From a sociological perspective, our cultural beliefs about birth and many early parenting issues are incredibly fascinating. We don’t often stop to consider that our culture shapes our decisions. We have this idea that we are choosing to do things a certain way of our own volition. Rarely is that the case.
Macionis, in Sociology: The Basics, says that the greater a person’s marginality, (meaning someone is not part of the dominant group) the greater the ability to see things other people don’t see, or using a sociological perspective. I guess I qualify as an outsider in many ways. He lists things like gender, age, sexual orientation, and disability as things that can marginalize a person. Other than the fact that I am a woman, I’m not marginalized by any of those things. I’m pretty typical. I’m married to a man, am able bodied and am of middle age. However, I belong to several ‘subcultures’; groups that are different from my dominant group, which for the purposes of this exploration would be an American Parent. Certainly I could be classified in many ways, but for simplicity, I’m picking this one.
Practically nothing I’ve done is in step with the dominant culture. Why? I have no clue. I question everything. My favorite quote is ‘Examine everything you’ve been told. Reject what insults your soul’ which is how I live. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I want to know why, and then I want to see if there is something that does make sense, and then I want to know if there is hard, verifiable evidence to support the alternative.
In most cases, I’m actually not very concerned about what someone else thinks of my choices. By the time I’ve made a choice, I’ve done enough research, from a global perspective, that I’m very sure I’m making the right choice for me and my family based on all of the evidence available to me. Some people won’t even consider information that doesn’t originate in the
Back to my alternative choices, which include:
And if I’d had a boy, I would have rejected circumcision
These choices put me in specific subcultures. These subcultures may not be easily recognizable through commonalities such as dress or ways that other subcultures are identified, yet they fit the definition of subculture because by questioning the status quo, they set themselves apart to a certain extent.
This is very threatening to the dominant culture. I’ve been called judgmental and told that I’m trying to ‘make people feel guilty’ because I made different choices and want to expose people to the idea that they can too. I’ve never said my choices are right for everyone. I can’t impose guilt on anyone. It’s an internal emotion, and I don’t try to shame anyone for making any decision they feel is right for them. I do use a lot of statistics that call into question why certain decisions have become the norm, but that doesn’t mean I really care about anyone else’s personal decisions. Sociologically though, suppose I’m looking for the general in the specific.
What I do care about is needless suffering, and many of the decisions made in the childbearing year cause problems that lead to suffering. So it baffles me when simply trying to educate people draws such an angry response sometimes. No one has to agree with me. No one needs to defend their choices to me. My opinion should mean nothing to anyone. Lots of people disagree, sometimes vehemently, with the choices I’ve made. I’m ok with that. I have no need to defend those choices because I have no regrets in having made them. No one can shame me for not making the choices they’ve made, because I take responsibility for my choices, and mine alone. I just wish everyone could feel that confidence. I wish that through informed consumerism, parents could really understand what their options are, and that a lot of what they think are parenting options are not really options at all, as well as why certain parenting decisions are influenced a lot more by culture than anything else. We tend to think that just because many, or most, people do things a certain way, it’s the “right” way. So much so we may not consider there are alternatives.
These are things that are important because they influence patterns of health and illness, both emotional and physical, in our society. For example, we have an epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes currently, which will eventually lead to an adult population with serious health issues. The roots may well begin at birth with breastfeeding (or rather lack thereof), but if we can’t be open to questioning infant feeding choices (a parenting option), we can’t address it fully.
On 1/14/08, USA Today ran an article in the ‘Life’ section that listed the complications of the obesity and diabetes and gave parents some concrete ways to help children stay healthy. They included: limiting television, limiting junk food, making nutritious food available, and encouraging exercise; all excellent ideas. Yes, they will all lower the incidence of obesity and diabetes. However, not once was breastfeeding mentioned. Not once was it mentioned that one of the main ingredients in formula, besides cow’s milk, is sugar. There were no resources explaining to parents that this culturally induced idea that formula and mother’s milk perform exactly the same function isn’t based on science, but politics and social mores.
From a structural-functional sociological perspective, there is a consequence to this social pattern that disrupts society as a whole. This approach also explains why this is such a heated topic: bottle feeding is a social structure that serves many functions besides feeding a baby (the manifest function). It allows women to be in the work force (a latent function). To suggest it isn’t good for babies creates a conflict, because were it not available, there would be a disruption in the way society currently operates. But another latent function is illness, which also disrupts society.
Any of the counter-cultural parenting options I chose pose the same threat. It makes people uncomfortable to think there might not be a logical reason for the things we do as a culture. This discomfort creates social conflict between the different groups, but this is important and necessary. The presence of these countercultures is a good thing, because without them, change would not be possible. If no one is willing to speak out against the needless suffering of women and babies, why would it stop? The culture at large isn’t even aware the suffering exists. The suffering is considered ‘normal’.
