Introducing Four New Ducklings To Melt Your Heart (Plus News About Edith)

Well, it happened, we went and got more ducklings. Four of them, to be exact. They are cute and tiny and they’ve been here a week and have already doubled in size (I’m not kidding). I’m going to get the adorable duckling cuteness, but first, I have some news about Edith.

You may recall that we had some questions about Edith’s biological sex. In the fall, we were certain Edith was a drake (male duck), and that’s when we decided we would need to expand our flock. We ordered the ducklings in December, for a February arrival, and then we waited.

Then, the day before the ducklings got here… Edith laid an egg. I’m positive Edith laid an egg, because her and Millie started laying on the same day. I had been meticulously checking the duck house for eggs every day. On Monday, there were no eggs. But on Tuesday? There were two, two gray eggs, meaning they were both Cayuga eggs, and neither of them could possibly have come from James.

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Does this make me feel a little silly? Maybe possibly. But I’m still not convinced we made entirely the wrong call. Starting last August, Edith was acting very much like a drake, and she mostly continues to. Her head is still much greener than Millie’s, she’s still first to defend the others from any perceived threats. And I mean, she’s still um, on top, in the pool all the time. I’m not 100% convinced there isn’t something hormonal going on there, but even if there isn’t and she’s just a regular old hen (and lesbian) it doesn’t really change things. The risks of overmating are all about being constantly mounted, and I don’t think that changes just because the duck who climbs on top of everyone else doesn’t happen to have a penis.

Anyways, without further ado, here are the new babies.

 

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Baby Jezebel, A Welsh Harlequin duckling.

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Baby Delilah, a Welsh Harlequin duckling.

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Baby Jack, a hybrid “Golden 300” duckling.

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And Baby Beulah, a Chocolate Runner duckling.

They’ve been with us a week now, and are already about twice as large as they are in these pictures. If you want to stay up to date, look for the link to the ducks’ instagram, which is at the bottom of this post.

Stay tuned for more duck posts in the future, I’ve got a couple in the works, as well as some different stuff coming up that I hope folks will enjoy.

***

Want more of the ducks? You can follow them on instagram! (You can also follow me on instagram, but I am less cool.)

Postnuclear Era is sustained primarily by generous donations! If you liked this post, consider supporting it by making a quick donation of $5 at paypal.me/postnuclear/5.

Or, if you prefer, you can support my work on patreon!

 

Let’s Talk About Sex, And Birds, And A Duck Named Edith

By now, you’ve probably seen articles floating around about the cardinal in Pennsylvania who is half male and half female. As a recently converted bird lover, and a trans man, and a nerd, all this talk about bird sex really got me thinking.

Biological sex is quite a bit more complicated than we like to assume, even in human beings. There is the fact that intersex people exist, and also the fact that what we call “biological sex” is actually defined by a series of attributes which lead to the classification of “male” and “female.” But when it comes to non-human animals, biological sex is sometimes more complicated, or complicated in different ways. Bird sex is pretty different than mammal sex, for example. But we still as a culture have decided to mostly classify them into two categories, male and female, and assume those are fixed and stagnant. Spoiler alert: they’re not.

For example, that cardinal.

For example, it is well documented that both domestic chickens and ducks sometimes spontaneously change sex. Birds typically only use one ovary (the one on the left, for whatever reason) and in some cases a completely female bird, who has laid eggs in the past, will suddenly transition to male. The ovary on the right hand side simply develops into a testicle, and the testosterone kicks off secondary sex characteristics (like the comb and crow for a rooster, the green head on the mallard, and the curled “drake feather” for all male ducks of mallard origins). This happened to a neighbor of mine this past summer. He had a chicken who had been laying eggs, and within the space of three days she looked, and sounded like, a rooster. It wasn’t long before he had new chicks who were fathered by this rooster who used to be a hen.

All of which brings me to my own experiences with ducks, and specifically with Edith.

The Story Of Edith The Duck

Male ducks are called drakes, while female ducks are just ducks (or some people call them hens to differentiate). There are a few ways that people classify ducks as males and females. Adult drakes are typically larger than ducks, in some breeds the difference can be as much as a pound or two, and they tend to have larger heads and thicker necks. In some breeds, males have differently colored plumage, including a green head. And almost all drakes sport a “drake feather,” a curled feather near their tail. They also have different voices, the distinctive quack we associate with all ducks is actually just the females of the species, while males have a quieter, kind of raspy, voice.

