Theseus’ Parenting

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I was thinking about parenting the other day and then (oddly) starting thinking about the idea of  Theseus’ Ship (in all fairness, not completely random as it was the philosophical basis for my comprehensive exam paper).  For those of you unaware of the story of Theseus and his Ship, let me provide you with a little synopsis:

Theseus, the mythical founder and king of Athens, returned to Athens on a ship after slaying a minotaur in Crete (and rescuing a girl). Upon arriving home, the ship was kept in the Athenian harbor as a memorial for his quest.  However, the ship would not last on its own – wood rots and pieces needed to be replaced.  As pieces fell apart, they were replaced with “new and stronger timber” (Plutarch, Life of Theseus).  However, after many years of this cycle, it was unclear if any of the original pieces of the ship were left; presumably, they had all been replaced.  The philosophical question for the ages then became, is it the same ship?

You may ask, what does a Greek hero and his ship have to do with parenting?  Literally, nothing.  But the philosophical question raised by Theseus’ Ship is highly relevant to the topic of parenting today.  Consider for a moment that a particular parenting practice is Theseus’ Ship.  Every aspect of parenting can be broken down into individual components and studied to try and determine what part of it makes it work (or not work).  It’s what science tries to do on a daily basis.  But the question here, and one I hope to tackle, is: are we’re doing ourselves a disservice by breaking it down as such?  Can certain practices only be truly understood as a whole?  And if we change the constituent parts, are we really getting the same results?

It seems to me that the predominant views on parenting today are built upon the assumption that you can replace any part of a parenting practice with something ‘new’ and ‘updated’ and end up with the same or better results than we’ve been doing as humans for ages.  Part of the issue is that I don’t believe we’re finding new practices that truly replace old ones like wood on a ship.  But the other issue is that I think parenting and various parenting practices are much more holistic than people recognize.  Because of this, it is nearly impossible to break down a parenting practice, replace a part with something else, and expect the whole to behave in the same manner.  It’s like removing certain roots from a plant, replacing them with mechanical roots, and expecting the plant to thrive – it just won’t happen.

One of the biggest areas in which this is apparent is breastfeeding.  For years, doctors and scientists have tried to unlock what makes breastfeeding so special.  First they focused on the actual milk and tried to outdo evolution by creating formula. They believed that could provide better nutrition for babies than mothers could and end up with the same or even better outcomes for babe.  But as we all know, they learned that that is hardly the case.  Breastmilk has antibodies to fight infections[1], lowers the risk of later obesity[2], and it has certain proteins that help brain development, with studies showing greater cognitive function and academic success for breastfed babies[3][4], things formula simply cannot provide.  And because of these discoveries, we’ve generally agreed as a society that breast is best. So what do scientists and doctors do?  They try to fix another part of breastfeeding by developing means to pump.   The new focus on the mode of delivery highlights the belief that it is the breastmilk that is important and that the role of mom in delivering this milk is moot.  Anyone can give baby a bottle of breastmilk; mom has been relegated to the role of a cow.  Because of this relegation, mom can go back to work where she’s really needed to help turn the wheels of capitalism.  (Of course, I should note that I am a HUGE fan of pumping to help other women provide their children with breastmilk – it’s better than formula and such a wonderful way for women to help each other, my problem is the politicians or ‘experts’ deciding that the act of breastfeeding is irrelevant.)  The failure to think of breastfeeding as a holistic act has meant we’ve yet again overlooked some ratherimportant things, such as

a)      The bonding that occurs between mother and baby during breastfeeding doesn’t happen as easily when baby is eating from a bottle for a plethora of reasons including hormonal, lack of touch, mutual gaze, etc.[5].  Bottle moms have to work harder for the same amount of bonding.

b)      Expressed breastmilk is still not as good as breastmilk from the breast because of the way the breast expresses milk – it starts with watery milk to quench thirst and then moves to the creamier milk to satisfy hunger whereas expressed milk tends to be blended together (unless pumped separately) meaning baby may fill up without full quenching his thirst thus requiring the addition of water to the diet.  (Although you can pump to separate them – see La Leche League on how to do this.)

