Both/and– exploring the ambiguous in maternal child health

Near the Amtrak Station in Milwaukee, there used to be an encampment created by people without housing. It went by the moniker “Tent City”. My kids and I used to pass by it often; and they had a lot of questions about the space and the people who stayed there.

I remember doing my best to explain homelessness to them. I attempted to answer their curiosities by posing questions back to them, to get a feel for what they understood. The conversation quickly led me to share what I know about mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, systemic racism, morality. I glanced into the rear-view mirror to find my young children, their mouths agape, eyebrows furrowed. I realized that what I had presented them with was like turning on the hose full-force and blasting them with a spray of freezing water.

This has always been a challenge for me as a parent, trying to help my kids understand the world we live in in a developmentally appropriate, honest way. As part of the Euro-American ethnic group, our logic system/ ontology (the nature of reality) is guided by standardization, codification and uniformity; it is fundamentally binary, as laid out in Dr. Edwin Nichols’ Model for the Philosophical Aspects of Culture. [Full lecture here: https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/CAPLectures/id/216]

Of course this framework confines us to a worldview shaped by the binary. Much of what I’ve come to understand about the human experience has been through the lens of maternal child health where very little, if not nothing is ‘black and white’.

That’s what I’m here to explore this week on Our Milky Way. In a way, these nuances remind me of ambiguous images or reversible figures where one individual may see one image and another makes out something totally different. For example, the German cartoon that asks, “Which animals are most like each other?” The answer is “rabbit and duck.”

Breastfeeding itself is a “rabbit and duck”.

“Breastfeeding refutes the cultural bent that breast’s primary function is as sex objects,” Chantal Molnar writes in Breastfeeding and Feminism.  “America has an uneasy relationship with breastfeeding and has a hard time facing the duality inherent in breast’s function. Sex versus nurture, or sex and nurture? We don’t seem to have any problem with the duality of our mouths, which can be for sex and for eating. We do not make people cover their heads with a blanket when they are eating in public simply because the mouth is frequently used sexually.”

Similarly, Iris Marion Young writes in Breasted Experience that breasts are “a scandal for patriarchy because they disrupt the border between motherhood and sexuality, between love and desire.”

When Dr. Ricardo Herbert Jones, an advocate for the humanization of childbirth, spoke at the International Breastfeeding Conference several years back, he told this anecdote: An email was sent out to friends and colleagues with an image of a woman, but delayed loading revealed only portions of the woman– first her head, neck and shoulders. Her expression, most would have assumed she was amidst a sexual experience, but when the remainder of the image loaded, it showed the woman was giving birth.

Photo by Timothy Meinberg on Unsplash

A month after this conference, I was pregnant with my second child. Iris was born at home in the water, and I experienced an entanglement of intensity, euphoria, and empowerment, much like what was captured on the woman’s face in Dr. Jones’s anecdote. The sacred experience of birth is impossibly described as “either or”; instead birth is “both and.”

In Euro-American culture, the leap from what we have been accustomed to accept as normal birth– feet in stirrups, supine in a hospital bed, bellowing in agony (or not because of an epidural)– to euphoric birth, is almost inconceivable.

Kajsa Brimdyr has taken on the challenge of bridging this polarization and shows what is possible is her film Happy Birth Day.

Another instance of “both and” shows up in Reply All’s Into the Depths episode which covers Oriana R. Aragón’s, et al Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion: Displays of Both Care and Aggression in Response to Cute Stimuli.

The term “cute aggression” refers to the urge some people feel to squeeze or bite cute things, “albeit without desire to cause harm.” It can be categorized as dimorphous expression which “refers to someone experiencing a strong emotion of one type (e.g., happy or sad) but expressing the opposite emotion.” [Stavropoulos, et al]

Photo by Igor Rodrigues on Unsplash

Here’s an excerpt from the Reply All episode [full transcript here]:

Aragón started studying cute aggression in the lab — she brought in volunteers…

ORIANA: And I hopped them up on baby photos. [laughing] And then I- I know, it was actually really fun to run.

