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Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Breast is Best, but Mothering Means More

According to media reports, a public health white paper for England and Wales to be published later this week will encourage employers to do more to enable new mothers returning to work to breast feed their babies.

I appreciate that there is much to be done to ensure the safe delivery of this little bundle of policy joy, which at the moment is not much past the ecstatic point of conception. Not least what is to be done with said baby in-between breast feeding breaks; since dropping it off in reception for a quick leaf through The Economist can only be a short term solution. But it does seem to be, in principle at least, a good thing.

I don't intend to list all the benefits of breast feeding, since by now they are pretty well rehearsed. Suffice to say, it sometimes feels like it cannot be long before we discover that breast fed babies have cuter dimples, prettier toes and quite lovely singing voices.

With that in mind, I want to be VERY clear about my support for breast feeding at the outset, because I am now about to say what can sometimes feel like heresy; that for some women breast feeding may not be the right thing - and that's okay too.

Some women give up breast feeding because their employment circumstances make it difficult, some because their husbands don't like it, some because their mothers purse their lips and disapprove. Some give up though simply because it can be painful and exhausting and bloody hard work.

I do not have a personal axe to grind here. I breast fed my daughter, though not exclusively, till she was six and a half months old. I had a lot of help at the beginning and "established" feeding quickly and painlessly. I loved feeding my daughter. When I stopped feeding her I cried and cried because feeding your baby yourself can be one of those joyous wonders of motherhood that makes all the tiredness, trauma and weight gain worthwhile. For the avoidance of doubt then, BREAST FEEDING IS A GOOD THING.

But it is not the only thing.

I have a number of friends whose experiences with breast feeding were not as happy as mine. One of my closest friends had terrible pain from feeding when her son could not latch on properly (due, it transpired, to a "tongue tie", a minor mouth problem which was not picked up initially). I remember visiting her and seeing her distress every time the baby needed to be fed. The combination of the physical pain she endured and the constant reminder that she was not able to fulfill her baby's basic needs really took its toll. Feeding, or rather the inability to feed, assumed an enormous significance. It became the thing that defined their relationship.

She attended a breast feeding clinic every week and was constantly supported and encouraged by midwives who told her of course she could feed and it would all come right. And she would listen and smile and go home and cry and dread the next feed. Eventually a kindly health visitor took her aside and told her in hushed tones that perhaps she had done all she could and that really it was time to try something else. My friend says the feeling of relief at having been given permission to stop was immense.

She and her husband were then spirited away into a broom cupboard to be given advice about formula as if it were a dirty little secret. The whole experience was difficult and distressing and spoke of a system which seemed to focus on the benefits of feeding to the exclusion of other aspects of parenthood. (My amazing friend then went on to feed her son exclusively on expressed milk, before successfully establishing breast feeding when he was several months older. She's a better woman than me. )

Breast feeding is promoted, rightly, as one of the most important ways of bonding with your baby. But if feeding is not working out, it has exactly the opposite effect. The fact of being unable to feed your baby becomes all-encompassing; making bonding with your child in other ways nigh on impossible.

Finding the right solution is not helped by the fact that it is such an emotive issue, often presented in divisive and caricatured terms. On the one hand there are the tree-huggers who sit around brushing each other's hair and playing the mandolin while breast feeding their infants; on the other hoop earring wearing feckless mothers who force feed their offspring bottles of vimto.

It's also a tricky one in terms of the gap between the benefits described in the literature and one's own experience. The convenience of breast feeding for example is often emphasised in promotional material. Well yes. It was very convenient for night feeds and if you were stranded in traffic jams. But it could also be enormousy tying and if, like me, you had bosoms like the Hindenberg, not actually that easy to do comfortably and discreetly.

I'm not trying to diss the science. I breast fed my baby in large part because I have faith in science, even though I don't understand it, and the science told me I should. But if I'm really honest it's sometimes difficult to square that with the evidence of my own eyes.

