Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fruit! Eat As Much As You Can (Afford)

For many families, easier said than done.
One of the most basic things I do for my kids as a parent is provide them with fresh fruit. As much as they want, every day.

We all know that fruit is great for health. The message has been drilled into our minds by posters in doctor offices and schools, ads in magazine and on television. The links between eating more fruit and avoiding a whole host of health problems is well established. Fruit is high in fiber, provides many nutrients, and is low in fat and calories. Filling up on fruit means being less likely to fill up on junk. The FDA says it. The American Cancer Society says it. The American Pediatric Association says it.

Simple: eat more fruit. But is it?

I decided to write this post because I'm starting to notice the financial consequences of encouraging my kids to eat as much fruit as they desire. I only have two children, and they are only 2 and 4 years old. And yet I find myself spending nearly a third of our grocery budget on just fruit. I try buying the fruit on sale, but it spoils more quickly and often tastes past its prime. Luckily, my family can afford to make cuts in other areas of our budget to make room for all that fruit.

My eldest is enrolled in a state subsidized preschool program which offers free breakfast, lunch, and snack. After seeing the menu, and because we can afford to, I turned down the free food. The main reason? Fruit. Regulations require a certain number of servings of fruit. But they also allow the fruit to come in the form of fruit juice from concentrate, sweetened applesauce, and sweetened fruit cups. Since the price of fresh fruit is so much higher than for these processed, sugar-added alternatives, guess what gets served for more than half of the requirements? I wanted to do better for my kids.

But shouldn't we as a society want to do better for all kids?

The FDA recommends 1.5 daily servings of fruit for kids, and 2 for adults. Half a cup is generally one serving. One serving is one small apple or banana, an eighth of a cantaloupe, or a couple handfuls of grapes. It's not a lot of calories, maybe 30-100 per serving, depending on the fruit. Considering that kids need anywhere from 100-1800 calories per day, fruit should account for about 20% of our caloric intake. The average price of one serving of fresh fruit costs 28 cents. To achieve the minimum number of servings a day for everyone, a family of 4 would spend about $14 a week on fruit (That's assuming that everyone actually eats their share and nothing goes bad. Those of us with young kids know why that's funny.) According to the US Department of Agriculture, families of 4 are spending between $147 and $289 per week on groceries. If those families spend $14/week on fruit, then fruit accounts for about 10% of their bill. So that works out, if a family of 4 can afford at least $147 per week (over $7,000 per year.)

For a family of 4 straddling the poverty line, $7,000 per year is about a third of their gross income. Which explains why so many Americans are on SNAP benefits (food stamps) and why school breakfast and lunch assistance programs are so common.

Looking at the numbers and the failure of government-subsidized programs to provide 5 servings of fresh fruit to school children, I consider the 1 in 5 American children living in poverty, and I wonder how often those 21% of American children even see a fresh piece of fruit.

A poster at my daughter's preschool.
*Take a step back*

This is a small issue compared to many others impacting poor children. Beyond just fruit, millions of American children are food insecure.  Insufficient early childhood care and education take a huge toll. So does violence, as 60% of kids are exposed to violence or crime in their homes, schools, or communities.

This blog post isn't actually about advocating for the inclusion of more fresh fruit in government food assistance programs. I wish America were at the point where that sort of advocacy could be a reasonable priority.

This post is really about putting things in perspective. Middle and upper class American parents like me are worried about making sure our kids are offered a wide range of fresh fruit on their plates, daily, while children who might live just miles or even blocks from us are skipping whole meals.

And while the majority of households receiving government food assistance include children, conservative media demonizes them as freeloaders, and politicians are yet again cutting already insufficient SNAP funds.

As a society, can't we do better than this? Or will we who are lucky remain content and complacent, so long as we can serve up a bowl of fresh blueberries for breakfast to our own kids?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What Does Secularism Have to Do With Women's Rights?

For a long time I've sort of taken my reproductive rights for granted. While I've never been faced with an unintended pregnancy, I've faced that possibility since puberty, and will continue to face it until menopause. I've always felt assured that I'd be able to get a safe, legal, early-term abortion, if that's what I so choose. Based on the privileges of where I livemy age, and my income, that presumption is sound. 

For now. 

Forty years after Roe v. Wade, Americans remain conflicted about abortion. Anti-abortion activists continue to harass women at clinics, commit horrific acts of violence, and passionately lobby for countless laws that restrict women's access to abortion, regardless of the real life financial, healthcare, and even criminal consequences. If we value reproductive choices and the most sound public health care policies, this is not an issue where we can afford to back down. 

There's another thing I've always taken for granted: that the secular movement, which I've been involved with since I was 19, politically stands for women's reproductive rights. 

When I say I've "been involved" with the movement for 16 years, this is no casual interest. After being VP and President of the campus freethought club at the third largest university in the USA, I became one of the founding board members of the Secular Student Alliance, and editor of the first publication of the SSA's Group Running Guide. I've been VP of HCCO, one of the largest local chapters of the AHA, and when I moved to Philadelphia I became heavily involved with HAGP, one of the AHA's oldest local chapters. I was twice a camp counselor for Camp Quest. I was a celebrant certified by the Humanist Society, and for 6 years I officiated secular weddings, baby namings, and one memorial service. I have given talks on secular humanism for a class at Penn State. I was the coordinator for the launch of PhillyCoR (the precursor to UnitedCoR). I'm even mentioned by name in Greg Epstein's book Good Without God. At this point the number of volunteer hours that I have put into this movement are incalculable.   