However, many of the problems that new mothers encounter are not common natural occurrences; they are created by the choices made in birth and shortly thereafter, many without the women even knowing they’ve made a choice.
This creates issues, and mothers talk about these issues, and because they all have the same issues, it is considered ‘normal’. Thus, no one bothers to consider that they aren’t, or that there are predictable ways of behaving that will reduce or eliminate the issues. This is how we have 70% of women anguishing over the ‘fact’ that they ‘can’t’ breastfeed. They have constructed the reality through their interactions-according to the symbolic-interaction approach. It never occurs to them that the reason they suffered was because of birthing decisions, bad advice or simply the cultural acceptance of an inferior substitute to human milk.
Another example might be the idea that birth is supposed to be excruciatingly painful. Empirical evidence tells us this is so. Right? We see it. We hear about it. The idea is accepted as something ‘every body knows’, or just pain common sense.
So, what we talk about and study is why birth is painful and how we can anesthetize the pain. It never occurs to us to wonder if the pain must be present, and if not, why not.
So, we come to conclusions that birth is painful, and perhaps dangerous, because we have big brains. We dismiss any evidence that lots of people give birth painlessly without drugs, either by chance or by design. We attribute any danger encountered, not with the multitude of variables that could have played a part, but with birth itself. We form all sorts of scientific ideas about pain, we write papers or even books about it; we measure it and draft policy to deal with it. But all along, we are asking the wrong questions because the premise with which we began was flawed.
Surely, there is a correlation between birth and pain. But is birth the CAUSE of the pain? If it is, all women would experience pain in birth. They don’t. At least 30% of HypnoBirthing mothers don’t, and there are many others who naturally don’t. Then it can’t be the process of birth that causes the pain. If birth doesn’t have to be painful and dangerous, then a ‘big head’ has nothing to do with anything. What causes pain during birth is actually very predictable and often avoidable, even with 11 lb. babies with truly big heads! Why on earth do people resist this idea, even when they can see statistics and videos of painless births (or even orgasmic births)? Because it disrupts the way their world works. People don’t like change, and this idea, while it seems deeply personal, has a ripple effect on many systems in our non-material culture.
Our patriotism is called into question if we are confronted with the idea that we don’t have the best maternity care system. We don’t even come close to the best.
Our ideas of freedom are called in question if we learn we have rights and responsibilities as a pregnant patient, yet are denied those rights when we try to exert them. This also makes us question our ideas of a benevolent health care system that we’d like to think puts our best interests first. We have many cherished ideas about what to expect of babies and motherhood. People who make different choices make us question our own, and the ideas that preceded them. Our very values and beliefs are challenged and that is very threatening.
Sometimes cognitive dissonance occurs when a core cultural value contradicts a belief. For instance, we (as a culture) have come to believe that epidurals are safe and justified. So, when a woman has an epidural that slows down her labor, necessitating pitocin which causes fetal distress and leads to a cesarean, there will likely be no acknowledgment that the epidural was the cause of the surgery. Birth will be blamed, because a cultural core belief is that birth is dangerous. Volia! Cognitive dissonance gone, to be replaced with denial and perpetuation of a harmful practice. In this instance, two birds are killed with one stone, because we have a cultural belief that breastfeeding is difficult too. Epidurals create breastfeeding problems, which reinforces the belief.
There has been a cultural lag regarding this issue. We got to where we are through invention, though our ethics have not kept pace. Through discovery and much research we know how to bring balance. Much of the information required for women to have easier, more comfortable safer birth and smoother postpartum transitions can be found in this blog. Now we need to allow diffusion, the spreading of ideas from places where birth is safer to create change on a larger scale. This diffusion also must happen within our boundaries. I hope that
Thus far they’ve been socialized by their mothers, sisters, friends, and media to accept what’s been done to them; to be good little girls and buck up. As long as we can fix what we break, don’t worry about us breaking it. We know best, dear. All of your friends are doing it this way. Your mother did it this way and it turned out just fine…unless of course we x-rayed her (and told her it was safe) or gave her DES (and told her it was safe) or gave her thalidomide (and told her it was safe), or use Cytotec on her (and told her it was safe), or gave her a routine episitomy (and told her it was necessary).
We say that we value mothers and babies above all else. We hold that as a cultural value, in fact. If we really mean it, we must offer safe alternatives in childbirth. We must demand evidence-based care. We must have people appointed/elected to government offices at all levels who will be committed to actually putting our efforts toward what we say our values are. We must support and protect the mother-baby nursing relationship. We must admit that what we are doing now isn’t working. We can’t fix the problem until we acknowledge it. Some orgs that are already doing so can be found here: