Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Third World Green Daddy 70: Postscript (and postmortem) on pregnant reading

A big part of what motivated me to write my last Third World Green Daddy blog post on what I've been reading during my wife's pregnancy was another book that I didn't mention in the blog.  It's called "Expecting", by Gordon Churchwell, and is about a man's experience of his wife's pregnancy.  I also picked it up at my office's "library", which is a bookshelf where people leave books they're finished with and don't want to keep.  I thought it would be yet another way of really getting into the moment of my wife's pregnancy.

The book started out mildly entertaining, but not quite what I was hoping it would be.  The author is by his own admission a self-absorbed consumer living a yuppie life in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  So a lot of the themes he touches on seem less universal and relatable, as one man reading another's experience of manhood and pregnancy, and more the idiosyncratic whinings of someone very much defined by his rarified, hard-to-relate, super-bourgeois New York City context.  He and his male friends seem universally peeved to be distracted from their professional and leisure pastimes (art, corporate achievement, long-distance biking, etc.), and thus see their gestating babies as a threat to their high-income, low-responsibility lifestyle.  They are pissed off at their wives, who are all self-absorbed uber-mommies, living every cliche to a T as they lose all interest in life outside of their own uterus.  Very little of this was relatable to me--I mean, if you really don't want a baby, just don't have one.  It's no big deal.  The attitude that most resonated with me was a pithy, throwaway (but well-executed) description of a proverbial Mexican peasant family:
Peasants in Mexico don't think like this.  Pregnant!  Happy!  Celebrate!  Another baby?  We'll have four sleeping in our bed instead of three.  We'll feed them.  We'll work harder.  We'll make more tortillas.  They have a very different attitude about life.  Children are treasures.
Aside from the condescending and racist overtones of this characterization, I found myself much more on the same page as these peasants, not as the hypereducated "East Coast liberal" caricatures that seem to actually populate the reality the author lives in.  Frankly I think a bit of benign neglect, both toward their own self-image and pastimes, as well as toward their future kids, who will surely become yet another manifestation of their self-absorbed way of living, would do well for all of these parents-to-be.

Throughout the book, Churchwell calls for more recognition of and assignment of a male role during pregnancy and childbirth.  I can get on board with this in theory, but the author just keeps whining about not being the center of attention, at the same time as he doesn't evince much actual interest in the pregnancy in the first place.  So it's really not a good-faith call for more active male recognition coupled with more active male involvement in pregnancy.  He's wanting to get, but not willing to give.  It's more like when white folks complain about being marginalized when people of color mention any of their own concerns.  You know, life just sometimes isn't all about you.  I have to say I never went through this feeling of resentment toward my wife and kid, though I admittedly was not surrounded by self-righteous, self-centered, neurotic people as the author seems to have been.

To me, a practical man as Churchwell claims to be would get involved in the practical logistics of choosing a hospital, weighing different childbirth options, stocking up on diapers and strollers and bottles and all the other accoutrements of childrearing.  This is a role that a man is perfectly capable of fulfilling, and at least for me it made me feel a "part" of the pregnancy.  Or if he were into art, he could make art for the baby, or play music for it in utero.  Just make a role for yourself, and do it.  However, in the hyper-analyzed world that the author lives in, maybe you can never be satisfied with your role, because you end up simply consuming stereotyped roles for everything you do, or analytically criticizing those very stereotyped roles.  For instance, Churchwell speaks of fathers' going to prenatal visits as if it's some sort of virtue signaling, a declaration of being "with-it".  But can't you just be interested and concerned about the progress and health of your fetus, without trying to either fulfill or defy some pre-defined stereotype?  Again, doing this type of stuff would seem to offer precisely what Churchwell wants--a way for a detail-oriented, technologically and scientifically astute, assertive man's man to contribute his strong points to the pregnancy.