c)       Milk from the breast is sterile whereas once is it placed into a bag or bottle, the chance of bacteria entering it increases which increases the risk of infection or illness.

d)      When a mother breastfeeds, the baby’s saliva enters the mother’s breast via the nipple which tells the mom what antibodies baby needs at the moment, allowing mom to produce whatever it is her baby needs to stay healthy[6].  This doesn’t happen with expressed breastmilk because the initial information doesn’t get passed on to mom (although baby will get moms antibodies, just not necessarily the ones needed most at any given time).

When doctors and scientists finally come to terms with this, they may accept that breastfeeding is a gestalt act, or they’ll find yet another component to try and replace.  But breaking it down and trying to look at individual aspects will always fail to yield the same outcome as focusing on the act as a whole.  It doesn’t mean we don’t stop pumping, because, again, it is a wonderful way for babies whose mothers’ cannot breastfeed to get breastmilk, but we have to accept the limitations.  And in accepting the limitations, realize that some of our policies that are based on the assumption that these replacements are just as good as the original act (like short maternity leaves) do not benefit parent or child.  Replacing individual parts will never equal the original because these individual parts work in a network to create the overall benefits of breastfeeding.

We can make similar arguments for baby wearing and co-sleeping.  Science gave us strollers when the thought was it was only about getting baby from point A to point B.  However, women have worn their babies for myriad reasons that have nothing to do with simply getting baby around.  Baby wearing helps babies stay calm and thus fuss less[7][8] and it also helps to promote bonding between mother and child[9].  And many wraps also allow moms to breastfeed on the go – a massive advantage when you need to get things done.  Similarly, co-sleeping is not just about sleep.  Babies didn’t sleep with their parents simply because there was nowhere else to go and no fancy crib to sleep in, babies slept with their mothers because it helped keep them alive, provided close contact, increased levels of oxytocin thereby reducing stress[7], and allowed babies to become more independent and confident as they got older (see Co-Sleeping: Fostering Independence).

The problem really starts much earlier, in pregnancy.  For most of human history, pregnant women and their unborn children were seen as a symbiotic unit, dependent upon and providing for each other.  However, when the medical field started taking over as ‘experts’ in pregnancy and birth over midwives, they starting viewing pregnancy as a medical condition instead of the natural state that it is.  And by viewing it as such, they started the idea that the baby is simply a parasite-type creature who inhabits mom[10].  Breaking pregnancy down into host and parasite is not only an incredibly disheartening way to view the absolute beauty that is pregnancy, but once again it ignores crucial facts about pregnancy that has led us astray.  For one, it has led to the view that pregnancy is somehow an abnormal state because a pregnant woman is seen as a regular woman with some ‘thing’ attached to it (like a tumor).  So we continue to compare pregnant women’s vital statistics, such as blood sugar absorption for the diagnosis of gestational diabetes, to those who are not pregnant despite the very normal state of pregnancy.  Gestational diabetes is a classic example because for years it was diagnosed based on a non-pregnant woman’s rates, there are few to no symptoms (and none life-threatening), and the vast majority of women’s rates return to normal after pregnancy[11].  Yet doctors do testing regularly, will suggest (force) many interventions (which can be more dangerous than the GD) if tested positive, and no one has bothered to ask if perhaps GD is actually a normal state in some pregnant women.  And if not, look at the entirety of the woman and her pregnancy to figure out how best to approach something that has, generally speaking, rather benign consequences (unlike diabetes which can have severe consequences).

