Woman’s Hour: talking about early fatherhood

NHMy media experience has not quite added up to 15 minutes of fame so far – I was once on the front cover of the University of Reading student paper, and that rolled into the Reading Evening Post the next day (a scandal about geographers teaching sociology); and I was once quoted in a South African daily, and refuted by a government minister in the same story.

So given the chance, I jumped at the opportunity to be on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 this morning – in my capacity as ‘ordinary bloke with kids’, obviously, the accidental by-product of being a research subject in Tina Miller’s study of men becoming fathers.

If this was even half decent radio, it wasn’t because of me, but because Dean Beaumont from DaddyNatal and Tina were arguing; I have lots of other things to say on the topic, but generally, I think that there is a fine line between supporting fathers to be involved around childbirth, on the one hand, and assuming this must be an active role in order for it to have any value – the reason many men might find it so weird, including me, is because they might be unfamiliar with how to just ‘be there’ for another person, doing what they are told, all the while trying to remember it’s not primarily about them.

I’m wondering what to make of the fact that there is an inverse relationship between the size of the audience for this programme and the degree of professional expertise I can claim to have to talk authoritatively about this topic. I only did it for Cultural Studies’ purposes.

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Favourite Thinkers VI: Michael Chabon

Is a blog, which this is, by an academic, which I am, necessarily an ‘academic blog’? I’m not sure, and I kind of hope not.

Anyway, I came across this little essay by Michael Chabon, on why dreams are over-rated. It’s typical of how he writes about grand things by locating them in the mundane stream of ordinary living. Chabon has accidentally become one my favourite thinkers recently, even though I have only ever read one of his books – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, obviously, almost a quarter of a century ago (I keep trying to read Wonderboys, and we have a couple of his other novels kicking around the house, but they are so thick it’s off-putting).

But his non-fiction is great. He has a collection of ‘criticism’, Maps and Legends, which is  all about being a fan of genre fiction, and how all literature is really genre fiction, that I picked up in a wonderful book shop in Greenwich village a couple of years ago. This was shortly after the film adaptation of The Road had been released, and lots of the discussion about it presumed it was an allegory for environmental catastrophe. Chabon’s essay, written before the film, puts the novel into the perspective of the whole sweep of Cormac McCarthy’s work, and specifically, presents it as working the line between two genres, those of epic and horror.

The horror, for Chabon, derives from the way in which The Road works as “a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greatest fears”:

“The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with”.

And some other fears too. I liked this account not least because it captured something of my own experience of reading the novel (I haven’t been able to find time, or face up, to watching the film) – it really did interpellate me as a parent, provoked a series of anxieties that I don’t think it would have done before then.

More lightheartedly, the other collection of Chabon’s that I have read, more recently, is Manhood for Amateurs, a book about being a dad, husband, boyfriend, son, and other assorted manly roles. It sounds like one of those ‘guides to being a dad’ books, I know, but it really isn’t. I bought it for 1.99 at The Works in Swindon’s Outlet Village (second best bookshop in town, in the best public space). It contains a series of little pieces on all sorts of topics, some of which don’t quite translate for an American context, some of which do – a wonderful account of the guilt inducing struggle to manage the mountain of pictures and drawings that one’s children bring home every day from nursery or school without succumbing to the sense that you are destroying the archive of your, and their, future memories; why the introduction of human mini-figures by Lego was indicative of a larger shift in contemporary toy culture that shrinks the scope of the imagination (it’s more fun than that makes it sound); the importance of pockets in men’s lives, and the difficulties of finding appropriate bags-which-are-not-purses – and the search for the perfect “murse”.

Chabon also writes abuot how he suffers from the ‘delusion’  that, despite knowing he’ll never see grandparents again, or dead dogs, or 1976, that he will return to these times and places and people sometime in the future:

“always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind is the unshakeable, even foundational knowledge – for which certainty is too conscious a term – that at some unspecified future date, by unspecified means, I will return to those people and to those locales. That I am going back”.

