This is Rabbit Holes, a semi-regular reaction-style series about the baby-related stories I’ve found interesting and think you’ll find interesting too. Let’s get started!
Reminder: if there are sources you would like to read, for example, NYTs, but get stopped by a paywall, I encourage you to contact your local public library to see if you can get access through their online resources, or contact a local college or university library to see if you can become a community borrower.
1. Meares, Hadley. 10 Feb 2021. “A Brief History of Royal Babies.” Vanity Fair.
The first entry is from Vanity Fair by Hadley Meares on the history of royal babies in celebration of the UK’s Princess Eugene’s new baby. Hadley jumps around European history with details of royal births and the reactions to royal babies. For example, in more recent history Princess Anne bucked royal tradition to give birth in a hospital instead of in the palace in 1977 and how a Persian prince was crowned before birth in the fourth century CE, by having a crown placed on his mother’s belly.
2. Crary, David. 14 Feb 2021. “No longer an outlier: New York ends commercial surrogacy ban.” Associated Press.
Next is a follow-up story to Rabbit Holes episode three’s discussion of surrogacy laws in the US: David Crary reported in the Associated Press that New York state is dropping its ban on commercial surrogacy, as part of a new law that was passed last April and took effect this Monday, Feb 15th 2021. The bill was originally proposed in 2012 by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin but there was opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and some feminists, unlikely allies, who are concerned that paid surrogacy would lead to the exploitation of women. The new law allows for gestational carriers, meaning that the person carrying the pregnancy is not biologically related to the fetus, so a situation like the Baby M fiasco will be avoided.
3. al-Malky, Rania. 11 Feb 2021. “Egypt’s January revolution: Memories of motherhood, guilt and ecstasy.” Middle East Eye.
Moving on to an essay in the Middle East Eye by Rania el-Malky on her experience of becoming a mother while working as a newspaper editor in Cario during the January revolution in Egypt ten years ago. I love these kinds of stories, it’s where, as she says, the public meets the personal. Major historical events are unfolding all around us, all of the time and through it, people go on having babies and those babies need to be cared for to survive. Sometimes this care is delegated, as it was for Rania, while she covered the unfolding news of Mubarak’s resignation. These experiences shape our ideas about parenthood (how we’ve done it and how it should be done) and the children themselves serve as reminders of the larger events surrounding their birth, for better or worse. It’s not just the parents and caretakers that are affected, historical eras and events shape the environment of infancy for future adults, also for better or worse, it makes us who we are.
4. Black, Sue. Nov 2020. “All That Remains.” Arcade.
I’ve been reading Sue Black’s All That Remains. She’s a forensic anthropologist from Scotland. If you’re into that kind of thing, you may have seen her on the BBC’s History Cold Case, and she’s done a bunch of lectures that are available on YouTube as well. Besides her unfortunate adherence to the obstetrical dilemma myth, even while noting that evolution would select for pelves that allowed for childbirth…. oy. (serenity now, serenity now) it’s a very good read. Ninety-nine per cent of the book is not about babies but they’ve come up a few times and I wanted to share two baby-related things from the book.
First, the Gutherie Cards: these are cards that include blood samples, therefore DNA samples, for just about every baby born in the UK since 1950. Originally intended to screen for certain diseases, they are now sometimes used to compare DNA from unidentified bodies, which isn’t without controversy, re: privacy.
Second, the Kamiyah Mobley case from Jacksonville, Florida on July 10, 1998. She was abducted from the hospital just hours after birth by a woman who was recovering from a miscarriage. The hospital and all vehicles leaving the facility were searched but she wasn’t found. A huge campaign was launched by local police and city officials to spread the word and find this baby: bus ads, massive posters, door-to-door interviews, and a task force was put together to coordinate the investigation. The story has a bittersweet ending, Kamiyah was discovered alive and well, in South Carolina, in January of 2017. She had been renamed Alexis and raised by her kidnapper, Gloria Williams, who was arrested, pled guilty to the kidnapping and sentenced to 18 years, less 511 days for time already served.
5. Archaeology Now. 6 Nov 2020. “The First Ghost Stories | Dr. Irving Finkel- Live Events.” YouTube.
One of my favourite historians, Irving Finkel, has been working on a book about the first ghost stories from Ancient Mesopotamia. He did a talk about his work on Archaeology Now’s channel. The entire 54 min talk was fascinating, he’s a fantastic storyteller with a wonderful sense of humour, but there were two bits I figure my viewers would find most interesting. First is Lamashtu, the demon that steals babies before, during, or right after birth. We know about this entity from the Cuniaic writings about it, which included rituals and amulets that could be used to ward it off, as well as other demons that could be summoned to frighten it away, such as Pazuzu. Pazuzu is the much-maligned creature used as the baddy in The Exorcist movie. This demon just wanted to protect birthing women and their new babies but because he’s not generically attractive, William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist) is like: let’s cast him as a child possessing foul-mouth, projectile vomiting demon. For shame. There’s some legit misappropriation right there, but the movie was pretty rad, just ignore the defamation of dear Pazuzu.