I list all this to make clear just how much of a personal stake I have in the secular movement. These are "my people." This is my "comfort zone." Of course I don't agree with everything I hear anyone at a meeting or conference say. I enjoy a spirited and intellectually challenging debate with a Libertarian atheist over, say, school funding or gun control. 

On the issues where critical inquiry, scientific evidence, and compassion heavily weigh on one side (vaccination, science education in public schools, government funds for faith-based initiatives, and embryonic stem cell research, for example) our leadership and the most visible representatives of our community take a firm stance. 


Maybe not. 

Three days ago I wrote about David Silverman's statement at CPAC about "secular argument against abortion" and Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta's giving a platform to two different secular, anti-choice organizations. 

Massimo Pigliucci of the long-running and popular blog Rationally Speaking weighed in with David Silverman and the Scope of Atheism

Pigliucci puts a lot of effort into defending philosophical debates over the morality of abortion. And he repeatedly makes it clear that he thinks this is okay because supposedly we're not talking about anti-choice laws and political activism. He writes (my emphasis in bold):  

Of course there are logical, science-based, and rational arguments against abortion. They may turn out to be ultimately unconvincing, or countered by better arguments — as I believe they are — but they certainly exist.
Are these arguments sufficient to justify forceful state interventions on women’s bodily integrity, under any circumstances? Very likely not. But plenty of countries (including the US) do already regulate, for instance, late term abortion, noting the ethical complexity of the issue and of course making room for a number of special circumstances, usually having to do with the health of the mother. 
Now, does that mean that we should therefore advocate a restriction of women’s rights as they are currently defined in the US? Of course not, nor do I see any evidence that that’s what Dave meant to suggest.

Regardless of what Dave Silverman meant to suggest, while at a convention of parties which officially advocate severely restricting if not outright banning abortion, Silverman made a statement which implied that there are reasonable, secular arguments that favor such anti-choice political activism. It is worth noting, too, that American Atheists allowed Secular Pro-Life, an extremely anti-choice activist organization, to table at their 2012 conference
Regardless of his own pro-choice stance and pro-choice writings, Hemant Mehta gave a platform to two anti-choice organization leaders, both of who, through their anti-choice activism, apply the same sort of irrational and dishonest arguments and tactics used by religious anti-choice activists. 
I was heartened to learn that the AHA's Humanist magazine not only published criticism of this rise of secular "pro-life" activists, but also refused to publish this response by anti-choice activist Kristine Kruszelnicki. 
At least the humanist wing of the movement maintains integrity on this issue. 
Massimo Pigliucci's article evoked such a critical response that he added a Postscript defense. In it he writes: 
Look at it from the point of view of a parallel between atheism and gay rights. The gay rights movement has rightly focused on the issues that are closest and most specific to it: the legal rights of gay people.
So women's rights are not one of the "closest and most specific" issues to the secular cause? Even though the scientific evidence tells us that women are equal to men in terms of sentience and intellect, but a non-viable embryo/fetus has no more sentience than a tree? Even though evidence also tells us that early-term abortions (which account for almost all abortions) are safer than pregnancy? Even though critical inquiry tells us that late-term abortions are rare and sought for reasons which are tragic? Even though compassion should compel us to defer to the women's personal moral judgement and the ethical standards of the medical establishment?

The importance of quality science education public schools is close and specific enough to our cause, but women's rights are not?

The importance of preventing school authorities from leading students in prayer is close and specific enough to our cause, but women's rights are not?

The Secular Coalition for America unites 13 of the largest and most active organizations in our movement, including American Atheists. On the issues page Health and Safety they indeed state they have an interest in defending women's rights with regard to abortion:

Religiously Based Health Care Policy- Government officials should rely on high quality research, not religious beliefs, when making health care policy decisions. (stem cells, women’s health care, substance abuse treatment)
Image by artist Barbara Kruger
So maybe this is why Massimo Pigliucci focused on a philosophical debate over the morality of personally choosing to have an abortion. Maybe he's taking Roe v. Wade and its support for granted.  
I might not mind people sitting around discussing the morality of abortion (as a personal decision, not something up for legal banning) so long as my right to a safe, legal, abortion for any reason during the pre-viability stages of pregnancy AND my access to health care which promotes my health over that of a fetus is fully supported by all present company

If not, I'm not having that conversation. I refuse to have a calm, philosophical discussion about the morality of abortion with anyone who doesn't respect and defend equal rights for me and all other women. To expect me or any other feminist to do so is belittling and offensive. 

The secular movement is better than that. At least I hope it is. Otherwise I've seriously wasted much of the last 16 years of my life. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

All the Other Good Reasons to Have an Abortion

Image attribution
My first year of college my roommate and I had a conversation about abortion. We were both politically pro-choice, of course, but were both also bothered by the idea of personally getting an abortion. We both casually agreed that if we were to have an unintended pregnancy, we would carry it to term and put the baby up for adoption.

