Raising Black Girls: an interview with Vanessa Stair

New York native Vanessa Stair’s experience as a woman of color, raising a child of color, in a non-traditional family is one not documented in the largely white, heterosexual context of the mommy blogger sphere. So she created her own space – www.ChocoLACTmilk.com is a testimony to the roses and thorns of colored parenting, being a feminist mother of a young girl, and raising our girls right.

Grace Wong: What inspired you to start chocoLACTmilk?

Vanessa Stair: My senior year I was pregnant with Peyton and wrote my senior thesis on breastfeeding in the black community. Since I was invested in the topic and was myself breastfeeding Peyton, I started inviting a small group of moms to come over once or twice a month to talk about their experiences of being black and breastfeeding. It naturally evolved to talking about other issues: how we felt as moms, some of us young mothers, our blackness, how we navigated our race and care for our children.

Life got in the way and some moms went back to work or moved, but I really held onto that space where women of color could talk about the intersectionality of being a mother of color to a child of color, and creating a space where we can talk about issues that uniquely affect us.

GW: You just mentioned that mothers of color face unique issues, what are some of the most challenging aspects of colored parenting?

VS:  I want to be unapologetic in my parenting. I want to live true to myself. But certain times navigating that space and respecting that can be very, very hard. I want Peyton to be a carefree black girl: do the things she wants, act the way she wants, and find her own voice, but often I find myself hesitant to do certain things because of the perceptions around children of color.

There are different life lessons that come with being a girl of color. I have to be very intentional about the kind of things I bring into her space so she sees positive representations of herself in various forms – not always the civil rights leader but a superhero or an astronaut. 

GW: You have been able to convey quite complex lessons like consent to Peyton. I feel like my peers, and even those older than me, don’t understand all of the nuances of consent. How have you been able to teach that to a five-year-old?

VS: To a three- or four-year-old consent can be taught very simply: no means no. When you say no I don’t currently want to be touched, that means no.

What has been more difficult for my partner and I is navigating Peyton’s ownership over her own body while also having the task of keeping her safe. For example, one thing we struggle with is crossing the street. Sometimes she does not want to hold our hand, and we have to say to her, “I understand that, but in this instance because there is a safety concern we need to hold your hand, and when we finish crossing the street and you don’t want to hold my hand anymore that is fine.”

As a four-year-old, Peyton has more awareness of her body than most kids and great at saying no to people. Peyton has an afro, and a lot of times people just want to touch it, and for us we say, every part of your body is your own – that includes your hair, your shoulders, your fingers – that is your body and the moment you feel uncomfortable you have right to say “no thank you.

Recently, we are walking down the street and this older woman puts her hand on Peyton’s hair and I am just about to go off at her and Peyton just goes, “Do not touch my hair” and the woman goes “Oh but I just wanted touch it,” and Peyton replies, “You wouldn’t touch my vagina, so don’t touch my hair.” This woman was mortified, but for me I was proud that Peyton recognized that every part of her body she has ownership. I think another part of the struggle is that it applies to everyone.

What is your hope for the chocoLACTmilk?

VS: Reaching a larger audience and creating a space where I can cathartically journal my experiences and create an outlet for other parents, with similar experiences, to have a dialogue. The dialogue is already out there so it is about harnessing that and bringing it to another, larger space, and creating community and support.

The Gender Boundaries Imposed on Children in India

Many children worldwide have grown up playing with Barbie dolls and Transformers. You can perhaps guess which children played with which toys. From the time of our birth we are taught the ways in which males and females should conduct themselves.

Why does society enforce such restrictions from the moment a child is born? Too often, our society sees men as the working hand of the family and women as the caretakers of homes. Both put in equal effort and time but the work done by women is not really considered “work”. It is a common fact that working women are paid less than their male counterparts.

Many parents invariably end up buying toys and clothes – pink for the girls and blue for the boys – based on prevalent and enforced gender notions. Mine did too. Why is that only girls can have pink and only boys can have blue things? Both are equally beautiful colors! So why is it that society laughs at a boy wearing a pink shirt?

“Don’t lift that, it’s too heavy.” Most girls have heard something like this at least once in their lifetime. What does it imply? That girls are weak? That they can’t do things alone, without a male helping them? Society has divided up tasks and decided which suits which gender. When parents are asked to describe their children, girls tend to be identified as delicate, weak, beautiful and cute while boys are seen as strong, alert, and well-coordinated.

“Don’t even try, cooking is not for you.” Boys will probably have heard something like this. But tell me, why can boys not learn like the girls? No girl is born a chef, they learn. So why are boys often not allowed to enter the kitchen by their mothers? And even if they have permission, boys themselves often think that cooking is below them. It’s a “girly” thing to do – an idea which is taught right from childhood.

Sociologist have shown that parents are likely to encourage their sons to engage in competitive play and discourage their daughters from doing so. Instead, parents tend to encourage girls to engage in cooperative, role-playing games. These different play patterns lead to the heightened development of verbal and emotional skills among girls and to increased concern with winning and the establishment of hierarchy among boys. Boys are more likely than girls are to be praised for assertiveness, and girls are more likely than boys are to be rewarded for compliance. This is again a way of enforcing gender stereotypes right from the start of a child’s life.

Society has built a wall between genders. Parents, teachers and other figures in authority typically try to impose their ideas of appropriate gender behavior on children, which in later life leads to gender discrimination. It is common to find that in classrooms, teachers constantly pit boys against the girls in spelling and math contests. These contests are marked by cross-gender antagonism and expression of within-gender solidarity.

