Friday, May 25, 2012

Breast Wars part 2 : I Once Practiced Attachment Parenting

by Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, Guest Blogger

Ok, now that I have scanned Time magazine’s recent “Are you mom enough?” article I can safely say that I’m not too surprised. My initial concern regarding Time’s attempts to pit mothers against each other still stands but this time Dr. William Sears’ theory of attachment serves as the maternal battleground.  I personally happen to be in recovery from attachment parent theory as it was a central part of my doctoral studies at University of Maryland’s Department of Human Development and Institute for Child Study. My doctoral studies and my introduction to William Sears’ and Mary Ainsworth’s work also coincided with the birth of my two sons.  I breastfed my son, Kimathi, on my lunch break during my doctoral comprehensive exams.  Less than two years later, I breastfed my younger son, Cabral and took him along with me on many of my doctoral data collection interviews. I regularly taught Attachment theory in my courses but critiqued its lab-based experiments. This popular lab based experiment was designed to “assess” young children’s attachment to the primary caregivers and included a component that aimed to induce fear in children. I may have been a worker bee, but I had my own ethics as a budding scholar.  In hindsight, I would say that my husband and I were my children’s primary caregivers and attachment figures largely because we had no family around. However, I can uncomfortably but truthfully say that I did initially buy into some of the retrograde rhetoric regarding parenting.

So who is “mom enough”? Joanne Beauregard, the mother featured in the article, contends that her brand of intensive mothering is the ideal for healthy child development. It is safe to say that most women do not have the leisure and material resources to live this kind of child centered, selfless life but that would also assume that all mothers desire such an existence. Her claims also imply that all children require intensive nuclear family based parenting in order to be emotionally healthy.  This could not be farther from the truth.

©Helen Keller International/Bartay
Yes, it is true that some mothers enjoy the physical intimacy of mothering and breastfeeding but others do not or may not all the time. Does that make them bad mothers? I think not. One can still provide all the sustenance of breast milk without the emotional intensity that is suggested by Sears and others. Breast-feeding is an infant feeding practice. That is it. Many mothers nurse their children because their children need food. They are feeding their children and as black feminist theorist, Patricia Hill Collins, reminds us, providing is good mothering. We place added burden on mothers when we tell them, not only are they supposed to feed their children but they should feel a particular set of emotions while doing so. Where is the room for the breastfeeding mothers who don’t look into their nursing infant’s arms thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts? What if she’s thinking, “When will this child be done so I can get back to my life”? Her life involves other relevant events like eating, sleeping, working, resting and simply being.  Is she less of a mother if these are the thoughts that she is preoccupied with while nursing? 

 I breastfed all three of my beloved children and as I gazed into their eyes I sometimes thought, “Man, do I have to pee!!” or “I really have to get this chapter done!”  Our parent-child relationship is in tact, no emotional damage inflicted for possessing my own physiological needs and intellectual desires.  Also, mothers (and fathers) who feed their babies infant formula have equal capacity to have intimate connections with their babies when feeding!! My husband is just as attached to my children as I am. So let’s stop the mother breastfeeding mother/bad formula feeding mother madness once and for all! Inducing guilt in mothers for not being self-sacrificing does not make sound theoretical or practical sense in my humble opinion.

Feminist clinicians suggest that mothers who feel pressured to perform happiness and contentment with the rigors of motherhood may also have increased risk for mental health problems.  It is perfectly legitimate to acknowledge the drudgery, isolation, frustrations as well as the joys of mothering.

My second gripe with the theory of attachment parenting is that it privileges one model of parenting as the ideal. Most children are raised in multigenerational families and communities. Family theorists of color have long argued that children do not have to form one primary bond but can form multiple primary bonds with caring adults. Those mothers (and fathers) that share their role with extended family can be as effective as those parents who chose to intensively parent on their own. Many women of color and working class women do not have the privilege (or desire) to mother in such an intensive way.  Despite, current misrepresentations, this does not mean we are inadequate as mothers.  Contemporary mothers feel undo pressure to mother in isolation however communities of color and working class communities have historically embraced collective parenting practices.