I see children that were born at the same time as my daughter every day of the week. Their health, happiness and intellectual ability appears to have nothing to do with whether they were breast or bottle fed. I know that this is personal and anecdotal - but it's a very powerful experience. Many people just don't see the science translated into every day life; and the health professionals and policy makers have to get better at acknowledging that.

No-one should be deterred from breast feeding for cultural, social or economic reasons. Women who breastfeed their babies should not be thrown off buses, out of cafes or into coal cellars lest their brazen need to nourish their child should throw the populace into paroxysms of embarassment and/or lust.

But equally motherhood should not be defined by which teat your baby drinks from. Yes, breast is best, but mothering means much, much more.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Fag-End of Philosophy

On the bus this morning I sat next to a woman with an almighty hacking cough. She looked harmless enough, but clearly she was hiding her phlegm under a bushel. Because as soon as I sat down she started with the chesty burbling death rattle. It was like eavesdropping on a bunch of orcs having rough sex.

Do you think there are some people in the world who, on sitting next to a hacking cougher, feel sympathy rather than revulsion? I hope so. I hope there are good Samaritans out there who might have patted her arm or offered a blackcurrant Soother, rather than miming an imaginary barrier between us and fashioning blinkers from a copy of The Scotsman.

When we both alighted at the same stop, she scrabbled frantically in her bag and pulled out a packet of fags, nearly extinguishing the lighter flame with the force of her cough, before taking one huge comic book draw so that her cheeks disappeared like a Chilean sink hole. Immediately she seemed calmer and almost as quickly I felt a pang of sympathy, pity even, for her addiction to the evil weed.

I am aware that this will infuriate those smokers who do it for the love of it, for whom it is a pleasure without guilt, a means of self-expression, a fetishistic ritual of indulgence to be savoured and worn as a badge of honour. Fair enough, you lot carry on, knock yourselves out, I don't feel sorry for you AT ALL.

But, I do pity the others, the ones who would dearly love to be able to kick their habit, who have tried many, many times to escape it's wraith-like clutches before once more falling sobbing and spent back into the lethally seductive arms of Lady Nicotine.

I don't pretend to understand how addiction to nicotine works, y'know biologically nor nuthin'. I was one of the lucky ones. Despite having my first fag in my mid teens and smoking on and off till I had my daughter in my mid thirties, I just never really seemed to get clinically, literally, addicted.

Sure I had nights where, after a few cans of Forge lager, I would worry the sofa upholstery with my bare teeth hoping to find a long forgotten SilkCut, but I was that classic oxymoron of the social smoker, happy to puff away on a Saturday night out, but then equally happy to do without Monday to Friday. Then when I got pregnant I stopped, made a conscious decision not to start again and never did.

Many of my friends were not so lucky and woke up one day suddenly one of the unhappy band who cannot get through the day without the old tar sticks. Their addiction makes them unhappy, it worries them and frightens them and gnaws at their self esteem. Some have given up, but others are still miserably addicted, and their mantra is often the same, "I just wish I'd never started."

For them there is no doubt that being a smoker, becoming addicted to cigarettes, is a matter of profound regret. I think of them whenever I pick up Hello! and read a Chopra loving, snake-oil salesman of an NLP addicted celebrity say smugly that they 'don't believe in regrets.' Well, in return I'm tempted to say that you're either a saint or a sociopath.

If you can say hand on heart that you have never been selfish or petulant or greedy or casually mean or unkind then congratulations and you may be excused. If, as I suspect is more likely, you are human just like the rest of us, are we to take it that you don’t regret your behaviour and the hurt it caused?

At the very least, are we no longer to be permitted a quiet moment of reflection where we admit that perhaps we wouldn't do it ALL again? I have never understood the appeal of surveying the human wreckage of a catastrophic decision and saying "If I had my time over, I wouldn't change a thing." If the same principles were applied to scientific endeavour, we'd still be eating spit roasted vole and using portable hooded hairdryers by Pifco.

