Monday, 22 January 2018

How women experience parenthood differently from men: Part 2 – the baby feeding bits.

If you weren't scared off with all the anatomical talk yesterday, here's some more for ya - another arena men don't "get" to fully experience when it comes to parentage...boobs!

Ye Olde Breasts
Two bags of tissue underneath the nipples, that come in various shapes and sizes that often don’t live up to media-driven expectations and make under- and over-endowed women feel bad about themselves. Breasts produce milk for babies.

So, you’ve somehow made it through the childbirth or adoption of an infant process. You wish to feed your infant as nature intended, from your breasts. Sometimes, this works and your breasts produce the right amount of milk and the baby figures out how to breastfeed, and breastfeeding is convenient for your life situation, and everyone is happy. 

More often than not, the breasts either produce too little (requiring formula – what an amazing, baby-saving invention) or too much (causing pain and misery for the mother, and angry babies who can’t understand why they are being water-cannoned every time they try to nurse). Or the baby can't figure out how to latch. Or gets too frustrated by the start-up patience required.
Ok that satisfied face is pretty dang sweet, though.

Aside from problems like these, blocked ducts are common and can be extremely painful (the recommended solution is to freaking massage the tender, painful part of your breast), and can lead to mastitis – a bacterial infection of the boob that causes a woman’s entire body to ache like she has the flu. Oh right, and for both of these, we are supposed to keep nursing.

Other problems with breastfeeding include:

a.     Raw nipples. Especially in the beginning before there is much milk, your infant may want to nurse constantly, and often incorrectly, causing all sorts of soreness and even cracking and cuts. This is an excellent way to start an infection, too.

b.     It takes forever. I think I spent about 8 hours a day nursing my infant son, because he was super freaking slow and would fall asleep and have to be coerced to wake up and eat more. Thank goodness for time off, a comfy couch, and good books.

c.     It makes you really thirsty and hungry. I can’t believe the number of times that I desperately begged my husband to bring me a cup of water, while trapped nursing for an hour, and he kindly brought it and then placed it JUST OUT OF REACH. Torture.

d.     It’s messy and awkward at first. Did you know that the baby has to suck for a while to get the milk to start flowing, and then it will “let down” and suddenly start coming out in force? Did you know that it comes out from both boobs at once? Useful if you have twins nursing together, but otherwise just a great way to soak through your nursing pads and shirt. The milk still continues to come out when the baby gets distracted and randomly unlatches, spraying everywhere.

e.     It can be embarrassing. We are generally raised not to flash our nipples in polite company. Despite the best intentions of those companies that make breastfeeding covers, I could never get my kids to nurse under a blanket. Once the baby is on, if they stay on, there’s not a lot showing, but the initial hoisting-up of the shirt and hoisting down of the nursing bra cup, etc. can be rather embarrassing. My most awkward encounter was when Ryder was 6 weeks old and I was at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reunion party at the American Geophysical Union conference. I retreated to a quiet corner, got set up to breastfeed, and just then an old male professor came up and started talking to me. I’m not sure if he was genuinely unaware of or unbothered by what I was doing, but he just kept talking to me as if it was totally normal that I was busy whipping out my boob at a work event.

f.      Babies get teeth. Enough said.

g.     Parental imbalance. The existence of and ability for mothers to breastfeed can create a sort of “well, you are naturally better at this so why don’t you do everything” attitude. I can’t count the number of times a crying baby was foisted on me with the words “s/he’s hungry” even if I was 99.9% certain s/he was not and I just wanted 5 minutes to take a freaking shower/eat/brush my teeth/stare at the wall alone.
This baby totally pretended to take a bottle up until I went back to work. Grr.

h.     It makes you sleepy. Breastfeeding releases hormones including oxytocin and prolactin, which can make a woman really tired. Therefore, even if we were really clever and could type while nursing, for example, we generally aren’t really 100% up to it because we are flooded with hormones that tell us "Stare at your cute baby! Relax! Take a nap!".

i.      Pumping. Moms who go back to work and want to continue to breastfeed generally have to use electric (or manual) pumps to simulate nursing. This alleviates the inevitable pain associated with over-full breasts at work, allows moms to bottle the milk to leave behind when they are away, and keeps the breasts producing milk as needed. But it’s time consuming, messy, and requires a lot of parts that have to be remembered, washed and stored properly, etc. It's also practically impossible for the milk to be released if you are stressed, such as if you have to pump in an awkward location like the bathroom or you are worried your colleagues might walk in on you.

Fun story: I flew to Hawaii for work while nursing, and brought all the parts except the dang power cord for my electric pump. I didn’t have my own rental car and was at the mercy of my male colleagues, who thought I was really weird for continually and frantically asking whether we might happen to be driving past an electronics store. Finally, 24 hours in and almost debilitated by pain, I thought to explain: “It’s a medical problem, and I need to buy a power cord immediately.” “Oh, I thought you just wanted to charge your phone. Let’s go!”