I would not have completed my PhD or been granted tenure as a professor without the mothering support of other women in my community. The term “other-mothers” was coined to acknowledge not only the mother work that non-birth mothers performed on behalf of other women’s children but also to acknowledge the intimate bonds that children have with adults that were not their parents. This sometimes included breastfeeding another woman’s children in her absence! This is the parenting model that most people in the world embrace. It is the model that my husband and I embrace as we raise our three children. I believe that much of attachment parenting, particularly mothering, has less to do with the child’s needs than the woman’s desire to fulfill a gender prescribed maternal role.  Parents, families, and communities must parent together on behalf of children’s healthy development.  Black feminist scholar, bells hooks, would call this collective act revolutionary parenting. She and other feminists of color have long advanced these counterpoints on mothering. In these times of continual “mother attacking” that we must center ourselves and push back with more affirming theoretical perspectives.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Breast Wars –Part 1

Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, Guest Blogger

Tiara and Eve Maria (Kate Hansen Art)
I want to start by saying that I have yet to read the recent article by Time Magazine entitled “ Are you mom enough?”.  I initially sat quietly and listened to the collective gasps of horror as well as the “breast is best” chorus that followed its release. I must admit, I too, had a visceral reaction to the cover photo. You hit that one out of the ballpark, Time! However, I was not repulsed by the sight of her exposed breast nor by the mere act of her breast in her child’s mouth. I also was not disturbed by the age or gender of the child who suckled at her breast. I WAS thoroughly enraged by the titling of the article “Are you mom enough” and what I feel was Time’s aggressive positioning of the “good” mother.

I assumed the public’s reaction to the photo would center on whether or not mothers should be breastfeeding children during their toddler and preschool years. This perspective continues circulate within the US despite the fact that the World Health Organization and The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and then for as long as desirable by mother and child. Nonetheless, I imagine that the Internet and social media have been abuzz with squeamish and sexually conflicted Americans who simultaneously lust after the breast yet are repulsed by its functionality.  

Reactivate Divisiveness and Distracting Tactics: Time’s Purpose?

My primary concern with the cover centered on Time’s attempt to resurrect yet another round in the mommy wars. The “Good mother”/”Bad mother” dichotomy has taken on many forms and Time is attempting to reactivate divisiveness amongst women once again simply for sensationalized market gain. It’s a cheap shot and sisters, I hope that you didn’t fall for it!!! I do not use Twitter but I know that the topic of breastfeeding was trending this past weekend. I hope that  there was not a polarized #teambreast/#teambottle battle that distracted my sisters (and brothers) from the real issues. All women, mothering or not, breastfeeding or not, have bigger fish to fry! We have better questions to ask and we have more significant demands to make!

First, let’s review. Breastfeeding provides food that is species specific and supports children’s overall health and brain development. It also lowers women’s risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding longer is ideal and has significant long term health and economic benefits  These are the facts. Deal with it! Having said that, there are a host of structural barriers that inform why many US women choose not to do so. Yet, we blame mothers for their choices not to breastfeed without putting them in full context. We can simply review the anti breastfeeding sentiment that centers on repulsion or the sexualization of the breast to gain a sense a why breast-feeding continues to be a challenge for many contemporary US women.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be fired up.  I’m just challenging us to refocus our collective energy and critically focus on the real issues at hand concerning breast-feeding. Instead of “throwing up a little” in our mouths about a mother breastfeeding her toddler, we could express our outrage regarding the United States’ refusal to sign onto the International Code for Marketing of Breastfeeding Substitutes, sponsored by WHO and UNICEF 

 This international agreement promotes breastfeeding as the best source for infant nutrition and discourages the mass marketing of breastfeeding substitutes like infant formula. We might also ask why breastfeeding is only accessible to US mothers with more wealth and leisure. We could ask why is breastfeeding not exempt from public indecency laws in 32 US states. We could ask why so many US companies do not provide mothers with adequate time or a location to breastfeed their babies. We can also ask why do Western women and men construct the infant feeding practice of breastfeeding as a necessity to emotional bonding between mother and child instead of emphasizing its preventive health, nutritional, and economic benefits? This rhetoric simply evokes anxiety and guilt amongst new mothers when they do not experience the feelings of promised intimacy during breast feedings. It also does little to promote prolonged breastfeeding.