6. Weird History. 12 Feb 2021. “The Biggest Badass Woman in American History.” YouTube.
Madam Iowa, whose real name was Marian Dorrion, or as Weird History has dubbed her: “The Biggest Badass Woman in American History”. Marian was born in 1786, the daughter of a French Canadian and Native American mother of the Iowa tribe. In 1811, with her own two young children (two and four years old) in tow, she followed her violently abusive husband on John Jacob Astor’s Astoria Expedition to find the mouth of the Columbia River. What she may not have realized when they set off, though it may not have made a difference to their plans, was that she was pregnant. Throughout her pregnancy, while trekking through the wilderness, on foot, while carrying her toddler on her back, as the only woman in the group, she was solely responsible for the care and feeding of the children. Her experiences are unbelievable, from giving birth to trekking through mountain passes in blizzards with her children. Just an amazing story of survival. Definitely give it a watch.
7. Perrino, Nico. 5 Jan 2021. “What Happened to American Childhood? with Kate Julian and Greg Lukianoff.” So To Speak.
I’ve put this at the end because I want to share my thoughts and I have a lot of them. The episode is called “What Happened to American Childhood?” on So To Speak, it’s an episode from early January, featuring Kate Julian of The Atlantic and Greg Lukianoff, a co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind. Both have done research on the rising rates of depression and anxiety and their related disorders including eating disorders, addiction, and suicide in relatively affluent adolescents and young adults which cannot be attributed to better screening. Their argument is that parenting trends that began roughly in the late 1990s through to the present day are, in part, causing these worrying outcomes.
One of the approaches that Greg took was to look at CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy, a type of therapy that is used to treat anxiety, as well as PTSD. He realized that current parenting trends take the opposite approach to childhood mental health. The problem starts when parents (likely to have anxiety themselves, which both authors identify with) “accommodate” their child’s anxiety. Accommodating in this context is anything that is done to help a child avoid feeling anxious, instead of confronting the anxiety-provoking thing or situation. It’s done with good but misguided intentions, based on a belief that children are psychologically fragile and need to avoid experiencing anything that makes them uncomfortable, for example, eating vegetables, playing with other kids, or losing a game.
Dr Lebowitz from Yale’s child study program SPACE, treats childhood anxiety by working with the parents instead of the child themselves, teaching parents how to stop accommodating and instead support their child as they experience and overcome (non-dangerous) anxiety-provoking situations, an approach originally developed for children with OCD.
Parents may think that helping children avoid anxiety or discomfort is a way to reduce suffering, but avoidance ultimately causes more suffering while using up more energy than just facing the cause of the anxiety and dealing with it.
For adults accommodating their own anxiety: tackling that stack of bills or the dirty dishes or that phone call immediately will require less effort than continuing to avoid it. And the more often you just get it done the sooner you’ll realize it was never that big of a deal in the first place. All that stress and fear will evaporate and you’ll feel empowered. It’s this kind of thing that we should help our children to recognise.
While I was listening to the podcast a few of my own experiences came to mind:
A few years ago, an acquaintance, who really embodied this anxiety-accommodating parenting style, wouldn’t tell her child what ADHD meant when her child asked because mom thought the word “disorder” would hurt her child’s feelings so instead, told her kid that it meant “cool kids syndrome.” They took a silly selfie celebrating her new diagnosis and the mum posted about it on Facebook, where she was congratulated for her progressive parenting.
But like all accommodation, it’s so short-sighted. How does misrepresenting ADHD help an eight-year-old who is struggling in school, both academically and socially? And what does this mean in terms of the mother helping her kid manage her ADHD? Surely “cool kids syndrome” doesn’t require any lifestyle changes or new strategies, let alone medications. When the child inevitably learns about ADHD and that her own mother didn’t want to tell her what it was, will she lose trust in her mother? Will she feel like ADHD is worse than it really is because of the lies? (Will it be worse than it needed to be because of lost opportunities during childhood education?) Was it really the mother’s anxiety about having a child with a disorder that made her want to avoid it?
