not very important ‘‘everybody has them’’ etc. but it was very traumatic for me.” So, if Qatari women don’t grieve there must be more to it than it just being ‘normal’. It seems that in the UK being allowed to grieve is something many women want and being told it’s common or normal doesn’t necessarily help.  

In Criado Perez’s newsletter she writes about how despite being told that miscarriage is common and that we don’t really know why it happens it didn’t make her feel better and her understandably angry account makes this abundantly clear. The women in the UK research expressed a very strong desire to be given a medical reason for their miscarriage. What all of this adds up to is the unspoken feeling of guilt and shame that surrounds miscarriage that the women seek absolution for.

I wonder if what might make women in the UK feel better is understanding and acknowledging where the shame and humiliation comes from and I would say that it comes from the same place it does in Tanzania. It comes from the belief that women’s bodies belong to the community, that their personal inability to stay pregnant is a failure to the community and that their role and position as women is to bear children. There is silence around miscarriage in large part because deep down many women feel it is their fault and this is a consequence of centuries of female oppression of which we are not yet entirely free nor honest about. I think allowing women to speak of their miscarriages and allowing both parents to grieve seem to be essential in lifting the stigma but I also think that stigma carries more weight when it is not properly acknowledged. Women need to believe that they are still good and whole women even if they miscarry.

Tell me what you think

I haven’t experienced miscarriage and in keeping with the article my friends haven’t really spoken to me about theirs but I’d love to hear what you think. If you think I’ve got this wrong or there are other points I should have considered I’d love to hear about it. Comment here or contact me or we can chat here on the Facebook group.

Reading List

Caroline Criado Perez who I mention in the paper is the woman who wrote Invisible Women about the gender bias in data and design, totally brilliant. Here’s a link to her book: https://www.waterstones.com/book/invisible-women/caroline-criado-perez/9781784706289

These are all academic papers and the UK one might be of particular interest to some of you.

Experience of miscarriage in the UK: Qualitative findings from the National Women’s Health Study
by Rebecca K. Simmonsa,􏰀, Gita Singhb, Noreen Maconochiea, Pat Doylea, Judith Greena (2006)

“These are not good things for other people to know”: How rural Tanzanian women’s experiences of pregnancy loss and early neonatal death may impact survey data quality
by Rachel A. Hawsa,*, Irene Mashasib, Mwifadhi Mrishob, Joanna Armstrong Schellenberg, Gary L. Darmstadt, Peter J. Winch (2010)

Causal explanations of miscarriage amongst Qataris
by Susie Kilshaw , Nadia Omar , Stella Major , Mona Mohsen , Faten El Taher , Halima Al Tamimi ,
Kristina Sole and Daniel Miller (2017)

Why Parents are not Having Enough Sex Part 2

It’s the Patriarchy Stupid!

(I should mention before I start that there are lots of same sex couples with children in the UK and beyond but the research is sparse at best unfortunately, so for now this post is all about heterosexual relationships.)

In my last post I described how the Aka and the Ngandu have a lot more sex than we do in the West. In part this can be explained by the fact that they see sex as important work in a society in which having children and children themselves are greatly valued. One Aka woman summarised this outlook by describing sex as ‘night work’. However, something I didn’t mention is that the Aka are one of the most gender equal societies on earth. They’re also often cited as an example of a society that has exceptionally active and committed fathers. Could it be that we’re not having as much sex as we’d like because our relationships aren’t equal? Are women just too tired? 

Cartoon by French comic artist Emma, link to her full strip at the end of the post. It’s brilliant.