Lastly, Churchwell has a latent derision and misogyny underlying everything he writes.  He is scornful and disgusted by how his wife looks and acts, and his first instinct is always to dismiss the concerns of pregnant women or their advocates.  I assume he's trying to come off as witty and iconoclastic, but it comes off like when white supremacist internet trolls try to be daring by saying racist things.  In the end you aren't being witty or daring, or challenging the politically correct status quo.  You're just contributing yourself now to a shitty, oppressive state of affairs that you are too self-absorbed to even realize exists.  The author speaks with reverential deference toward an idealized, objective scientific establishment whenever a specific medical procedure is in question, and has difficulty understanding what the big deal is about episiotomy and things like that.  He begrudgingly comes to understand the concerns of those who would question some of the obstetrical status quo, but only after the evidence becomes insurmountable for him.  Otherwise, he can't fathom why someone (female) might not want people probing them with metal implements or slicing their 'taint with a razor.   These concerns all seem pretty straightforward to me, without much need for cerebral equivocating.

By the end of the book he sort of comes around.  On the one hand, Churchwell offers some fascinating and well-researched histories of medicine and childbirth, as well as an in-depth exploration of the (circa 2000) latest research on the physiological changes that take place in men and women during pregnancy and parenthood.  Seemingly aided by this, Churchwell gets more interested in his wife's pregnancy by the seventh month or so, and takes on a less self-centered voice.  So I ended the book on a positive note, appreciating his exploration of how having and raising children changes us profoundly, not only emotionally and mentally, but even with an endocrine, physiological basis underpinning it all.

In researching this blog post, I learned that Mr. Churchwell died shortly after his book was published.  This made me waver on even writing the post.  I don't want to disparage the dead, and the more I thought about my response to the book's mediocre early passages, the more I thought it probably wasn't even worth critiquing.  Then I found an article about his ex-wife, who found out that he had been carrying on multiple affairs while they were married.  This confirmed for me that I might be on to something with my detection of a certain self-centered misogyny in Churchwell's work, and that it might indeed be worthwhile to comment on it.  Indeed, it made me wonder as I read that what seemed to be such a frank, tell-all account of his life was really hiding a huge part of who he was, the same part he successfully hid from his wife and daughter until his death.  I can relate to this--not the unfaithfulness part, but the way in which whatever we write or share of ourselves is inherently an incomplete picture of our entirety. 

But again, the real clincher for me is that Churchwell redeems himself in the end, both as a writer and a father, by getting beyond his initial pettiness and egotism and exploring some truly universal themes of how parenthood changes both men and women from the people they were before.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Third World Green Daddy 69: Reading my way through a pregnancy

When I recently got the news that my wife was pregnant again, I was sublimely ecstatic.  Of course I had been thrilled when I learned of the prior two pregnancies, but this pregnancy was different, both in how unexpected it was, and how expectant I was.

During my wife's pregnancy with Sam, I was very active, very conscious of the pregnancy and getting ready for the childbirth and childrearing.  He would be my first biological child, and in my typical busybody fashion I set about doing all sorts of logistical preparations:  getting or making clothes and other supplies, setting up hospital logistics, figuring out bottles and breastpumps and diapers,  But I was so busy doing, and it was all so new, that it sort of went by in a flash, and I couldn't step back and think about it.

When Paulo was in the womb, I was less conscious than with Sam.  Caro and I had worked out the mechanics and logistics once before, so they didn't require as much time or thought.  In addition, we went through four jobs and five living spaces in the course of Paulo's pregnancy, so I for one was sort of overwhelmed, just keeping my head above water.  I was much more involved in Paulo's childbirth itself than I had been with Sam, but when I finally did catch my breath, I realized that that pregnancy had gone by again in a flash, and I had been even less able to stop and enjoy it than with Sam's gestation.  Where I'd written fifty-some Third World Green Daddy blogs during Sam's first few years, I wrote just a few during Paulo's gestation and infancy, and these were often way late.  Witness my writing about life in DC almost a year after we'd left--I just didn't have much time to write when I was trying to juggle a new job and a new baby.