As another example, one of my nanny kids was a very precocious but very shy little girl, we went to the park nearly every day but she would play alone or with me. At first, I thought that she just preferred her own company but when I asked her about it she said she was scared to play with the other kids because she didn’t know them. I told her that I got nervous meeting new people too and that I didn’t know the other parents or nannies at the park but I talked to them. I explained “small talk” to her. I offered to introduce her to a group of little girls and afterwards she had a great afternoon building sandcastles and play-acting Disney princesses.
The following day, I watched her introduce herself (and me) to a different kid the way I had introduced her the previous day, “Hi my name is ___ and that is my ‘Raydeeah. Do you want to play?” Boom. She really blossomed after that, her dad told me how he’d noticed her growing confidence a couple of weeks later. Sometimes, I think kids just need to know what is going on. Explaining to her that all the grownups don’t necessarily know each other and that they get scared too, but do the thing anyway, was a game changer for her. Introducing yourself to a group of new people is scary but it’s worth it to develop relationships and practice makes perfect, so start young and as a parent, try to model that behaviour. Yes, it may mean you will have to deal with your own anxiety, not that you need to hide that fact from your child, it could be a great learning opportunity.
Now the podcast this discussion was hosted on is one focused on issues of free speech, and no, I am not talking about far-right idiot-fringe’s conflation of hate speech and inciting violence as free speech–and neither is this podcast. The tie-in to this episode is about how this “accommodation/avoidant” parenting trend started influencing higher education around 2013. Parents and students began demanding accommodation from schools, a kind of “pseudoscience medicalization of censorship” as they put it, which in practice would require restricting free speech, for example, not allowing certain speakers or subjects on campus that might cause discomfort. But avoiding discomfort is tantamount to avoiding learning. Being exposed to new ideas and challenging your beliefs is uncomfortable, for everyone, but especially for those in need of broadened perspectives.
As an undergrad, I was in a class with a student who was an outspoken member of the Campus Crusade for Christ group and the class was called “Prophecy in the Bible.” He thought it was a Christian theological course but it was a literary history course. I watched him suffer extreme discomfort sitting through lectures on how the Bible was actually written. It hurt him deeply to be told that the Bible wasn’t written by God but by lots of different humans. You could say it was triggering. There was shouting and tears involved. Of course, this was in the ’00s, I doubt anyone had come up with the idea that learning should come with trigger warnings or that he should be excused from classes that made him uncomfortable due to his religious and political beliefs.
But what about today? If you are a proponent of this form of accommodation in college, do you think he should (or could) get a pass on the material because it makes him (a straight white male conservative Republican Evangelical Christian) uncomfortable? Or should he be forced to learn about subjects that make him uncomfortable because he has a different ethnic, religious, or political background from you?
The take-home point of the podcast is that it is the accommodation/avoidance of anxiety fuels anxiety, leading to much more serious and harder to treat issues down the line, such as addiction; or difficulty starting or maintaining relationships and jobs. Children are incredibly resilient, not that that should be used as an excuse to be cruel or abusive, but rather, that they should be encouraged to face the normal anxieties and discomforts of being a human being.
Losing a game, being wrong or misinformed, getting in trouble for lying or not following the rules, having responsibilities: all of these things should be familiar experiences in childhood so that when children become young adults they aren’t having to learn from scratch while also dealing with adult responsibility (and consequences) for the first time. Extending the period of accommodation through a Bachelor’s degree is not going to do them (or their future employers and partners, if any) any good. Avoidance of suffering doesn’t reduce suffering, it compounds it.
Yes, the podcast episode has more to do with childhood rather than babies, but babies grow up (and fast) so I think it’s well worth a listen (or a read, there’s a transcript) and one of the books they mention, the book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children by Ann Hulbert, which I haven’t read but is one the way (thank you, Patrons).
The topic is fascinating to me because historical parenting trends influence and are influenced by history, and in this case, it’s the history we are living through right now. The current feels-over-reals, the rising popularity of pseudoscience and disinformation, the growth of delusional, cultish, political ideologies (on both sides of the spectrum), and more, it’s not unlike what occurred in the 1960s and ’70s when the generation of children raised via “permissive” parenting during early baby boom came of age. Of course, permissive parenting was limited to those families who could afford to have a parenting ideology. But let’s try to avoid another Jonestown, Summer of Sam, Manson Family, etc, please. We have very serious geopolitical and climate issues to deal with and if the generation coming of age today would rather avoid thinking about it because it makes them feel unsafe, or have no experience managing the emotions that come from facing harsh realities, there might not be another generation after them.
And with that bleak warning, I think that will do for this Rabbit Holes post. I hope you found it interesting. Let me know what you think in the comments or if you have a Rabbit Holes suggestion, send me a message using the form below. If you have a story to share, let me know whether or not you want to share with the public, and if so, what name (if any) to use.
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