If we ask these questions, then we could direct our collective attention towards multinational corporations that are allowed to peddle formula to women in hospitals around the world.  We could ask why do these corporations continue to disobey the International Code of Marketing Breastfeeding Substitutes by marketing formula to women who do not have access to clean drinking water to prepare it or keep bottles and nipples clean. Many women with breasts full of milk leave hospitals with corporate sponsored infant formula samples that are too expensive to purchase once they return home.  Infant mortality and malnutrition in developing countries have been linked to formula feeding practices for decades.

These are just a few of the questions that don’t get enough public attention. They are the ones that get me hot and bothered on the topic of breastfeeding. They are deserving of our attention and our action. We must not let the media continue to divide us, shape our opinions, dull our perspective…or create fake wars between us as women and mothers.

Friday, May 11, 2012

“Project Prevention”: Saving Black Women from Themselves and Creating a Better Future

My intent was to simply write about the recent NY Times article that suggested that Black women are responsible for being overweight and all associated illnesses. Then I started reading more about an organization that was called C.R.A.C.K (now called Project Prevention) and my blog post changed. So what does this call for Black women to lose weight and the actions of an organization that seeks to sterilize drug-addicted women have in common? They are both part of a larger ideology that pathologizes Black women’s bodies. Contextualizing these two parallel conversations shows that at the core is the privileging of some bodies over others. 

Black women’s bodies have historically been problematic for those who hold the power to define race-gender hierarchies. Early Europeans constructed Black women’s bodies as different, highly sexual and “other”. Black women’s societal worth is often devalued in the eyes of European Americans. Such devaluation can also occur when other Black folk subscribe to the ideology of the damaged Black woman. The damaged Black woman is often used to promote policies that focus on changing individual behaviors as opposed to critically questioning societal structures that contribute to Black women’s inequitable positions. The result is the culture of poverty, the culture of fatness and the culture of drug abuse that permeates the two stories that I discuss below. 

Fat Ass Black Women and Self-Inflicted Illnesses
If only fat ass Black women would change their behaviors then all that ails us would disappear. If only poor ass Black women would stop being so bossy then they’ll get married and all that ails us would disappear. See the similarities between these statements? If only Black women would change. Change woman, change! Become skinny, get married, stop being poor. Darn it, if we can only get these women to behave differently then dangerous (culturally, economically, medically) Black folk would disappear. 

The recent article in the New York Times (May 5, 2012) says,

“I call on every black woman for whom it is appropriate to commit to getting under 200 pounds or to losing the 10 percent of our body weight that often results in a 50 percent reduction in diabetes risk. Sleeping better may be key, as recent research suggests that lack of sleep is a little-acknowledged culprit in obesity. But it is not just sleep, exercise and healthy foods we need to solve this problem — we also need wisdom.”

Elizabeth Catlett 1967 
I don’t take issue with Randall’s call for Black women to take better care of our bodies and health. I don’t dispute that Black women appear to be susceptible to illness that are weight related. What I take issue with is the individualistic approach to conceptualizing the problem of weight and illness among Black women.

Alice Randall’s approach is rather reminiscent of the Moynihan approach to dealing with poverty in the Black community. Let’s fix the women and all else will go away. Employed is a cultural approach to understanding weight and its intersection with race and gender and illness. What is ignored is how structural factors, such as racism, contribute to Black women’s inequitable health. 

