The Politics of Poo

Photo credit: Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

What are crazy, hyper-vigilant Brooklyn mothers up to now? Poop. They are up to their elbows in poop because apparently diapers—like formula, cribs, and non-chewed food—are destroying our favorite borough’s children. The recent New York Times article on elimination communication (a euphemism if ever I heard one) is clearly not meant to be taken seriously. From the photo of the baby flashing a “WTF?” stare to the final anecdote  about a woman holding her urinating child over a bowl at a dinner party, this article is obviously intended to give neurotic New Yorkers free reign to mock other New Yorkers whose particular brand of crazy involves collecting feces—hands down, the worst type of crazy. And fair enough, these women are self-righteous and kind of annoying. But what this article fails to take into account is the evolving cultural expectation of motherhood reflected in this type of parenting trend. Women are not only expected to love and care for their children, but they also have to breastfeed until their children can walk, sleep with their children until puberty, and, now, watch for eye movements, grunts, and grimaces suggesting that it’s time to poo. Even if such trends are mostly limited to Brooklyn’s Fertile Crescent, they are still part of the growing parenting mania for the “natural.” The “natural” may sound like a harmless or even progressive concept, but it often results in decidedly conservative conceptions of family life, where the father is nowhere to be found and the mother is chasing after her toddler with a bowl.

Sites like DiaperFreeBaby and stores such as Brooklyn’s Caribou Baby use myths about the glory days of pre-modern parenting to promote their services—never offering any peer-reviewed scientific studies to back up their questionable claims because peer-reviewed scientists are, of course, all just trying to make their children autistic. These anti-diaper zealots suggest that practicing EC allows women to “experience first-hand what families in traditional cultures around the world have known for centuries.” They never mention which “traditional cultures” they are referencing, so one can only assume they are referring to everyone without a 646 or 917 area code. But what they indicate by the ambiguous term “traditional” is an increasingly common mistrust of progress and science—especially in regards to childcare. Now, I’m all for trying to feed children less processed food and more organic produce. And when it comes to diapers, I agree that adding to ever-expanding landfills or spending hours washing cloth diapers both seem like pretty unattractive options, but the answer to this quandary is not to let your child poop on the street. There is no question whose answer should ever be, “well, you could just poop on the street.”

As Slate’s Jessica Grose notes, this celebration of the natural is only possible because of advances in that oh-so-frightening concept—technology. In many of the “traditional” cultures where open defecation is practiced, feces tends to end up in the water and food supply, leading to the deaths of thousands of children. Does this mean that Brooklyn moms are putting their children at risk by letting them poop behind a tree in Prospect Park? Obviously not, but this is only because most parents are sane enough not to let their children poop behind trees. These EC practitioners are then only able to feel safe engaging in this “traditional” practice because the evils of technology have created a city in which they don’t have to worry about streets and water sources filled with waste. Point being, their logic is the opposite of logic.

I also couldn’t help but notice that the Times only interviewed mothers for this in-depth, data-driven study of attachment pooping, apparently assuming that the fathers involved didn’t have any thoughts about the bowls of urine strewn throughout their homes. And this oversight isn’t surprising. Whenever these silly “trend” pieces come out, no one thinks to speak to the fathers because it’s assumed that, obviously, the husbands aren’t involved in childrearing—especially not wackadoodle childrearing. Of all of the ridiculous and disturbing claims made in the recent New York Magazine piece about “retro wives,” (another “trend” that consists of about two people in the tri-state area), the most maddening is the essentialist claim that men are incapable of taking care of children. Sadly, this belittling of fathers shouldn’t be shocking. In Elizabeth Badinter’s study of contemporary motherhood, The Conflict, she argues that the obsession with the natural also leads to the celebration of other “natural” ideas—like the idea that it’s natural for women to be the primary caregiver because women are naturally better at taking care of children. If you believe that what is traditional is inherently better—whether we’re discussing diapers or doulas—then you certainly aren’t going to be celebrating the advent of breast pumps, co-parenting, or see-saw marriages. You’re going to use the word “natural” to hide the fact that what you really mean is “normal.”

And this is what lurks behind all of these seemingly innocuous trend pieces with their photos of smiling doulas and claims of maternal authenticity. Despite the fact that most of the individuals involved are liberal and well-educated, they use the cult of the natural as a means to champion the most conservative claims about what constitutes a “normal” family. And this is not only limiting to women; it’s also insulting to fathers—and gay couples adopting children. If I were a man, I feel as though I would be kind of pissed off by the constant assumption that fathers play little or no role in their children’s lives or that fathers are somehow at a disadvantage when taking care of children simply because they lack breasts. Women are pretty good at giving birth and breastfeeding; I think we can all agree on that. But can’t we admit that men are just as capable of caring for children after these basic biological functions have been met? If you were to say that women’s brains make them incapable of becoming nuclear physicists, the hordes of Jezebel commenters would burn you in effigy—or at least start a meme about it. But when people claim that only women can take care of children, people nod their heads and babble on about estrogen and instinct. So a woman can do anything a man can do, but men can’t do much of what women normally do? Yay equality?

In that infuriating “retro wives” piece, the journalist claims that she believes “the [maternal] evolutionary imperative extends not just to birthing and breast-­feeding but to administrative household tasks as well, as if only they [women] can properly plan birthday parties, make doctors’ appointments, wrap presents, communicate with the teacher, buy the new school shoes.” I’m sorry, but I’m pretty sure Darwin was not thinking about the female ability to wrap presents when he was measuring the beaks on all those finches. And I can personally attest that my father wraps presents better than anyone I know. And I’m basically incapable of using tape—despite my fully functioning uterus. The point is that there are certainly differences between men and women and likely differences between men and women’s parenting styles, but this doesn’t suggest that one is inherently better. One is simply more common.

This is why this Times piece is so infuriating. It’s not because a few silly women think their two-month-olds can communicate intelligently about their bowels. It’s because this type of trend tries to make childcare more difficult (because taking care of a completely helpless being 24/7 is totally nbd) and then loads all of this work onto women, under the quasi-scientific guise of “the natural.” Historically, women have been considered natural caregivers. It’s indisputable. But, historically, women married at 18, had a fourth-grade education, lived two miles from their parents, and had nine children—most of whom didn’t survive childhood because of “natural” birthing techniques and a lack of vaccines. Things change. We adapt. Now stop pooping in my park.

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