To further this notion that a pregnant woman is just like a non-pregnant woman but with a baby inside (that trivial distinction), doctors also come up with guidelines about how much weight a woman should gain during pregnancy. A couple generations ago, women were told that they should only gain 10-15 lbs during their entire pregnancy[12], and while this might make sense if you think of mom and baby as separate and thus mom only needs to gain the weight of the actual baby, when you consider their joint needs, there is no way that is healthy.  In fact, those guidelines led to a greater number of premature and low birth weight babies, both risks for infant morbidity and mortality[13] which is why they were revoked in the 1970s.  The debate about pregnancy and weight gain continues because of the effects on delivery and infant outcomes, but it seems to be that the better approach would simply be to focus on making sure everyone is healthy and then letting baby and mom do their thing.  If that means a mom gains 40 lbs, if she’s eating healthy and being active, what’s the problem?  Focusing on weight ignores health and what mom eats is as important as how much she eats for how well baby develops.

Epidurals are another manifestation of this separation of mom and baby, though I’ve already written about it (see To Drug or Not to Drug? The Epidural Debate).  To briefly summarize, while epidurals can be very helpful in limited situations, they are vastly overused.  Pain in childbirth is there for a reason, and one reason seems to be to help baby get through the experience.  Mom feels pain and her body produces endorphins that are passed on to baby, who can’t produce them herself.  By blocking the pain, you block the production of endorphins, and baby, who has to go through worse than mom, does it with no pain relief.  I’m not so sure that’s the way we’re supposed to enter this world.

When it comes to pregnancy and parenting, our bodies are equipped to handle almost anything that we’re presented with and it’s time we started trusting our bodies again.  It’s also time many (but not all) scientists and doctors realized their limitations when it comes to these topics.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to study parenting and pregnancy – in fact, it’s laudable when the focus is on expanding knowledge and promoting education – but there is something wrong with deciding you can do better than hundreds of thousands of years of human history when you lack a basic understanding of how intricately intertwined each aspect of parenting and pregnancy are.  It is a battle the experts will never win.

[1] Duijts L, Jaddoe VWV, Hofman A, & Moll HA.  Prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding reduces the risk of infectious diseases in infancy.  Pediatrics 2010; 126: e18-e25.

[2] Armstrong J & Reilly JJ.  Breastfeeding and lowering the risk of childhood obesity. The Lancet 2002; 359: 2003-2004.

[3] Oddy WH, Li J, Whitehouse AJO, Zubrick SR, & Malacova E. Breastfeeding duration and academic achievement at 10 years. Pediatrics 2011; 127: e137-e145.

[4] Horta BL, Bahl R, Martines JC, & Victora CG. Evidence on the long-term effects of breastfeeding: Systematic reviews and meta-analyses.  World Health Organization 2007.

[5] Else-Quest NM, Hyde JS, Clark R. Breastfeeding, bonding, and the mother-infant relationship. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 49, 495-517.

[6] Vickers MC. Breast milk production: The anatomy of breastfeeding. Accessed from <> on April 27, 2011.

[7] Uvnas-Moberg K. The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing (2003). Da Capo Press: Cambridge, MA.

[8] Hewlett BS, Lamb ME, Shannon D, Leyendecker B, & Scholmerich A. Culture and early infancy among central African foragers and farmers. Developmental Psychology 1998; 34: 653-661.

[9] Anisfeld E, Casper V, Nozyce M, & Cunningham N. Does infant carrying promote attachment? An experimental study of the effects of increased physical contact on the development of attachment (1990). Child Development; 61:1617-27.




[13] Ibid.

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  1. says

    *very* good. I think there are probably some parenting choices that can be broken down and looked at individually, parenting itself needs be taken as a whole. (Although I know my reasoning on that differs a bit from yours 😉 ) As a society (pretty much every post-industrial society) we not only break down individual concepts, like breastfeeding or co-sleeping as mentions, but try, to the detriment of both baby and society as a whole, to break down the very nature of parenting. Society tells us anyone is just as good as mom, she doesn’t need to be there to care for her infant 24-7, let her go have a job and someone else’s job can be to care for the kid. Oh, and since that someone is trained, after all childcare is their *job*, baby will be better off in their care than moms. Society says the notion of ‘family’ is outdated, as lon as the kid is ‘loved’ it doesn’t matter if dad is around, or if it’s mom and dad, step-mom and dad, dad and dad, or any variation thereof. *shakes head* sure there have been a few different ‘norms’ for family life throughout history, extended family groups with primarily a dyad mother/father bonding being the true average, but this notion that we can somehow divorce children, childrearing, and parents from the very act that creates children and parents would be laughable if so many people didn’t believe it! How obsurb is this modern additude of ‘well it takes one man and one woman to create a child but that’s just *biology*, when in comes to what’s best for the child we’re far to enlightened (and policitally correct) to believe *biology*!’

