Infant embodiment: how we think about and treat babies

The future King Louis XIV as an infant with hi...

The future King Louis XIV as an infant with his wet nurse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My article entitled ‘Infant embodiment and interembodiment: a review of sociocultural perspectives’ has been published in the latest issue of the journal Childhood. In the article I argue that the ways in which we think about and conceptualise infants’ bodies have been little explored, despite what is now a huge literature on the sociology and anthropology of the human body. Much of this literature addresses adults’ bodies; some of it looks at the embodiment of adolescents; a smaller proportion has discussed young children’s bodies. But very few academic articles or books have devoted specific attention to the youngest humans of all: those aged under two.

One exception is the American writer Jean Liedloff’s book The Continuum Concept, first published in 1975. In the book she describes her observations of child rearing practices of the Yequana, an indigenous tribe living in a jungle region of South America, with whom she lived for two and a half years. Liedloff found that these native Americans engaged in constant physical contact with their infants – they slept with their babies, breastfed them on demand for several years, and carried them everywhere in their arms or a sling, never putting them down on the ground until the infant began to crawl.

Another book-length analysis of infant-care practices is The Myth of Motherhood (1981). French historian Elizabeth Badinter details her research in this book into a period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France when aristocratic and middle-class women commonly farmed out their newborn infants to wet nurses. These wet nurses were paid to breastfeed and care for the baby, in most cases for several years. While infants of the aristocracy were usually cared for by the wet nurse at home, those of the more populous middle-class were simply sent to live with the wet nurse’s home. In both cases, the wet nurse became the ersatz mother and the actual mothers had little or no contact with their infants. Although many of these infants died due to extreme neglect on the part of their wet nurses, who usually had many infants to feed and care for, the practice continued to be extremely fashionable among members of French society who could afford it.

These two books, vastly different in terms of the human societies and the practices of infant care they describe, are similarly instructive: in detailing these diametrically opposed approaches to infants and infant care, they highlight the contingent and varying ways in which societies and cultures think about and treat their very youngest members. The one, focusing on a contemporary non-developed society that had had little contact with western ideas and practices, and the other, on a privileged social stratum in a western society some centuries ago, demonstrate that notions of appropriate infant care and ways to treat the infant body are constructed via social, cultural, historical and political processes. Infant bodies are gestated and born, but in conditions that are always subject to change in terms of how these bodies are conceptualised and treated by others, which has implications for how infants themselves experience their bodies.

In my article I discuss these aspects of infant embodiment. Drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty (1962) on the phenomenology of embodiment, I make the point that infants’ bodies are always interembodied, or experienced in relation to others’ bodies. Indeed the care bestowed upon infants by their mothers extends the intersubjective and interembodied relationship that developed in the womb. I adopt the terminology used in a fascinating article by anthropologist Tahhan (2008) of ‘skinship’. This concept of ‘skinskip’ relates to the embodied closeness we feel to others’ bodies via acts of intimacy, physical proximity and caring that may involve blurring the boundaries between bodies and selfhoods. I think that it has great relevance to how caregivers relate to infants and goes some way to explaining the positive dimensions of concepts of infants’ bodies. Although she does not use the term, skinship is one aspect championed by Liedloff in The Continuum Concept in her describing of the benefits of constant physical contact with infants.

Via interembodiment, or skinship, carers’ and infants’ bodies interact, intermingle and are interdependent. This interdependence can be challenging and confronting in the context of contemporary western societies, where bodies are generally understood as ideally autonomous and separate from each other. While caring for an infant can be very pleasurable and sensual, it can also be extremely demanding and frustrating. It is socially unacceptable to admit this openly, but such a perspective finds expression in baby-care books such as those by Gina Ford, a British ex-nanny whose books on producing a ‘contented baby’ are bestsellers in the Anglophone world. Ford advises parents as to the importance of rigid scheduling of feeding, sleeping and even cuddling to ensure a ‘contented baby’ who does not wake its parents at night or encroach overly on their autonomy.

