The Smug Hobby of Parent-Bashing

Victoria's Secret shames nursing mother, breastfeeding in public, Christian parenting blogs, New Zealand parenting blogs, feminist parenting blogs

LA Times cartoon commenting on the story of a nursing mother being asked to leave a Victoria’s Secret lingerie store to feed her child in an alleyway.

Being smug is such a treat. Not only do you get the warm glow of being right but if you add a smidge of righteous into the mix it goes all scrumptious. What fun to sneer at people and tell them how wrong they are!

Smugness is shiveringly satisfying, but it’s also a cheap thrill, and I’d love to find less of it in the realm of children and parents.

In yesterday’s paper, Rosemary McLeod poured smug all over her manuscript, reaching out to jab parents of pretty much any child. Mothers who breastfeed in public, parents of messy children and parents in China (all of them).

And goodness me, I’d like to be smug back to her. I’d like to sneer and say oh, what a pity she is so ignorant! Since the facts are hardly on her side, and the article covers a bewildering array of people who are wrong, wrong, wrong about their parenting, I could just spend a whole post doing a close reading of how wrong she is in turn, and how foolish she was to put so much ignorance in print.

But now that I’ve got that smug paragraph off my chest I’d like to just talk about the damage her kind of opinion piece can do, based, as it is, on ignorance, anecdote, cliché and prejudice.

Ms McLeod is troubled at how parents are raising their kids:

Lactose-intolerant, wheat-averse, allergic to peanuts, crazed by sugar, gifted – was there ever a time when children were so readily labelled and so precious? Or is it that parents have become slightly mad?

I’ll add here the new right of every baby to be fed by a pair of full breasts on full view in public. This new development – we used to conceal the whole caboodle without traumatising our offspring – must put many people off their tucker in eating places, but you mustn’t say so. There’s a new belief, it seems, that exhibitionist feeding creates the best children.

Don’t worry, we’ll get to this ‘new right’ of children to eat.

As well as disapproving of parents who say their children have food allergies or want to feed babies in public places, she also takes aim at parents whose kids are messy in cafés, parents who assault sports officials at their kids’ games, parents who punch their kids’ school principals in the head, parents who live in China and adore their single child too much, and young men with body piercings who aren’t very good employees. All in one article.

I don’t think any of us are too worried about criticism of violent people. So it’s a bit cheeky to start there and then gather all those others into your cloud of smug. But it’s not merely dodgy rhetoric. It’s also dangerous, unkind and simply not going to make the world a better place for anyone – even Rosemary McLeod.

Parents don’t need to be told that they are all getting it wrong, all the time, which is pretty much the message of this piece. They certainly don’t need to be told that by someone who is not currently raising children.

As well as get-your-rant-on day, today (or yesterday, or some other time, depending on where and when you are) also World Down Syndrome Day and International Day of Happiness – isn’t that a lovely combination? Here’s what Kofi Annan said in relation to the latter:

International Day of Happiness 2014, Kofi Annan, The happiness of any society begins with the well-being of the families that live in it, feminist parenting, parenting blogs in New Zealand, Christian parenting blogs, United Nations

The same is true of anything good we want in our society. If we want human beings to exhibit any particular characteristic, we have to encourage people raising little human beings towards it. Towards it, not just away from everything they’re doing wrong, wrong, wrong.

So tell us you value respect or quietness in children, Ms McLeod, and tell us why it will make the world better, and tell us that you know we’re doing the best we can in difficult circumstances – because those are the only circumstances there are, for most parents. Talk about how we can enjoy our kids’ sports games in a healthy way. Inspire young people to want to get on board with their employers’ demands.

But here’s where I find it hard to sustain a reasonable tone. Because two things Ms McLeod seems to want parents to do are harmful and stupid. There’s no positive, encouraging way to urge parents to stop trying to keep their children safe from food that will hurt them. There’s no reasonable argument for banishing mothers to the toilets to feed their babies.

She wants parents of children with food allergies to stop saying they have food allergies, and she wants mothers to stop feeding their children in public. This is just bizarre.

McLeod uses her platform to casually dismiss life-threatening health conditions as figments of parental imagination. This is what five minutes of googling told me about food allergy in New Zealand, according to people who actually know about it:

Are we going too far in hunting down ingredients allegedly held responsible for allergic reactions? Are we making claims where there’s no scientific proof to back them? Or is there a legitimate increase in the number of allergies?

Associate professor Rohan Ameratunga is an Auckland University adult and paediatric immunologist who specialises in food allergies. He says there’s a reasonable amount of indirect evidence to show that the number of people with food allergies has risen in the past two decades.