Similarly, when team positivity asserts that “you make your own luck” we can hopefully assume they don’t
really mean it was your fault when that pesky drunk driver crossed the central reservation.

But of course lets not forget that “everything happens for a reason”, a philosophy most recently espoused in a lead Vanity Fair article by the shining example of good judgement and sober self awareness that is Lindsay Lohan.

The marvellous thing about clinging to this philosophical flotsam and jetsam is that it simply reaffirms that bad stuff only happens cos something better is waiting round the corner. And anyway, it wasn't your fault, it was the Universe did it and ran away.

Yes, yes, I know I'm probably being far too literal and what you really mean is that we should seize the day, follow the dream, give a Simon Cowell approved 120 per cent - and for what it’s worth, I agree. I'm not suggesting it's healthy to spend one's life brooding about the mistakes of the past or feeling burdened by the guilt caused by other people's unhappiness.

But at the very least I object to these slogans – for that’s what they are – on the grounds of borderline idiocy since they don’t even say what they mean. I'm tired of bumper stickers masquerading as wisdom.

Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we regret it. Sometimes we light up yet another fag and wish we hadn't. That's life and not believing in it doesn't mean it's not true.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

California Gurls: When Big Business Turns Child Catcher

Most children learn to read. First they read their name, then maybe Mummy, Daddy, cat, boy. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, they start to read items in every day life: packets, leaflets, street signs, bitchy texts about the X Factor that you're sending to your workmates. One day, they also start to read newspaper and magazine headlines in the supermarket.

And that's when your desire to shield your little angel from some of life's horrors becomes rather more complicated. I wouldn't describe Katy Perry as one of life's horrors exactly, but her presence on the cover of Glamour magazine did lead to some interesting reading for my 8 year old daughter when it caught her eye. Namely, cover strap lines like "What to Do With a Naked Man" and "I didn't know I'd been raped until I realised I was pregnant."

And this got me thinking about what happens when (in a big deep voice) TWO MARKETS COLLIDE! In this instance, when the music business simultaneously targets children, little girls in particular, and grown ups with grown up tastes.

For it was no accident that my daughter's eye was drawn to that particular magazine. Up until this summer she had never heard of Katy Perry. But all that changed with the release of "California Gurls" (yes, that is how they is spelling it.)

For those of you not familiar, this burst of bubble-gum pop has a chorus which runs;

"California Gurls are unforgettable/ Daisy Dukes bikinis on top/ Sun-kissed skin so hot to melt your popsicles/ Oh, woah, oh! Oh, woah, oh!"

Something about the chirpy tune and the combination of words like "girls" "Daisy" "bikinis" and "popsicles", rendered this tune irresistible to my daughter and her chums. And that was before they saw the video.

In the promo a luscious Katy and assorted popsies are frolicking inside a board game named Candyfornia, a land of sweets with lollipops like palm trees, candy floss clouds, bon-bon pillows and salted caramel tumble dryers. (Okay, I made the last one up).

Looming over them is sugar daddy Snoop Doggy Dog who (horrors!) has the 'gurls' trapped there for his delectation, lustily licking his lips like a pervy Willy Wonka. Katy romps around the Candyfornia board freeing fellow cuties trapped in hubba bubba bubbles with the heel of her stripper shoes. She also lies naked and licking her wrist on a candy floss cloud with her bottom cleavage just obscured by a stray wisp of spun sugar. The 'gurls' then dance on the beach in cut-off shorts with bikini tops designed to look like giant cupcakes iced with glazed cherries on; or rather, enormous breasts.

But the Snoopster is mighty peeved at this and sends an army of gummy bears to CRUSH the little 'gurly' sweeties . Whereupon Candy Queen Katy morphs into a female avenger clad in a glittery red bikini with two canisters of "scooshy" cream strapped to her boobs.

She then proceeds to twist her cream guns in the manner of a porn star fondling her breasts, whereupon enormous spurts of milkiness shoot from her bosom pistols, vanquishing her little jelly foes. (I did not make any of that up.)