Another one: I had to pump on the plane from Australia once. There were no outlets in the bathroom, so the stewardess literally suggested, and I had to, pump in my seat with a blanket over me. 

I was lucky not to have to pump on fieldwork, but have heard many horror stories.

Also, pumping releases the same sleepifying hormones as nursing…just exactly what you want flooding your body in the middle of your work day.

j.      Boobs are great. My babies loved nursing so much, they refused bottles. Like, “I will starve myself all day and scream for as long as you try to give me that second-rate crap” kind of refusal. This led to one of my favorite stories:
Jessica: “Ryder will only take milk from me, so I'd like permission to work from home.”
Boss: “Why don’t you have Adam wear your perfume?” (Do you think I wear perfume?)
Jessica: “No, I mean he doesn’t want milk from a bottle, just from me.”
Boss: “Oh, you mean he wants the TIT!”
Jessica: * grimace *
Luckily she loved and still loves food, so she didn't starve herself at daycare despite not taking bottles (unlike my son).
k.     Weaning…ugh. I nursed Adelaide way past age two because she would cry so pathetically when I would tell her she was old enough and I wanted to stop nursing. Finally, I explained: “Producing milk for you is hurting my body, and I need to stop.”
Adelaide, contemplating: "Ok, can I have milk in a cup?”
Me: “Yes! Of course!”
      Not sure why I didn’t think of that sooner. The “hurting my body” part was maybe a little extreme – I was actually just vainly frustrated that my metabolism had gone to shit while nursing, and over it.

So, men, tell me how your taking leave to go to the park and the beach and read to your baby, and then jump on the computer and perfect that Matlab code without the necessity to nurse, pump, take care of f-ed up nipples, sleepiness related to said nursing and pumping, etc. is equivalent? 

Stay tuned for the last part of this uber-TMI series: the other bits!

p.s. if you are interested in learning more about the science behind breastfeeding in mammals - check out Katie Hinde's awesome Mammals Suck...Milk! blog

Sunday, 21 January 2018

How women experience parenthood differently from men: Part 1 – the baby making bits.

I scroll through Twitter while snuggling my daughter to sleep every night…perhaps that is rude but I could (maybe I will) write a whole blog post on why I think it’s A-ok. The other night, I came across a Tweet about an awesome scholarship available for early-career women scientists to cover childcare, housecleaning, or other necessities that could free up their time to ensure greater scientific success. Of course, because we are women and can’t have nice things, apparently, a dude had to complain about this being unfair and sexist. Men are parents, too! Why only help the women?

Ah, well. This is of course the argument that white people make when there are scholarships aimed towards people of color – the entire point is that white people and/or male people generally have advantages that mean people of color and/or women cannot easily compete. The playing field is not even. Do you go to soccer games and expect one team to play with their shoelaces tied together?

I know many men think that they pull their weight when it comes to parenting. Overall men do more parenting these days than they typically did historically. But there are fundamental differences associated with having children that affect women differently from men. Perhaps you’ve heard about some of these differences, maybe during Sex Ed in middle school, but since it seems like at least some people in the population have forgotten this information, let me explain. With Parks and Rec gifs because it's easier than finding photos right now.

Ye Olde Uterus
This is a bag-shaped organ underneath the stomach of women inside their bodies. It’s where babies grow like creepy alien parasites. Men don’t have this organ.

Ye Olde Ovaries
Two little grape-shaped things connected to the uterus via tubes. These things make eggs, which move down into the uterus; if circumstances are right, they might get fertilized by sperm that swims up into the uterus and make a baby. Men also do not have ovaries.

The uterus and ovaries work together to lead to the following women-only, not-always-awesome experiences:

The ovaries of human women tend to take turns releasing an egg for potential fertilization every month. Thus, the uterus gets ready to potentially host a baby each month by building up a thick layer of blood all around the inside that would act as a cushion to protect a hypothetical growing baby so that women who dare do things like surf or fall down or accidentally bump their midsections into countertops might still be able to bear a live child. However, if the released egg doesn’t get fertilized, then the uterus decides it had better just shed that lovely blood cushion so it can make a fresh one the next month for another hypothetical baby (seems kinda wasteful of good blood, no?).
In the human species, women grow children inside of themselves. The babies typically grow in the uterus, although less frequently, an embryo starts growing in the fallopian tubes that connect the ovaries to the uterus (an ectopic pregnancy), which will require an abortion (either occurring spontaneously or medically induced) or kill the mother. If the embryo implants in the uterus as biologically planned, the woman then gets to experience up to 10 months of growing a baby inside of her own body until the baby is born (hopefully live but sometimes very sadly stillborn), is miscarried, or is aborted (or, in very rare circumstances, dies and remains in the body and becomes calcified).

