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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The Hard Seasons, And The History Lessons

I have seasonal affective disorder. All winter, I pop vitamin D hoping it will make up for the lack of sunlight and allow me to remain somewhat functional. The chemical reality of it is exacerbated by the fact that I just frankly do not like winter. I hate being cold. I think snow is best enjoyed exactly once, while drinking hot cocoa in a warm house, looking out the window. After that first snowfall that I can grudgingly admit is pretty, winter is nothing but a nuisance to me. With a few notable exceptions (my own mother among them) I have noticed that a love of winter is primarily a feature of the financially comfortable. If you’ve never waited for a bus for an hour in a snowstorm, while your fellow public transit users worry that they’ll be fired because the bus is late again and swap mittens and gloves, it may well be easy to enjoy that season. People who love winter seem to have a love for winter sports, and skiing is often mentioned by these happy folk, which of course happens to be a sport that requires a good deal of specialist equipment. There is nothing so emblematic of financial security as the chair lift, and yes, former boss, I can see how one might appreciate the bracing cold and snow white vistas, if one were sitting in a mechanical chair wearing a down parka while being carried up to the top of a fucking mountain.

All of this ranting is to get to a point: I am always sad for a good deal of the winter. Which is fine in the way that accepting that life is sometimes hard is fine. I’ve been to the buddhist temple, I get it. But I’m not a very good buddhist, and so I eagerly anticipate spring and summer with dizzying expectations of abundance and joy. I expect to be extra happy to make up for the extra sad, it only seems fair. And that makes it extra difficult when spring and summer turn out to be, well, difficult.

To be honest, summers have been getting harder on me for years. My twenties were all about testing my limits, learning that I could push myself further than I thought. My thirties then, have been about the opposite. I was twenty nine when I believed that of course I would be able to birth a child at home, only to be relieved of that fantasy rather rudely by the reality that my body just would not do it. It set the tone. Sometimes I just cannot do things. My body no longer likes the heat of summer, even if my spirit does. The heat makes me swell up, it makes me sick and dizzy. And we’ve already had two bad heat waves this year, which have been debilitating to me both physically and emotionally.

Then there are the ducks. We ordered two ducklings because we wanted two ducks, but after only a week, little Mary passed away from causes we will never know. This led to a lot of grief, both for her specifically and for the idyllic image I had in my head of raising ducklings, and it also led to a good deal more work. A lone duckling requires an extraordinary amount of attention and care, Martha was depressed and basically was only happy when we were holding her, or at least in the same room as her and actively talking to her. For the awful two weeks we had only her, she cried nearly every time I went to the bathroom. To get more ducklings we had to order at least two, but we ordered three. We said “better safe than sorry” and I declared that we would never have only one duck again. We called them Edith, Mildred, and James, and despite problems at the post office, they arrived happy and healthy. At which point a neighbor contact us regarding another duckling.

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Utahraptor was supposed to be a temporary foster duckling, the only hatchling of a hatching project undertaken by a kindergarten classroom (please, do not hatch ducklings in your kindergarten classroom). She was a blue runner duck, and she spent the first eight days of her life alone and depressed. The teacher did her best to care for the little duckling, but what she needed was proper socialization, and that was impossible. When we got her, at first it seemed simple and easy, we put her in with our new ducklings, who were only a few days younger than her. She was surprisingly friendly considering her isolation. But we only had her for 48 hours. She quickly started to weaken, and I did everything I possibly could to revive her, until on a Saturday morning her tiny heart stopped in my hand.

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And that is when I sunk completely into a springtime depression.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. My spring and summer depression coincided with the news of horrific family separations along a border that isn’t even real. It coincided with my transition, which initially was very exciting, being slowed down by clinic delays to frustrating and heartbreaking crawl. It coincided with serious economic problems for my family, a promising “regular gig” that turned out to be one cheap article, which I had to beg to be paid for for a month, a client who is still putting off paying an invoice I filed last December, and the inevitable work slow down that results from a depressive episode. I don’t mean to imply that my problems are in any way comparable to those of refugee families seeking asylum only to be brutally ripped apart and treated horribly, they are not. I only mean that they are my problems, and I have to live with them.

Through it all, I have been immersing myself in history. First, when my insomnia became uncontrollably, I started watching Dr. Lucy Worsley documentaries every night (one is on Netflix, many are available on Youtube). Dr. Worsley pretty much focuses on British history, but what I love about her is that she carefully illuminates the domestic aspects of history usually glossed over, she talks about how people actually lived, how they cooked and did their laundry, how they slept.