Ah, the naivete of youth.

A few short months later, she had a boyfriend, fell in love, lost her virginity, and got pregnant. She also got an abortion as fast as she could find a clinic.

When she told me about the abortion, I could tell she was afraid I would morally judge her due to our previous conversation. But within minutes of taking it in, I realized, I (who by that time was also in a relationship and sexually active) would have done the exact same thing.

I would have done the same thing for probably the same reasons as my roommate (and several other women I know who have had abortions under similar circumstances); our lives were great! We were 18 and out on our own for the first time. Being in college was exciting and challenging; there were so many interesting people to meet, so much to learn, so much to do. Sure, we were in love, but we weren't planning any weddings. (And neither of us married those boyfriends.) We had nothing, but also nothing weighing us down. We were free to explore a multitude of opportunities.

Nine months of pregnancy followed by the birth of a baby would take it all away. Such an event would change the course of our lives forever. Neither the opportunity to become a young mother dependent on her parents, nor to be a human incubator for someone else's adoptive child were the least bit appealing. Nor were all the health risks of pregnancy.

Of course I didn't feel that my roommate had done anything wrong. Any more than I feel it is wrong to be a sexually active woman. Even if we take precautions, unintended pregnancies happen. In fact half of the pregnancies which occur are unintended. During the early stages of pregnancy (when 90% of abortions are performed), an embryo is nowhere close to sentience or viability. Early term abortions are generally safe (posing less health risks than seeing a pregnancy through) so why should any woman be ashamed of choosing to abort an early term pregnancy?

The answer is, she shouldn't.

Typically in debates and discussions over abortion laws and regulations, pro-choice advocates bring up rape and incest. In other words, the most extreme circumstances under which a woman is morally justified in getting an abortion.

I understand why this rhetoric is used. It makes the point that when push comes to shove, most of us agree that the woman's health, life, rights, and dignity surpass that of an embryo or fetus.

But while it might be politically effective to highlight rape and incest, it has the unintended consequence of giving the impression that abortion, even early term abortion, needs a moral justification beyond that the woman simply doesn't want to be pregnant and give birth.

I can't help but think that the emphasis on rape and incest as a justification for abortion contributed to the naive feelings my roommate and I had about abortion before the issue hit home.

Anti-abortion activist Kristine Kruszelnicki, apparently suffers from the same sort of naivete. Except she takes her naive conclusions and puts them into trying to rob women of our reproductive rights. In her guest post on Friendly Atheist, she writes:

If we all work together to come up with real choices for women — better birth control, better maternity leave, subsidized daycare, a living wage, flexible work schedules, better schooling options, more attractive open-adoption and temporary foster care options, etc. — abortion may roll itself into the world of obsolescence, regardless of its legal status.

(As an aside, don't let that "regardless of its legal status" line fool you. Kruszelnicki's organization Pro-Life Humanists works to limit access to abortion at any time for any reason. They want abortion to be seen in the eyes of the law as equivalent to killing a toddler. Just scroll down to the subheading "Personally pro-life, but don't change the law?" here to read just how extreme and threatening their cause is to women's basic reproductive rights.)

Even if every social reform Kruszelnicki lists were achieved, countless women would still choose abortion because we don't want to be pregnant and have a baby. We should have the right to that choice.

About half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy, and more than a quarter will decide to have an abortion at least once in our lifetimes.

Given those staggering numbers, it is obvious that abortions are not only chosen by women who are low-income, poorly educated, scared, or alone. They are chosen by women of all walks of life.

Abortion is for  the musician working a day job to pay the bills while spending all her free time in rehearsals, concerts, and promotion.

Abortion is for the dancer who trained for years and has just achieved her dream of being accepted to a prominent company.

Abortion is for  the newly trained doctor fulfilling her first residency (where the cap on hours is 80 per week.)

Abortion is for the ambitious lawyer working insane hours as she eagerly aspires to make partner before she even considers starting a family.

Abortion is for the archeologist who is about to travel to Africa for an excavation.

Abortion is for the woman in a crappy relationship, and for whom an unintended pregnancy was just the wake-up call she needed to face the fact that this guy is bad news, so walk away.

Abortion is for the married mother who has decided with her husband that their family is complete, and that adding more kids at this point could very well fuck up the good thing they've got.

That last example applies to me. And also Elyse of Skepchick, who so eloquently offers this statement:

If I were to get pregnant today, I wouldn't have to think about it. I would have an abortion. It's not that I'm "not ready" to be a mom. It's not that I'm waiting for the right time. It's not that I'm single. It's that I simply detest being pregnant and I don't want more kids. And my husband (quietly) detests when I'm pregnant and doesn't want more kids. There will be no crying. There will be no hand wringing. There will be no thoughtful contemplation. There will be no more kids. Not in my body. 

My sentiments exactly.

