Friday, 20 January 2017

I will March With My Daughter


I will march with my daughter.
Because when I hold her hand, it's not so small as it used to be
and I can't hold it forever.

I will march with my daughter.
Because she can go to school and feed her fizzing mind
while so many can't, because they happen to be girls.

I will march with my daughter.
Because someday soon men will shout judgement on her body
and she will learn to ignore, placate, walk faster.
Pretend not to notice, "fucking bitch"

I will march with my daughter.
Because she may want to drink and dance with her friends one day. Just dance,
Not shrug and accept that there are prices for fun if you're female.

I will march with my daughter.
Because one day she may fall in love, and it shouldn't matter who that person is.
Only that she need never fear them.

I will march with my daughter.
Because she should do any job she chooses and works for, for the same money, for the same effort, as any man.
And not be passed over for a theoretical pregnancy.

I will march with my daughter.
Because she, and all women, must be able to choose when they become mothers,
and if.

I will march with my daughter.
Because one day she will be a middle aged woman, an old woman,
and the world shouldn't force her to fade.

I will march with my daughter.
For all the daughters, who's lives are changed or shaped or taken, by family and strangers, governments and traditions.
By those who do it just because they know they can.

I will march with my daughter.
Because she is seven years old and has no idea what worries her mother.
But her little hand is getting bigger.

I will march with my daughter.
Because she is seven years old and believes she is the equal of anyone.
I will march with my daughter because she is right.

#Womensmarch



SBx
This was written on my commute yesterday, tomorrow me and MissE will join the Women's March in London.

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Real Magic Of Pregnancy


I heard something wonderful last week. It came from a pregnancy* exercise teacher at a class I had just joined:

"This exercise might be good for the birth, I mean *knowing laugh* it won't stop it hurting of course, but it might be useful"



It seems like a pretty minor and obvious statement but it was actually a bit of a surprise. My previous forays into antenatal exercise classes (mainly yoga) have come with far greater promises: A gentle twist of my neck would nourish my immune system, lying down would put me in touch with the vibrations of the earth (this in a second floor studio btw) and breathing like Darth Vader would open my pelvis and and provide an easy birth, one where I'd barely notice any pain.

The problem is all of that is total BS. I love yoga. I love how at the end of a session I feel warm, relaxed and strong. I love that my usually unceasingly busy mind is stilled, just for a while.

That is the real magic, that is enough. I don't need to imbue the actions with miraculous powers of healing or pseudo-spiritual beliefs. It makes me feel good, it stretches out a little space for my already squashed lungs and if I can get through a class without humiliating myself by falling on my nose or farting then I feel pretty pleased with myself.

So hearing that simple statement that strength and flexibility are helpful for a physically arduous process like labour, but that they won't magically prevent the pain, was a relief. It went a long way towards loosening the little knot of apprehension I always get when starting this kind of class and wondering just how much nonsense I will have to accept into the bargain.



Of course yoga classes aren't the only part of pregnancy where this need to add extra magic exists.

There is a growing sea of products, services and philosophies that claim to make our pregnancies and births that bit more special. They often invoke empowerment, and goddesses, promising to make pregnancy and birth wondrous, easy and natural. Like there is some great, universal, secret truth to all this. That we somehow lost sight of when we started going to supermarkets and watching TV.

NHS resources are stretched so thin that women often have little time to ask questions. Let alone build relationships and actually feel cared for at probably the most important and worrying period of their lives to date. So it's no wonder many of us look elsewhere to fill the gaps in those long months. If you have the cash there are no end of people willing to take it off you help you. Some claim no more than to make you feel nice and relaxed, others promise the world with little more than anecdote and belief to back up those claims and price tags to exclude most.

At times these philosophers and practitioners stray into telling women to avoid conventional medical care all together. In the false belief that we are somehow the perfect end point of creation or evolution. That our bodies will all instinctively grow healthy babies, know when to give birth to them and do so with ease. If only we believe, do the class, buy the product and don't mess with nature's great plan.

But nature, as I've said so many times on here, doesn't work like that. She is complicated, messy, glorious and she doesn't give a damn about any single individual. But she is also far more wondrous and magical in her imperfections than in any of the beliefs to the contrary.

The fact that I am sitting here at all is a miracle of nature.