She showed people photos of animal babies, human babies, human babies Photoshopped to make them extra cute– 

ORIANA: Large foreheads, big eyes, small mouths, big cheeks.

And then she measured how people responded with brain scans, questionnaires, and even bubble wrap — like, how many bubbles does a person pop when they see a computer-manipulated super cute baby?

And she’s convinced that not only is cute aggression real, but it actually serves a useful function for people like Marie who tend to get all can’t-breathe-can’t-think-conked-out by cuteness. 

ORIANA: The people who were like, “Err, you know, I want to pinch it”, those people come back down off that baby high [laughs], you know, faster than the people who didn’t.

SANYA: Just having that aggression helps you come down off the baby high.

Photo by Nihal Karkala on Unsplash

ORIANA: Yes, yeah, exactly. 

“Baby high.” People – get ripped – on baby. That is weird to me; and it gets even weirder. Oriana said that sometimes a “baby high” makes the brain produce another contradictory-seeming emotion: “cute sadness.”

ORIANA: The corners of their mouth will go completely down and they’ll go, “Oooh” [SANYA: Oh yeah!] like they’re, like, so sad. [SANYA: Right.] And even their forehead wrinkles. Like, it was just like they saw the most horrible thing, so if you snapshot that and show it to people and you say, “What are they feeling?” they’re like, “Oh they’re overwhelmingly sad right now, and it’s like, “No they saw a cute baby.” 

Okay so at this point I’m lowkey spiraling, because, like duh, of course I’ve seen people do cute sadness – even done it myself – but I didn’t realize that it’s supposed to be an involuntary reflex.

I thought we were all doing it on purpose. You know, making a conscious choice to communicate, “Yes, I see and acknowledge that your baby is, in fact, cute.”

Oriana is saying no, no, no — for other people it’s happening involuntarily; their brains are trying to emotionally regulate, because they literally cannot function due to the cuteness. And even though it seems like cute aggression and cute sadness are just random levers that the brain is panic-pulling, Oriana thinks that each of them is actually signaling something distinct to whoever is observing.

So imagine you’re walking down the street with something conventionally cute, like, I don’t know, a human baby, and someone comes up and smiles.

ORIANA: I know that there’s positivity within their smile, and that they’re probably going to treat my baby well and there’s a really nice social signal.

But cute aggression and cute sadness are better signals. Let’s say someone comes up and they’re all like, “Oh my god, I just wanna pinch your baby’s chubby little cheeks!”

ORIANA: That’s giving extra information that they want to be extra sort of playful and rev that baby up, and they want to sort of roughhouse with my baby.

Photo by __ drz __ on Unsplash

Which, maybe you’re like, “No thanks, it’s not rev up time, it’s actually nap time.” But if someone comes up and they’re like, “Awwww what a cute baby”, in kind of a sad way, they like your baby too but they’re calmer and they’re probably aren’t going to mess up the nap.

ORIANA: You just wanna see it and sort of marinate in the cuteness [laughs]. And that’s what our research shows. And so it might be the reason why it’s been evolutionarily preserved because it’s just a really good signal. A smile doesn’t deliver the extra information of how you’ll interact with the baby.

SANYA: The smile is actually the poker face in all these instances.

ORIANA: Yeah, exactly, yeah, it’s giving less information.

So, cute aggression, says Oriana — it’s a societal glue, a communication tool.

We want to know where “both and” shows up in your perinatal experiences. Email us your stories at info@ourmilkyway.org.

Spotlight on Fédora Bernard, Program Officer at The Right Livelihood Foundation

Fédora Bernard is currently Program Officer at The Right Livelihood Foundation, an organization established to “‘honour and support courageous people solving global problems’… now widely known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’”. 

Bernard presenting in Rio.

Before transitioning into her work at The Right Livelihood, Bernard served as Geneva Association for Baby Food and International Liaison Office of the IBFAN Network (GIFA) Program Officer beginning in April 2019, having just newly graduated from the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales et du Développement with a Masters in International Affairs. 