Additionally, drakes can be more aggressive, although not as aggressive as roosters, especially during mating season. While not usually aggressive towards humans, there is no nice way to put this, male ducks have an extremely high sex drive and can easily go overboard and hurt a female duck by what is called “overmating.”

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We decided we didn’t need any drakes, since we wanted our ducks for pets and eggs, and weren’t planning on making more ducks. And we didn’t want to deal with the potential liability. So, we ordered all female ducklings.

Now of course, when the hatchery (we use Metzer Farms and they don’t pay me to say that) separates the newly hatched ducklings into male and female, the process they use is as imperfect as the way we assign gender in humans. They’re really only looking for one thing: does it have a penis? If they see a penis, it’s male, if not, it’s female. Understandably, there is some margin of error here, partly because sex is more complicated than the presence or lack of one organ, and partly because we’re talking about tiny ducklings, with even tinier genitals, here.

After Mary the duckling died, we ordered three female ducklings. Two Cayugas, a breed of duck which is black but shimmers iridescent green in the sunlight, and one rouen, a breed of domestic duck that looks an awful lot like a mallard (but is larger). My partner lobbied for at least one “butch” name, so the rouen became James. We named the cayugas Mildred and Edith, and for the first couple months of their lives, we called them “sisters.”

That is, until things started to change.

We first noticed in when their adult feathers started to come in. All of a sudden Edith and Millie, who had previously been nearly impossible to tell apart, looked different. Both had that greenish shimmer when the light hit them just right, but Edith was much green, particularly on her head and especially around the eyes. Cayuga drakes are known for having a greenish head, but with the overall green shimmer it can be hard to tell what’s what. We weren’t sure what we were seeing, but digging through message boards I found quite a few people who noticed green around the eyes of a young cayuga, and in a month or so the bird was obviously a drake.

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The next thing was the voice. Millie and James both quacked early and often, but Edith seemed quieter. With multiple birds, it was sometimes hard to tell who was making all the noise, but we certainly didn’t see Edith quack.

Then there was pool time. Ducks prefer to mate in the water, and often start flirting before the duck pool is all the way filled. We noticed pretty quickly that there was one duck who was always trying to climb on top of everyone else in the water, and it was Edith. Now, just like in many other animals, it isn’t uncommon for female ducks to mount each other (a lot of poultry folks refer to this as “practice mating” which cracks me up). But it wasn’t a case of everyone doing it, it was just Edith, every single time.

One day I was in the backyard and Edith opened her bill and let out this sound, it was a thin raspy little whisper of a sound. And I thought “there it is, like it or not, we have a drake.” It was right around the time I was starting hormone therapy, and there were many jokes made about me and Edith going through puberty together. We didn’t change the name, Edith, but we did start using he/him pronouns.

Of course, keeping a drake meant our little flock looked different than what we had dreamed of. We started out imagining having two female ducks, expanded that to four when Mary died, and then Martha died of botulism in August. Suddenly we had two ducks and a drake, pretty far from the ideal duck to drake ratio. We saw how um, active, Edith was in the pool in the fall, and we worried about what that would mean for Millie and James in the height of mating season the following summer. If we didn’t want to get rid of Edith, and we didn’t, we decided we would need more ducklings. They arrive next week.

A few days ago, I was in the backyard, watching the ducks. It’s true that Edith has a greener head and is always “on top” in the pool. But Edith isn’t larger than Mildred, if anything he’s a touch shorter. And although our ducks are now eight months old, the curled drake feather has yet to appear. I’m still happy to have more ducklings on the way, but I suddenly found myself questioning my assumptions about Edith.

But of course, maybe I have been looking at Edith the wrong way? I’ve been assuming this animal will fit neatly into one of two categories, but maybe he doesn’t! Especially after reading about that cardinal, I felt less certain about everything. A little googling of the term “intersex duck” led me to learn that intersex mallards are well documented, probably because the plumage difference is so striking, seeing something in between is noticeable. Couldn’t the same thing happen in other mallard derived duck breeds?