But in the four years since my second son was born, I have taken on much more of the parenting duties, and I feel like I've grown a lot as a person in the process.  I am calmer, wiser, better able to focus on what I really consider a priority for myself, and to prune out things that aren't as important to me.  I have come to appreciate the personalities and quirks and strengths and weaknesses of two very different little people, and also to adapt myself to how they see things, how they experience the world.  Each milestone of Paulo's took on special significance for me, since I also saw it as the end of something.  When he stopped breastfeeding, I thought, "That is the last time we'll breastfeed a baby."  When he outgrew clothes I put them aside, assuming they'd have to wait years until our grandkids came along.  When he lost interest in a particular baby book, I thought that I would be putting aside that part of me and of our relationship, at least until a grandkid and perhaps forever.  This letting-go was the bookend to that first joyous discovery, when I was 28 and with newborn in hand, that I was recalling the songs and stories and shared rituals that my parents had given me and that had lain dormant for 20 years or more in my mind and heart.  Now I would have to deactivate that part of me that had been reactivated for the last five years or so.  I think this was less traumatic for Caro, since Paulo was her third child (arriving 18 years after her first), and she had really been able to enjoy and cherish these moments with him.

But for a few years now Caro and I have been considering bringing another child on board.  We've looked into adoption in the three countries we have ties to, but because of our mobile, transient lifestyle, we haven't found a way to make it happen.  Each country's adoption authority is accustomed to dealing with people who live there long-term, who have community ties the agency can interview, a permanent household the agency can visit.  We just don't quite fit into that box.

At the same time we've gone back and forth on whether to have another birth child.  Caro was pretty happy to finally be getting her "normal" body back, after years of pregnancy and post-pregnancy and then the unexpected sedentary office lifestyle that we had been able to avoid during our years in Colombia, before Sam came along.  I was worried about population pressure on the world scale and adding my own little bit to it.  But then we'd have spells of dreaming of a new baby, of all the special moments and rites and warmth.  It didn't seem to make much difference in any case, since even when we were in a "trying" phase (or at least not an actively "preventing" phase), Caro wasn't getting pregnant.  She figured that age or mileage or the inevitable medical travails that accumulate over a lifetime had gotten the better of her reproductive apparatus.

This was fine--we're flexible and tend to accept what life gives us.  I did though sometimes recall with nostalgia the different steps of pregnancy and babyhood, the preparations, the dreaming, the milestones, the siblings meeting a new family member, the pride and the challenges, all of that stuff.  And I felt bad that I hadn't had a chance to savor these when I was actually going through them.  With Sam I had been so busy living them that I didn't appreciate them, and with Paulo I was removed, trying to get the rest of our life in order while Caro's belly grew. 

But then came the Sunday morning when I was sitting on the toilet and little Pauli slipped a positive pregnancy test under the door to me, special delivery from his mom.  And since then I've been in a euphoria.  I could start all over again!  All those things I'd thought I was leaving behind as Paulo outgrew them, could have a final encore performance!  And this time I'd be much more aware, much more conscious not only of what I was doing, but of the momentousness and meaning and joy of each thing, beyond the tangible doing itself.  I felt like Scrooge when he wakes up Christmas Day and learns he still has a chance to turn things around.  Not that I'd been shirking or miserly as a father before, but this pregnancy and infancy I could savor for what it was, neither worried nor uncertain as with a first child, but rather appreciative with the knowledge that it would be my last stab at the experience.  I've heard that older parents enjoy and appreciate certain moments more, because they have an accumulated wisdom, and often have known the agony of childlessness, in a way that younger parents don't.  I don't consider myself too old at 35, but I do feel like an older parent in this sense.

One of the ways this heightened consciousness has played out is in a voracious desire to read during my wife's pregnancy.  With my first son I read lots of fairy tales, poetry, even the Bible to him while he was in utero (I had a lot of free time, as I was not formally employed!).  I didn't have as much time during my second son's pregnancy, but we started The Odyssey, and finished getting through it when he was a newborn.  In this same latter vein, and influenced by both my sons' current interest in Classical civilizations and myths, I got an edition of The Aeneid translated by the same guy who did my dad's copy of the Odyssey that I'd read to Paulo.  I've been becoming gradually more diligent about reading sessions of the Aeneid with Caro's tummy.