In the middle ages, it turns out that a vast number of people slept communally, on bags filled with hay, on the floor of great halls that were unbearably smokey due to the open hearth fire in the center of the room.

Then, I started reading Prairie Fires. I picked it up partly because of watching Ana Mardoll tweet about it a few months back. I haven’t finished it yet, but its descriptions of frontier poverty are frankly jarring, almost as jarring as the way white people stole native land and then sorrowfully mentioned that the native people were “gone” as if they had nothing to do with it. On the great plains, families lived in shacks (not unlike the tar paper shack my own great grandmother was born in) but also in “soddies” (houses made by literally building with blocks of sod cut from the earth and “dugouts” (literally a hole in the ground covered in a thatch roof with sod on top, people made them as homey as they could but still lived with dirt and spiders falling on them). Winters were brutal and when the food ran out farmers had to grind their seed grain, meant for the next crop, for bread.

All of this poverty, and of course the state of so many people even in our modern world, puts my own poverty in context. I may be categorically poor, I may feel strapped by constantly having to budget down to the dollar and often being behind on bills, but I do live in a house with a roof and reliable heat. I have electricity and internet. The standard of living has changed, at least in my part of the world, so completely as to be unrecognizable. It gives me a lot of feelings, one of which is guilt, which I suppose is telling. Reading about Laura Ingalls Wilder fighting her way out of poverty by taking in boarders, cooking for travelers, and raising chickens, makes me feel like a failure for not having more pluck. Why can’t I just be happy with less? And why can’t I just work three times as much?

But the myth of American self reliance continues to be a myth. The Wilders, and before them the Ingallses, had help from family and friends, and even sometimes strangers. There are also concrete reasons my expenses are higher. Even if I could live without my precious modern utilities, I would have my child taken from me for it. And we moved to this rental where the utilities are higher because our last apartment was seriously dangerous. The state will not let me move my child into a hole in the ground. And you know, maybe for good reason, plenty of frontier children died. I am left struggling to get by in the world I live in, in the house I live in, in the body I live in.

I do not have to sleep on a floor. I do not have to ration candles and rush lights to finish the spinning for my household’s clothing. In this house, no one is grinding seed wheat to survive. But it has been a really difficult season. I’m trying to find joy in the things we have, in the four ducks that are growing, in raising my kid and seeing my friends. I’m trying to figure out what to do with my neglected career and how to get through the days so hot they make me sick. Much like my ancestors, we’ll make it, even though I’m not always sure how.

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***

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Loss Is Hard, But Life Doesn’t Stop

Content note: pet death.

Two days after my last post, all about our joy about finally getting two perfect ducklings, tragedy struck. I woke up early in the morning to the sound of one of our ducklings, Martha, crying. The other duckling, Mary, had died sometime in the night, and Martha was frantically running around the brooder box in a panic. It was awful. To some people, it might not have been such a big deal. A friend of mine recently lost some baby chicks, and when she called the hatchery and mentioned that her kids were upset, was told “well you know what they say, if you’ve got livestock you’ve got deadstock.”

But to me, and in our family, Mary was a pet. We chose to get ducks partly because they are generally healthy and hardy. All of my life, I have bonded and become attached to non-human animals easily. When she passed away, we had only had Mary for one week, but I already loved her, we were already close. And after remarking on how close she was to Martha, it was heartbreaking to witness Martha’s heartbreak. We had been cautioned that getting just two ducks was taking a risk, but we had heard of so many people who had two ducks successfully! With her gone we were forced to deal with the reality of what a lone duckling looks like, especially a lone duckling that is already imprinted on another duck.

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Here is the last picture I have of Mary and Martha together. Mary (a yellow duckling) and Martha (a black and yellow duckling) taking a short swim in the bathtub. It’s blurry because they wouldn’t stop moving.

To top it all off, it happened a day before our kid’s third birthday. Explaining death to a toddler is surreal, and it’s almost more surreal to hear the frank way they talk about it (with everyone they meet, “Um, my duck died. Now only have one black duck.”) compared to the vague language adults use to try to soften the blow of death.

We did the only thing we could do. We buried Mary with a few violets, one clover, and one of the unripe strawberries that I had hoped to share with her one day. And then we went back inside, to the other duckling, who was screaming as loud as she could because the family being outside meant she was all alone.

