MOM Art Annex: Exhibition & Education Center

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Why Jenny Wants To Be A Birth Doula

 This blog contribution is by MOM Social Media Intern, Jenny Nigro

I have been on a path toward pursuing a doula certification for some time now.  The beauty of the timeline for certification is that it is a go-at-your-own-pace kind of thing.  As it turns out, this also happens to be a curse for me.  Admittedly, it’s taken me longer than it should to keep up.  Part of the reason, though, is that without any real rhyme or reason, I convinced myself that I should be a birth doula.  A birth doula is someone who attends the birth and offers support to the laboring mama in any way that is needed — in offering kind words, in reminding parents of breathing techniques, in running any water/ice chips that are needed, in massaging sore parts of the mother’s body, in taking photos or video of the birth so that other labor partners can be more actively involved, or in communicating aspects of the labor plan to medical personnel on the mother’s behalf if requested.  Even as I write this list, I am filled with a sense of caring and warmth in thinking about the role that this plays in a birth.  Perhaps this is what initially drew me to the field.  But the deeper I went into fulfilling a certification, the more I realized that what I truly wanted to do was become a postpartum doula rather than a birth doula.

Doula_StoryAs the name suggests, postpartum doulas become involved in a family’s life post-Baby.  The doula offers support to the family in a variety of ways — they may offer insight into breastfeeding technique, offer general breastfeeding or parenting support, maintain the household while parents and Baby rest/spend time bonding, cook healthy and nutritious meals for the family, or assist in care-giving to other children in the household so that the parents may have time to bond with their baby individually.  A huge part of why I wanted to become a doula is because of the outcome of most safe, healthy deliveries: the welcoming of new life into a family.  As a birth doula, I would only get to witness a small piece of that process.  But as a postpartum doula, I could assist in the most crucial moments of that baby’s growth and development: as they bond with their family, expand their awareness, perform life’s first milestones, and interact with their environment.  And for the family, I could ensure that the time that they have with their baby following delivery is precious and undivided by mitigating the demands of everyday life so that they can focus on the new member of their family.  As a nanny, I perform many of these duties already: I cook nutritious meals for the family, I engage in light housekeeping duties, and I help supervise, instruct, and engage the children in the home to help the household run smoothly.  It would be a natural transition, I feel.

As part of my postpartum doula certification requirements, I am expected to read several books about “mothering the new mother,” breastfeeding, and infant care.  In one of my required reading books, I came across a quote/concept that sealed my decision to shift from birth to postpartum doula-ing.  Deep down, I suspect that I’ve felt this way all along, but seeing it in print was sort of an awakening.  The book quotes Suzanne Arms, holistic birth and parenting advocate, who once asked, “Is ours not a strange culture that focuses so much attention on childbirth — virtually all of it based on anxiety and fear — and so little on the crucial time after birth, where patterns are established that will affect the individual and the family for decades?” (Mohrbacher & Kendall Tackett: 2010, 106).  The book also cites a cross-cultural review of postpartum practices which found that postpartum depression is virtually nonexistent in societies where families had a reserved time set aside for spending time alone with their baby, where mothers were cared for and allowed to rest in privacy, where parents were relieved of their household duties during this time, and where women’s status new mothers was recognized (2010, 106-107).  In Rigoberta Menchu’s memoir, I Rigoberta Menchu, she devotes a section to describing the postpartum practices of the Quiche, where this sort of designation for new mothers is honored.  She describes this as one of very few times in women’s lives when they are exempt from labor so that they may remain with their babies in seclusion for these important moments of their lives.

This feels so inherently different from the way we treat new mothers in our society.  We shower expecting moms with attention — literally and figuratively — by throwing them parties, buying them everything they need for their babies before they come, and catering to their aches/pains/cravings while they are carrying.  But once the baby comes, new mothers are somewhat forgotten.  While some thoughtful friends and neighbors may contribute a dish or two and grandparents may come to stay with the family for a short while, once that time ends, new moms are expected to 1) automatically “get it” — get the hang of everything that taking care of a newborn entails, 2) bounce back from their pregnancy and any trauma inflicted on their bodies in terms of medical interventions used in birth, 3) not ask for anything and instead give everything to their newborn.  Any attention offered the new family is more in adoration of the new baby.  Brises, christenings, and naming ceremonies all celebrate the child.