You may deduce from this that the video for California Gurls is not really appropriate fare for 8 year old girls. And yet, with its scrumptious set and 'girlpower' subtext, they couldn't have made a video that would appeal more to little girls if they tried. And, basically, that's my point. I rather wonder if they did make it to appeal to little girls. At least in part.

Now, I don't have a beef with Katy Perry, even if there is something of the replicant in that wide eyed stare of hers. She's a grown woman and the cartoon Vargas girl sexiness of her persona is vastly preferable to the dead eyed grindings of many other largely interchangeable pop starlets.

I don't know for certain who buys her records, but I'd be pretty surprised if it's 30 something musos. I imagine a young, very young, female audience is a lucrative market for her. But clearly you would also want to exploit God given talents like those on display in the California Gurls video. Hence a creative marketing strategy which reels in young kids with the most wonderfully realised candy world and which appeals to adults with raunchy, if tongue in cheek, sexual content.

So if it's inappropriate don't let her watch it, I hear you cry. Well, in my defence I didn't. She saw it at someone else's house and came back raving about it. We watched it through together and at various points I thought, should I stop this? Should I say, "I don't want you to watch this"?

But I have no particular problem with my child seeing female nudity and the giant cupcake bosoms were actually pretty funny (we're not beyond the odd booby joke in this household) and basically I didn't want to project my own adult sensibilities onto her experience. For there is no doubt that she just likes the tune and the bright colours and the funky clothes and THE SWEETS!!

But when we reached the cream gun, ahem, climax I determined that this was not a video that she should be allowed to watch again. Why? Because little girls want to be like big girls and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And, sure enough, it was not long before a friend reported that her daughter had been bouncing around in the sitting room miming the cream gun twists while belting out the tune.

Little girls (and that is what 8 year olds are) should not be imitating the simulated sex poses of porn stars and pole dancers. Even if they do so quite innocently. What happens when such little girls, who have been pouting and jiggling their way through childhood, turn 12, 13, 14, and do begin to understand the significance of the imagery in Katy Perry's apparently wholesome visual treat? Would it be surprising if by that time they have developed a kind of sense memory of studiedly provocative behaviour which implies a sexual maturity they do not in fact possess?

Acres of coverage has, quite rightly, been given recently to the impact of "raunch culture" on children, young girls in particular. What were once specifically adult porn and sex industry aesthetics have become increasingly mainstream, creating an environment such that the horrors of pole dancing kits in the toy section could even be contemplated.

But such overt attempts to commercialise sexuality for children have cheeringly so far been met mostly with howls of disapproval. The Mumsnet campaign Let Girls Be Girls for example, which asks retailers not to sell products which "exploit, emphasise or play upon children's sexuality " is having considerable success. Not just in consciousness raising, but also in getting firm commitments from major retailers not to succumb to the temptation of making a fast buck from products which cynically aim to sexualise our childrens' play.

But at least these direct attempts to target children can be easily identified and met head on. It is much, much harder to combat the "dog whistle" marketing of adult products to multiple markets which include young children. It is insidious, feeding into the culture until it begins to become the norm and therefore much harder to challenge.

I am not turning into Mary Whitehouse here (I hope). Sex is a (welcome) fact of life and society needs to cater for the needs of adults as well as children and families. But selling products with sexual content so that they surreptitiously appeal to young children is crossing the line. So forgive me if I see Katy's sweet offering rather more cynically, as big business turning child catcher and refuse to be seduced.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Letts Hear it for Libraries

So, are you familiar with Quentin Letts? No, it's not an estate agents, though it would be a damn fine name for one I grant you. Okay, do you read the Daily Mail? What do you mean, "Are we alone"? Fine, let's skip that question if its going to be a source of embarassment.

Quentin Letts is a journalist who writes for a number of British newspapers, including the Daily Mail. He is a theatre critic, political commentator and scourge of health and safety clipboard operators everywhere. He has a cheeky Just Williamish air; with blinky eyes behind little round specs; and he is never without a worm in his pocket all the better to frighten annoying gurls like Germaine Greer.