  2. says

    (Con, for some reason my cell started going wonky there on me) Actually I think it goes deeper than that. This abysmal notion is part of societies (baffling) shift from next generation to current generation. The purpose of any organism, humanity included, from a purely physical standpoint is to breed and pass on it’s bloodline. Living is really just an excuse to have time to do so more abundantly! Society has always put the needs of the next generation ahead of the current one. Children were the lifeblood of all pre-industrialized societies, and they all recognized a villiage without sufficient children (or breeding aged adults set to make more!) meant the death of that villiage. Civilizations would risk war to steal wifes/mothers with diverse bloodlines to make sure the following generations were healthy! Now though society sees children as some sort of accessory to an adult. An adult doesn’t exist to properly raise a child, now the child exists because the adult wanted one to be ‘fulfilled’ or because an adult has a ‘right’ to a child. It’s such a backward notion to think child exist to make adults parents, rather than ‘parents’ existing to care for children.
    Sorry about the rant, I know a lot of ‘accessory’ kids and it makes me so sad and angry that those parents not only think they have a ‘right’ to a child they can trott out as a feather in their hat, but they look down their noses at SAHMs who actually parent their kids because they are far too ‘enlightened’ to believe in the necessity of such things. After all, *anyone* can be a ‘mom’, their feather, I mean kid, is getting raised by a *professional* and they get to continue with everything else that makes them ‘happy’ and ‘fulfilled’.

    • says

      I don’t think I could have said this better myself! It’s the new “Does your kid match your purse?” attitude that is so very harmful to everyone. And, as you say, I don’t think society realizes how much it’s risking by promoting or even just tolerating this mindset. What saddens me most is that so many women believe it.

      There’s a stat out there worth considering. If you don’t want to live in poverty and give your family the best shot you need to do 3 things (which has something like a 98% success rate): 1) graduate from high school, 2) get married BEFORE you have kids, and 3) work a full time job. What I don’t know is if the job thing considers the time at home with babies (I’d like to find out), but while these things seem so simple, it’s amazing how many people don’t follow it.

    • Cecile says

      Amen and Hallalieuah!!
      Why have a child if not to raise it correctly, steer its growth and development and nurture it to become the best, kindest more knowledgeable human being it can be. Breastfeeding, birth mode and attachment parenting are being lost and its going to leave us with a world full of lost helpless people with no clue!!

  3. Elissa says

    Don’t forget that babies who nurse at the breast also develop stronger lung capacity than bottle-fed babies. (Sorry I don’t have the reference handy.)

  4. Tracy says

    While I understand the sentiment, I think it’s a bit of a shame you put it quite the way you did, as though scientists and doctors are all a bit arrogant and evil (eg “When doctors and scientists finally come to terms with this, they may accept that breastfeeding is a gestalt act, or they’ll find yet another component to try and replace”). Surely many are researching these things out of a desire to better understand and to help (eg Nestle’s invention of formula)? I suspect it’s more likely to be the marketers and CEOs that go looking for products to replace things like breasts and slings!
    The one thing that really turns me off the AP (/EP) community is how ‘anti-science/medicine’ it frequently is, and I love that you don’t normally seem to subscribe to that!

    • says

      Fair enough – I can accept that. At times I do get more taken away with my sentiment at the moment than the rational thought that enters most posts :)

    • says

      Helen, I appreciate the concern, but there is evidence that the link between type 2 and GD is symptomatic (i.e., those with greatest symptoms end up more likely having type 2 diagnoses after birth). Furthermore, many researchers believe that the link between the two is actually undiagnosed type 2 PRIOR to pregnancy that is discovered via GD and then get the diagnosis of type 2 after pregnancy. And we know there are serious consequences to diabetes in pregnancy.