As grief stricken as we were, we had to spring into action immediately. We had to get at least one more duck to keep Martha company. While a few people have successfully kept a single duck, it’s hard, and it’s far from ideal, as they are flock animals and need basically constant companionship. We decided getting ducklings that might be male wasn’t worth the risk… if they turned out to be aggressive it could be dangerous for Martha, and then we might have to get rid of them, which would break our hearts all over again. So we took our heavy hearts, and we went ahead and ordered female ducklings… specifically we ordered three female ducklings. Why three? We talked it over endlessly, and we decided we never wanted to risk being down to a single sad duck again.

They arrive next week, and I’m excited to meet them, even though I still miss Mary.

Since then, our little family has been doing the best we can for our lone duckling, and that means a lot of attention. We got her a little mirror and a small stuffed puppy to cuddle with in her brooder, and those things seem to help her a little, but what she most wants is face time with us. If we can’t let her perch awkwardly on our shoulder, she likes us to be talking to her. For the first few days, she screamed every time one of us left the room to go to the bathroom. I sleep in the living room next to the brooder, and the first night she cried every time she couldn’t see my face, which meant sleepily rolling over was not allowed. The level of round the clock care she has required feels a lot like having a newborn baby again. And with the recent heat wave here, she’s required several cool baths a day and regular ice cubes in water to keep her temperature normal, since she can’t self regulate well yet.

She’s also growing incredibly quickly. Nothing in the world prepares you for how fast a duckling grows. She is two weeks old now, and she’s more than doubled in size. I’ve been told they reach a growth spurt around three weeks, but I’m struggling to imagine how she could possibly grow any fast than she is.

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Martha visiting the great outdoors at just over two weeks old.

Losing Mary was awful. We will probably never know the cause of her death, the woman at the hatchery I spoke with said it could have been anything from an illness to eating a spider, but I’ll probably never stop wondering if I could have somehow done better for her. It’s a good reminder that whenever we open ourselves up, either with humans or other animals, we’re risking feeling the sting of loss. The risk continues to be worth it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting.

But losing Mary has also caused us to bond with Martha in a way we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Martha was the shyer of the two ducklings, preferring to let Mary interact with the humans, but she really opened up to us after Mary was gone. And, for better or for worse, Mary’s death has plunged us headlong into being total duck people. If all goes well, this summer we’ll have a total four ducks roaming our backyard.

I hope the other three like living with us as much as Martha seems to.

***

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Postnuclear Ducklings

One of my biggest pet peeves with nuclear family ideology, even more than the assumption that everyone is heterosexual and cisgender, is the idea that life goes in an expected order and follows an expected pattern. Culturally we are expected to have a second child, but probably no more than three. We’re supposed to want to buy a home and a car. We’re maybe supposed to want to get a dog. Many would expect us to “settle down” in the suburbs as though there could never be anything settled about living in the city. All of this is based on a very modern idea of what family is, what home is, and what the ideal life is, and most of this idea can be traced back to the 1940s. These ideas, which are modern an invented, are seen as so natural and innate in our society that they are rarely questioned. Communal living is seen as weird. Not owning your own home is seen as a failure. And even those progressives who are totally onboard with queer and trans people still expect us to fit into the archetype of the 1940s family in every other way.

It’s exhausting, especially for those of us who for whatever reason aren’t reaching the standard goalposts. Living a life different than the one expected of you means constantly having to explain yourself, justify your lifestyle, and clarify your vision. Usually, when I tell people what I’m doing with my life, whether it’s talking about my gender transition or my lack of interest in (or ability to) leave my awesome rental house, I’m met with either congratulations for being “so unique!” or awkward inquires as to why a person would ever want to live the way that I live. And we aren’t even that weird on the grand scheme of things. We, myself my spouse and my child, live together in a single family home, we have an ikea bookshelf for goodness’ sakes.

All of this preamble is just working up to the following news: We got ducks! To be exact, we got two ducklings.

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Mary, a tiny yellow duckling, and Martha, a tiny black and yellow duckling, chilling in their brooder right after arriving at home. Blanche the fluffy cat watches them with curiosity.

