Fuck Gravity

As I was leaving my house, racing to take middle son to guitar lessons after picking up baby from daycare after an insanely mind blowing dissertation proposal defense (mind blowing in terms of an amazing discussion that led me to literally say out loud in the defense “I’m all tingling right now.” Seriously? Who says these things while adulting? Me, apparently), anyway, so as I was leaving the house, the baby started to fling and flail his body around from his dad to me to n’importe qui. He was hungry and tired and just generally cranky (feelings to which I can totally relate), but he was on the couch and was throwing himself around in such a way that I did that thing we do when we pretend to take the voice of another, to say what we think they’re thinking, and I said “Fuck gravity.” Like this kid was just so over gravity. Fuck it. I’m doing my thing. I will throw my body around regardless of the laws of gravity. Fuck gravity.

Wyatt Annoyed

This little off-hand remark brought my brain back to the mind blowing dissertation proposal defense today.  The proposed research was to look at how and why people, mostly mothers, come to reject mainstream medicine/science, by looking at Facebook parenting groups.  You know anti-science people like anti-vaxxers or those who refuse to replace toilet paper after using the last sheet (wait, that last one might be a different kind of person who can annoy me). At first glance, I kinda feel like anti-vaxxers are not much different from my toddler–no offense (None taken, I’m sure! sheesh, rude).  Sorry, but when I do the anti-vaxxer voice in my head, I hear them saying “whatEVER! You might think your science is true but I don’t FEEEEL like doing it. My feelings are bigger than your stupid laws of physics or medicine or science. Quit trying to poison my child with with your poisonous poison. Fuck gravity.”

I’m intensely interested in the issues of the science of motherhood. I’m highly suspicious of claims that science proves any particular mothering practice is the “right” one. I’m far more interested in context and real life, not what one should do based on perfectly controlled conditions. My research focuses a lot on breastfeeding, as one particular way in which science is used to tell mothers what to do–which historically has meant that at some points in time women were supposed to breastfeed and at others they weren’t. I make the argument (here and here, e.g.) that breastfeeding is valuable labor but women are the only ones paying a price while society reaps the rewards. Some people like to make what I could consider a gas-light-y counter argument that breastfeeding is natural and lovely and wonderful and therefore it doesn’t cost women anything and shut up, you’re wrong, la-la-la-I’m-not-listening-you-hate-mothers-babies-are-born-to-be-breastfed. Or something like that. As though people can’t love things and still find it sometimes hard, like you have to either love your job and thinks it’s beautiful and amazing or else you should quit.  Perhaps I’m not allowing for adequate nuances in their arguments, but whatever, it’s my blog. After I talk about my research, people often look at me kind of blankly and say “so, should women breastfeed or not?” I don’t care how mothers feed their babies as long as they get to do what feels authentic to them and keeps them and their families safe. I want mothers and babies and families to feel loved and cared for, I couldn’t give two sweet shits how they get there.

Either way, what I know is that science isn’t the only metric I judge what’s true–i.e. to use a fancy term, I have multiple epistemologies (ways of uncovering what’s true) one of which is science. There are many, many epistemologies I employ in my everyday life. If I were to put a number on it, I’d say I spend 1% of my life relying on actual science, even though I consider myself a social scientist and I probably spend 95% of my time obsessively thinking about what “is”.  Much more of the time I rely on what my parents taught me or on what  my friends say or on what my colleagues tell me are written in the books that I only really read the introduction to (or maybe the back cover of) or what my professors taught me when I was a student. Or on what I read in my various Facebook groups or in memes or from psychics at various points in my life or just cus it feeeeeeels good.  I make some of the most important decisions of my life in conversation with my God.

Every day, I piece together my understanding of what is based on all the million little bits of data I’m collecting all the time, very few of which were collected using any kind of systematic scientific method and most of which are based on claims to authority. I trust my parents to have taught me right, since they were professors themselves and I trust my professors since my parents were professors (that’s a bit of a tautology but it’s true). So, really, I’m not much different than anti-vaxxers, I just happen to have been born into a situation that led me to trust researchers and academics more than, say, my old neighbor who suggested we buy her Goji Berry juice regimen to treat my mother’s A.L.-fucking-S.