After reading this article I did wonder as to whether or not Randall has  been in the “Hood” recently? In my recent trip to Brooklyn, NY, here’s what I noticed: there is on average 3 fast food restaurants/per block (and I’m being generous with the term restaurant), there are multiple liquor stores, etc that fill these urban concrete jungles. My, 80 plus year old, grandmother lives in Brooklyn, NY. She lives on a quiet residential street--free of gang violence and all the troubles we tend to associate with urban Black communities. She, like my uncle, lives in a “middle-class” neighborhood (with the decline in wealth among Blacks, I’m no longer sure what constitutes a middle-class neighborhood). My Grandmother likes some of the products sold at Whole Foods. To purchase these products, she takes a bus and a train to get to the nearest Whole Foods Market. The products simply cannot be found in her neighborhood. I lived in Prince George’s County, MD—one of the so-called most affluent Black suburbs in the country. I had to leave PG County to shop at Whole Foods. This pattern of what’s available in our communities is a function of zoning laws and other policies. If we look at the zoning component, we have to go back to the country’s early efforts at urbanization. The federal government played a substantial role in placing certain types of people and businesses into certain communities. This is further perpetuated via tax credits and banking policies. I won’t make this an urban politics lesson. However, I encourage you to check out the placement of I91 in Hartford Connecticut. The placement of this highway forever fractured a viable Black community. How in the face of all of this can we simplify Black women’s weight in a statement that suggests that Black women choose to be fat? Where is the choice?
Eliminating a Potentially Damaged Child

The private sector is also engaged in “encouraging” Black women to change their behaviors. Children Requiring a Caring Community (spelled Kommunity to allow for the acronym C.R.A.C.K), now called Project Prevention, seeks to promote 

“public awareness to the problem of addicts/alcoholics exposing their unborn child to drugs during pregnancy. Project Prevention seeks to reduce the burden of this social problem on taxpayers, trim down social worker caseloads, and alleviate from our clients the burden of having children that will potentially be taken away. Unlike incarceration, Project Prevention extremely cost effective and does not punish the participants. We seek and welcome alliances with all sectors of our communities including drug treatment programs, hospitals, social service departments, among others, and have established such contacts throughout the United States. Project Prevention does not have the resources to combat the national problems of poverty, housing, nutrition, education and rehabilitation services. Those resources we do have are spent to PREVENT a problem for $300 rather than paying millions after it happens in cost to care for a potentially damaged child.” 

Stockwell Memorial Garden, south London
This organization offers substance-abusing women a $300 payment in exchange for their sterilization. The women are compensated if they agree to use long-term birth control, such as hormone implants, injections, IUDs, tubal ligations or vasectomies. The primary targets of Project Prevention are primarily poor women, and particularly poor women of color—look at who they are partnering with (social welfare offices and homeless shelters for example). 

This private organization has constructed the potential problem of drug-addicted women’s childbearing as a danger to others in society and as such decided that it must be contained. This is not a new phenomenon. Black motherhood has long been contested in the U.S. Black family formation, particularly among the poor, tends to be constructed as costly (consider the 1996 welfare reform discourse). In the meantime, there seems to be little concern about the women. 

Underlying the perceived danger of Black procreation is the standard of what/who makes a good mother. Black women, historically and currently, are not perceived as fitting the criteria of good mothers. Why, because we are perceived as lacking the necessary values (morality is often linked to skin color), and we are perceived as possessing excessive and uncontrollable sexual appetites. Given this, private organizations and the government (think family caps) have decided that they know what’s best for Black women. Control their sexual behaviors. Meanwhile, poverty, depression and sexual abuse--all factors that might contribute to drug use--are left out of our conversations (see James, The Violent Matrix). Where is the choice?

Both of these stories, fat Black women and the dangerous drug-addicted woman and her offspring, rely on a historical narrative that positions Black women as damaged. The question that I’m left with this week is why are some so committed to the erasure of Black women? What do you think?

For further reading see:

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Melissa Harris-Perry is Wrong: There is a War on Women, particularly Black Women

Politics is about words; it’s a struggle to define issues. E. E. Schattschneider, in the Semi Sovereign People, details how (problem) definition is central to politics.  Deborah Stone extends this argument in her discussion of causal stories and their functioning in the policy process. I say all of that to say—words and images matter!  Whether consciously or unconsciously selected to describe a policy issue/response, words matter. 