I shouldn't need to have been raped or gotten knocked up by my uncle to get an early term abortion. The truth is, any reason a woman has for getting an early term abortion is a good enough reason to defend our right to make that choice.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Friendly Atheist Gives a Platform to Anti-Choice Atheists

Hemant Mehta, of the popular blog Friendly Atheist has twice in one month given a platform to anti-choice activists who act under the banner of freethought. This comes at the same time as President of American Atheists David Silverman's statement:
I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.
As a humanist and feminist (I used to think I could just say "humanist" and that then "feminist" would then be assumed. Now I'm starting to wonder), I am deeply disturbed by this, and dearly hope it is not reflective of a shift in the tide regarding abortion rights.

Back to the Friendly Atheist. February 17th Mehta criticized those who vandalized posters advertising a talk by Kelsey Hazzard of Secular Pro-Life. He then went on to post the video of Hazzard's entire talk, commenting:

Without getting into her actual arguments and whether they’re fair or flawed, I’m amazed that I haven’t seen a presentation like this at any of the atheist conferences I’ve ever been to. (At least I can’t remember seeing one like it.) If conference organizers are trying to reach out to a broader spectrum of people, Kelsey seems like a natural choice for a poised speaker who has a very different perspective to bring to the secular table. Even if you think she’s way off base, she represents not-an-insignificant portion of our community. It’d at least be interesting to see the two sides of this argument hash things out in front of a crowd.

Of course there haven't been presentations like this at any freethought conferences; their arguments are irrational, emotionally manipulative, and anti-women's-rights.

Ok. You're an extremist.
Whether performance enhancing drugs should be allowed use in professional sports is an interesting debate. Continuing a debate over a women's rights issue that should have been considered settled 40 years ago is unsettling, even alarming.

Secular White Supremacists such as the Creativity Movement have a very different perspective to bring to the secular table. Should we invite them to our conferences and help disseminate their video propaganda online, too?

Finally, "poised speaker"? Who the hell cares how poised the speaker is when she's spouting ignorance such as that abortion is a "quick and easy solution" and that part of How You Can Help is "Don't become pregnant before you are ready." It's like listening to fiscal conservatives characterize living on social assistance as luxurious and that the solution to poverty is for poor people to stop being poor.

Then on March 11th, Mehta did something even worse. He featured a guest post by Kristine Kruszelnicki, President of Pro-Life Humanists: Yes, There Are Pro-Life Atheists Out There. Here's Why I'm One of Them. 

Kruszelnicki opens up with the argument that since polls show that there's a lot of anti-choice atheists, they deserve a seat at the table of this movement. No, they don't. There is no magical percentage at which their arguments become any more rational or humane. If 19% of atheists were white supremacists, they still wouldn't deserve a seat at the table, and neither do anti-choice atheists. That is unless the secular movement wants to sink itself into a sandpit of mediocrity.

After admitting that the scientific evidence shows embryos and fetuses to be non-sentient, Kruszelnicki presents a weak and purely philosophical argument as to why we should bestow even a 2 week old embryo with rights equal to that of the woman.

Kruszelnicki pretends to address the issue of body autonomy, but she really doesn't. At one point she compares the responsibility the pregnant woman has to the embryo/fetus to the responsibility anyone has to an abandoned infant they discover on their front porch. As if 9 months of pregnancy and birth could even be compared to making a call to child services.

Kruszelnicki essentially argues that while a woman is pregnant, she and the embryo/fetus share her body, and thus have equal rights to that body. But physiologically this is not accurate. The facts are that the woman and embryo/fetus are two separate entities, connected by the latter's dependence on the former's body for survival, and in a situation which poses certain risks to the health of the woman.

A much better analogy than the baby on the porch would be a brother who needs a kidney to live, and his sister as a healthy, perfect candidate for organ donation. Do we legally compel people to donate their organs? No. Not even in death.

I'm bothered by Mehta wanting to have this debate within the secular movement because by even engaging in a debate with anti-choicers (opposed to mocking and dismissing them) we give legitimacy to their arguments.

But I'm more disturbed by the fact that Mehta put this out there without actually engaging in the debate himself. It seems that to Mehta that raising the visibility of anti-choice atheists is more important than defending women's reproductive rights.

The Friendly Atheist has no excuse, because as he knows from his own previous posts on abortion, equating abortion with baby killing sends us down a frightening path.

Monday, March 17, 2014

On Minority Children Underrepresented

Over ten years ago I briefly worked at a Barnes and Noble. The following encounter was part of why I kept my employment brief.

A youngish woman, maybe in her 30's, blonde, well-dressed, brought a small stack of books to checkout. As I entered the first couple into the register, she leafed through one of her selections - one of those Anne Geddes books filled with syrupy sweet photographs of babies dressed up as angels, flowers, and butterflies. The customer turned another page, halted, and blurted out, "I need to go back. I grabbed the wrong book. I wanted the one with white babies."

My eyes widened a bit. I glanced at the book in her hands, and seeing that it clearly featured a multiracial array of adorable newborns, couldn't help but respond, "But that book does have white babies. It has all different colored babies."

She huffed and (clearly annoyed with my political correctness) said, "Well I'm having a white baby, and I want the book with just white babies."

Apparently she could identify her baby with total stranger babies, regardless of those stranger babies' varying hair thickness, shade, or length, eye color, and unique facial features, so long as those babies were the same race as her baby.