Why did we get ducks? Well, a few reasons. The first is that we love animals, and ducks walk funny and are hilariously cute. The second reason is that while we generally minimize our animal product usage, we do eat some eggs, and I just haven’t felt very good about buying them at the store. Several of our neighbors keep chickens for the eggs, but ducks are much cuter in my opinion, can be friendly (and thus make better pets) and their eggs are more nutritious. I got hooked on the idea of backyard ducks last year, and then way back in March, we ordered two ducklings for Metzer Farms, a hatchery in California with a good reputation. When you order ducklings (or chicks, or goslings) from a hatchery, they are shipped through the mail! This is super weird, I know, but for many reasons (I won’t get into all of them now) it was the best possible option for us and our birds.

Well, they arrived last Wednesday. Despite being clearly labeled for pickup at the post office, the postal workers started putting them on the outgoing delivery truck that would be driving around all day. This was only stopped by me showing up at the post office and asking after my package, awkwardly adding “um, it’s live birds.”

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I, David, a goofy looking trans dude, am holding a poultry shipping container while exiting the post office, and grinning like a goddamn fool.

The very nice lady who rescued our babies from the truck asked me “what are you going to do with these live birds?” while she passed the chirping shipping container to me.

“Take care of them…” I said.

“Oh good!” she breathed a sigh of relief, “I was afraid you were gonna say you were gonna eat them, and I couldn’t have handled that.”

***

The ducklings have probably hatched last Sunday, so they’re one week old now, and they’re already visibly bigger than they were when the arrived five days ago, which is nuts. They’re extremely cute and it is also a ton of work to keep them in food and water, socialize them, and keep their brooder (the box they live in in our living room) clean. Our two babies are called Mary (who is a welsh harlequin) and Martha (a black swedish) because apparently I love bible names, go figure! Here are some things I have learned since adding Mary and Martha to our family:

1. I was warned that ducklings would go through a lot of water and make a lot of poop. However much you are imaging “a lot” to be, it is way more than that. We’re talking constantly refilling the water container and just an endless supply of poop. Good thing it makes good compost.

2. My emotional response to all baby animals is pretty much the same. It may have been more intense when I had a human child, but it wasn’t a different feeling, it was just MORE of the feeling. Whether it’s a newborn baby, a tiny kitten, or three day old birds you pick up from the post office, I find myself equal parts overwhelmed by “how are you real and how are you the cutest thing in the entire world!” and “oh my god what if I’m doing this wrong.”

3. Ducks make an incredible variety of sounds. Baby ducklings don’t quack (and in fact only the female ducks make a true quack as adults) but they do cheep, chirp, coo, whistle, make weird little clicking noises, and even purr.

4. It really doesn’t matter how excited an almost three year old is about ducklings, the first time he is annoyed that you are feeding them YET AGAIN instead of doing what he wants to do, he’ll confidently announce “I not love my baby ducks anymore.” That will last until the next time one of his friends comes over, at which point he will need to excitedly show them off.

5. Imprinting is serious business, and way more intense than I could have ever imagined. I had read about imprinting before they arrived, and about how some people have pet ducks who are imprinted on each other, but that it can get intense. Our ducklings are imprinted on each other, and if you haven’t witnessed a relationship like that, nothing can really prepare you for it. It’s like they’re obsessed with each other, it’s like they love each other more than anyone in the history of the world has loved anymore. They never sleep without cuddling, and most of the time they fall asleep with their bills together, basically kissing each other, purring, and softly chattering at each other. Even in their small brooder box, they prefer to be right next to each other and are almost never seen at opposite ends of it. If I take one out but not the other they become overwhelmingly distraught and will call for each other as loudly as possible until they are reunited. All in all, while I’m a little sad that their hyper focus on each other makes it harder for them to bond with me, I am relieved not to be the focus of that intense and endless love.

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A black and white photo of Mary and Martha, at a week old, cuddling on some straw. Mary is basically leaning on Martha.

Backyard ducks is far from the next expected step for our little postnuclear family, but it was the right thing for us right now. I’m putting the finishing touches on a duck house in the backyard, and when the time is right, Mary and Martha will move back there. Until then, we have these two cuties hanging out in our living room. Expect occasional duckling updates here, but if you need more duckling pictures, you can always follow me on instagram (though I have to warn you there are also a lot of selfies and transgender feelings rants!)