This week, Our Milky Way is pleased to share a Q&A session with Bernard. 

Q: Please share a few highlights during your time with IBFAN. 

A: I am deeply passionate about human rights and GIFA was specialized in exactly that. I think that throughout my time at IBFAN, some highlights would probably be the sessions of the Committee on the Rights of the Child that I attended and advocated at, the World Health Assembly, the fifth session of the Open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights and of course, the World Breastfeeding Conference in Rio. They were all avenues where we could raise awareness and advocate for better national policies.

Q:  What would you consider your greatest triumph with IBFAN?

A: I am not sure I could speak of triumph, at the end of the day my time with IBFAN was quite short and all I did was trying to keep up with the amazing work that has been done by the Geneva office for the past 40 years. Nevertheless, I am very proud of the achievements with the Committee on the Rights of the Child, as during my time with IBFAN, “breastfeeding” was mentioned in almost all concluding observations.

Q: In November 2019, you had the opportunity to present IBFAN’s Green Feeding documents. What was that like? How was it received by participants at the World Breastfeeding Conference? 

A: It was an incredible experience, it was an honor to prepare this with Alison Linnecar, who wrote the document and to present it along with experts in the field. I don’t think that I can define myself as an expert, let alone a breastfeeding expert, but I am starting a career in advocacy. I therefore decided that I wanted to emphasize how the Green Feeding Documents could be used as an advocacy tool from an environmental perspective. Therefore, while Alison explained the science behind all of it, I focused on the link between breastfeeding and human rights, more in particular how it can be used in relation to the right to a safe, healthy environment. At the end of the presentation, I was so happy to see that most people in the audience wanted a copy of the green feeding documents…I thought that 30 copies would be enough, but clearly, I was wrong! I wish I had brought more.

Jose Angel Rodriguez-Reyes, expert of the Committee on the Rights of the Child pictured alongside Bernard.

Q: In your piece BREASTFEEDING: BEYOND “WHAT IS BEST FOR YOUR CHILD”, you mention the WHO/UNICEF Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding to Protect, Promote and Support Breastfeeding. We have the framework for better global health outcomes; What is holding us back? Is there one significant barrier standing in the way of a better world? 

A: I believe that from a political perspective, two things are holding us back: The first being the patriarchy and political systems dominated by men. As long as women will not be allowed to play a greater role in global health governance and domestic politics, public health issues such as breastfeeding or issues surrounding menstrual health will not be given the right amount of attention. 

The second element is political will, which is deeply related to the first. Breastfeeding is only seen as a public health issue in developing countries, and aggressive marketing from the formula industry has managed to convince women themselves that they are actually more empowered if they don’t breastfeed. Breastfeeding is thus seen as a weight imposed on them rather than a right that should be protected, promoted and supported by governments. In some societies, it is indeed currently a real hurdle for women to achieve their breastfeeding goals but instead of women in their breastfeeding journeys benefiting from policies, they are given a bottle. I am of the idea that improved breastfeeding policies are not only a matter of public health but also of women’s rights. 

Q: Any advice on how to navigate a climate where people dispute basic facts?

A: That is a very difficult question…Especially because those disputing basic facts are often deeply attached to their position and will give you alternative “facts”…I believe very much in trusted sources, and would always advise these people to check their sources and question them. For instance, if someone shows me an article from the industry containing “facts on breastfeeding” I would draw their attention on why this article could be biased and not based on adequate scientific evidence.

Q: Breastfeeding is a topic that spans across all disciplines. Will you please give us a glimpse into the work you’re doing at The Right Livelihood? 

A: The Right Livelihood Foundation honors and supports courageous people solving global problems, in all disciplines. IBFAN is actually one of them. With civil society space shrinking all over the world, human rights defenders are facing increasing difficulties, which is very true also for breastfeeding advocates. My work at the foundation therefore consists in using the advocacy skills that I developed with IBFAN, to support laureates all over the world.