I thought, what a racist dipshit. 

Wait a minute... apparently ten years ago this customer was able to pull two different books by the same photographer, same publisher, and of the same subject, but one featured multiracial models, and the other featured all (or at least mostly) white models. Did the publishing company orchestrate this on purpose in order to sell to the widest audience (in other words, to cater to this racist dipshit?)

It wouldn't surprise me. In high school I had a friend whose mother flew into a rage after seeing a commercial for a new sitcom which featured a black family. She felt there was already more than enough minority representation on television and movies (ha!)

Whatever one might say about Anne Geddes's work (that it's beautiful or disgusting, touching or shallow) it seems clear to me that her models' skin color is first and foremost an aesthetic consideration. In her color photography, each baby's skin tone is impeccably coordinated to harmonize with all the colors surrounding him or her.

The speculative symbolism here is just disturbing.
I keep reading that Geddes prefers black and white photography, and looking at her black and white work of babies, I see that it is there that she can play most with the contrast of dark and light skinned models. In fact I think the only reason she pairs black and white models together in photographs is because she enjoys the look of such contrast (opposed to any attempt at meaningful social commentary.)

I found this odd photograph of a giant white hand holding a miniature black baby on Anne-Marie Ross's Pinterest album I got the creeps from Anne Geddes. Ms. Ross adds the sarcastic caption:

Giant white hand and minuscule black baby. Racism is cured now.

And now the black angel baby grew up and had
his own white baby? Er, maybe in this fictional world
created by  Geddes, skin complexion skips every other
generation. And there's some chromosomal reason
why the dark-skinned generations also have wings.

I can't help but agree with critics of Geddes's work who argue that because commercial appeal is prioritized, the images are often dehumanizing. Geddes uses models' skin color as nothing more than a formal element, incorporates changes in scale as superficial novelty, and includes symbols loaded with cultural meaning as mere props. She thereby dismisses meaningful discourse about race, ethnicity, or social identity. I can't help but feel it propagates the myth (and false ideal) of colorblindness.

We are not colorblind. Racial identity is meaningful. Our skin tones are not just another color on a painter's palette.

The myth of colorblindness is why 90% of my daughters' dolls (mostly gifts from white relatives) are white. The black dolls were all purchased by me with the intention of creating some balance. There is one Native American doll which was purchased by a relative because it was cute and on clearance. And there is a Dora doll given as a gift, because Dora the Explorer is one of the few racial minority characters who has managed to break through the glass ceiling of children's entertainment. (Doc McStuffin's seems to be making some serious headway, too, which is nice to see.)

The myth of colorblindness is why this still happens:

Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.
My daughter's baby doll collection; way too monochromatic.
I was surprised to read this article today, because in the children's sections of the Free Library of Philadelphia I find many wonderful titles that feature main characters of color as well as minority authors and illustrators. But now that I think about it, I haven't had to look for those books because they are usually prominently displayed in windows and on the tops of bookshelves. Now I realize that the librarians, sensitive to the fact that most of the children who enter Philadelphia's libraries are black, have been deliberately putting those books out there. What a fine example of how libraries perform a public service.

I'm so tired of people who complain about political correctness. Tired of "political correctness" having a bad connotation. Sure, it can be taken to ridiculous extremes, but most often political correctness is simply about tolerance and respect. We need political correctness because we are still battling a war of inequality. Because the racial and ethnic biases in our society are so built in that we must counter them with self awareness.

In her TED talk The Danger of a Single Story, novelist Chimamanda Adichie gives a much more eloquent and persuasive argument as to why our children need to be exposed to diversity in their literature and entertainment.

So find the books that feature minority characters and buy them for your kids, your nieces, your nephews, your friends' kids. Check out the Coretta Scott King Awards. Go to your local library and ask the children's librarian about books by minority authors and illustrators. Be part of creating a market for books, toys, and children's entertainment that better represents our true diversity.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Chewbacca Goes to the Salon

Nothing too fancy, just a little off the top, please.
The other day one of Lysi's best friends came over to play. He's been coming over regularly since he was 18 months old (he's now 5), so knowing his way around, he pulled out a familiar drawer, and upon seeing a bunch of dolls, asked, "Hey, where are the blocks?"

Oh, yeah, sorry, the giant Mega Bloks, Tinkertoys, letter blocks, and generic wood building blocks got replaced with dolls because our two girls (ages 2 and 4) didn't play with them anymore.

"That's okay." He said, walking to a large storage cabinet in another part of the room, "I'll just play with Legos."

Yes, while all the other building toys have been tossed aside for stuffed animals and dollies, Lego has remained as the only building toy our girls still enjoy. But that's OK, because they really enjoy it.

I've already gone on here and here in praise of Lego's new sets which target girls, because at least for my girls, it is working. Here's what I mean:

Pet salon is busy. Not sure if Ariel is a customer or staff.
First of all, as a typically girlie girl, Lysi has something she can still do with her rough-and-tumble boy friend, and which they are both passionate about. When they were both two and three years old, almost any toy was fine for playing together. But now she's asking to play puppy and house, paint and dance ballet, while he wants to fight ninjas and make things explode. With Lego they can combine their interests and play together without either feeling as if they are totally giving in to the other.