I don’t know what Edith’s sex is, and that highlights something important for me: we don’t know as much as we think we do. In the end, before even getting to the complicated issues of gender and culture, biological sex is often more of an educated guess than anything else.

***

Want more of the ducks? You can follow them on instagram! (You can also follow me on instagram, but I am less cool.)

Postnuclear Era is sustained primarily by generous donations! If you liked this post, consider supporting it by making a quick donation of $5 at paypal.me/postnuclear/5.

Or, if you prefer, you can support my work on patreon!

How (And Why) We Brought Three Ducks Indoors During The Polar Vortex

All through last spring, summer, and fall, the most common question we got about our ducks was “what will they do in the winter?” I guess since ducks are known for migrating, it’s not surprising that folks were curious. While you can find some great tips for cold weather duck care on the internet, in general ducks are cold hardy and don’t need too much extra in the winter months. In fact, that was one of the appeals of ducks versus chickens for our family (well, that and the important fact that we’ve discussed before, ducks walk funny).

But this week’s temperatures seemed… different.

On Sunday, a friendly neighbor casually asked “what are the ducks going to do during this week’s deep freeze?” I hadn’t looked at the forecast too closely, so I shrugged and said “same thing they do all the time. I’ll probably make them oatmeal.” But then I did look at it closely. The high temperature for Wednesday was -5f, and the low was -15f. The windchill was even worse, some sources predicted windchills as low as -50f. My confidence wavered. On Monday, I knew I had to make a decision soon, so I started obsessively researching everything I could about ducks and cold. Almost nothing referenced specific temperatures, and it’s hard to know what “too cold” actually is. Eventually, I did find a blog post about ducks in extreme cold which did use actual numbers. In fact, it referenced an old study where ducks were literally put in freezers! This person’s take was that ducks could probably handle windchills all the way down to -50f (the magic number!) just as long as they had 24/7 access to food and unfrozen water.

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Oh.

A few words about our duck setup are probably in order here. Our ducks live in our fenced in backyard, which isn’t huge, and as such I’ve never felt comfortable limiting them to a run (a completely inclosed outdoor pen). Instead, they get the run of the yard during daylight hours. At night, they’re locked up in a predator-proof duck house, which I built last spring with the help of a friend, out of pallets and scrap wood (we even scored some free shingles to make a fancy roof). The ducks nest in straw on the floor of the duck house, and we don’t believe in heating poultry coops because of the associated fire risk (plus, it is almost always not necessary). They’re generally happy cuddling with each other in their little house, and when it’s cold they seem happy to go to bed. What they don’t have in there, though, is food or water.
It’s not safe for ducks to ever have access to food without water, as they are water birds and prone to choking if they don’t have something to wash down their dinner. And water in the duck house is a huge liability. Ducks splash, they splash constantly, the jump in water dishes that are large enough and tip over those that aren’t. All that water mucks up their bedding, and in the winter will make it much much colder. But even if we had wanted to make a rare exception to the no-food-in-bed rule, we couldn’t have, because without something to keep it warm (like a heated dog bowl) any water would just freeze solid. My mind was made up, the birds had to come inside, at least for the worst of it.

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There are people out there who keep ducks as indoor pets, generally utilizing diapers to cut down on the mess. Then there are those who have ducks who live outdoors primarily, but come inside to visit. We are not those people. Once our current flock of birds moved outside, they seemed so much happier out than in that we never felt the urge to bring them in. Plus, while they like hanging out with us in the yard, they don’t particularly want to be touched very much by humans (especially James). Millie has a bad leg, and sometimes comes in to soak it in the bathtub, but other than that they haven’t been inside since they were only a few weeks old. We weren’t sure how it was going to go. To add to that, we didn’t have any budget to get extra supplies, so we had to scheme how to create a temporary indoor home for them with what we already had.

What we had a lot of was cardboard. Because we don’t own a car, we have to get a lot of things shipped to us, and the boxes seem to pile up, and they take up so much room in the recycling that they often don’t all make it in. We also had paper grocery bags, plastic garbage bags, and of course straw. The whole set up was completed with two old baby gates and some yarn.