A major part of the difference between the Goji Berry claims and the “real” science claims has to do with measurement.  Science is all about measurement; in the words of my new BFF Brené Brown’s first stat’s professor “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” (note, I haven’t ever met my new BFF and actually, I still haven’t finished listening to her book). I’ve said nearly the same words to many students of mine in the methods and statistics courses I teach. Although, usually, I say “if you can’t measure it, we don’t study it.” Most of statistics is about measurement, people might think it’s about fancy statistical models or methods but the majority of time needed when analysing data is simply in coding and recoding variables. It’s often boring but it’s essential. How you code a variable changes the possibilities for how you can use it. It changes the meaning of what you’re looking at. For instance, if a survey asks people their income and I let their income just be whatever it is, I’m measuring how much money someone makes. If I take that variable “income” and I transform it into a new variable for “earns above the poverty line or earns below the poverty line,” I’m no longer measuring income.  Now I’m measuring poverty. There are lots and lots of books and debates and all kinds of things about how to measure poverty. Some say we should measure poverty by looking at how much someone earns relative to others, others say that we should measure poverty by a basic line below which no one should fall. In Canada there’s no official poverty line, in the United States there is. Either way, there’s general agreement that poverty exists and that we as a society should do something about it.

There are things, however, that we can’t measure. The existence of God, for instance, can’t be measured. I, personally, do not believe that this means God doesn’t exist. Lately, my God is a beautiful white woman with flowing brown hair and a sparkling purple dress thing and she floats above me in a swirling, sparkling light and tells me she loves me and laughs at my neurotic questions. God used to be a man for me. I started to play with my God as a black woman, maybe because my therapist is a black woman; I dunno. Sometimes my God is just a genderless force. I see God a lot in nature and in my dog and when I see loving acts between people. To me, God is the ultimate unconditionally loving force that loves everyone, even my ex.  This is my conception of God that brings me comfort when my articles get rejected or I made mistakes in the exam I gave or whatever petty little bullshit I’m obsessing over when I should be spending that mental energy calling my elected officials to get Trump impeached. Anyway, you can’t use science to tell me I’m wrong. You don’t know, you can’t measure it and you don’t know what my God is.  This is why I imagine that Richard Dawkins leaves that one last square on the toilet paper roll without getting a new one from the hall closet.

Image result for jesus loves you everyone else thinks you're an asshole

Anyway, so just like we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God with science, we also can’t assess “good mothering” with science.  We can assess if our kids grow up alive or how much therapy they get or if they end up in jail or as millionaires (or both), but there’s no survey instrument that says “good mother vs. bad mother.” I was at a breastfeeding and feminism conference once where a public health breastfeeding advocate person actually challenged this idea by saying “Well, but if breastfeeding parents are less likely to abuse their children, can’t we say that breastfeeding parents are better parents?” Oh dear, go here for why that’d be a no.

cheese and bed sheet deaths I can’t measure what it means to be a good mother, although maybe we can measure what it means to be a bad mother, in terms of abuse or something.  We also can’t measure what it is to be a good person. We might collectively decide what are the things that make us good or bad and then we could create some kind of quiz where we could score each other. But what difference would that make? What’s the point? I think, but I don’t know, that this may be where we find the answer to why someone would risk their child getting horrible, painful, awful diseases like whooping cough or polio that we know were widespread prior to the introduction of vaccines rather than risk some unlikely reaction that “science” has shown to be unrelated to vaccination. I don’t think that these decisions have anything to do with science but a lot more to do with who we trust and how we’re scoring ourselves on the imaginary good person quizzes in our minds.

I mean it really doesn’t make any sense to me at all from a rational perspective, which is why it can’t really be a rational choice. But there are sooo many less obvious things that can be self-righteously argued to be true because… science… and then mocked because because… science isn’t really a scientific argument.

Image result for because scienceThe reality of life is that sometimes science doesn’t explain my struggles or why I find my sparkly purple lady God so totally fucking comforting sometimes or why my being a good mother isn’t dependant on my doing a list of very specific things according to one particular pediatrician or why my being a good person doesn’t mean that I have to carry out a God damned significance test or assess the bayesian probability for the best outcome for each of my precious snowflake children. I am compelled to keep working harder and to keep doing better. But there are days when I’m hungry and tired and the daycare keeps sending the baby home for having a cold and all I want to do is let him watch cartoons and eat french fries. Sometimes I choose to do the thing that isn’t the best for my children even though I love them. Having humility means that I’m neither a perfect parent nor a perfectly imperfect parent. How could we even begin to measure perfection? Fuck that and fuck gravity*.

(*but seriously, vaccinate your children.)

4 comments

  1. I love your rambling train of thought… it is fucking amazing. It must have felt so good to get that all out. You are making me realize the necessity of some kind of outlet like this.