One study he co-wrote, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2008, suggested one in 10 children has a possible food allergy; a community-based food allergy study conducted in Melbourne two years ago identified 10 per cent of all 1-year-olds have some sort of well-defined food allergy to eggs, milk or peanuts.

Those results could have similar application here.

Ameratunga further notes that the spectrum of allergies is increasing. In addition to the standard allergy-causing foods of milks, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy, henowadds sesame seeds and lupin (used in European breads).

No one really knows, who, or what, is to blame, says Ameratunga. But current theories are:

» A change in food introduction patterns for babies being weaned (they are being exposed to a bigger variety of foods at an earlier age);
» Changes in culture and associated eating habits (Chinese children eating a Western diet, for example);
» Changes in saturated fat consumption.

[Read more at the New Zealand Herald.]

Ms McLeod’s own newspaper chain carried this story a couple of years ago:

Allergies in New Zealand may have skyrocketed as much as 350 per cent in the past decade, but despite the sometimes fatal consequences of a reaction, there is little to no research finding out just how prevalent allergies are.

Allergies are becoming more common and more complicated, but researchers are at a loss to explain why.

An Australian study has found that more than 10 per cent of one-year-olds have a proven food allergy and in the past 10 years, anaphylaxis had increased more than 350 per cent.

Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction.  It often affects several parts of the body, including the respiratory system and cardiovascular system and can only be treated with adrenaline.

Allergy NZ says it’s likely New Zealand’s rate of increase is in line with Australia’s.

[Read more at Stuff.]

Food allergy can be objectively measured in a number of different ways and diagnosed by health professionals. Ms McLeod doesn’t offer any evidence for her slur that her perception of a rise in food allergies is due to parents busily inventing health problems for their kids.

And this is where her blithe pronouncement tips over from being merely insulting to being a public health problem. Perception and information are key aspects of keeping people with food allergies safe.

If you have a food allergy, you can only keep yourself out of hospital if everyone who handles your food is up front about what’s in it. By far the most common reason for anaphylaxis in my family is being told (by food service staff or an ingredient list) that something is free from an allergen when it turns out not to be.

We all have a role in helping each other stay well. We prevent the spread of colds by not coughing on each other. We prevent death by food allergy by being aware of what’s in food we give each other, and how dangerous some ingredients can be to some people. That’s why this kind of casual dismissal not just of the seriousness but the existence of food allergy is so dangerous.

It’s wearying to have to explain to someone like Rosemary McLeod why it is both mean and irresponsible to discourage women from feeding their children in public places. Shall we just do a quick recap?

  • Breastfeeding, for those who are willing and able to undertake it, is a public and private good. Breastfed babies have fewer visits to the doctor, their families have more money to spend on other things. The World Health Organisation and our own Ministry of Health are very clear that it is A Good Thing.
  • Breasts are for feeding children. Truly.
  • Babies need to feed frequently, sometimes almost constantly. Breastfeeding on demand is an important part of growing healthy babies.
  • For these and other reasons, it is illegal in New Zealand to stop a woman breastfeeding in public places.
  • To discourage public breastfeeding is bad for babies, and also for their mothers. The effect is to banish mothers from public life, locking them in their houses. This is a terrible thing to be proposing.
  • Babies are people too, you know, with fully-fledged human rights, recognised by national and international law.
    Our society doesn’t need to have ‘adult’ as its default.
    There is no sensible reason why the preferences of an adult should trump the nutritional needs of a child.
  • Breastfeeding in public is not new. See this brilliant collection of historical photographs and paintings showing how normal it clearly was to feed babies wherever you were when they were hungry. At a bus-stop, at a bank appointment, on the beach, sitting for a royal portrait…
    Being able to sneer at breastfeeding is a modern luxury. Earlier societies didn’t have a choice.
If breastfeeding bothers you feel free to put a blanket over your head, breastfeeding in public, feminist parenting blogs, Rosemary McLeod breastfeeding, Christian parenting blogs, New Zealand parenting blogs

Available from My Olive Flower on Etsy.

I’m sorry that I have slipped into my own sneering and smuggery. Partly I’m so disappointed that I don’t get to say anymore (smugly) to friends in the United Kingdom and North America, that we tolerant, relaxed Kiwis can’t relate to their public storms over breastfeeding mothers being shamed on Facebook and evicted from shops. (Though even here, a breastfeeding woman was shamed by a judge into leaving a courtroom recently.)

Sex discrimination and #everydaysexism are alive and well in 2014 and we’re only ever a short step away from the erosion of freedoms that allow all people to flourish.

