Tuesday, February 14, 2006

An avenue to explore for cause of cot death

Yesterday's Guardian contains a story about a possible cause for cot death; the lack of a mechanism which enables the baby to gasp for air when oxygen levels are low (http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,1708487,00.html). The research so far has identified the particular genetic mechanism which controls the ability of a baby to "autoresusitate" ie start breathing and start the heart beating again, but a definite link with SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is yet to be investigated.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Extreme breastfeeding - a response

Almost two weeks ago now, Channel 4 screened a documentary entitled "Extreme Breastfeeding", following 4 families where mums were breastfeeding. I watched it with some trepidation as I was worried it would make out mums who breastfeed to be freaks, but overall I found it very sympathetic.

In one family there was a two year old breastfeeding. Her mum was young (mid twenties I guess), pretty, intelligent and was doing a lot of work to support new mums learning to breastfeed, and had also set up a group for mums who breastfeed toddlers. I found this mum an inspiration - she was doing such valuable work with the new mums in hospitals, had such a positive attitude and was really putting her money where her mouth was, so to say. Here's the link to the organization she works for, which supports breastfeeding mums:
http://www.littleangels.org.uk/index.htm
It would be great if there were more groups like this around the country.

In another family a four year old was still being breastfed so that the mum had milk she could offer to her newly adopted child. For this mum, breastfeeding was a very important way of bonding with her children, and it had worked so successfully with her first child she was very keen to offer it her second (although, at least during the documentary, the new daughter did not actually breastfeed). I found this story moving, and whilst I don't think I would have done the same in that situation, I could quite understand this mum's motivation.

In a third family there were 2 year old twins who were breastfeeding on demand. Anyone who has twins, I believe, is entitled to do whatever they need to make the demands of twins more manageable. In the end, the process of weaning the twins off the breast was done very sympathetically (taking into consideration the needs of all involved, including the mum to have some sleep!) and seemed a very natural process.

To be honest, I would love to meet any of these mums - they were thoughtful, empowering, and inspirational. And certainly, to me, did not seem "extreme" except in a positive sense.

In the fourth family there was a 7 year old daughter who was still breastfeeding and who was pretty articulate about how much she enjoyed it. I have to admit that I found this scenario did fit the "extreme breastfeeding" tag - in the sense that breastfeeding a 7 year old really is unusual (according to the documentary, the average age of weaning off breastfeeding around the world is 4 years). BUT I don't feel that it is for me to pass judgement on that mum - as far as could be told from the documentary the mum and the daughter seemed to have a good relationship, without any sort of exploitation. Just because they were doing things differently to how I would, didn't make them weird or worrying or (as some commentators seem to think) wicked.

Nearly all comments I've found in response to the programme have been very negative (eg http://www.theanswerbank.co.uk/Parenting/Question195585.html, http://community.channel4.com/groupee/forums/a/tpc/f/9506046381/m/6180036104, http://www.theanswerbank.co.uk/Film_and_TV/Question195377.html tho see http://www.babyworld.co.uk/wb2/default.aspx?action=91&boardid=2&fid=17&read=8495 for some more positive reaction) and this makes me feel actually quite sad.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

What does "family" mean?

I've been away for some time, caught up in gathering some family history.

With the arrival of my daughter, followed only a few months later by the unexpected death of my father in law, I've become interested in collecting and recording as much of our family history as possible. My daughter still has three great-grandparents alive, and it is with them that I've been talking a great deal, recording memories and family myths. It's proving so much fun! But, on a serious point, it has also really made me think about what "family" means.

I'm nearing the end of training with a national charity, Homestart, which runs a befriending scheme for vulnerable families, staffed largely by volunteers (http://www.home-start.org.uk/). One session was dedicated to thinking about what family means to all of us on the course, and what it could mean for the families we'll be working with. For most people "family" primarily meant their partner and their children, but several people included grandparents, aunts, uncles and more distant relatives. Some people also included friends - indeed, talking with my Grandfather just yesterday about his family reminicences he was very keen to tell me about friends who he felt, in many cases, were more important to him than blood family.

I've also been made to think about "family" in another context. I've offered to join the "Parent's Panel" (http://www.e-parents.org/data/parentspanel/index.cfm), a nationwide focus group which works to ensure that family considerations are taken on board in all aspects of Government. The Panel is run by the National Family and Parenting Institute (NFPI), "an independent charity working to support parents in bringing up their children, to promote the wellbeing of families and to make society more family friendly."