***

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Things To Do For Your Trangender Loved One (Assuming That Transgender Loved One Is Me)

Oh, readers, there is a lot going on, isn’t there? Yesterday I tried to ride my bike. I even put air in the tires! Only then did I discover that my big needs some other kind of attention and being not as handy as I’d like to be, it’s entirely out of my realm of expertise (my expertise being, I can put air in tires, and ten years ago a friend taught me how to change brake pads though I probably don’t remember how). Anyways, I have been thinking about writing a list of Things You Can Do To Be Nice To A Transgender Person, and I even thought about pitching it to some kind of publication and looking for more tips from the transgender community…. but then I realized that was not the piece I wanted to write at all. First of all, because it’s already been done (here and also here). Second of all, because if I am honest, the transgender person I want to talk about most is me.

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

So! Here we have it! Here is how you can support your transgender friend or loved one, if that transgender friend or loved one just happens to be me. This list may or may not be applicable to other transgender people in some ways some of the time, use at your own discretion.

1. Use their correct pronouns, use them early, use them often!

This, I think, should be fairly obvious. THAT said, it seems like some cis people don’t get it. They focus so much on not using the wrong name and pronouns that they forget to test drive the new ones at all, and it gets uncomfortable for everyone involved. I assume this happens because people are afraid to mess up, and that makes sense and is ok. Here’s the thing though: you are going to mess up! Hell, I mess up sometimes! We’ll talk about the mess ups later, but…

What I think you really need to do is to use the new ones as much as possible. Use them in front of the person, use them when you’re talking about the person, use them as much as you possibly can even if it’s awkward. Even if you have to stand alone in your bathroom chanting “David” softly under your breath, still do it. Why? Well, there are two reasons. The first is that when someone makes a point of using my name and pronouns, it makes me feel safe and at ease with that person, which is freaking sweet because I mostly do not feel safe or at ease in the world right now. The second reason is because it helps you get over the awkward phase faster. Basically, you’ll never get used to the change if you don’t, you know, do the change!

2. If you mess up, self correct, correct each other, then move the heck on!

Most people who want to be supportive of their trans friends are terrified of messing up those new names and pronouns! I know I am sure am. But we all mess up, so more important than avoiding it is reacting well when you do mess up.

If you accidentally use an old name/pronoun that is no longer valid, and you notice it on your own, say “sorry, I mean [new name/pronoun] and then drop it.

If you hear someone else use the wrong name/pronoun say “you mean [correct name/pronoun] and then drop it.

If someone else has to correct you, because you used the wrong name/pronoun say “sorry, [correct name/pronoun] and then drop it.

Notice that in each one of these scenarios, you are ACTUALLY SAYING THE NAME OR PRONOUN ALOUD. I feel like this is important, and it makes your apology much more believable and powerful then when you just say “oh sorry” and keep going without ever self correcting. It also has the advantage of just being another time you say it, which will continue to help you adjust.

The other thing they all have in common is that after you self correct, you fucking drop it. You do not go on and on about how hard this is for you. You do not over apologize. You do not make excuses. You do not go on a rant about how you are “trying so hard and you just don’t know why you can’t get it right!” All of that is annoying and embarrassing, frankly, and it makes the transgender person (who is me) feel like they have to comfort you. It makes it very tempting to say “oh, that’s ok, it’s no big deal!” just to make the conversation end, which might make you feel like you have a Special Pass to use the person’s birth name or incorrect pronoun (unless you have been explicitly told “I am giving you a Special Pass,” you definitely don’t! And if the transgender person in question is me, I can assure literally everyone that they do not have such a pass).

3. Reach out! Ask “how is the transition going?” Generally just lend an ear!

This is partially specific to me, but look, transitioning is a lot, and it can be isolating, and your loved one might need someone to talk to. Some transgender people might not want to talk about their transition with cis people! Some transgender people might not want to talk about their transition at all! But again, assuming the transgender person in question is me, maybe they do want to talk about it kind of constantly, but are afraid they are boring everyone and/or no one wants to hear about it anyways.

I think it’s easy for cis people (I know, I recently thought I was one!) to assume that transition is like, a moment. They imagine that once you’ve changed your pronouns or started hormones or had a surgical procedure you have TRANSITIONED. In reality, it is slow. It’s like puberty, only with lots of paperwork! Every day on my to-do list I have transition related items. Because of that, it takes up a massive amount of my brain, and I’m lonely and I want to talk to everyone all the time. Offer to take your transgender person (who again, it’s me, we’re talking about me) out for coffee or lunch. Ask them how they’re feeling. Let them know, with words and actions, that you love and support them.