This is detrimental for society in multiple ways in the long run. From birth, it is important to break down the gender boundaries by teaching our children that everyone is equal and deserves to be treated with the same humility and respect. The world will truly be a better place.

Cover photo credit: Azad India Foundation 

Building Bridges of Knowledge Between Mothers Worldwide

In January this year, Girls’ Globe launched a new initiative, The Mom Pod, a bi-weekly podcast series about all things related to motherhood. We want to pick the minds of the world’s parents, leading experts in maternal health and women’s rights, and build bridges between cultures, countries and continents.

My colleague Emma Saloranta and I became mothers two months apart in 2014 – and throughout pregnancy and in the early months of being mothers we frequently spoke via Skype about challenges and joys. We shared experiences, knowledge and information. We spoke about similarities and differences – being that Emma gave birth in the USA and I gave birth in Sweden. We discussed issues that we encountered and the disappointments that sometimes arose in our experiences during pregnancy or as new mothers.

What startled me were the strong norms in our societies that steer women’s opportunities and choices. Throughout pregnancy and especially as a new mother, there are so many other people who have opinions about your choices – and who express these openly. Yet, at the same time, there are so many tricky conversations that either end up in needless debates or are left unspoken. I felt that becoming a mother was something I had to learn myself, and that there was a lack of information, knowledge-sharing, and support in my community (and online!).

The Mom Pod is something that is so much more than expert interviews on maternal health and parenting advice – we want to create a forum for open and honest conversations on all things related to motherhood, and make space for learning from each other.

“I want to encourage your work of connecting young women globally and sharing different ways of care in the world. I think that if you hear about what is offered in some countries, you might start to think “I want that too” – and this can be extremely powerful.”

Mia Ahlberg, President, The Swedish Association of Midwives

So far we have produced four episodes, covering the global state of maternal health, the Zika virus outbreak, birth practices and experiences in Sweden and the Finnish baby box. You can listen to all of our episodes on iTunes or Soundcloud, also embedded below. We want our episodes to support and help You, so please share your comments and feedback with us and let us know what topics you would like us to cover. If you have a story to tell, or someone you think we should interview, let us know! We’re currently working on multiple episodes ranging from breastfeeding to fistula and cost of labor in the U.S. to maternal health among refugee women.

Our next episode will be out on April 8th – stay tuned!

Cover photo credit: Bridget Coila (Creative Commons)

A Father’s Role in Birth

Effective and holistic care for women, children and families needs to involve both women and men. Conversations centered on child birth, maternal and child health tend to focus on the mother and child. This of course is extremely important and essential for care. However, there is a growing conversation on how to incorporate fathers into childbirth, family care and parenting. The Fathers and Parenting session at the ICM Congress focused on three countries who have developed solutions to engage fathers in all aspects of the birthing process.

Switzerland: The Family Start Coordinated Care Program

Fathers WishIn Switzerland, the coordinated post-natal care system for families is severely fragmented. In the 1960s, on average, women and their families stayed in the hospital for ten days post birth. Today, families are sent home in three days with little post-natal follow up. Healthcare professionals lack coordination in providing post-natal care for families. In 2010, self-employed midwives coordinated by Elisabeth Kurth, midwife and lecturer from Switzerland, conducted a study to reevaluate the post-natal care system. Health professionals, midwives, mothers and fathers participated in focus groups to share their ideas for post-natal care.

In this study, mothers and fathers were able to express their uncertainty in the birthing process and their desire to have in home post-natal care for their families. Fathers were given the opportunity to creatively express themselves through creating a lego structure sharing their vision of the birthing process. The Family Start Coordinated Care program was piloted in 2012 in Bass, Switzerland. The project launched with a 24 hour hotline for families as well as a post-natal in home care follow up system. As a result of this program, the cost for outpatient newborn and maternal care was significantly reduced and every member of the family, including the father, was included in the process.

Sweden: First Time Fathers Survey

In Sweden, Aasa Premberg, midwife from Sweden, recognized a gap between fathers, their involvement and engagement in maternal care and delivery. Historically, Sweden has offered childbirth education for families since the 1950s. However, studies have shown men often feel left out of the birth process. Aasa developed the First Time Father’s survey for families who are beginning their birth journey. The survey engages fathers two to four months after the birth of their first child. The survey poses twenty-two essential questions related to the birthing and delivery process. The key themes addressed in the survey are:

  • Worry
  • Fear
  • General Information
  • Emotional Support

The survey has shown that most fathers are worried prior to the time of birth. Many fathers do not feel involved in the process and find it difficult to connect with their partner’s personal experience. There was an 80% overall positive response rate from fathers who were given the survey. The father’s identify the survey as a helpful tool to express their concerns and feelings related to the childbirth and the delivery experience.

Hong Kong: Skin to Skin

Many fathers in Hong Kong have expressed a disconnection to child birth, especially during the nursing process. Angel Tam, introduced skin to skin (STS) contact among families who delivered full term babies through selected caesarian.

STS provides fathers with an opportunity to experience skin to skin contact with their babies when mothers are not available after birth. Before the program was launched in April of 2012, the average separation time between mothers, fathers and babies was sixty-five minutes. After the launch of the program the average separation time was only twenty-nine minutes. In Hong Kong, skin to skin contact with babies after birth has been a process proven to be an effective way to engage fathers in the birthing process.

Engaging fathers in all aspects of birth is critical to maternal and child health. All of these various methods have shown familial relationships are strengthened when fathers are included. At Girls’ Globe we look forward to continuing the conversation on the importance of engaging men and fathers in advocating for and being involved in global conversation to advance maternal and child health. 

 Cover photo credit: Cheriejoyful, Flickr Creative Commons