Again, this strikes a chord with me, it’s a constant feature of how I process memories. So does Chabon’s wider point about the delusion of yearning for the return of ‘normal time’ – a time in life when it seems that the rhythm of everyday life is not interrupted or imperilled by rain pouring through the bedroom ceiling, cats with urinary tract infections, children with conjunctivitis, having to look after the neighbours chickens.

Anyway, I have nothing profound to say about any of this, other than to recommend Chabon’s writing on the ordinary aspects of growing up and growing old.

Did I really say that?

I have been meaning to say something about Tina Miller’s book Making Sense of Fatherhood, about the experience of being a first time dad, but I have been too busy being a second time dad, although I did read it before Baby 2 was born. I really enjoyed it, not least for reminding me of episodes and feelings I had forgotten about; it also provided the occasion for an odd parlour game at Christmas, in which friends/partners tried to guess which of the anonymous interview subjects was me. The thing that was most interesting about reading a book in which you are one of the research subjects is, of course, being confronted with your own words inflected by the social scientist. Reading a short chunk of your own words inevitably generates a desire to clarify, elaborate, or revise – at no point did I find myself thinking that Tina had misrepresented me at all, but it made me realise something obvious – a very long extract of me talking at length doesn’t count as evidence, whereas a short extract of me talking along the same lines as other men saying similar things does. I was forced to think quite hard about what you can and cannot say about the things people say to you in interviews on a research project I was working on during the same period I was being interviewed by Tina, and we ended up going for a modest interpretative strategy in which one assumes that people are able to reflect coherently on their own practices, and that this sort of talk provides some insight into their own evaluative practices. Tina does something similar with the stories that me and other dads told her, so I do not have any complaints. But reading her book has reminded me of the inevitability of a disjuncture between the concerns animating those who provide elicited talk, and the purposes for which this talk is being solicited by the social scientist. Which might be obvious. And I don’t think this is quite as ethically problematic as might be supposed – the other thing that reading my own words, some of them at least, written back at me made me think is that participants in research projects like this might be best thought of as gifting their words to the researcher, in a sense, providing them with raw material upon which to do analysis and interpretation. Which does raise some questions of what is owed back in return for this sort of gift – I think, at a minimum, some commitment to not thinking of your research subjects as moral fools, hypocrites, or dupes (the basic models for a lot of critical social science, after all).

Geographies of Labour

Becoming a parent is one of those occasions when one gets to see a lot of ‘the state’ – engaging with doctors, nurses, hospital administration; becoming a welfare recipient, through signing up for child benefit, or the now defunct child trust fund; visits from health visitors; registering a birth. Of all the professional people we have engaged with in this process, twice now, my heroes are the midwives. ‘We’ have had very different experiences of maternity care, first in Bristol, now in Swindon. In Bristol, with our first child in 2006, we were part of a progressive so-called ‘domino’ system of midwifery care, attached to a midwife-led maternity unit – this system is distinctive because the same midwives provide continuity of care through antenatal, intrapartum and postnatal stages. We were enrolled into this practice through one of our neighbours, at a summer street party actually, when she and one of her colleagues convinced us of the benefits of this approach, compared to the model in which community midwives provide antenatal and postnatal care, while different midwives are responsible for care while in hospital. The Bishopston midwife practice was, in fact, full of properly feminist midwives – Mary Stewart, our neighbour, was both a practicing midwife and a part-time PhD student at UWE at this time, and she is now an academic at Kings College London. I didn’t know this back then, but she is the editor of an important primer on feminist approaches to midwife care. I remember having a conversation with her, after the birth of our first child (she wasn’t actually the attending midwife at the birth), about her use of Judith Butler and qualitative methodologies in her PhD to understand midwives discourses about performing vaginal examinations during labour. The speed-reading I have done in this area, just by tracking Mary’s publications and where they lead, reveals an interesting and unexpectedly close relationship between high-falutin social theory – lots of Foucault in particular – and very practical concerns of how to enact, as they say, feminist principles of empowerment in contexts where midwives are mediating all sorts of imperatives, from surveillance of women, doing things to them, and sharing their experience and expertise with them.