Charlotte Faircloth (total legend) has written several papers related to the domestic burden that women carry in long term relationships which I’ll talk about in future posts as they’re worth considering on their own. But for this post I just want to focus on one sociology study done in the US with long term married couples. What the researchers discovered is that almost all the couples they studied reported conflict around sex. The conflict was mostly about husbands wanting more sex than their wives. But as one of their participants, Chantalle says, it’s “what goes on outside of the bedroom” that’s important, it’s about how fairly the household labour has been shared that impacts the quality and quantity of sex. As she put it, “[I tell him] If I have had a really good day, and you have been helpful, I would say you took out the trash and you brought the trashcans in and you mowed the lawn and everything. Those are the things that work for me to kind of get me going.” Housework is a turn on. In other words, if your partner is pulling his weight outside of the bedroom you’re more likely to want more sex. You feel appreciated, you’re less tired and you have more mental head space.

It’s well known that the majority of domestic labour in families is still carried out by women and that this isn’t just about cooking and cleaning but planning kids parties, buying presents for Christmas, planning social engagements, play dates, holidays and so on and so forth; what’s been described as carrying the ‘mental load’. The US research also rather depressingly points out, that not only are women carrying the greater burden of domestic labour but they also then carry out the ‘emotional work’ of making their partners feel desired, what they call ‘performing desire’. The women explained that making their husbands feel desired felt like just another task on the list.  As one husband explained, “You can’t engineer [sex]. You know, you can’t say, ‘Okay here is what we are going to do. We’re going to do this. I mean you can’t. Sex is more a—is totally this animal, chemical whatever it is.” But the bigger picture reveals that this ‘spontaneity’ is often faked by women who feel over-burdened and tired.

In Part 1 I suggested that planning or ‘engineering’ sex might not be so bad after all, it’s the good ‘night work’ that all couples would do well to make an effort with. However, sex doesn’t happen in isolation from all the other factors in a couples life. The reason the Aka maybe make the time to have frequent sex is because the men are sharing in the domestic and childcare responsibilities. In the UK unemployed working class men report a lower desire for sex than other categories – they’re unemployed, they have loads of time! But if you don’t feel valued or important then you don’t feel sexy. It turns out feeling respected is sexy. Equality is sexy.

Here are some great references and a list of my favourite findings from the ‘British national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles’

  • You’ve probably seen this French cartoon by Emma about the ‘mental load’ but it’s always worth another look, especially if you’re a guy – please read this! 
  • The Performance of Desire: Gender and Sexual Negotiation in Long-Term Marriages Sinikka Elliott and Debra Umberson The University of Texas, Austin (2006)
  • Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex Heidi Hartmann (Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1976)
  • What factors are associated with reporting lacking interest in sex and how do these vary by gender? Findings from the third British national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/9/e016942

These are some of the findings I found interesting but couldn’t include in the post.

  • Only women in longer relationships report less interest in sex, doesn’t make any difference in men’s level of desire.
  • “women living with a partner were more likely to lack interest in sex than those in other relationship categories (see table 1). For women, all relationship categories had lower AORs than living with partner. Duration of most recent sexual relationships was significantly associated with lacking interest in sex only among women, being more common among those in longer relationships.”
  • “Among women but not men, not sharing the same level of sexual interest with a partner, and not sharing the same sexual likes and dislikes, was also associated.”
  • Those who found it ‘always easy to talk about sex’ with their partner were less likely to report low interest.
  • Having been pregnant in the last year was associated with lacking sexual interest as was having one or more young child(ren) (women only). 
  • In contrast, for men frequency of masturbation reflects reduced frequency of partnered sex. (not the case in the US though)
  • Women who’s first sexual experience was not positive carry that through to the rest of their lives. The regret lasts forever it seems. These findings suggest that for women early sexual experiences may shape future sexual encounters/relationships to a greater extent than for men.
  • Supporting the idea that men like sex more than women makes women less likely to want to sex The results suggest that endorsing stereotypical gender norms related to sex may adversely affect women more than men.
  • For women in particular, the experience of sexual interest appears strongly linked with their perceptions of the quality of their relationships, their communication with partners and their expectations/attitudes about sex. 
  • Depression affects men’s sexual desire more than women
  • Disability or physical limitations affect’s women’s sexual desire more than men

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)