    I agree with so much of what you said. About the issue of vaccinating children. If you want my opinion that I gathered through thousands of moments throughout my life like you. All jumbled into my head over decades.
    1) I think people do not understand statistics. At all. Even intelligent people that have a background in math. Or maybe understand is not the word. They don’t “comprehend” the real world application of statistics even if they do understand them theoretically. That is why lottery tickets and gambling is so popular. The odds of getting measles or whooping cough are relatively low. Even if you don’t get your children vaccinated. So the impetuous is not there. The risk of autism from vaccination is not supposedly scientifically proven. But the cost of your baby becoming autistic is massive. So even if the odds are 1 in a million that seems like it is not worth the risk. 1 in a million is good enough odds for a third of the population to buy lottery tickets. It is ridiculously unlikely. If the odds of your kid getting a disease through not being vaccinated are 1/500 or 1/5000 that seems to be as unlikely as 1/million. When it is far shorter odds.
    2) The removal of time and space from most communicable disease that has happened through decades of vaccinations. Only people that are seniors can remember Polio epidemics and living in fear. People think that measels and whooping cough are as benign as chicken pox but they are much more dangerous. Autism is out there in society. There is no explanation for many of the cases and it seems a much more common occurance than polio. So if anyone, even Jenny McCarthy says that a vaccine might cause autism… it doesn’t matter if experts contradict her, any small chance that it might happen causes fear. A lot of fear. The kind of fear small pox and polio used to cause. Well likely a lot less but still.
    The fact that ANYONE said that vaccines cause autism… and not just anyone but hundreds of people connected by mass media and social media makes the ACTION of getting the vaccination a huge dilemma. If you kid ends up diagnosed with autism at 2 years old and you got them the vaccine you will always question yourself about if it was your fault. You bring up god in your post. The parent in a way becomes god. If the child is autistic he was probably going to be that way from the time he was concieved or in the womb. The vaccine has nothing to do with it. But it is literally one of the only actions you can make that is now in popular opinion that could cause it. It isn’t up to fate it was by your hand.
    There was a reading from As Bill Sees It at the morning meeting that bothered me recently. It said that the world makes sense. Implying that God makes sense and has a plan. The reality is the world does not make sense. It really doesn’t. Things happen with no explanation. Conspiracy theories exist because intelligent humans are unable to believe in random and arbitrary events and have to believe in some grand pattern and intent. The fact that shit just happens a lot of the time for no good reason is a lot more scary than concocting a grand pattern that explains it. Sometimes a crazy deranged person kills a President or assholes fly a plane into a building.
    I really can understand Jenny McCarthy. She truly believes she caused her child to become autistic by getting them vaccinated. She is on a mission to help others to not have that happen. She feeks terribly guilty and that makes more sense to het than it being random or a genetic illness or the fact she got a virus when she was pregnant that didn’t make her sick and she never noticed but it made her baby autistic. That is more frightening than have control and power over the illness. Being at the whim of fate in this era of science is scary. The people that do not really believe in mainstream science often do it because they actually want rational explanations for things. They don’t believe in magic. They just can’t believe that there is a ton of things that we as humans still don’t understand. So they find an explanation and commit to it almost like a religion. It is understandable and very difficult to overcome through a rational dialog. I think the only recourse is the rule of law. That being in this situation enforcing vaccinations on children that attend school, as we do now. It is as hard to convince people truly sold on the autism is caused by vaccinations as it is to change their religion.

    As for breast feeding. I had a situation with my daughter. Her mother had trouble breast feeding for less than 24 hours. Her mother convinced her to give up trying then. She really wanted her not to breastfeed for some reason. I wanted her to keep trying for longer than a day. I think my daughters mother really felt like everything was outside of her control then. I sure felt that way.
    At the time I believed that a great deal of the benefits of breast feeding came in just the first few days. The immunities and all kinds of stuff that the baby needs were…. in my mind at the time, passed on in the first 72 hours or so. Was that true? I have no real idea. What I had read at the time And the circumstances had me believing that while breast feeding is always great it was of a huge benefit for the first week. Then it was not as bigba deal to use formula. I have no idea if that is true or not now. I never had the need to think about it later.

    Scientifically it would be great if there was a chart to give to mothers. With the relative benefits of breast feeding and fir how long. Do you get most of the benefits in the first days, weeks, months? When is formula or other food sources equally beneficial? Is breast feeding for 2 or 3 years really of any tangible benefit health wise? Maybe there is this information? Maybe not. Maybe tons of working mothers are pumping their breasts for months while going to work and spending a ton of energy to keep their baby on breast milk at 3,4,6,9 months and it is of no significant tangible benefit compared to formula by that point and the mothers are only doing it because they believe that it is by far the best thing to do out of an obligation to be the best mom when their lives could be easier and maybe they would have more energy for the baby if they just stopped breast feeding earlier.