So now that I’ve stopped fuming and have taken some deep breaths, let’s finish with some positive tips for making a better world than the one Rosemary McLeod says she wants. Here are four things you could do today or this week that would make the world a better place for children and their parents:

  • Next time you hear of a child with a food allergy, say something to their parents like ‘That must be hard to live with. You’re clearly doing a great job – she looks like she’s thriving!’
  • Next time you see someone breastfeeding, anywhere, say something encouraging, ranging from a discreet, ‘Well done, Mama’ as you walk past (this is usually appropriate even for male strangers) to ‘Great work on looking after that lovely baby!’ I know it might sound weird, but for mums who are a bit worried about feeding in public, I know this is often enormously encouraging, and serves to normalise a normal behaviour.
  • If you are a breastfeeder at the moment, breastfeed in public, please!
  • Next time you see a child being loud, rude, messy or hard work, smile at the parent. If the parent is doing a bad job, a scowl will make things worse, not better, don’t you think? And most parents are doing a great job. Kids are loud and messy, sometimes. It’s normal, and it often makes parents feel terrible when it happens in public. A smile from a stranger can change the course of the day for a family. 

If you want to live in a society and community where women hide at home, getting cranky at their kids, then applaud Rosemary McLeod and scowl at every woman you see breastfeeding and every parent you come across who has a loud child with them.

If you want to endanger the health and lives of the maybe ten per cent of kids who have food allergies, chip in at your next dinner party with anecdotes about parents overreacting, so that the people serving food to these children are casual about their safety.

Or if you want to build a world where we benefit from the full participation of every person, enjoy our diversity and celebrate those doing the hard work of parenting little humans, then perhaps we can move on from seeing smug criticism of parents as an acceptable subject of public conversation.

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22 comments on “The Smug Hobby of Parent-Bashing”

  1. drdaina Reply

    Don’t get me starting on the ranting. Most recently directed at a lady complaining that she couldn’t give her child nuts in their lunchbox because of the nut-free policy at the kindy. I may have pointed out that I would rather live with the ‘stress’ of my child having to forego nuts for a few hours on school days, than the stress of worrying that my child would die at school because someone else couldn’t show a little consideration and compassion when packing their kids lunch. And as for the breastfeeding, it is dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. Have you experienced the looks you get from bottle feeding a baby in public? It’s like people don’t think babies should get to eat at all, or perhaps they should be trained that their appetites are more predictable. Given how babies cry when they are hungry, which would also be upsetting for the general public, perhaps all new Mothers should be house-bound for the first year or so of their childs life. Do people seriously think that people become Mothers just so that they can go out and flash their wobbly stretch-marked bits in public? Most women I know are very discreet, and I don’t know many who proudly went semi-naked in public even with pre-baby bodies. Sheesh. Rest of rant contained, and that is saying something for a Mum of three noisy and active boys. Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t get out much as obviously my place is in the kitchen with the occasional excursion to the clothesline…

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Yes, agreed, Daina (to everything!) – esp the point about dirty looks for people bottle-feeding, too. People need to mind their own business! How can FEEDING A CHILD ever be a bad thing!?

      And yes, mothers never being allowed out at all is the logical extension of criticising feeding in public. Appalling.

  2. Marion Reply

    People love to attack others when they themselves will not have to deal with these issues in their own lives. It seems that since Rosemary doesn’t seem to be in the intense and complicated stage of life of having young children, she feels able to criticise. I wonder if she would feel differently is a younger woman wrote a column about how sick she is of bitter and judgmental older women who seem to love to pour nastiness on those younger than them due to there own issues with aging. Isn’t there a phrase about growing older “gracefully”?

  3. Elaine Reply

    You have captured it down to a tee – people love to cut other people down and what a great place the world would be if we could just give each other a boost up instead.

  4. Andy Reply

    I’m expecting both barrels in response, and she was OTT with the allergy stuff, but i read her as saying that breastfeeding can be done in public in a modest way without the breasts being in full view. we found with our latest that those cape things allow for feeding in a way that doesn’t cause problems for anyone and nobody has to stay locked indoors.

    “I’ll add here the new right of every baby to be fed by a pair of full breasts on full view in public. This new development – we used to conceal the whole caboodle without traumatising our offspring”

    at least breastfeeding in public is still legal in NZ, even if there are people who whinge about it.

    I’m more saddened by the fact that smacking is now effectively outlawed in my home country. Safe money says that child abuse figures haven’t dipped at all, but parents have been prohibited from using a mechanism for discipline (that should be used in conjunction with other mechanisms, and is a world away from beating your kid) that the bible says is appropriate. I’m not a big one on civil disobedience, but when the government oversteps its mandate and tells me how to raise my children, and that the bible is wrong, I’ll defer to the higher authority.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Hi Andy,

      I’ll leave the discussion of smacking (I’m anti) to another day – more than enough to argue about in this post already, right? 🙂

      I think the covering-while-breastfeeding point is that given that breasts are *primarily* for feeding children and only secondarily a sexual part of the body, that women should not feel like they need to cover up for anyone else’s sake.