I'm also reading a lot for myself.  I recently finished The Local Food Revolution, a mind-blowing tome that lays out the pretty bleak picture for human life on this planet in the next few decades (more on that in an upcoming blog).  When that got too heavy, I turned to Ruben Dario's Blue, a sort of intentionally frivolous but masterfully lyrical work of what he called "poetic prose", which actually has a lot of astute social commentary hidden beneath the ruby inlays and marble statues and French-style gardens and porcelain fairies.  I'm also reading a fascinating biography of Archbishop Romero called "Shepherd of wolves and lambs".  I need to finish this in time to give it to someone in Colombia for Christmas, so I'm rushing a bit.  It highlights a piece of Catholic social teaching that I've only recently come to appreciate again after years of focusing on the option for the poor:  that the rich are in fact often those most in need of ministering and salvation, as they are the ones sinning by oppression, greed, corruption, and the like.  So while we need to protect and advocate for and empower the poor, we also need to think of the rich not just as enemies but as souls in need of healing.  Romero juggled that delicate balance between fearlessly fighting for the poor, but without demonizing the oppressive oligarchs that he often counted as personal friends.

None of this has anything to do with babies, but for some reason I've been inspired to read these things, and mentally associate them with the current pregnancy.  More explicitly baby-related is Dr. Spock's book of childrearing, which thus far I've just skimmed to learn more about what Sam and Paulo are going through developmentally at this point.  My wife has a plethora of childbirth books related to her part-time vocation as a doula.  Most of these aren't too interesting to me, but there's one called the Birth Partner that is next on my reading list.

Lastly, I found a book called Baby Bargains (the 2004 edition or so) in the free library shelf at my office.  I wanted to check it out to make sure we're covering all the bases in terms of getting the basic supplies--diapers, crib, stroller, etc.  My wife wouldn't have done it--she hates consumerism more than I do, and is particularly set off by the US style of scientific consumerism epitomized by this tome, which basically gives advice on how to shave a few dollars off the price of a lot of shit you probably don't need anyway.  Anyway, I've now done my due diligence, and feel reaffirmed in my conviction that we don't need that book, and can just get our diapers and bottles and stuff the same places we always have.

Of course this list wouldn't be complete without some stuff for my current boys.  We've been plugging away at a great translation of the Arabian Nights for a few months now, and they love that, but I've also made a point to do regular readings of Where Did I Come From?, which has a very useful, concise month-by-month breakdown of fetal development.  This gives a nice complement to bringing our boys to ultrasounds and planning what they can do to take care of the baby (one guy wants to do bottle and pijama detail, while the other is oddly fascinated by changing diapers!), all in the spirit of getting them involved and excited.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Junk food and obesity in Brazil

This is a disturbing profile of how junk food companies are inserting themselves into developing countries to bring low-income consumers into their fold of loyal clients.  It focuses on the example of Nestle in Brazil as an archetype of what's happening worldwide.  Poor people who weren't eating a diet sufficient in quality or quantity to prevent stunting and cognitive impairment in themselves and their children, are now bombarded with junk food, which adds a bunch of calories that lead to obesity, diabetes, and a whole host of new problems, in addition to the stunting and cognitive impairment that still persist (since the junk food doesn't have the vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and other components essential to healthy growth and development).

Saturday, October 21, 2017

American culture and international development: a primer by J.