    Obviously there is no right answer. Maybe there is no possible way to come up with an answer. But I bet for some mothers if they saw a chart with a curved line of the benefits of breast feeding and at some point the chart got to 90 or 95 or 97% of the likely benefit is derived from breast milk at month x of the babies life it would be easier to ween them. Or it might convince more mothers to breast feed even if it was for only weeks or 1 month or 2.
    I don’t know. These are just what thoughts meander in my mind reading your stream of thought.

    You know what is awesome… tingling because you had a super awesome thought or discussion. I didn’t tingle (I think) reading your blog post… but I got pretty excited and a smiled a lot thinking of you when you were writing all of that or thinking all of that. I could totally picture you in everything you wrote. This blog is so awesome. It is YOU! The “controversy” your blog created at the beginning is not important. It isn’t about that. It is about THIS post. You have the gift to put Phylis… all your crazy excited, hyper, weird meandering and very insightful and wise self onto a page… or well a digital bit of information. This blog is so you. I think you should keep writing it. I will read it! It is awesome!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! Much to reply to. First, thanks, Rob!

      In terms of vaccinating and what I wrote, really what I wanted to get to, that I didn’t really, was that I think a lot of these parenting decisions boil down to the basic human need for attachment and love. And I completely agree that there’s an intense need to feel in control and feel more powerful than we are. There’s this cultural pressure that suggests we have to always be doing, working harder, always better, as though our hard work will relieve us of our existential angst or we’ll find peace in the comfort of knowing we did everything we could. In my reality, my hardest work is in the not doing, not trying to fix, in the letting things just be. I’m terrible at this actually. I also struggle with the idea that “God has a plan” to explain painful situations when the reality is that sometimes really shitty shit happens and it’s not God’s “fault”. My sister once reframed this idea to be that every situation offers something to learn. And my conception of God is that when shitty shit happens, she’s there to love and comfort me. I can’t always catch the baby when he falls, but I always love him. So I think people need to feel and express love and to feel in control and like life can have some sensible order, and somewhere vaccines became the way of experiencing and expressing love and control. I actually blame the Dr. Sears family if I want to play the blame game, for why vaccines are the particular problem but it’s more complex than one book series. (Partly why I didn’t get to my bigger point is that I don’t want to steal ideas of the student. She’s doing great work already and is going to have a far more in-depth analysis than I can do justice to here).

      In terms of the breastfeeding stuff… if only there were such a chart. The problem is that it’s impossible to compile such a thing because the benefits of breastfeeding are highly contextually dependent. If all is good for the mom emotionally prior to and after birth and the baby’s latch is good and Mom’s milk supply is adequate and baby doesn’t get jaundice or lose more than 10% of it’s birth weight, then yes, I’d suggest that the child will have better respiratory health, based on my findings. I did not find a difference in terms of diarrhea, vomiting, or fever rates at 3 months when controlling for supplemental food given (but the article is still under review. *knock wood*). If mom has PTSD from rape, breastfeeding can be traumatic for some and healing for others. For mom’s who are slow to produce milk, some babies can end up with jaundice that can lead to brain damage. Moms who switch to formula and can’t afford it and feed cow’s milk can cause organ failure in their babies. Babies are both fragile and fucking resilient. There’s no one way to care for babies. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the emotional labours needed from partners and others.

      Anyway, thanks for your love and support. 🙂

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  2. I agree with you that deciding who you trust is a big part of the equation when it comes to decisions about your child’s health–decisions like trusting the harmlessness of vaccinations. And it’s easy to generalize and say that science is what can be measured. But we have to also look at who is doing the measuring, and why, and who is controlling the dissemination of data that could detract from BigPharma profit. I certainly don’t trust BigPharma or the government when it comes to information about vaccinations. There are plenty of health researchers—who use science, not their feelings—who have come to the conclusion that certain vaccinations are unsafe and can lead to severe reactions such as auto-immune disorders or autism. There was a groundbreaking study that was published in a medical journal this year that clearly linked autism with vaccines. This news should have been huge—it should have made front page headlines everywhere—and yet it was quashed almost immediately, and is very difficult to even locate now (I will post the link if I can find it again). It’s easy to lump all people who are cautious about vaccinations together into a group of morons who don’t believe in science, but the issue is far more complicated than that.

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