When I first read this description I was rather taken aback to realise that I was worried that I might have stumbled across some religious / right wing organization. What made me think this? The very term "family"! - I realised that, to my mind,"family" is often used in a way that makes me uncomfortable. It is used to discriminate, to restrict, to judge. And I didn't want to sign up to any of that.

Having spent some time really looking into the NFPI, I'm now pretty sure that I'm not dealing with some right-wing bigots, but rather an organization which I'd be very interested in working with. And to start the ball rolling, they've asked me to reply to the following questions:


How would you answer these questions?

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Just because I'm not brain-dead, doesn't mean I have to be strokey-beardy all the time....

The Parents Only Zone has a recipe I'm so glad I've got the excuse to try out: an aquarium made of jelly! For full details see http://www.parentsonlyzone.com/?p=59

I might include some fizzy jelly fish (http://www.aquarterof.co.uk/fizzy-jelly-fish-p-455.html) or eels (http://www.aquarterof.co.uk/jelly-pythons-p-187.html, ok they're pythons really but we can pretend) and maybe a raft on top made out of chocolate (wood-look-a-like) sticks (http://www.theobroma-cacao.co.uk/shop/index.php?cPath=61)

Maternity Leave for Students

Stanford has joined MIT in offering maternity leave and rights to its postgraduate students (http://daily.stanford.edu/tempo?page=content&id=19128&repository=0001_article); with immediate effect, these students will now be entitled to "six weeks of paid leave, automatic deadline extensions and a way to maintain full-time student status."

How does this compare to statutory maternity leave and rights elsewhere in the world? There's a potentially useful comparative table at www.womenz.org.nz/14%20weeks%20PPL/world.pdf (watch out, it's a pdf file), based on data provided by the International Labour Organization, in 1998. It includes the following information (apologies for it not being so easy to read):

Country, Length of leave, % of wages, Who pays
Algeria, 14 weeks, 100, Social Security
Congo, 15 weeks, 100, 50% Employer/50% S.S.
Ethiopia, 90 days, 100, Employer
Swaziland, 12 weeks, 0
Zambia, 12 weeks, 100, Employer
Argentina, 90 days, 100, Social Security
Canada, 17-18 weeks, 55 for 15 weeks, Unemployment Insurance
Chile, 18 weeks, 100, Social Security
Haiti, 12 weeks, 100 for 6 weeks, Employer
Panama, 14 weeks, 100, Social Security
China, 90 days, 100, Employer
Fiji, 84 days, Flat rate, Employer
Japan, 14 weeks, 60, S.S./health insurance
New Zealand, 14 weeks, 0
Saudi Arabia, 10 weeks, 50 or 100, Employer
Austria, 16 weeks, 100, Social Security
Hungary, 24 weeks, 100, Social Security
Sweden, 14 weeks, 100% for 450 days Social Security, 75% for 360 days,then 90 days at flat rate

Of course these figures may have changed since 1998, and they only refer to what women are entitled to by law, rather than what they may actually receive from their employer. Nor does the document contain any information on paternity leave.

In the UK there are current proposals to change maternity rights. The Parental Rights Bill (http://www.commonsleader.gov.uk/output/Page997.asp) proposes changes which include:

Monday, January 30, 2006

What do kids think about both their parents working?

Sunday's BBC Panorama (29.01.2006) seemed to promise some interesting viewing for me in the light of the Hirshman and Russell articles I've recently commented on. Entitled "Get a life", the programme was to examine "Britain's long-hours culture and asks children what they think of their parents working lives." (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/4655540.stm# where for the next week you can view the programme on demand if you have a broadband internet connection).

The journalist presenting the programme used the results of a poll of 500 11-16 year olds and case studies of four families in Scotland where all parents worked full time to frame her discussion about working hours and the impact this has on children. Unfortunately the discussion of the issues was not very stimulating, and the promise that children's perspectives would be explored was not borne out. Yes, the results of the poll questions were presented:


but no meat of any substance was added to these bare bones. Some interesting themes were raised including how modern technology has resulted in an invasion of work into homelife, and the proposal that it will take more Dads actually working part-time to raise the possibility of women getting serious, high-value part-time jobs, but the stimulating discussion I was hoping for failed to materialise.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Do men have special eyesight?

Stuart Jeffries, writing in yesterday Guardian, draws readers' attention to the special screening held in many cinemas (at least in London) where you can bring your baby along with you to see a film (http://www.guardian.co.uk/family/story/0,,1696279,00.html). He writes:

"No single fathers attended. But if they had, they'd have to keep their eyes on the screen. The house lights were left up duringthe screening and many of the women were not feeding their babies formula."