I’m not saying that this attention and focus on the new baby is misplaced.  But imagine a society in which the time followed the birth of new baby is cherished and sacred.  Think about the ease of transitioning for the family if friends, family members, and neighbors eased the burden of normal household routines so that the new parents could have the first two weeks with their babies, chore-free to simply enjoy getting to know their little one.  Picture a world in which a family’s decision to engage the services of a postpartum doula is expected, not a rarity.  It is conceivable to think that a culture of postpartum depression or baby blues could be alleviated, even just a little bit.  If this were the norm, perhaps our entire construction of maternity/paternity leave would shift.  In reality, the way we do maternity and paternity leave in America reflects the reality that we simply do not value the time following births.  Policies that do not include paid parental leave or offer inadequate time periods of full or partial pay speak to this idea that we expect parents to immediately bounce back from giving birth.  Parents are expected to return to work in tip-top shape, despite having gone through a major life change.  They are criticized when they fall short and admonished for taking additional time off.  But if we were to reserve special time for families following the birth of a new baby, undoubtedly we would begin to see parental leave policies that respect this convention.

And that is a world that I would like to raise a child in.

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When Men Mother

Last week, I wrote about the so-called “Mommy Wars” — the stay-at-home mom vs. working mom clash — and profiled some very strong opinions on the matter (my own included). However, I see now that my approach was lacking a crucial voice. I failed to capture the perspective of a growing force on this scene: stay-at-home-dads. Big mistake, I realize.

One lazy Saturday a year or so ago, I decided to blow off cleaning my apartment by surfing Netflix. I happened upon a movie called What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Registering its name with the very popular parenting book that shares its title, I tuned in. It turned out to be one of those rom coms with a thousand famous characters whose lives run parallel to one another until they eventually intersect. About a half hour in or so, I recognized a scene that I had caught on some preview either at the movies or on TV. In the scene, a line of some of Hollywood’s most famous male comedians at Central Park or the like, each with a baby strapped to their chests in a papoose, line the horizon in a formidable manner. Between their looks and the punch lines, there’s no mistaking – they’re dads. Tasked with taking care of their little ones during the day, they’ve shed the image of the “Mr. Mom’s” of yesteryear. They’re not replacement moms, they’re dads. There are masculine overtones in their strict adherence to guy code…or should I say dad code? The message is clear: toting around snotty-nosed, poopy-diapered babies should never mean that dude stuff be sacrificed. And like any boys’ club, newcomers had better fall in line or GTFO.

20th Annual At-Home Dad Convention

20th Annual At-Home Dad Convention

This must be what Jessica Bennett is talking about when she says that culture is starting to catch up to a very real social phenomenon in her article “The Brotherhood of the Stay-at-Home Dad” featured in the New York Times. The prominent image of the article looks a bit like that scene in What to Expect When You’re Expecting. A bunch of dads lean in together at Central Park, babies strapped to their fronts and smiling kids on their sides. Years ago, this element of public life would be unheard of. Yet, here we are today with movies where comedy’s biggest names are endorsing this lifestyle and, as in the case of Bennett’s article (which appears in FASHION AND STYLE, no less) there are entire conferences where stay-at-home dads convene. Scrolling the Internet, you see blog after article after essay of stay-at-home-dads chronicling their experience as an emerging class in society. In a culture where women are increasingly becoming the primary breadwinners in their families and private child care is just so darn expensive, these messages are suggesting that stay-at-home dads are here…and for the long-haul.