I sectioned off a corner of the living room, which is bordered by our bookshelf on one side, to make an enclosure large enough for three adult ducks (a very temporary enclosure, it’s inhumane to keep ducks in too confined spaces longterm). Extending one baby gate to its full length, I attached them together at a right angle with some spare yarn. By tying it tightly, I was able to create something that stood up on its own. Next, I completely covered the floor of the enclosure with plastic garbage bags, to keep wet messes from ending up on my floor. The plastic was incredibly slippery, so I covered that with a layer of cardboard which I figured would be a little easier to walk on, and would absorb some of the mess. Finally, I covered that with a layer of brown paper, the idea being that I could quickly take up that layer to clean up some of the mess, when I didn’t have time to change out all of the cardboard.

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Please note that these are ADULT ducks. Ducklings should never be raised on paper or cardboard, as both are still somewhat slippery and trying to walk on them while they’re growing can lead to a condition called spraddle leg.

Then, I took the largest box I could find and cut the flaps off, and cut a large opening in one of the sides, so it was shaped kind of like a dog bed, and filled it with straw. This would function as a “nest” during their brief indoor stay. The big advantage to all of the cardboard, brown paper, and straw, is that it could all be thrown right in the compost once it was soiled. Then, it was time to go get the birds!

With the exception of Millie, it’s pretty hard to pick up any of our ducks, but when I went out to get them Tuesday night, it was incredibly easy to catch all three of them. I had figured it would take me up to half an hour to get all three birds into the house, but they were huddled against the back door, as though they were just waiting for someone to do something about the rapidly falling temps. That they were so slow moving let me know I made the right call. They also were far calmer in the house, even with an active three year old bouncing around, than I ever would have guessed. In fact, they seemed relieved to be out the elements, and have a little company from their human flock.
And the verdict on the makeshift indoor duck inclosure? It’s doing the job, though I wouldn’t want to use it any longer than we have to. The paper layer on top doesn’t add much, as liquidy waste and water splashes soak right through it almost instantly. But they’re using the nest, eating treats I give them through the gates, and so far we’ve only had one escape (it was James).

I can’t wait until it warms up and these birds move back outside, but I’m glad we didn’t take our chances with them in this frigid cold. On the upside, after this, brooding ducklings in a few weeks will seem like a piece of cake.

***

Speaking of polar vortex, my heat bill is about to be out of control, and for some reason no one pays me extra in the winter. Postnuclear Era is supported primarily through generous donations and patrons over at patreon. Make a one time polar vortex donation today!

If you’d like to see more of our ducks, you can follow them on instagram at @clover_ducks.

Hello From My Imaginary Homestead

It is January, actually it’s almost the end of January. The various winter holidays have come and gone, the snow finally came (very late, here in Michigan), and this morning I could hear a squirrel actually snoring in the roof above our bathroom. I haven’t posted on the old blog in what feels like ages, partly because I haven’t always known what to say, as my kid grows protecting my family’s privacy suddenly feels important. Partly because of millennial burnout, which I believe everyone is talking about now, so that’s cool. And partly because having a blog at all feels so antiquated, like a relic of the past. I keep hearing that newsletters are the new blogs, but I hate newsletters, I always have, I’m subscribed to exactly two and they both stress me out. I tend to assume other people feel the same as me, but I guess in this case I must be wildly incorrect.

Every couple of weeks I go through the same internal conversation “no one even reads the blog anymore, I should start a newsletter!” and then “but I hate newsletters and I don’t want to” and then “what would be so different about it though?” and then “why throw away what you already have?” I know I have a tendency to assume that starting fresh will somehow fix everything, so I guess I’m fighting that to some degree, and showing up here, to the little space I’ve already taken the time to build.

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Anyways, let’s talking about homesteading.

I read Prairie Fires this last summer while recovering from some mental health issues, and it left a big impression on me. I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up on the Little House books, in fact I still to this day have not read them, but it would be wrong to say Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work hasn’t affected me. She’s in our popular culture, firmly cemented in our popular imagination. And when I read Prairie Fires, it became immediately apparent that so much of the ideals, and the imagine of the idyllic past, of my peers, is lifted directly from Wilder’s fictionalization of her own childhood. The simpler better time we are harkening back to isn’t one we learned about from our grandparents, it is one from books. And it is, at least to a certain degree, a lie. Laura Ingalls Wilder spent most of her life in poverty, living on the knife’s edge, desperately trying to farm. What finally lifted her out of those circumstances was um, writing about how great farming is.

