Friday, 26 January 2018

How women experience parenthood differently from men: Part 3 – the other bits.

In parts 1 and 2 of this blog post extravaganza, I discussed the parts of the body that women have for making and feeding babies that men don't. Here, I'll talk about the parts that men DO have, yet don't get traumatized by childbearing in men as they do in women. Remember, because we are women and we are already considered inferior in many jobs, we have to endure these physical pleasantries without complaint for fear of giving a bona-fide reason for men to think we aren't up for the job.
"Yes, of course Gary, I already took care of it."
Ye Olde Urination/Excretion System
The urination system consists of a bag-shaped organ called the bladder that sits under the uterus, and a tube called the urethra that comes out in front of the vagina to let the pee out (and probably other parts, but I'm not that kind of doctor). The excretion system (guts) is a long squishy tube all folded up in a heap above and behind the uterus that comes out the you-know-what.

Did you know that typically the urethra gets bruised while giving birth vaginally, even for women who gave birth without an epidural and associated catheter, such that it is painful for weeks afterward? It’s true! Gosh, women are so lucky to experience such unique and interesting physical events.

While pregnant, the bladder gets seriously abused. The growing baby pushes on it and kicks it, and hormonal changes create the urgency to pee constantly, even before that time as well. During pregnancy and after birth, many women also experience incontinence – whether it be just small leakages of pee associated with laughing and sneezing, or complete lack of bladder control associated with pelvic floor trauma. Imagine the trunk of a person’s body as a can: because women have a hole in the bottom of our can that needs to open up wide enough to let a baby out, the bottom of our can has been completely cut off and covered by muscles that weaken and stretch out during and after pregnancy. This means we can’t hold in our pee as well, and also means that our bladders, uterus, and even our guts can literally fall out of our stretched-out baby hole. This is called a prolapse and it is freaking horrifying.

Can you go for a run or jump on a trampoline with your kids without fear of peeing all over the place and/or checking to make sure you have the proper absorptive items in place to prevent said pee from running down your legs? No? Welcome to the club. 
"I can no longer sit on our white couch without fear of leaking pee onto it, so we all just hang out on the floor as a family now. It's quite pleasant!"

You know how the baby grows in the uterus, and gets pretty gigantic? In that uterus is also a thick layer of blood, like we discussed, and a big jellyfish thing called a placenta. All of these bits take up a lot of space, and as they grow larger, various organs including the bladder and the intestines get very smooshed. As the intestines get all squarshed up, it unsurprisingly messes with a woman’s digestion. We get to experience all sorts of weird poop and farting issues while pregnant, as well as often debilitating heartburn. I won’t go into more detail, but let’s just say it’s unpleasant, like the rest of childbearing.

Ye Olde Ability to Sleep
Ok, this isn’t a particular organ, but more of a whole-body/brain/hormones thing.

Lack of sleep is a famous part of having an infant. But did you know it often starts during pregnancy? It’s super difficult to sleep with a live bowling ball stuffed inside of you, kicking you in the bladder, diaphragm, and cervix while you are trying to sleep through an overactive bladder and heartburn. Once the baby is born, it’s often no longer your own body (or your body’s reaction to the baby kicking you) that wakes you up – it’s the baby crying for something or another. A lucky mother might have a partner willing to sacrifice his or her own sleep to get up and attend to the baby, and let the mother sleep. This was not so much the case for me, since my husband could sleep through an air raid siren and also has a much higher tolerance for crying than I do. My kids now generally only wake up once a night, so I mostly sleep fairly well, but I admit I looked forward to my post-baby hernia surgery simply for the general anesthetic nap.
"I no longer remember how to sleep, so I use the nights to hand-crate the decor for my daughter's nursery while she kicks my diaphragm - it's such wonderful bonding."

Notice here in this series of blog posts, I generally didn’t mention anything about parenting that isn’t directly tied to biology. This is because it is totally possible for a partner who didn’t give birth, isn’t breastfeeding, and whose body didn’t get torn up by these activities to be fully engaged and to share the parenting responsibilities equally.

So why do I think it’s fair that women get a helping hand to succeed in their careers post-baby? Well, aside from the physical difficulties women experience (most of which aren’t dealt with in any equitable way – we don’t get naps at work while pregnant, for instance), we also tend to do more and more annoying childcare, household management, and housework once we have kids – even in families where the dads WANT to be, and THINK they are being egalitarian. It’s kind of a raw deal trying to be a mom and succeeding at the rest of life, so I think we deserve all the help we can get. If that help comes in the form of partners who take on more of the burden to offset the physical and emotional labor that women put into childrearing, that’s all well and good. But until that happens for realsies, a little money for moms to hire someone to help around the house is a great start.

I'm sure I'm forgetting more unpleasantries associated with the biological production of babies, so feel free to add them in the comments! 

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