Quentin is currently presenting a series on Radio 4 entitled "What's The Point of..." where he questions the purpose of some of Britain's national institutions and obsessions. This week it was the turn of public libraries to have the beady eye of Letts turned upon it.

Suffice to say that I suspect Quentin and I would not see eye to beady eye on quite a number of issues.But I am forced to admit that I found myself agreeing with some of his thoughts on libraries.

Since I stopped working in an office, I have spent more and more time in the library. Also talking to check-out assistants and asking for free carpet fitting quotes, but that's another story. I now believe more strongly than ever that the public library is a shining beacon of civilisation which we all should cherish, and, more to the point, USE. It is testament to the power of the library that it could unite Mr Letts and I; specifically in the belief that it plays a vital role in unlocking human potential. So when Quentin called for the library of the future to be "a placid communal sanctuary, a public space for literary pleasure and self betterment", I found myself nodding in agreement.

Funnily enough, I am in a library as I write these words. As it happens, the library I happen to be in is no ordinary library. It is the National Library of Scotland. An institution which I love with a white hot passion which shakes me to the core.

The National Library, has comfortable chairs with leather padding and wide oak desks with room to spread your papers out. The enormously helpful staff will bring the books TO YOUR SEAT while anointing you with sweet smelling oils, feeding you dates and blowing gently on your neck.

As if that were not sufficient entertainment, there are my fellow libary users. Posh Edinburgh University students called Proteus and Porphyria with golden skin and shiny hair and pearly white teeth newly released from the loving care of an expensive orthodontist. Elderly ladies with shoogly beads, lopsided bosoms and birds nests, hair; retired gentlemen in mufti of flannels and a blazer; wild eyed academics with nicotine stained fingers and inky patches on their jacket pockets. And, in the unlikely event that you tire of the people watching, there are the books.

Books and books and books in abundance. In the small room where I now sit I could lovingly stroke the spines of ;"The One Pound Note in the History of Banking in Great Britain"; "The Encyclopedia of Islam"; Virgil's "Aeneid"; or "A Dissertation Upon English Typographical Founders". The stylish young woman next to me is reading a report of the 'Viceroyal's Visit to the West', in a 1900 edition of "The Queen: The Lady's Newspaper". Then there are the journals, newspapers, maps, manuscripts, rare books and the Scottish Screen Archive. Not to mention the exhibitions, events and a rather nice cafe in the foyer.

Of course the National Library is the Sunday Best of all libraries, but my little workaday local library is not too shabby either. Well actually, it is quite shabby but marvellous nonetheless. There are mothers and fathers and children reading and playing (quite quietly for all you purists like Quentin). Learning not just to read but to question and to think for themselves. Men and women filling out job applications and researching for interviews. It was at a library that I did the research that helped me get the job that paid my bills and secured my first mortgage. It was at a library that Jimmy Reid got the education that led to a life that was celebrated by the great and the good when he died.

Young people who are not given the space or peace to study at home. Old people who just want some human contact and can't work the computer. And yes, sharp elbowed middle class folk like myself who know a good thing when they see it.

The day that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows", the last in the series of Potter books, was published, I was in my local library. A forlorn looking little boy of about 12 came to the desk with his grandmother and asked to order a copy of the book, knowing that the next day at school most of his friends would be brandishing their copies. The librarian smiled and spoke to her colleague and took from under the desk one of the brand spanking new copies which had only been published at midnight before. I hope the disblieving grin that spread across his face was somehow captured in the monthy performance indicators return.

A society that funds and supports public libraries is a civilised society, a democratic society, a society that believes in progress and tolerance and community and the kind of society I want to live in.

Mr Letts gave the last word in his programme to the former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, whose father had never finished a book in his life, and I will do the same, " I owe my life to libraries." he said, "I went into a series of quite small rooms and found that I was in the world."