I am, along with the many other things I might be, a white person living in an “urban farming” kind of neighborhood. It’s a great neighborhood, neighbors literally knock on your door to borrow a cup of sugar (or rice, or chicken feed, or cat food, we have twice hit up the same neighbor for baking powder in a pinch, because another neighbor had borrowed ours!) and I’m not here to knock it. But I am aware of the nuance here. It’s complicated, and the settler colonialist narrative is never far off. Racism exists, classism exists, sexism exists. And a lot of the cozy old-timey trappings of this place are, ironically enough, made possible by modern life. Our soil isn’t necessarily great, but many of us are still desperate to farm (and to be fair, some are quite successful at it), often based off an image we have of self-sufficiency. But it’s just an image, it’s just a costume.

Despite all of that, after getting ducks last year, I started to feel a bit like a homesteader.

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A lot of it was instagram. I supposedly got on instagram (finally, I’m slow to adopt anything other people seem to like) because of my artwork, but to this day I don’t think I’ve shared any of it there. But then I was a little excited about being a trans person on instagram, and then I started following various duck and poultry accounts. Before I knew what was happening, I was deep into homesteader instagram world. I was wishing we had space for chickens.

It wasn’t too far off the mark anyways. I have always been thrifty, and I’ve always been broke. Ten years ago, I was living in a studio apartment I called my “bachelor pad” (but sure, I still thought I was cis) and I taught myself how to make pasta by hand. For weeks all my friends heard about was how easy it was (“it’s just thirty minutes of kneading!” I would say, beaming at their horrified reactions) and how eventually I was going to switch over to making ALL my own noodles and then I wouldn’t be forced to buy pasta at the stupid grocery store ever again (just flour I guess) so take that capitalism!

Last year I got a sourdough starter. I grew my own pumpkins for the first time ever. I raised ducklings and built a duck house. I started to think of myself as a homesteader, as I made my compost pile bigger and bigger and saved scraps for my ducks.

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All of which was nice. It was fulfilling in a certain way. And I harbor fantasies of growing more, making more, doing more. But I recognize it is a fantasy. It’s a complicated imaginary thing. The reality is that I might make my own pumpkin spice bagels, but I still buy the odd frozen pizza for nights no one feels like cooking.

In that way, I guess I am very much like the homesteaders of yore so many of us tend to idolize.

***

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When Everything Goes To Shit, You Still Exist, And That Is Its Own Victory

This is the setting. The toddler has been screaming at you all morning. The sound is an endless wail at a pitch that must have been honed by a millennia of evolution to grate on a parents’ nerves the absolute most possible. You have been solo parenting, because your spouse is away, for five days. Each morning the child is more indignant than the day before about the fact that you can’t play garbage truck first thing in the morning, because if you don’t make the coffee, feed the animals, put breakfast on the table, no one else will. You can’t tell if your headache is from the sound of exhaustion. You can’t tell if you’ve had too much or not enough caffeine. Each step of the morning requires maximum effort, the French press needs your full attention or you’ll forget to press it and pour coffee grounds slop into your cup.

Before lunch you put on yet another episode of his favorite Canadian public television show from the 90s on YouTube. By the time you get your bath run it isn’t enough time. But you still pour in enough Epsom salts that they don’t all dissolve, they line the bottom like sand. Maybe now your shoulders will relax.

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Image: me and Jonah the cat have a moment on the couch in our pink living room.

This summer has been rough. Scratch that. This summer has been impossible. Every time I think I have a handle on it, a firm grip on what I need to do next as a parent or a writer or a person, something else happens. I got really sick in July and I haven’t been able to write about it. Martha, my favorite duck, died of botulism earlier this month, and I haven’t been able to talk write about it.

And some of the stress is ultimately good. I’m moving forward with my transition in the ways that I want. But living more authentically still has growing pains, both of the logistical variety and you know, living more authentically requires admitting that you weren’t doing it before. It demands that you look your regrets full in the face.