  5. Cecile says

    Sometimes i think, how stupid can people seriously be thinking formula can replace or is an equal option for babies. Dont get me wrong i know it has its part, ie women who really try and try and struggle, who have low supply for a medical reason and any other seemingly legitamate reason. But for people who are ‘lazy’ using it instead because its more ‘convienent’ and they ‘cant be bothered’ etc. That drives me nuts!!
    Breastmilk is like liquard GOLD!! Why would you not want this for your child if you could. The mere idea utterly bewilds me everyday!! Formula was only ever invented for mother-less babies so that they didnt die, why now is it so widely used and replacing what nature intended. Is your baby/child not deservant of the best you can offer them!? What nature intended and why you have breasts!? Are we that detatured from our true selves heritage and natural origins!?

  6. Brenna says

    I love most of your articles, but I have to admit I get bent out of shape with the constant digs at working moms. You really discount the fact that most of us have zero choice in the matter. I work or we don’t have a roof over our heads. 95% of the working moms I know are the same. I don’t spend my salary on cable Tv or new clothes or fancy vacations either; my money goes to groceries and electricity, etc.
    I worked very hard to find an amazing daycare provider for my son. One who would wear him in the carrier o brought over, who would rock him to sleep, who would hold him and cuddle him when she fed him the bottles I painstakingly pumped for 18 months.
    The comments about moms who don’t want to raise their own children are cruel. I would love to see this website stop making them because I truly enjoy everything else I read here.

    • says

      Hi Brenna,

      First I’m very confused as to how you made this comment on this particular post since it didn’t talk about working parents at all. However, more importantly, I don’t believe I’ve ever made cruel comments about working moms. Stating the fact that we are biologically designed to expect a parent to be around isn’t false. Nor is calling for society to value parenting and provide working wages so that women DO have a choice. I am sorry you’re reading negativity into these comments, but calling for change in society so that parents have choice means calling out a system that doesn’t provide that and that means being honest about the fact that children expect a parent at home and that as good as a daycare you may find, no one will raise your child as you will. Yes, working is a necessity in our society, and that’s the problem right there.


      p.s. This was my latest FB status update on EP if you question my appreciation of working parents:
      “Many times we hear of and discuss the sacrifices a parent makes to stay home with their child. But this overlooks the huge sacrifices parents make when they return to work. They forfeit these amazing moments with their children to ensure that bills are paid, food is on the table, and in some cases so that the other parent can stay home. These are not to be overlooked and should be appreciated for all its worth.”

  7. Brenna says

    Possibly not the articles so much as the comments below, particularly from one poster whom you very much seem to agree with.
    Also espousing the very antiquated notion that you need to get married before having kids is unimpressive honestly. I don’t see how marriage makes a difference. Commitment yes, marriage no.
    Oh well. Agree to disagree I guess. There is a perceived tone that I hope I’m getting wrong.

    • says

      No one said you *need* to get married before having kids – that’s taking a discussion out of context. When talking about finances and family, there’s research (which I hope you’ve realized I cite quite a bit of) and getting married actually helps keep a family out of poverty – not commitment, marriage. For whatever reason it has a protective effect. Each family makes choices that work for them; however, we don’t ignore what the research says because it doesn’t fit for all. Just like breastfeeding – I get constantly attacked for making FF moms feel “guilty” by talking about the research on breastfeeding. However, to get better options for people, we need to acknowledge what we do know. Same with working parents and the way our society is unfortunately structured. It’s my belief that all families should have the CHOICE to have someone stay home and that means better wages for all, healthcare, etc. But if we treat it like a choice now (which is how it’s treated), we will NEVER get changes made so that families actually can have options.

      However, that said I can see how the tone of what I wrote could be negative and I apologize. Jespren and I chat A LOT on here and so our discussions spill over into comments and a lot of understanding that we have doesn’t get said.

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