In fact, this boy friend was so intrigued by the details in the Friends pets that he asked his parents for several for Christmas. The biggest bonus for me is perhaps getting to see things like Chewbacca going to the pet salon.

What 2 four-year-old girls made in 20 minutes.
Second, just as Jesus Diaz claims in his post Hey, Anti-Lego Feminists, "Lego for Girls" Actually Kicks Ass, Friends and Disney Princess sets can and will be broken up and made into new stuff by any typical kid, which is exactly the point and why Lego toys are so great for encouraging creativity, imagination, and early building of STEM skills. I thought about Diaz's post today when Lysi and another four-year-old girl built this awesomeness (according to them it is a fishing dock combined with a launching pad for a rocket ship - how sweet is that?)

Third, the Lego sets marketing to girls are not dumbed down in terms of their complexity or how much bang you get for your buck. In Why Lego Friends is not one of the worst toys of 2012 (and why Mega Bloks Barbie is), David Pickett reports on his comparison of construction complexity of various lines of Lego sets and Lego competitors. He writes:

If we assume that constructions sets with similar price points will result in completed models of equivalent size, then we can use the piece/dollar ratio of construction sets as a rough indication of the complexity** of one building kit relative to another. The higher the piece/dollar ratio, the more building is involved in a given set or group of sets. This is a way of quantifying the differences that are obvious to the naked eye in the above comparison of the Friends and Babrie sets. I charted these values for sets from nine different themes and found the average pc/$ ratio for each line of products. The product lines I used were LEGO Friends, Mega Bloks Barbie, LEGO City, Mega Bloks World of Warcraft, LEGO Ninjago, LEGO Paradisa, LEGO Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit, Mega Bloks Skylanders and Mega Bloks Halo. 
Much to my surprise, Friends came in second (Halo was highest) with a ratio of 9.8. 

Diaz argues that the heavily themed sets are a "back door" to hook kids on Lego and eventually interest them in other sets that are even more challenging and spark even more creativity:

Once the radioactive Lego brick bites them, they become hooked. The next time they will want one Lego set just because it seems cool or more complicated. The space shuttle. A Lego creator building. A Technic car. Both girls and boys would pick those and build whatever they want with them.

Two preschoolers concentrating for an hour and politely
taking turns following an instruction manual - just because
they wanted to build a scorpion. Lego must be magic.
When I first read that, I wanted to believe it, but I didn't know if it would be true for my kid. Now I'm watching it unfold just as Diaz described. As Lysi flips through her Lego magazine, she gasps and exclaims, "Whoa, cool! I want that!" at sets of robots, tow trucks, and airplanes. She's become such an impressive builder already, that she and her before-mentioned boy friend together built the scorpion from Lego's more challenging Creator line. It is a set geared for kids ages 7-12, and she and her friend intensely built it over an hour and 15 minutes, politely taking turns following the steps in the instruction manual.

As a parent, I must just say: Dude, that is so much cooler than watching her dress and undress fashion dolls for an hour. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Rocky Start for Skepchick's Grounded Parents

Back in November a friend of mine posted a link to an announcement: Now Hiring Parents! Skepchick was seeking writers for its new sister blog Grounded Parents

I'm not naive; I know most blogging "jobs" only pay in exposure. However, some do pay, even if it is just a token amount. I'm not looking for a full time career. Just a little something to help pay for dance lessons and this killer-winter's heating bills. Since nothing in the notice mentioned it being volunteer, I went ahead and applied. 

I was soon emailed for a "call back" and asked to submit an article. I wrote and submitted A White Mom Talks To Her White Kid About Race and was promptly "hired." 

I expected maybe a contract to follow. Instead I was added to an email discussion list, instructed on how to use gravatar and sign up for WordPress and there was a flurry of casual introductions and chitchat. After a week, the administrators submitted a rough draft of the "guidelines", where it mentioned this was an "unpaid gig." 

After another week (and before the site's launch) I resigned, including this paragraph: 

As an artist, I stopped entering juried exhibitions that charge fees 8 years ago because I felt the practice took advantage of artists. In graduate school I refused to do unpaid internships on principle and still find the widespread practice of them unethical and giving advantage to young people from more affluent families. If writing was a hobby, I would do it. But I've been paid for my writing and I'm currently in the process of trying to sell a book. If I'm going to take myself seriously as a professional artist and writer, I just can't give it away. 

(And just in case anyone thinks I'm giving it away here on my Humanist Mom blog, I'll have you know that I earned $3.00 on Google ads last month.) 

Grounded Parents launched on December 17th. After being introduced to the diverse and interesting group of people who were hired to write for the site, I began reading. 

Like most blogs, there's a lot of personal memoir. Indeed, memoirs can be enlightening if they are well written (or performed, as with Jenny Splitter's F#@*ck the Birth Experience) and tackle meaty topics. Some posts on Grounded Parents (such as Splitter's), accomplish this. Others came off to me as a bit self indulgent and dull. 