On April 28, 2012 Melissa Harris Perry asked her viewers to consider not using the words “war on women” to frame the current conservative policy response to women. According to Harris-Perry

“about a war on women in America. At first, all these war talk had me stockpiling supplies and wondering if I needed to run for the hills or stop, drop and roll, and then it hit me. There is no war on women, and you didn't think that I would say that? Just chillax, my fellow feminists. Don't get me wrong. We are in the midst of a massive, coordinated effort to roll back women's rights. But I take issue of the word, war. War means something specific especially for those who have lived through the war. And we need to be careful with how we use words. Now, I want to urge the folks to just say no to hyperbole and cliché’s. To help out, I want to introduce the MHP guide of what not what not to say in political conversation. Number one, unless someone is shooting at you or about to drop a bomb on your head, you are not at war. Good-bye to the war on women, the war on the poor, the war on terrorism, and other falsely created notions of war. War talk too often distracts us from understanding the complexity of policy.”

Harris-Perry considers the use of the term “war”, as a way of talking about social problems, detracting. She might be valid. If we name everything a war, we might become desensitized to the larger policy issues. However, the narrow conceptualization of her meaning of war, as simply shooting and dropping bombs, ignores so many aspects of war.  

 Bombs don't Equal War 

Bombs are simply a tool of war. Also ignored in Harris-Perry's conceptualization of war is that war involves propaganda and ideology. 

I find the term war, as a tool to characterize the policy response to Black women, particularly useful. This is where a little Bob Marley might be helpful. In War, Marley eloquently sings,

“Until the philosophy which hold one race superior/And another/Inferior/Is finally/And permanently/Discredited/And abandoned/Everywhere is war/Me say war.”

I would guess that Harris-Perry, like Marley, recognizes that war is so much more than bombs. That war is also about ideology. It is the ideological component that I want to focus on in my argument as to why there is indeed a war being waged against Black women and why we should call it such.

As a result of policies, or non-policies, Black women are:
“The number of women incarcerated for drug-related crimes increased by 433 percent between 1986 and 1991. But for African-American women it rose an astounding 828 percent, while the increase for white women was 241 percent, and for Latina women a 328 percent increase.” 

The HIV rate among black women living in some U.S. cities is the same rate as that of some African countries, according to a new multicenter study presented Thursday at the 19th Conference of Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. The jarring findings acknowledge that HIV is not an infection that has been eradicated, but one that has been somewhat forgotten, researchers said.”

“Among full-time, year-round workers, black women with Bachelors' degrees make only $1,545 more per year than white males who have only completed high school.”

“single Black women have a median wealth of $100, which is less than 1 percent of the wealth of their same-race male counterparts. It is only a fraction of one-percent of the wealth of single white women….Prior to age 50, women of color have virtually no wealth at all.

As the above suggest there is a war being waged against Black women.  

Black Women are the Recipients of Policy Drones
Why I think that there is an ongoing war on Black women. War is about power, it is about ideology, it is about a desire to eliminate those that some group has determine does not belong. War is about changing behaviors. If we unpack the policy treatment of Black women, from a historical perspective, we can see how indeed there has been a war against them. This ideological war involves the: 
  • Power to define in a systematic manner, Black women’s value to society;
  • Power to determine how these women are to be treated; and
  • Power to alienate, destroy and/or remove Black women from society.
I agree with Harris-Perry that it is a cliché to talk about war on drugs, war on the poor, etc. However, what Harris-Perry ignores are other definitions of war which include “active hostility or contention, and  conflict.” This is why her plea to end the use of “war on women” for example is wrong.  Since Black women were forcibly stolen from the shores of Africa there has been a war waged against us--there has in fact been active hostility and conflict. This war does not necessarily involve drones, but it is one of ideology with real consequences that often results in our death, incarceration, abject poverty,  and geographic isolation in “ghettos” and by ghetto I’m referring to confinement of those who are considered “other”.  Black women have recognized such actions as war and have mounted systematic campaigns to combat the negative impact of policies directly or indirectly targeting our communities. 

Black women’s villages are being pillaged as a result of policy drones. Policy bombs have been raining down on us via stealth and overt actions. Should I be so bold as to use the analogy of war. This is all being conducted under an ideology that constructs Black women as "bad" and "dangerous". So Harris-Perry, if we can’t call this systematic attack on the bodies of Black women a war, what should we call it?