Pregnancy, you may know, it not a walk in the park. During the first trimester, or even beyond, the woman may feel like will, or actually does, go around puking constantly. This can be rather debilitating; if you get seasick, imagine experiencing that lovely feeling for months with no possibility of getting off the boat. The woman may also feel tired while pregnant, and may require frequent and/or unexpected naps, possibly in weird places like the middle of a hiking path (why yes, I do know this from personal experience). She also may need to pee constantly, experience aches and pains, have trouble breathing, and a whole host of other horrible side effects. For goodness sake, there are entire books on weird crap your body does during pregnancy. The baby is literally a parasite and a woman’s body will generally rob itself to provide what the baby needs – calories, vitamins and minerals, oxygen – before allowing the mother to have the leftovers.

If crazy physical symptoms weren’t enough, pregnancy also screws with a woman’s brain as her body is flooded with different hormones along the way. Plus, her uterus and the baby inside expand to ridiculous proportions, stretching the crap out of her stomach muscles and skin, and smashing all of her other internal organs up into (or, in the case of my gallbladder, onto) her rib cage. Then of course there are all the invasive tests and treatments women get to experience while pregnant – ultrasound wands up the hoo-ha, glugging bottles of partially-dissolved sugar, blood tests and shots and hands in private places. All while forgoing alcohol, caffeine, hot-tubs and other pleasantries.

Beyond these, some women experience serious pregnancy-related illnesses that can lead to permanent disability or death for mother or baby like preeclampsia and its relatives, and cholestasis. It’s just basically physically insane, and men experience none of it first-hand.
At the other end of the spectrum, some couples who wish to become pregnant, can’t. Ok, true; in some cases, the man is the problem, and he might have to undergo unpleasant tests or treatments to get his sperm into the right place at the right time to make a baby. But then the lady still has to endure the above pregnancy stuff. Otherwise, AND most of the time even when the dude is the problem, the woman typically gets to jab herself with needles for weeks on end, purposefully whacking out her hormones to produce extra eggs and then gets to undergo minor surgery to remove the eggs with a needle up the vagina for fertilization in the lab, and transfer back into the uterus (I’m guessing with a turkey baster, but maybe something more professional). But I’ll give the men who have to undergo actual surgery or [redacted] ultrasound some props.

Not all pregnancies go well. Many end up failing before the baby is completely cooked for one reason or another – often because of genetic abnormalities because biology is messy. Miscarriages are more common earlier in the pregnancy, but can occur much later too; the longer into a pregnancy, generally the more physically and emotionally painful this can be. Not all miscarriages resolve naturally. Sometimes the baby dies but remains in the uterus, which can require medication or minor surgery to resolve. A womans’ hormones and body take time to recover after a miscarriage. It’s a time of sadness and physical pain, usually borne quietly and alone; pregnancy loss is an uncomfortable subject for most everyone even though more women have gone through it than you might think. Sure, men may be saddened by losing a baby, but they don’t physically endure any consequences associated with the loss.

Oh, the most infamous of experiences unique to women. The range of childbirth experiences is incredibly diverse, but most include intense pain, exhaustion, and temporary or long-term damage to a woman’s body. Childbirth is still dangerous in many parts of the world, even those with advanced healthcare systems. Myself and many friends had close calls – either the mother or baby would definitely have died without significant interventions. Two friends lost seemingly healthy full term babies during or immediately after birth; the unfairness of life is sometimes staggering. Close calls include births that required C-sections such as a frank breech (butt first) baby who would have never fit out the birth canal, and several babies with cords wrapped too tightly around their necks to be born vaginally. My own dumb cervix refused to budge at all after 24 hours of labor despite all the midwifery tricks in the book, until I got an epidural (ah, what a miracle of an invention), and then I had a massive hemorrhage when my son finally arrived.
Recovery from childbirth is also physically rough – many women have stiches, either in their delicate lady parts from tears or episiotomy, and/or in their abdomens from a cesarean. Many can’t even walk for a few days after childbirth. Even without experiencing a traumatic labor, once the baby is no longer occupying the uterus, a woman’s deflated, stretched-out stomach muscles are about as useful for helping her sit, stand, walk, and perform as normal as a swimsuit is useful as during a space walk (Ok, maybe analogies are not my forte). Oh, we also bleed ridiculous, frightening amounts during this time (because of course, our uterus blood cushion has served its purpose and needs to go away).

Often, a woman’s abdominal muscles are not only super stretched and pathetic after childbirth, but can physically separate from one another, leading to difficulty regaining core strength, associated lower back pain, and sometimes hernias. Fun fact: it’s only normal to have an “outy” belly button when you are an infant or little kid or actually pregnant…if it continues to stick out you likely have an umbilical hernia which requires surgery.

So tell me, men – how many physically and emotionally debilitating experiences have you had to work through to prove that men are just as capable as women?

Stay tuned for Part 2 – Feeding the baby!

*Updated 1/22 with a few tidbits thanks to my lovely lady friends