Several of the articles offer parenting advice or descriptions of what they think is superior parenting. When such advice comes from writers with no professional credentials in childhood development, cite little to no research to back it up, and/or employs vague platitudes and generalizations, it is meaningless and unwarranted. In other words, writers writing because they love the sound of their own prose and get a zing out of comments praising them for their insight. This sort of mediocre writing is common on blogs, but it is disappointing to see so much of it on a high visibility skeptic website. 

There was also this bump in the road; just two months in, Grounded Parents had to fire one its bloggers and issue a public apology for the person's inappropriate behavior. The poor ethics of this blogger-in-question was exhibited previously in this post (a rather shitty argument in favor of standardized tests) where she admits to giving a student a worse grade than he deserved because he was "a pain in the ass." 

The shit really started to hit the fan for me with Chris Brecheen's post Grounded Midwives, which is a personal story about how his partner attempted a homebirth with Certified Professional Midwives (CPMs), and how the midwives alleviated his fears of their woo with their actual good sense trust in real medicine. It is clear by the end of the article that he's unaware of the controversy over CPMs being even allowed to practice midwifery, seeing as unlike Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs) who receive a high level of medical training, work with hospitals, and abide by standards set by the medical establishment, CPMs are lay midwives certified by a separate organization, are often not covered by insurance, and fail to meet minimum standards of training to practice midwifery in most other developed nations. The moment in the article when Brecheen stops worrying and begins to view the midwives as his skeptical allies is when one of them admits that there is no science to back the notion that eating placenta has any benefits. Kind of a low bar for skepticism if you ask me. 

Next there was the English professor who claimed in Against Marriage that "The solution to poverty is to encourage all our children to avoid marriage until they are at least twenty-five." Because after all, people under twenty-five's forebrains are too underdeveloped to make adult decisions about getting married and being parents, nobody with a high school diploma has a complete education, and anyone can earn a living wage if they just wait long enough to have kids. I ended up being so pissed about this ignorant piece of crap post that I felt compelled to write Harming Young Mothers With Stereotypes in response, just to balance out the blogosphere. 

Then, for whatever reason, Grounded Parents decided to feature a guest post by "Skepchick's resident stats junkie/guru" Jamie Bernstein, titled Homebirth Safety and Risk. In the article, Bernstein looks at two very different reports on this study of home birth outcomes: first that of the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) and second that of Skeptical OB Dr. Amy Tuteur. Bernstein concludes that while MANA is guilty of downplaying the dangers of high risk home birth (as they celebrate the supposed safety of low-risk homebirths), Dr. Tuteur is manipulating data to make home birth look riskier and fear-mongering. 

To put it another way, a skeptic blog smacked down a skeptic of good repute who is fighting a war against reckless lay midwives who put women and babies at risk, and gave a slap on the wrist to the organization that supports those same lay midwives. What the fuck? 

Dr. Tuteur went on the offense, pointing out Bernstein's errors, clarifying where Bernstein was confused about Tuteur's analysis, and chastising Bernstein for not contacting her first for clarification about the points where she was confused. You know, like a journalist would have done. But this isn't journalism. Not even amateur journalism. This is bad blogging. Of course Dr. Tuteur also asked for an apology. 

Instead of an apology, Grounded Parents published a follow-up guest post from Bernstein which criticizes statistician Dr. Brooke Orosz's analysis of the study as presented on Dr. Tuteur's blog and promoted by iO9. This second article starts out with errors, such as describing only one of the study's authors as midwives (and that therefore iO9's title is misleading.) In fact, three of the six authors were midwives and five of the six had ties to MANA. And regardless of the article's title, iO9 refers to the study authors as "PhDs and midwives" in the body of the article. 

Bernstein's big message in this second post is that Dr. Orosz failed to construct a well-enough matched cohort when comparing the MANA stats to CDC numbers, and therefore her and Dr. Tuteur's conclusions are a misrepresentation. Dr. Orosz herself appears in the comments to explain (actually to reiterate) that she deliberately selected a cohort that would likely favor home birth. She writes: 

My hospital cohort ISN’T a good comparison. I did not attempt to construct a matched cohort, because, as you noted, that would be very complex and subtle and open to interpretation and misinterpretation. Instead, I selected a cohort that could not possibly be LOWER in risk.

Ultimately Jamie Bernstein comes off as if she's nitpicking any bit of minutiae she can to discredit Dr. Tuteur out of personal vendetta. 

And this when (as Dr. Tuteur points out) homebirth advocates are linking to Bernstein's articles to spread their message that homebirth is just as safe as hospital birth. 

In the time since Bernstein's first guest post was published on Grounded Parents, Dr. Amy Tuteur has debunked a study that claims that c-sections cause obesity, and has unrelentingly continued to report on the unnecessary death of Gavin Michael that happened because instead of strongly recommending transfer to a hospital, the midwife crowd-sourced advice on facebook. Because that's what a great skeptic blog does. 

I had hoped for more in a parenting blog geared toward freethinkers. But, as they say, you get what you pay for. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Harming Young Mothers with Stereotypes

Hypothetically, imagine a single woman who becomes unexpectedly pregnant. 