I have been feeling like a failure lately. I know other writers who have dug themselves out of hellish situations in the time it took me to just barely get started. I feel like I should have clawed my way into the middle class by now, like I should have worked harder, made more money, been less messy, not lost my temper, provided more enriching activities for my kid, gone to more punk shows, been better at marriage, been better at friendship.

Instead, my foot hurts and I don’t know why. Mighty Machines is over and this bath didn’t magically make me into the perfect parent ready to go downstairs with a smile and suggest a craft project. I’m still flawed and tired and broke. I’m still gonna let him watch more TV today. I’m still plagued by guilt and conflict. There are still squirrels in the roof.

That’s not a metaphor, there are literally squirrels in the roof.

But I realized a small something that is a small comfort. I’m still myself. I still exist, I’m still showing up with my messy emotions and exhaustion. I’m here trying to figure myself out and raise a child who is decent and happy and good. We still talk about consent. We still eat vegetables (sometimes).

The hardest summer of my life was the summer my kid was born. This summer is the second hardest. That is still really hard. That is still really bad. But it is the second hardest summer, and I guess even being able to recognize that I survived something even harder than this is a gift. I am trying to remind myself that I still exist, I’m more than my efforts and failures, I am here and real and solid.

You can’t make enough Epsom salts exist to finally force your shoulders to relax. But you can give yourself a participation trophy for life, and really, you deserve it. A for effort, everybody!

***

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Capitalism Made Public Nursing A Problem, And Capitalism Has A Nursing Cover To Sell You

On facebook, someone named Rene Johnson posted an album of historical photos of breastfeeding, along with the following text:

When people say that openly nursing in public without a cover is a new thing. Uh no, no it is not, I promise. 😊 It wasn’t until the 20th century that breastfeeding started to be seen in a negative light.

“Nursing in public seemed to be a non-issue in colonial America. Our foremothers were expected to maintain a busy household, which included feeding the baby, and breastfeeding in the market or other public areas was not a cause for uproar. At that time, breastfeeding was the only way to feed a baby, either by the natural mother or a wet-nurse. The Puritans believed breasts were created for the nourishment of children and strongly encouraged women to nurse their own babies. 1 Breastfeeding in public was commonplace for colonial women because they lived in a society that supported breastfeeding.”

There are plenty of reasons a mom may not cover while breastfeeding. The baby could not allow it, and repeatedly remove the cover, or cry. It could be too hot, and a mother doesn’t want her child to get too hot and sweaty. It is also really hard to cover while learning to nurse a new baby, and babies benifit from eye contact while breastfeeding. Believe it or not, covers actually draw more attention. Sometimes the mother simply doesn’t wish to cover, and they legally don’t have to.

“At the federal government level, Public Law 106-58, Section 647 states: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a Federal building or on Federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location.”6 Laws vary by state and most states have have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location.”

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Image description: a screenshot of a facebook gallery showing various historic images of breastfeeding. Many are very old, some are in black and white.

You can view the whole gallery here. This, and the recent news that finally, in 2018, it is now finally legal to publicly breastfeed in all 50 states got me thinking about how we got from there to here. I don’t think it’s exactly an accident that this massive change in attitudes towards the act of feeding a child happened right alongside the rise of the nuclear family as the ideal. All of this has a lot to do with whose bodies and movement we want to control (that would be, everyone who isn’t a cisgender white man, for the most part) and it also has a lot to do with what can be monetized. Before I get into it, there are a couple of things that I have to clarify, because it’s going to come up.

1. I like formula. I think formula is a great invention that has saved a lot of lives, and we should celebrate it every single day. In a world with formula, babies who would otherwise die instead get a chance to live and thrive. In a world with formula, parents who can’t or just plain don’t want to breastfeed or chestfeed have real viable options. Formula itself is good news, and you will never hear me wish for a magical world before formula existed, just as you will never hear me with for a world without c-sections.

2. Formula was also created in a capitalist society and has been distributed via capitalism. That means that formula companies want to make as much money as possible, and that means selling as much formula as possible. The marketing of formula, particularly to (and also by) doctors and hospitals has been problematic to say the least. But…

3. The thing being marketed badly does not mean that the thing itself is bad. I don’t think you’re bad if you used formula. Ok? Ok.