So though I failed to include stay-at-home fathers in my last post, I won’t make that mistake again. If there’s anything that I’ve gleaned from the Liz Pardue Schultz’ piece that I wrote about last week or Jessica Bennett’s post this week, it’s that parenthood is tough, regardless of how you spin it. Parents need the opportunity to connect with each other over shared experiences, whether it is through an annual conference for career dads or an outspoken blog post. Though not a parent myself, I can attest to the isolation of raising kids. As a nanny, I don’t get moments with co-workers to swap stories over the water cooler. It’s me and baby. (Don’t get me wrong, like I imagine most parents would say, I love this about 95% of the time. But there are times that feel lonely.) That’s why excluding an important voice is a big no-no. Every caregiver deserves the right to be heard. ~ Jenny Nigro, reporting in for M.O.M. Social Media

See also link to the 20th Annual At-Home Dad’s Convention [CLICK]

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Euthenics at Vassar 1800’s Style & Mother Studies Today

As with most colleges, the buildings of my alma mater carried the namesakes of whoever had donated the money for their construction. During undergrad, I would pass by these buildings on campus with no real consideration for their benefactors or how they came to be on campus. The only real associations I made were what classes I had in each, or which friends I knew that lived in them. Running from class to the dining hall to my dorm and back to class, the names “Lathrop” and “Blodgett” didn’t hold any real significance to me, other than the former was the dorm next to mine freshman and sophomore years and the latter housed a lot of my classes. Okay, Blodgett Hall did play a more important role in my college years, than, say, Lathrop House, as it housed the department that I majored in. So for the last two years of college, I spent a good amount of time in there, taking classes and visiting professors’ office hours. But other than how it looked, or how downright confusing it was to navigate inside, I didn’t think much into the history of the building.

Blodgett Hall Vassar College

Blodgett Hall Vassar College

A gorgeous old stone structured tucked away on campus, Blodgett Hall looks (and sounds) like it is better suited for Hogwarts than Vassar College. The expansive academic building, complete with a beautiful neo-Gothic archway that opens to a lawn surrounded by the back of three wings of the building, is home to the sociology, anthropology, education, economics, psychology, and religion departments. The building has its own auditorium, as well as lab space for psych and anthro experiments. Outside, Blodgett looks like a well-designed boarding school but inside, it is…a mess. It is a labyrinth of tiers, halls, pseudo-floors, and staircases that is any freshman anthropology lecture student’s worst nightmare.

Now, the reason I say that I had not spent time thinking about the buildings’ namesakes is because, had I actually done so, I would have known that Lathrop House and, more importantly, Blodgett Hall were associated with two of the biggest names in the euthenics movement in America. Being that I was in and out of Blodgett during my junior and senior years of college, I had seen the plaque outside the auditorium that read: “This building dedicated to the study of euthenics is given to Vassar College by Minnie Cumnock Blodgett, Class of 1884, John Wood Blodgett to encourage the application of the arts and sciences to the betterment of human living” …but I didn’t really have a sense of what this meant. Messages like these were plastered everywhere on a campus that boasted progressive reform and critical thought. But euthenics, which per the definition conferred by its founder, Ellen Swallow Richards (a Vassar grad), is “the study of the betterment of living conditions through conscious endeavor, for the purpose of securing efficient human beings” took this trend in a new direction, with Vassar at the forefront.

Euthenics, of course, is not to be confused with eugenics, the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. Though, make no mistake – eugenics seems to have reared its ugly head within the walls of Vassar College, too. Upon registering for a course called “Fundamentals of Conditioning,” the department administrative assistant, herself a Vassar grad, informed me that she, too, had taken the course when she was a student. She then let me in on this gruesome detail: in her day, the course was required for all students, which included a mandatory nude photo shoot at the beginning. This was reportedly used to evaluate their application of the skills garnered in the class, but actually may have been used for a study rooted in the eugenics movement that linked body type to racial superiority (https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/student-organizations/athletics/posture-and-photographs.html).