The father is a man she has been dating, but not for long, and she can't tell yet if they're suited for marriage. He has a job, but lives paycheck to paycheck. He sometimes mentions more lucrative career aspirations, but she doesn't know him well enough to know how serious and capable he is to achieve them. 

She has a full time job, but also lives paycheck to paycheck, so she's also attending college part time, and aspires toward a degree that will help her get a job that pays better. 

She decides to keep the baby. Not because of any moral or religious pressure - she is politically pro-choice. She knows being a mother will introduce many challenges, and that she will need to depend on family, friends, and possibly social services for assistance. But she has family and friends, there are programs for food, medical care, and early childhood education (WIC, SNAP, CHIP, Medicaid, and Head Start) if she needs them. Most importantly, now that the potential for a child of her own is growing inside her, she feels strongly that she is ready to be a mother. 

This hypothetical includes a lot of information about the mother-to-be. One thing it doesn't include is her age. Assuming that every other factor remains the same, what different challenges will she face if she is 20, 30, or 40? 

Another detail left out is how her family and friends react to her decision. If this were your friend or relative, would her age make a big difference in your response? Would you be more supportive and less likely to try to talk her out of keeping the baby based purely on her age? 

Over the years, I've slowly realized that I've picked up unfairly prejudicial attitudes toward young mothers (think between 18-25 years old.) These attitudes include that young mothers are short-changing themselves in terms of earning potential, career development, and long-term personal fulfillment. That they are, in their immaturity, acting on foolish and romantic notions, not considering the full ramifications of their choices, and likely to have regrets. 

Such attitudes about young mothers are common among middle class, educated liberals (such as myself.) We rationalize our prejudices two ways: first with statistics, and second as a way to position ourselves in opposition to religious conservatives. 


The evidence firmly reveals that young mothers across the spectrum are at an economic disadvantage. But why are younger mothers so disadvantaged? 

Stephanie Coontz points out that all mothers have decreased earning potential. 

Much of the progress that women have made in income parity has gone to childless women. Motherhood, writes the sociologist Joya Misra, is now a greater predictor of wage inequality than gender in the United States. According to her research, conducted with Michelle Budig at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, motherhood imposes about twice the earning penalty in the United States compared with what women face in countries that have expansive publicly financed child care systems.
Coontz goes on to cite evidence that mothers are discriminated against by employers when it comes to hiring, hours, and promotions. This means that women who choose to have their first child young start out their careers facing discrimination. 

The problem is a system failing mothers, especially young mothers, not of women messing up the timing. 

Advising young women to put off those aspirations toward motherhood - regardless of what they want - because they will face discrimination is like advising a woman not to go into a career field known for its sexism. When we advise people to give up perfectly valid aspirations because we fear the system will treat them unfairly, we are supporting that status quo instead of demanding that it  change to fit peoples' needs. 

Opposing Religious Conservatives

Young motherhood is often associated with anti-feminist, religious values; the Bible instructing women to obey their husbands, the Quiverfull movement, high divorce rates among young couples in the Bible Belt, and even child brides forced into marriage

All of that is scary, harmful, and needs to be firmly countered by modern humanist values. But what does the Religious Right have to do with a single, young, and independent woman who happens to have an unplanned pregnancy and wants to raise the child? What does the Religious Right have to do with recently graduated high school sweethearts who are ready to get married and begin their family? 

I often hear people say that women should wait so that they can finish their education. But 43% of Americans obtain no formal education beyond high school, and only 30% will get a Bachelor's Degree or higher. (source.) A majority of jobs are done by workers without any higher education, including occupations in management, administration, and sales. 

Again, the problem is the economy, not religion. It is that most young, full-time working Americans cannot earn enough to even modestly support a family. This sinks so many single mothers into poverty, and puts tremendous strain and hardship onto young married couples with children. 

Stereotypes Hurt

Prejudiced attitudes from liberals against young women who choose motherhood adds shame to the list of challenges they must face. 

According to a survey reported on, young mothers often do feel that they are being shamed for their decision. 

Thirty-six percent of younger moms (and a whopping 54 percent of moms 24 years old or younger) say that an older mom has tried to make them feel like they're too immature or inexperienced to care for a baby.
13 percent of the younger ones cite "the disapproval of others" as one of the main drawbacks to having kids when they did. 

The Stacked Deck 

Wage stagnation prevents too many single mothers (of any age) from being able to support themselves, and prevents too many husbands (especially the young ones) from being able to support their stay-at-home-wives and children. One need only look at stats on household income to see that most working Americans are being asked to do more with less. Liberals giving all young women the impression that having a kid young leads to poverty is just as bad as conservatives telling women they just need to find a good husband to depend on. 

The reality is that many young women, both married and unmarried, are ready for motherhood. It's not their fault that the deck is stacked against them. The deck is stacked against a lot of people in our society, some because of their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background, and some because of perfectly legitimate, personal decisions, such as to start a small business, become an artist, or raise children. 

If we as a society decided that the hardships of the poor and working class - food insecurity, inadequate health care, unsafe neighborhoods, under-performing public schools, un-affordable day care - were unacceptable, if we were to prioritize alleviating those hardships, then all people would be free to make the educational, career, and family choices that best suit them, without fear, and without shame.