      There are practical and bonding reasons why some mothers would be uncomfortable using a cover, and while of course anyone should feel free to feed how they want, no woman should have to do anything other than nourish their child as designed by nature (or, you know, God!).

    • Angela Reply

      My breasts are *never* in full view when breastfeeding – the nipple’s always tucked away neatly in the baby’s mouth, and the baby’s head covers plenty more. Never will I under stand this “breasts in full view” phrase. If anyone catches a glimpse of a little pink as I whip the baby on, to be quite honest, I couldn’t care less. And I have not yet understood why others who glimpse should care. Gosh it’s not hard to avert your eyes for a second or two.

  5. Thomas Beagle Reply

    I was very interested to read that NZ law makes it illegal to stop a woman breast-feeding in certain places, but upon looking into the matter further it doesn’t seem quite that simple.

    The linked 2005 HRC pamphlet definitely makes the claim but it seems to be based on a not-well tested interpretation of the general measures against sexual discrimination in the Human Rights Act. I couldn’t find anything more specific and even the claims in the HRC’s “right to breastfeed” report seem to be based on the same exaggeration:

    On the other hand, the HRC seems to be proceeding on the basis that its analysis is correct when it comes to handling complaints so possibly it is de facto against the law!

    Any cites showing that I got this incorrect would be welcomed.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Welcome, Thomas – thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      Yes, I share your reading of the situation, and yes, I was expressing the de facto situation in a simplistic way.

      The HRC do seem to have a reasoned approach (phew!) that looks pretty solid to me if it came to court, in terms of extrapolating from other NZ and international law, coming at the issue from the angle of breastfeeding disc=sex discrimination and also the right of the child. What do you think?

  6. Michael Johnston Reply

    Eight months ago I became a father for the first time. I am just so unbelievably grateful to my partner for her complete dedication to breastfeeding our beautiful little daughter whenever and wherever she needs it. In my opinion, there’s no sight in the world more serene and life-affirming than that of a mother breastfeeding her baby. I’d go so far to say that it’s the bedrock of civilisation and the foundation of mental and physical health. I was moved almost to tears by Hollie McNish’s poem.

    To any woman who has ever felt intimidated or shamed about feeding her child, I would like to send my whole-hearted support and affirmation. Remember in those moments, that you are building a better future, not only for your child, but for everyone, by ensuring that your baby feels secure and loved, and will have as healthy a start to life as possible.

    To Rosemary MacLeod and her ilk, I say nothing at all. I simply turn my back and walk away.

  7. Rachel Reply

    I don’t hate kids or parents. What I hate is being unfairly judged for choosing not to have children. My temperament and lifestyle are not conducive to parenting, so I made the responsible choice to remain childfree. Much better to recognize this than to bring a child into the world whom I don’t want and can’t care for. If you love being a.parent, I applaud you. But please do recognize that some of us made different choices and these choices don’t make us bad people. I would never question anyone’s decision to become a parent. Please don’t question mine for not becoming one.

    • thaliakr Reply

      I wholeheartedly support your choice to have or not have children, Rachel.

  8. Claire Reply

    Thank you for your well thought out post. I would just like to provide a slightly different perspective on breastfeeding in public. I actually prefer if people don’t say something encouraging to me when I’m breastfeeding in public. I am quite happy to just get on and feed my baby when she is hungry. I’m not really one for striking up conversation with strangers/talking to new people so I would rather no one pass comment to me whilst feeding, even if it is a congratulatory comment. In fact, I may find it a little patronising/condescending. And in some ways it makes me feel like what i’m doing is unusual- I like to think breastfeeding in public is normal, and it does feel normal to me. But when someone goes out of their way to congratulate me, i feel like it is an out of the ordinary thing that i am doing, and it makes me feel uncomfortable.

    • thaliakr Reply

      Thanks, Claire. I totally get you.

      I tend to try and judge whether a comment would be welcomed – just in terms of gaze etc – and keep it brief, like ‘well done, mama’ so it’s a general encouragement, not ‘Wow! You are BREASTFEEDING and IN PUBLIC TOO!’ 🙂 I hope I’m hedging my bets okay with this approach – though I just as often stick to just a smile. I just want to be really clear (when I don’t have my breastfeeding child with me at the time!) that the room is not full of people disapproving – which I know some people think it is.
      thaliakr recently posted…Talking about Postnatal Depression: Kathryn’s Story [Guest]My Profile

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