Back to euthenics — Good ‘ol Minnie Blodgett, a trustee with a lot of money and an urge to put it to use at her alma mater, decided to invest in dedicating a building (and course of study along with it) to euthenics with a keen focus on the American family as a way to achieve the desired betterment of society. After disclosing that she had almost lost her first baby due to her lack of awareness around infant feeding, Minnie Blodgett asserted that young women – college grads included – lacked awareness around child nurturing and family welfare (Daniels, “The Disappointing First Thrust of Euthenics”). Blodgett said, “Although I had a classical education and was a college graduate, I had no information whatever along the lines of motherhood and training.” So she established the Minnie Cumnock Blodgett Hall of Euthenics, with its very own new major to accompany its shiny new headquarters. This is where young Seven Sisters-trained women could come to learn the arts of domesticity and child rearing alongside their classmates studying classics, economics, or astronomy. This, perhaps, is why the building was crafted so strangely, as it had once been comprised of laboratory kitchens and bathrooms where Vassar girls could practice things like child-bathing and recipe

Ellen H. Swallow Richards

Ellen H. Swallow Richards

development.

Perhaps the endowment of several staff members’ salaries with Mrs. Blodgett’s generous donation helped spur the euthenics movement along on campus despite being seemingly at odds with Matthew Vassar’s intention for the college, but Minnie Cumnock Blodgett was not the sole voice pushing euthenics at Vassar (or in the world, for that matter). I mentioned before that the founder of euthenics, Ellen Swallow Richards, had, in fact, been a Vassar grad. Lathrop House was named after the father of Julia Lathrop, a Vassar graduate and the first female bureau chief of the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Labor. Lathrop’s practice of euthenics was less about changing diapers and washing floors for the betterment of society, and more about public health and child welfare concerns. Under her leadership, birth certificates were established and stricter laws around child labor came to exist.

Despite a backing from some of its most influential alumnae at the end of the nineteenth century, the euthenics program didn’t have the staying power that Minnie Cumnock Blodgett or Julia Lathrop perhaps had hoped. After transforming its image and intent several times, it was eventually abandoned. The last vestiges of the program exist in pockets spread out over an array of majors and course studies at Vassar…and of course in those buildings in which their benefactors envisioned a space for praxis. As I think back on this moment in history and how it relates to the scholarship promoted by the Museum of Motherhood, I think it’s an easy connection to make. After all, “alma mater” translates most closely to “kind/nourishing mother.”

Sources: http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/interviews-reflections/two-chapters/the-disappointing-first-thrust-of-euthenics.html

https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/alumni/ellen-swallow-richards.htm

(*Note: when I started writing this piece, I didn’t wholly have a grasp on what the concept of euthenics entailed, thinking it to be only the narrow study of household economics. However, further reading/insight into Ellen Swallow Richards scholarship suggest that her vision of euthenics was much broader than just domestic studies and certainly less controversial than merely a home economics program in an educational institution that was intended to offer women the same education as men. I hope to further explore and highlight the potential social merits of Richards’ movement in a future post.)  Jenny Nigro – MOM Social Media Intern ’15

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Meet Our New Intern, Jenny [CLICK]

photoA 2010 graduate of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, Jenny Nigro first became interested in the topics of motherhood/maternity during the summer before her senior year. She spent the time both working as a mother’s helper and interning for a non-profit that supported pregnant and parenting teens in her community. In working with the teens, she observed how social institutions (the education and healthcare systems, for example) systematically deny teen mothers options for healthy choices on behalf of themselves and their babies. The resilience demonstrated by the clients of the program empowered Jenny to ask questions about ways to broaden resources for mothers, regardless of race, class, or age. Following college, she spent some time in the domestic violence field – both at the state level with the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence – and the local level, working as a case manager for a domestic violence service provider. She has returned to these questions about expanding access for mothers and is now supporting motherhood in a different way – working as a nanny while pursuing training to become a doula. She is excited to explore her intellectual curiosities about motherhood and society vis-a-vis the immersive platform of the Museum of Motherhood. @Spinningest_Jen