From this perspective the infant is positioned as an ‘uncivilised’, close to animalistic, being who requires much training to render its behaviour acceptable for entering human society. Establishing the autonomy and individuated embodiment of the infant is a priority, and the recommended bodily practices accord with this goal. The discourse of ‘training’ the infant, as if it were an animal, to conform to adults’ expectations and their ideals of autonomy and independence is common in these accounts.

As I contended in a previous post, there is often a blurring of categories between young children and animals. While companion animals such as dogs and cats have progressively become represented as child-substitutes and treated as if they are children, infants and young children in turn are often represented culturally as animalistic, not fit to occupy the ‘civilised’ spaces outside the domestic sphere such as the café, restaurant or aeroplane.

The relationship that we have with infants, therefore, can be paradoxical and ambivalent. At the same time as infants are viewed as increasingly precious, adorable and vulnerable, requiring and inspiring large amounts of caring and attention, they are also considered to be overly demanding, detracting from our own independence and right to autonomy.

References

Badinter, E. (1981) The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct. London: Souvenir Press.

Liedloff, J. (1975/1989) The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost. London: Penguin.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) The Phenomenology of Perception (translated by C. Smith). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Tahhan D (2008) Depth and space in sleep: intimacy, touch and the body in Japanese co-sleeping rituals. Body & Society, 14(4), 37—56.

Same sex couples and division of labour

English: A child holding a sign in support of ...

English: A child holding a sign in support of his lesbian mothers’ marriage outside the Mormon temple at New York City’s Lincoln Center. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There has been a lively debate in response to my piece in The Conversation on stay-at-home fathers (see previous post: Why aren’t there more stay-at-home dads?’).

One commentator wondered what the division of labour was in same-sex couples. This is a very interesting question. I have done a quick search of the literature and have found an article which reviews studies conducted on lesbian families. The author notes that compared with heterosexual couples, lesbian couples share more equally in childcare tasks and reported higher satisfaction levels with their domestic arrangements than did heterosexual couples (Foster, 2005)

Another study provides more detail. It reports the findings of an American study comparing families with heterosexual parents with adopted children, lesbian parents who had adopted children and lesbian parents who had children related biologically (Ciano-Boyce and Shelley-Cireci, 2003).

The study found that the lesbian couples were more equal in their parenting practices than were the heterosexual couples, and that lesbians with adopted children were the most egalitarian. Lesbian parents who were the biological mother and the adoptive mother of heterosexual couples performed more childcare tasks than their partners. They were also more sought after by the child when the child was feeling tired, ready for bed, hurt, hungry, afraid or cranky. In contrast, the child sought the non-biological lesbian mother and the adoptive father in heterosexual couples for rough-and-tumble play, reading and watching television.

In families with lesbian mothers and adopted children, although there was more of an equal division of labour, the child also tended to make a distinction between the mother who they sought for the more he nurturing-type of care and the other mother. This sometimes caused conflict in these couples related to the type of care each woman wished to provide to the child. The researchers explain this difference by suggesting that in these couples there is no ‘obvious’ mother to perform the more nurturing care, as there is in the other couples.

What this suggests is that biological lesbian mothers and adoptive heterosexual mothers take on similar roles which conform closely to dominant norms relating to mothering. The non-biological lesbian mother and the adoptive heterosexual father also adopt similar roles, with both taking an approach which conforms to the traditional ‘father’ model.

References

Claudia Ciano-Boyce and Lynn Shelley-Sireci (2003) Who is mommy tonight? Lesbian parenting issues. Journal of Homosexuality, 43(2), 1–13

Deborah Foster (2005) Why do children do so well in lesbian households? Research on lesbian parenting. Canadian Women’s Studies, 24(2/3), 51–6.

Why aren’t there more stay-at-home dads?