What does Jeffries mean by this comment? Presumably that mothers were (shock! horror!) breastfeeding... And as we all know, breastfeeding must mean that our breasts are hanging out, on display for all to see...

So this is why I ask whether men have special eyesight; yes, sometimes when women breastfeed a little bit of flesh is visible, but more often than not, nothing is there to be seen at all. Most mums are pretty discrete about feeding, often being voluntarily covering themselves up with all sorts of drapes and shawls to hide what is going on. But clearly Jeffries could see something more and whatever that more was, it made him worry. Would he be able to control his urges? Would his imagination run riot?

Peggy O'Mara takes a more generous view in her article "Breastfeeding in whose public" (http://www.mothering.com/guest_editors/quiet_place/132.html)
"Barbara Walters says that breastfeeding in public makes her “uncomfortable.” I think a lot of people feel this way, but it’s not a legitimate reason for limiting breastfeeding in public. In fact, it’s all the more reason to encourage it. I suspect that people feel uncomfortable when they see breastfeeding in public because they can’t stop staring, and they interpret this as prurient interest. I believe that they can’t take their eyes off breastfeeding simply because they have not seen it before. It is a natural human instinct to want to see the feeding of our species. It does not mean that we see the breast as sexual. It simply means that breastfeeding is naturally fascinating. You simply cannot expect to refrain from staring at something you have never seen before."
Although it is already a legal right for mothers to breastfeed in Scotland, this is not the case in England (and presumably Wales, although I don't know about Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland). UNICEF has been calling for some years for legislation to protect breastfeeding mothers’ rights to feed their babies in public areas and in November 2005, David Kidney, Labour MP for Stafford, proposed a new bill to make it illegal to prevent women breastfeeding in public. For more info see: http://www.unicef.org.uk/campaigns/campaign_detail.asp?campaign=19&nodeid=campaign19&section=4

And now for some light relief, enjoy the cartoon on breastfeeding in public at http://skylane.kjsl.com/~cee/borgman.jpg

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Prioritising children

Thanks are due to Jenni Russell, writing in today's Guardian, for a great piece on re-considering our priorities when it comes to childcare (http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1696733,00.html) . I would love to see Ms Russell in a debate with Linda Hirshman.

The article contains some interesting facts (it would be great to know her sources) including the news that (in the UK) "two thirds of mothers go back to work within 10 months". And something gets said which I've been waiting to hear expressed in a manner more articulate than I can manage ever since Blair went on about his Respect campaign a couple of weeks ago:
"Mental ill-health and bad behaviour among teenagers have risen substantially in the past 30 years, across all classes and both sexes - and a sudden rise in their emotional problems started 20 years ago. Is it a coincidence that this was the time when mothers were rejoining the labour force in large numbers, and that the long-hours culture was taking hold in many jobs?

Perplexed, the government calls on parents to bring their children under control. But how? Parents cannot physically restrain their teenage children. They can only appeal to conscience, or to love, and whether that conscience is there depends on bonds established between parent and child years before."
Although parents who wish /need to work should be helped however possible, it's not clear to me that increasing the availability of childcare options outside the home really is the best way forward. What about increased maternity and paternity benefits, genuine flexible hours, more part-time, high-powered work? When our daughter was young (6 months), both my partner and I worked part-time. We both got plenty of time with our daughter by sharing her care, and time out of the house, in serious jobs (both in academia). It was an ideal solution, but neither of our jobs were secure (one a short-term contract, the other hourly paid) and without secure jobs it's difficult to arrange pensions or get a mortgage. With a dependent now on the scene we couldn't refuse a guaranteed, pensionable job when it came along, but one result is that I'm now a stay-at-home -mother, which has very many benefits, but has also entailed some compromise.

Compromise is another theme in Jenni Russell's article (although not explicitly articulated as such).

"If time is what we need, for ourselves and our children, why do we spend so much of it at work? Our answer is usually that we have to if we are to pay the mortgage and keep our families afloat. But there is a trap that we can't solve by ourselves. House prices are high because so many people are willing to work long hours or have both adults at work to pay for them. In the same way, we feel compelled to earn in order to buy what other people have. The problem is that, as the epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson has recently shown, our desire to do this is literally insatiable. We buy goods not because we need them, but because we wish to maintain our status. We are in a competition for stuff with other people that can never end.

Our assumption that work and money are the routes to general happiness has been shown to be wrong, and in the process it's not only our lives, and our children's lives, but the planet that has been thrown out of balance."
We have to learn to not need / want so much (btw I think it would be great if there were a single verb combining "need" and "want" given that they are often used interchangeably), and that's certainly difficult but also do-able.

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