Many of my friends and loved ones have already done this, and continue to do this, and y’all are the fucking best. Seriously.

4. But… while you are reaching out, don’t make it about you, and don’t assume you know what they’re going through.

In English class, we all learned about showing that you understand a concept by restating it in your own words. We also learned to try to relate to texts by comparing them to our own lived experiences.

If you are cis, don’t do that to your transgender friends.

The fact is that you may be able to relate in some ways. Maybe you changed your name a few years ago, and remember the paperwork headache! Maybe you switched careers, and remember the unrooted feeling of not knowing where you belong anymore. Maybe lots of things, but you still don’t know what it’s like to transition, because gender transition is huge and has a ton of moving parts. Our society classifies people first and foremost by gender, and to change categories is massive and difficult.

For me, transitioning means pursuing medical care even though I am afraid of doctors, it means the knowledge that large parts of the population hate me and probably want me dead, it means being constantly misgendered and feeling out of place everywhere (at least for now), and it means feeling at home in my own skin for the first time in… a long time. And you just can’t know what it is like to hold all of those things (and more) at once. And pretending that you do is insult, minimizing, and rude.

Also, everyone’s transition is different, so please respect that. You may think you understand because you are transgender yourself, or you “know so many trans people” but the fact is everyone is going through something very individual and unique.

5. Offer to help out.

We know that big changes, even happy changes like getting married or having a baby, cause big stress. We know that people are easily overwhelmed by stress. We know that while we can’t remove the stress, one thing we can do is try to help out with other things in the person’s life to try to reduce the overall load. So maybe we offer to do some childcare, or pick up groceries, or bring dinner over. I have had friends offer to come over and do dishes during hard times in my life, and it is literally always appreciated. And transitioning is a huge change, and it is hugely stressful, so I feel like (not trying to extract favors here necessarily, got I sound like an ass) it would be totally appropriate to treat transition like we do any other massive change.

You could also, if able, offer to help financially. This is a prickly subject in some ways, but look, transition is expensive. Many trans people fundraise to cover their surgery costs, and that’s generally accepted as an ok thing to do because gender affirming surgeries of all sorts can be very pricey and generally not covered by insurance. What I think people don’t realize is that there is a price tag attached to almost every single aspect of transitioning. Wardrobe updates cost money, buying a binder costs money, a good haircut costs money, changing your name costs money, , hormones cost money and often are not covered by insurance either, just to name a few things. In my case, and this list is largely about me, there has also been loss of work associated with transitioning as well. A middle class person might be able to absorb these expenses, but transgender people are very likely to be multiply marginalized and living in poverty. For those of us living paycheck to paycheck, something like buying a binder might be necessary to quell dysphoria, but could also mean coming up short for groceries that month. These are impossible calls to make! Combine that with the fact that in most states you can still be fired for being trans, and you’ve got a financial nightmare for lots of trans people. So even if your transgender friend isn’t formally fundraising, you could still offer to help out a little.

6. Tell off the transphobes in your life.

This one is really important. It’s really really important.

If you have people in your life that are transphobic, and you see yourself as an ally to trans people, you need to either get those people out of your life, or let them know that their trans bashing comments are not welcome anywhere near you under any circumstances. That goes for online and IRL. Why is this so important? Because if you are welcoming to transphobes, you are making being around you unsafe for your trans friends. If I go to a party at your house and your buddy Matt is there and he’s a real chill dude EXCEPT THIS ONE THING he hates trans people, you’ve just made me unsafe. If you have transphobic friends on your social media, I may get attacked for mentioning that I am trans, which means it is unsafe for me to engage with you on social media. Recently, I mentioned on a friend’s post that “pregnant people” would be more appropriate than “pregnant women” because trans people get pregnant too. Multiple people showed up to tell me that trans dads were too small of a group to bother counting, that I was being aggressive for mentioning it, and that cis dads are more important. It ruined my entire day. That won’t happen to your trans friends if you aren’t friends with transphobes.

7. Explain it to your kids, don’t make your trans friends do that for you.

If you are a parent, part of your job is explaining the world in which your kid/s lives. You might be nervous about explaining trans issues, but guess what? Trans people live in the world in which your kid/s live, so this is your job. Waiting for your trans friend to do it for you is pretty uncool.