So how did public breastfeeding become such a big issue? How did we get so squeamish about it? Well, it took having about two generations for which it wasn’t a normal part of life. Intense and misleading formula marketing created a culture where not only was public nursing not the norm, nursing wasn’t the norm at all anymore. My grandmother was told by a doctor not to bother with breastfeeding her babies, because formula was better and easier, and meant she could “eat whatever she wanted” (the implication being that nursing a baby required a specific and controlled diet). My own mother did try to breastfeed in the 80s (I was breastfed for five months, if you want to know) but it wasn’t exactly a cultural norm. In my own life, I was around a ton of babies, but I never saw one breastfed until I was nineteen. Mothers in my life either used formula exclusively, or switched to formula while they were out, or went to another room to feed their babies.

All of this creates a culture where we are not used to seeing “female” breasts in this context (don’t get me started on the female connotation, lots to unpack there, not today satan, etc). That means that when we see it, it takes us by surprise, it just plan feels weird. Since we still live in a culture that intensely sexualizes female breasts, it’s easy for us to think of them only in their sexual context, as though that were their only function. A friend of mine in junior high literally bragged to me that, as an infant, she never properly latched. She said “even as a baby, I knew that was nasty.” Cisgender men routinely accuse women who publicly breastfeed of doing it “for the thrill” or “just to rub their noses in it.” One comment I remember reading on a breastfeeding photo (years ago, I can’t find it) said “I understand that it’s their right and everything to breastfeed in public… what I don’t understand is why someone would actively prefer it.” This is hilarious to anyone who has ever breastfed or chestfed a child.

And then there’s the old “I don’t mind if you breastfeed, but if you have to do it in public, at least be decent and use a cover.”

All of this comes from capitalism, and from capitalism’s influence on family life. Capitalism has a preferred family structure, the two parent nuclear family, because they’re the ideal unit for consumption. And capitalism prefers that you buy formula for your baby, because nursing doesn’t lead to economic growth! And incidentally, this to me is the bigger issue when we talk about whether or not breastfeeding is “free.” Many feminists hold that breastfeeding is only free if you believe that the nursing parent’s labor (and potential for income) is worthless. They might be on to something. But that’s just talking about whether or not a particular family unit is losing money feeding the baby. The bigger issue is this: who is making money off of feeding that baby. Breastmilk itself makes no money for the capitalist machine, and thus it is “free,” worthless, a waste.

So my grandmother’s generation was convinced that nursing was dirty, what animals did, and probably not very healthy besides. Formula, on the other hand, had the advantage of being civilized. It’s based on science! And they’ll give you free stuff to get started, right there in the hospital, before your pesky milk even comes in. Feeding babies became big business.

Unfortunately for the formula companies, we’ve now decided that “breast is best.” Research has led us to the totally off the wall conclusion that human milk is actually good for new humans (I mean who saw that coming, amiright?) and doctors have started pestering birthing parents to give breastfeeding the old college try. Mind you, they’ve mostly tried shaming and pressuring new parents, rather than supporting them and trying to make breastfeeding actually work for them. We’re trying to fit breastfeeding into a formula feeding world, and that’s messy.

Enter the breastfeeding cover. The covers are a modern capitalist invention to solve a modern capitalist problem, we all agreed that breasts in public were icky, but now we want people to breastfeed! Capitalism would rather solve this problem by selling you something else. You can get a wide variety of styles of nursing cover, and it’s been awhile since I’ve seen a baby registry that didn’t include at least one.

(Capitalism has found other ways of making money off of breastfeeding, of course, with an endless array of breastfeeding accessories that all claim to make the job of “have boob, add baby” easier.)

Nursing with a cover is awful in every possible way. With a newborn, it’s almost in possible, because they’re floppy and you can’t see what you’re doing and you’re confused and the baby’s confused and it’s just a really bad scene. It’s also… if you’ve never tried it, it’s hard to overstate how hot it actually gets. We’re not talking “is it warm in here, or am I just feeding an infant” hot, we’re talking “oh my god is my baby going to be ok” hot. Once the child is old enough to maneuver nursing with a cover, they’re also old enough to push the cover to the side, or just plan remove it altogether. No matter how you slice it, your boob is gonna be visible at least some.

All of which makes perfect sense, of course, because nursing covers have always been a scam, and never a real solution.