I have just published a piece in The Conversation about stay-at-home fathers and why they are still such a rare phenomenon. There was a big front-page story on the domestic arrangements of Australian actor Rachel Griffiths and her artist husband Andrew Taylor in last Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald. For the past ten years, Griffiths has been busy working on her television career in the US on such shows as Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters, while Taylor has been the primary carer of their three children.

In my article for The Conversation, I look at why Taylor’s staying at home to care for the couple’s children received front-age coverage. I discuss some sociological research that has looked at the experiences for both men and women when they have decided that the mother should be the primary breadwinner while the father stays at home.

Here is the link to the article: https://theconversation.edu.au/the-stay-at-home-dad-syndrome-why-do-rachel-griffiths-parenting-choices-make-news-7285


Attachment parenting or extreme parenting?

Last week I wrote a piece for ‘The Conversation’ discussion website (http://theconversation.edu.au) about the US edition of Time magazine, 21 May 2012, that featured a cover image of young, attractive woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son (http://theconversation.edu.au/time-2-extreme-parenting-time-magazine-style-7055). I looked at the various responses to this cover image on the internet. Many of these were from mothers themselves or from professional female commentators and bloggers.

What I found was interesting.  Some people were horrified at the idea that a boy who could be old enough to remember suckling from his mother’s breast will still be doing so. There were many claims that he would be humiliated when he grew older at being featured in such a controversial and public image. The notion that a child as old as three was still breastfeeding seemed abhorrent to some. Breastfeeding here becomes sexualised and bestowed with incestuous meanings, simply because the child is old enough ‘to remember’ gaining comfort and pleasure from his mother’s breast. The fact that his mother was slim, attractive, young, dressed in a hip manner in tight black jeans, and blonde, simply added to the sexualisation of the image.

Other commentators were relatively accepting of the breastfeeding, but took offence at the headline of the cover, which read ‘Are you Mom enough?’. These are fighting words, suggesting that women who do not engage in practices such as breastfeeding for years are not ‘good enough’ mothers. The words ‘Mom enough’ imply that there are gradations of ‘Momness’ (to use a rather clumsy neologism) and that ‘real Moms’ are those who engage in ‘extreme parenting’ . ‘Extreme parenting’ was a term also used on the front cover and in the detailed article published within about attachment parenting and one of its most prominent advocates, American paediatrician Dr Bill Sears.

In contrast to the deliberate provocation of the cover imagery and wording, I found the article quite well-balanced, looking at both the pros and cons of engaging in attachment parenting, which involves baby-wearing in slings and co-sleeping as well as extended breastfeeding and breastfeeding on demand. Sears argues that these practices, based on age-old customs still found in non-western societies, contribute to infants’ physical and psychological wellbeing. According to the article, more and more mothers are taking up his advice and engaging in attachment parenting practices.

Nonetheless, as case studies used in the article attest, attachment parenting (also ‘extreme parenting’ according to Time) can be extremely hard work for the mothers who adopt it. In fact, it clashes with the contemporary notion that both women and men are autonomous individuals, freely making choices about their lives and engaging actively in the workforce without constraint. Attachment parenting directly challenges these assumptions, because it counters the notion of the mother and the infant or child as autonomous subjects. Instead, it rests upon the assumption that the mother-child dyad is interembodied, that the boundaries between the two are blurred rather than distinct, and that the mother, instead of actively seeking to foster autonomy and independence in her child, will follow its cues and submit to its neediness for her bodily presence.

For people in contemporary western societies, these are highly challenging and confronting concepts. This perhaps explains the controversy over the cover image and the use of the term ‘extreme’ to describe attachment parenting.

For sociological studies on women’s experiences of attachment parenting, see the work of Charlotte Faircloth: http://kent.academia.edu/CharlotteFaircloth. For my own work on concepts of infants’ bodies, see Deborah Lupton (in press) ‘Infant embodiment and interembodiment: a review of sociocultural perspectives’, Childhood and Deborah Lupton (2012) Configuring Maternal, Preborn and Infant Embodiment. Sydney Health & Society Working Paper No. 2. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group, available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8363.