This is a series of four articles written a few years ago by J., the leading author/blogger/bard of international development workers.  The first article alleges that something in US culture makes it difficult for us not to focus on the donor but rather on the needs of poor aid beneficiaries.  The second article expands on this idea, claiming that we are inclined to see as paramount the right or even destiny of Americans to offer aid to others, even if that aid is ineffective or harmful.  We are more concerned about this right to give (and to feel good about giving) than the right of the recipient to dignity and effective help.  The third article looks specifically at donation of gifts-in-kind by regular people, from giving your old clothes to Goodwill for someone else to buy, to packing up nasty old socks or shoes or whatever to send to hurricane victims that don't really need them.  I am embellishing a bit on J.'s thesis here, but the problem is basically that this type of aid is usually more about my need to get rid of stuff (and not feel wasteful about it) than about meeting the real needs or desires of anyone else.  The last article is a bit of a departure from the thread of the prior three, but I think it's the most important for those of us who are serious about doing good development aid (or really good policy-making or governance or anything).  In it, J. discusses the American penchant for seeking simple explanations, and regarding with suspicion any explanation that seems too nuanced, or even the acknowledgement that something is complex.  We seek easy answers, and love to flock to the seeming straight-shooter with a quick, confident answer, even to the point of going for snake oil salesmen over scientists (witness our political preference for people who are totally unqualified, immoral, and corrupt, as long as they seem to shun complex thought and the ever-dreaded political correctness).  But this is not the way to get good results in any field.  The world is complex, increasingly so as we become more socially and technologically advanced.  Would you want someone inexperienced to offer a "simple" fix to your computer bugs?  Or a qualified, thoughtful technician who can recognize complexity and work with it?  Why would we answer any differently when the issue at hand isn't our computer but rather the wellbeing of the poor or the social ills of our society?

Anyway, I would highly recommend these four quick pieces as a great primer for anyone interested in how international development should work, and why it often falls short of this ideal.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Virtue signaling

I have written in past posts about the perverse tendency in much public discourse to label as bad things that are in fact honorable, like honesty, inclusion, and the pursuit of the common good.  While I knew this existed, and had an inkling that it was due to an odd mix of cynicism and contrarianism and antipathy, I have only recently discovered a term that encapsulates this twisting of the honorable into something reprehensible:  "virtue signaling".  I had never heard this before, but it perfectly captures the charge of those who would ridicule any advocacy for good things.  Anyway, here is an article that I agree with, which argues that the problem with our modern discourse is not in fact virtue signaling but rather the cynicism that insists that any sincerely held position is merely "virtue signaling" (while lauding as honorably forthright any advocacy of the basest, most incoherent instincts like racism and oppression).

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A book by Sherman Alexie

Another book I read recently is Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  It's a young adult novel with a fair dose of funny drawings.  It is a really great coming of age story, and a portrait of life on a modern impoverished Indian reservation.  A challenging thing for me was that the essential thesis of the book is that reservations are such toxic places that the only way for Indian people to live a dignified, decent life is to get off the reservation and away from their people.  This is a theme also present in a lot of writing and talking and thinking about the black American ghetto--the debate around whether it is more desireable (or possible) for low-income black Americans to improve their lot by removing themselves from the ghetto, or rather to develop and improve the ghetto itself, in situ.

I don't know exactly where I stand on this latter debate--given my professional and personal proclivities towards community development, I would like to think the best solution for any impoverished place is to make the place better, such that the community remains intact but now more healthy and prosperous.  At the same time, ghettos (like reservations) are by definition a forced concentration of desperate people into a place separate from the rest of society, and certainly from society's prosperity.  So it makes sense when you see studies that indicate that the only way for poor children of any color to truly prosper is to integrate them with more economically prosperous people, thus opening up similar opportunities (cultural, economic, professional, etc.) to the poor kids as their better-off counterparts.  For instance, there is a pretty robust body of evidence that indicates that the only successful innovation in US public education was desegregation.  None of the innovations of the past twenty years (small schools, charter schools, Classical schools, more tests, fewer tests, etc.) that maintain our resegregated status quo have been consistently successful at closing the gap between rich and poor students.  There just isn't a good way to enable people to prosper if they are only around other poor people and the pathologies of poor communities.  (All this said, a recent study seems to call into question the importance of elementary school quality at all in terms of improving economic wellbeing in poor students).

In any case, the dichotomy that Alexie presents, between remaining with your people and your culture (while remaining mired in poverty, violence, and substance abuse) or leaving them in order to prosper, to me seems less pronounced for other ethnic communities with high poverty rates, because due to their sheer size, there exist large communities that are predominantly Latino or black and thoroughly middle or upper-class.  So you can get out of the impoverished ghetto but still be around people of your ethnic group.  But I don't know of many places in the US where an Indian can be around mainly Indians and yet not be surrounded by poverty.  At the very least, the context Alexie presents doesn't offer this option. So his book challenges all of us to think about those lines and tradeoffs between individual success and ties to family and community.