Thursday, 22 August 2013

Motherhood in the Field: Arrivals and Departures

"...a central point of fieldwork - to just load upon experience and let yourself slowly sort it out at levels conscious and un-." 

The months are flying by and the arrival (and subsequent departure) of my husband and son in the field has definitely been one of the most challenging aspects to this adventure so far. A mixture of new baby heaven and all the emotions that go with it, a full house from two to five in a matter of days and a family reunited after two months of separation. This could have been a disaster, turning everything upside down just as my data collection was gaining pace and my informant relationships developing. It was in fact the opposite ... it changed the way I look at my research questions and gave me a completely different perspective on maternal subjectivities. It also reminded me of a crucial aspect I had up to this point been ignoring - the paternal perspective on motherhood and child rearing. An obvious yet easily lost perspective in a fieldsite with highly gendered spaces. Having my husband here, himself once a local boy increased my limited opportunity to be reminded of how people here shape fatherhood and men's role in child rearing and decision making.

This of course I have realised upon reflection and a re-reading of my field notes made during those two very short months, I keep a kind of personal reflective diary as well as an ethnographic description diary which is proving very useful. Living it at the time felt like a different reality family life became increasingly distracting and I constantly worried about opportunities I may be missing out on, or reading time I would never get back. There was an emotional pull of putting work off in order to take advantage of the boys and lap up every moment of my son's presence. Things began to get harder as their visit came to a close and I worried (as my previous post demonstrates) on how I would cope in there absence. 

Saying goodbye a second time around has been horrible and unsettling for us all, it really made me reassess my priorities - PhD or Family - it felt like a battle between the two. I realise now that it is not so clear cut and there are ways to make them of equal importance in a practical sense. It might seem strange to put my academic and career development on a par with my family but no-one quite prepares you for the emotional and physical strain of...well....either one and in that sense they are very similar. Being a mother and a wife influences who I am as a human being, but so does my study. This experience is teaching me a lot about myself and the strength of my relationships and in turn is giving me an insight into the lives I study that would never have happened if my own family life hadn't been turned upside down in order to make it happen. 

Monday, 12 August 2013

Newsflash: Breasts are for feeding babies with!

I wanted to take a break in the current usual proceedings of reflecting upon my time in the field as a mother and to write about a more 'in the news' topic. There has been a week of virtual and physical world activity in support of Breastfeeding. I picked up on a record attempt in the UK for the most women (and babies I assume) breastfeeding simultaneously and a surge of campaigning and images in social media promoting support for all mothers in the practice of feeding one's baby with one's breast (novel idea, its bound to catch on!). 

I am at once overjoyed by the amount of beautiful images splayed across the internet of babes happily latched onto their mothers and also annoyed at the fact a week in the year needs devoting to highlight the support needed for said mothers. At risk of stating the obvious, breasts are for feeding babies with, that is why women have them, any other socially constructed benefit such as the beauty of them, their sexual attractiveness, the invention of special cloth devices to put them in and their marketability to entice heterosexual men to buy anything is merely an added extra. Though in some societies they seem to have got that the wrong way round and even more so have turned them into a weapon of offence in a feeding situation. 

I find the whole situation very odd, I'm sure my baby if she could enter into the debate, would be inclined to agree. That of course is my gut reaction to a world of silly rules, but by thinking anthropologically I can think of some more rational explications to this breast utility obsession. What exactly is it about the human condition that throughout time and place we change the way we relate to our bodies and what they do?  For what purpose does it serve to treat breasts as something other than a source of (emotional and physical) survival for a human infant? Whether we choose to use them for that purpose is a separate argument, put ultimately that is why they are there. 

For some cultural comparison here is a brief ethnographic vignette taken from my fieldwork diary: 

When I boarded the combi* this morning I wished it was possible to take a snapshot of the scene that greeted me. Apart from myself with nuzzling babe in arms there are four other women of varying ages from late teen to 30s (as usual at this time the combi was populated only by women going about daily business) all nursing babes or toddlers. As we chatted about the recent thunderstorms, how busy the city centre had become etc. no-one batted an eyelid at the amount of breasts on show, as they never do because if you have a baby or small child who is pining at your chest then you feed it - why wouldn't you?

*A combi is a micro-bus/van with seating that is used as public transport around the city.

That is what I would describe as a healthy social attitude to feeding one's young. This was by no means a special day and justified by a female only presence, it happens on any day regardless of the gender mix. People of any age and gender will stop and talk to you, kiss and coo at the baby without any hesitation about it being attached to a nipple. Here feeding is not a shameful or secret event and nor are women accused of 'making a point', they are simply feeding their child whether it be on public transport, in the workplace, at home or walking down the street (a skill to be valued in itself!). 

Mexico has a stereotype of machismo and of treating women poorly, and I certainly do not dispute the aspects of violence, maltreatment and appalling incidents of feminicide that occur. But lets get beyond the sweeping generalisations to turn the focus back on a so-called civilized and developed society such as the UK. 

Capitalism and Patriarchy Come Hand in Hand

The societies most offended by a woman using her body to ensure the survival of her baby are the most technologically and economically advanced, or that is to say are the most technologically and economically dominant. There has been a long tradition in feminist anthropology and social theory that questions the use of technology as a means of population control (for an introduction see Emily Martin for a distinct analysis of obstetrics and authoritative anatomy knowledge and Vanessa Maher (ed) for a collection of writings on breastfeeding). Population control in the theoretical sense involves the manipulation of social thought (common sense) and bodies for the common economic good of a nation - or for those that govern the nation. What economic purpose is served by controlling how a growing population is fed? Maybe that is one for the formula companies to answer!

From a feminist perspective I would argue that much has to do with the destructive illusion that gender equality is about making women more like men rather than acknowledging that biological difference is a strength particularly in terms of life creation and survival. Women are 'freed up' to enter back into the workplace and therefore should feel liberated about the choice of bottle feeding over breast. opposed to the workplace adapting to the needs of a breastfeeding woman is the type of situation that makes breastfeeding an issue that then needs dealing with. Laws and policies must be devised and rights defended in order to ensure some smokescreen of equality in what is essentially a patriarchal work-space. Only in the most advanced capitalist societies do organisations need to create a policy for breastfeeding because in those societies women's bodies really are commodified and sexualised to a point where people have forgotten what breasts are for. And those that remember have to work hard to defend what is seen as a radical standpoint and feeding one's child becomes a Right rather than a normal bodily function...what a topsy-turvy world we live in!