You may think that it’s too complicated for your child to understand! Sorry, gender actually is kind of complicated. If you’ve told your kid that boys have penises and girls have vaginas int he past, that information was incorrect. If you’ve told your kid that while knowing transgender people, you have knowingly lied to your kid. How does that feel? Sit with that feeling for a minute.

But I’m not here to berate you, I swear. This stuff is hard, and I empathize with being afraid to mess up. Here is a short script you can use, modifying it as needed to talk to your specific child:

“When a baby is born, parents and doctors make a guess about the baby’s gender. Usually that guess is based on the shape of the baby’s genitals. Lots of times the guess is right, but sometimes the guess is wrong! Sometimes people find out the guess was wrong when the person is still a kid, but sometimes they don’t notice the mistake until later. Everyone used to think our friend ____ was a ____, but now we know he/she/they is/are actually a ____. They’re going by a new name name, ____. We can practice using the new name together at home.”

Boom.

8. Say it with ice cream.

Especially if your transgender person is me, the best possible thing you can do to show them that you care is ice cream. If the transgender loved one in your life is me, then he also just found out he can’t have wheat anymore, so avoid cones and ice creams full of cookies!

But honestly, just be nice.

***

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Spring Of One Thousand Changes

Spring took five thousand years this year, and when it finally showed up it practically felt like summer. For me personally this spring is… a lot. First there’s just the normal stuff, the uptick in outdoor tasks (besides shoveling snow), spring cleaning, getting behind on spring cleaning and then oh hell you’ve got ants, you know the stuff that happens every year. Then there is the fact that it’s about to be our third year in this house, and our second year gardening here… and really we’re still growing! I needed to put in a new garden bed, because last year our tomatoes got too crowded. I swore to myself that this spring I would finally finish tearing out that nasty old brick patio that just makes it impossible to mow part of the lawn. Yes, there is a lot of springtime work to be done!

Then we decided to get two backyard ducks. Which means I’m building them a duckhouse. And oh yeah, I don’t actually know the first thing about building, in fact historically most times I have tried to hammer a nail it’s been taken out of my hand (misogyny, it’s a blast). But yeah, we’re prepping to have two brand new post nuclear family members.

Oh, and I’m transitioning. Which is great and exciting! And also turns out to be confusing and exhausting and overwhelming and just frankly time consuming.

Then, last week, I found out I’m allergic to wheat.

Did I cry at the doctor’s office? Yes, but only when my doctor was out of the room. Did I stare blankly at the wall in disbelief while trying not to cry? Yes, yes I did. Anyone who knows me knows that I love bread, that one of my proudest accomplishments is being pretty good at throwing together a loaf without a recipe or a measuring cup, that I love making my own pizza crust from scratch. Once on twitter, Mara Wilson said something like “if someone tries your cookies and then says ‘oh are these gluten free’ that means they taste bad.” My spouse and I laughed about that for months. We still do.

I don’t have celiac, I can theoretically still enjoy other glutenous grains, but I’m allergic to wheat. Functionally, it amounts to about the same thing. I’m learning how to bake all over again, only now with weird blends of very expensive flours made from tapioca, and potatoes, and freaking coconut. It’s a massive change.

Most years, on May Day, I wake up at sunrise, head to the bathroom, and buzz all of my hair off. I do it because I need change, because I love feeling the spring breeze on my head, because there is something freeing in sheering off the winter mane, so to speak. I didn’t do that this year.

Instead, I baked this cake out of almond flour and good intentions.

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Image: a vanilla bundt cake with icing and decorative violets on a yellow plate, on top of a tea towel, next to pile of dandelion blooms.

There is enough that is up in the air, changing, in flux. There is plenty to do.

Transitioning is entering into a world of firsts. There is was the first time I wore my binder. There was the first time someone I’m not married to called me by my name. The very first May Day as a man, and soon it will be the first Mother’s Day. And all of it is weird. All of it is a mixture of happy and scared and another emotion I don’t have a name for. And all the while I am raising a small child who I hope will be good and kind and generous.

Last night we had a thunderstorm and it was honestly such a relief. Something about the sky opening up seemed to also release the mounting pressure in my own self. It reminded me that I’m allowed to be messy and emotional about all of this, that I get to own all of the ways it’s complicated and imperfect.

Anyways, at least it’s not snowing.

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Image: a small long haired tabby cat rests on a child size table, resting her head on the window sill next to it.

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