One surprising thing about being part of this midwife practice was that we were quickly converted to the idea of having a home birth, which would previously have seemed like a bizarre thing to do. In the end, our first daughter wasn’t born at home, but the decision to start from a home birth as a first preference was an important aspect in ‘empowering’ and building confidence for my partner around the process of labour and giving birth. This second time round, in Swindon, things have been a little bit different. No domino system, and the Great Western Hospital in Swindon does not yet have a birth centre either (it opens later this year, and my partner couldn’t hold on). While not impossible to have a home birth, it was not in any way encouraged. Before Christmas, just as my partner started maternity leave, there was a rush of national news stories about funding cuts to midwife care and heightened risk to mothers in labour, and about ongoing controversies about the safety of home births. So we found ourselves in a context of renewed debates about medicalization of child-birth, and campaigns to protect maternity services in an age of ideologically-led austerity. But in the end, the birth of our second daughter involved two great midwives at the hospital, in and out in one day, and no sight of a doctor at all. And whereas we had planned to use a birth pool at home first time (I never even got to inflate it in the end), this second time ‘we’ did a have a water birth.

Two children in two different towns, both born in hospital but under different organizational arrangements. There is a large aspect of comparison to the practice of parenting – comparing one’s own conduct to peers and cohort groups, or to parents or sisters; and now, it turns out, comparing the second time to the first time. And then you remember there is something irreducibly singular about each birth, each child, each nappy. So I’m not going to generalize on the basis of our experience, not least because while in Bristol we got the ‘theory’ right, in Swindon we have had as nice, and in some respects even nicer, and as ‘empowering’ an experience despite being in a more classically ‘medicalized’ system. There is, of course, lots of serious social science about the geography of labour (though not really much in Geography), in at least two respects: the different arrangements available in different parts of the country; and at a different scale, but closely related to this, the differences between births planned at home, in midwifery units, or obstetric units. Our former neighbour Mary, since completing her PhD, has been working on a major Department of Health research programme, the Birthplace programme, looking at whether there are significant differences in outcomes for mothers depending on where births are planned. The results of the programme are due to be published later this year.

Being on the receiving end: Making sense of Fatherhood

Just in time for Christmas, a new book out on becoming a father, Making Sense of Fatherhood, by sociologist Tina Miller at Oxford Brookes, who has previously written about experiences of becoming a mother. My reason for mentioning this is personal, because I am in it. I was one of Tina’s research subjects, back in 2006 and 2007, which involved being interviewed before and after the birth of our first child. The publication of the book is timely, since we are now expecting our second just after Christmas, so it gives me an opportunity to remember what life felt like last time.

I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t  know whether I ended up being a useful [anonymised] informant, nor what Tina has made of all the dad-talk in general. But I enjoyed the experience of being in her project, both for personal and ‘professional’ reasons. Personally, it was fun to have the opportunity to talk about what was going on way back then, and ‘Tina’ became a kind of imaginary friend in my head, who I would silently talk to as I wondered the streets of Bishopston pushing a pram for what seemed like hours on end. Professionally, it was interesting to be on the other side, as it were, to have a glimpse of the ordinariness of how lots of empirical social science gets done. I didn’t really think of it this way at the time, but it was pointed out to me the other day that my participation in Tina’s project sort of counted as ‘volunteering’. So now I am intrigued to discover if there is any work out there on how dependent social science research is on the willingness of people to be interviewed, counted, surveyed, and so on.

So, I might have more thoughts on being a research subject once I have read the book; and I’m going to look into the ‘research volunteering’ thing a little bit more too. In between all the busy, engaged parenting, obviously.