World breastfeeding week is almost upon us again, and you are about to be overwhelmed with breastfeeding information and statistics. There will be inspiring photos! There will be shaming of parents who “give up” after a certain number of weeks. There will be, as there always is, more conversation about how we can get the breastfeeding numbers up, without a conversation about why they’re down in the first place. Similac will probably run ads about using formula for supplementing and how that’s still supporting breastfeeding, right?

But through all of it I want us to remember one thing: It didn’t used to be scary to breastfeed in public. It is now. The capitalist money making machine took that away from us, because they could make more money off of parents who couldn’t feed their kids without buying something first.

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Against Patriotism

Two nights ago, while I was boiling chickpea pasta in the stifling heat in our disgusting neglected kitchen, I listened to the first story on this episode of This American Life. In one way, it’s a specific story about a specific lawyer dealing with specific frustrations for a specific family. In another way, it’s a terrifying glimpse into the reality for so many immigrants and asylum seekers at this moment. Despite what the Trump administration announces, they created a crisis by separating families, the separations have not ended, and for most reunification is a long way off, if it is even possible at all. If that doesn’t break your heart wide open, I don’t know what will.

When I was growing up, my parents sometimes wrestled us into America themed outfits on the Fourth of July, before taking us to the fireworks. Red white and blue were symbols of patriotism kind of, but it was a lazy patriotism that had much more to do with summer and hot dogs than it did with the founding fathers. You wore red white and blue on Independence Day because those were the colors of the holiday, it was just part of the look, the same way that reds and greens dominated Christmas and Halloween was suffused with orange. But my parents were also vaguely conservative, and certainly engaged in a bit of “this is the best country on earth” rhetoric.

In High School history class, I remember learning about the links between the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, and the rise of fascism. This isn’t really an out there theory, it’s just tenth grade stuff, and while I know that plenty of people had boring and insufferable history teachers, and plenty more just found the subject boring and irrelevant (which makes me gasp, but whatever) it is important to understand that pride in one’s country is almost always about separating oneself from the other. For people who just like where they live, that’s an uncomfortable truth to face.

What is even more uncomfortable is the idea of Trump’s military parade. What is even more uncomfortable is the idea of “de-naturalization” for previously naturalized citizens. And whether we want to admit it or not, the reality is that all of this is tied up with nationalism, with white nationalism yes, but also with plain old nationalism, which in this country has never been far from white nationalism anyways.

So, I have an idea. Skip the celebration of our independence from Great Britain this year. Tell your family you can’t go to a barbecue that’s entire premise is “this country is great” because it isn’t. Skip the fireworks. Don’t dress your children up in reds, whites, and blues, for that perfect family photo op (and isn’t it weird that our flag colors are the same as like, a bunch of other countries?). If you already bought American flag tees from Old Navy, see if you can return them. What if we met a wave of patriotism, nationalism, and xenophobia, with the opposite? What if we opted out of the whole fucking shebang?

People will disagree with me. People will assert that “protest is patriotic!” and therefore patriotism is ok. At least one children’s clothing brand (which shall remain nameless) launched a “take back the flag” campaign, asserting that the real and true America stands for love and togetherness and welcoming strangers.

The problem is, you don’t have total control over what a symbol means, not ever. The people in power have decided to use it as another kind of symbol, and truthfully, historically, they are more correct. Many of the founding fathers were slave owners, and not just because “it’s what you did back then,” they actively promoted slavery in disgusting and unforgivable ways. Our flag stands for genocide, for The Trail of Tears, for babies burned to death in their villages because white men convinced themselves that GOD wanted that land to be farmed according to European principles. This country has always been breaking up families and committing atrocities, the thing is every time we slow down just a little, we like to convince ourselves “that isn’t who we are… anymore” all the while profiting off of the previous horrors.

So skip it. Skip the parade. Skip the fireworks. Will it make your kids sad? Probably. Am I big meanie? Probably. But look, the comfortable kids who would be attending such festivities will have tons of other joys, so many things to celebrate, in their lives. They aren’t sleeping in tents in the desert, unsure where their families are or if they will ever see them again. You can celebrate summer in ways that don’t celebrate the United States of America, with all of that nationalist zeal.

And if you can’t let it go, if you can’t skip it even when things are this bad, what do you even believe?

***

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