Over 1.5 billion years ago one little cell engulfed a different type of little cell. For the first (and last) time in history, those particular types of cell survived and formed a particular type of symbiotic relationship from which descended all multi cellular life on earth. The simple slimy sea creatures, the fish that crawled onto land, the first little furry things that hid from mighty dinosaurs and every monkey, ape and human that came before us. And the vast, vast, majority of all those lives ended before they could reproduce. We, all of us, are life's unlikely winners who beat ridiculous odds over and over again for millennia. The existence of the most ordinary, boring person on this earth is utterly wondrous.



That I have a baby growing in my belly now is just as amazing. The chances of any given sperm or egg making it to fertilization are tiny. But then there are the trials of genetic recombination, implantation, hormones and myriad other potential pitfalls. Yet somehow this little creature has jumped every hurdle it has so far encountered, without me doing anything other than take some vitamin pills to be on the safe side.

Her/His birth will be a wonder too. But not because I will channel my inner goddess or breath the baby out in a state of empowered, pain free bliss (or while doing that Darth Vader impression). If that works for you go for it, but I have other magic to conjure:

Nature gives different gifts to all her creations, she gave humans incredible brains. They let us thrive in environments that seem ridiculous for such clawless, furless, vulnerable creatures. The price for our brains is that childbirth isn't always easy or even survivable. Yet we amazing humans haven't just put up with that. We've used our astonishing gift to find ways to help nature or perhaps to cheat her. Those amazing, nature given brains decided to get women to help each other give birth, they invented tools to help labouring women into better positions or ease out a baby that had become stuck. They created drugs to ease pain and fight infections and eventually pieced together all the required components of complex surgery that could save the lives of women whose baby's own, brain filled, heads were just too big.


My first baby's head was one of those that was just too big, a C section saved us and will (if all goes to plan) bring this one into the world. I'm incredible lucky to be alive and to have that option.

Nature is full of wonder and full of flaws, she is complex way beyond our current imagining. Yet we can work with her, try to understand her and so do astonishing things ourselves.

I don't need to guild that wonder with extra magic. There is a tiny heart beating in my womb, tiny limbs kicking. One of the most complex brains that has ever existed is forming and refining itself while I sit here drinking decaf tea and wittering to the internet.

I don't need this to be more special, more mystical or somehow spiritual. It is already amazing beyond anything those ideas can create. It is science, it is magic and it is enough.

SBxx

* Yes I am pregnant! I was incredibly lucky after last years miscarriage to get pregnant again quite quickly and have so far made it to 21 weeks with everything seeming to be fine. I'm sure I'll have plenty more to say about that on here if only I can stay awake past the kids bedtime in order to write it down. In the mean time I'll leave you with one of the more curious images I found while looking for pictures for this post. Amazingly this is the first thing that comes up if you type "pregnancy nature" into Getty image search...

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Caesareans May Be Altering Human Evolution. But Not Much, And I Don't Care.



According to reports on the BBC (and elsewhere) today, the number of women having C sections is causing our species to evolve bigger heads and / or smaller pelvises and so we are becoming less able to give birth without surgical help. 

The Miami Herald got particularly upset declaring: 

"C-Sections Are Increasing Because We're Messing With Evolution..."

I wrote last year about a similar idea from Obstetrician and (IMHO) slightly questionable old chap, Michael Odent. His opinion was based on, well, his opinion but these new stories actually come from a real life proper scientific journal. This month's PNAS.

So are the headlines all true this time?

Well, yes, maybe and no.

It all sounds very dramatic in the news reports, the idea that we are messing with nature and pushing evolution to make us ever more dependent on modern technology. It has a grippingly dystopian feel. It is true that women and babies now survive where once their respective small pelvises or large heads would have fatally removed them from our gene pool. I am one of those women. My genes only made it to my daughter and to her younger sister because cold hard modern medicine overruled nature.

So it is possible that children like mine will go on to need surgical births themselves, where in the past they would simply have never lived to give birth at all. With a few more women like us around the human population as a whole may need more C sections in future. We may evolve to, on average, do birth a little bit different.

But that's not in any way special.


Almost everything we do that keeps babies alive impacts on our evolution. Genes that confer all manner of slight disadvantage can make it from generation to generation because everything from clean water and plentiful food to vaccinations and childhood heart surgery mean that children who would once have died are living long enough to keep those genes in circulation. There may be a few more people around with heart conditions, or a tendency to get food poisoning but we assume that if we can treat those problems now, then we will continue to do so, and probably better, in the future. 

The need for a surgical birth is no different, and it is also a very very small change. 

Read on a bit beyond the scary sounding headlines and the photos of distressed looking mothers and it becomes clear that we are talking about a fairly small number births. The study estimates that the number of C sections for obstruction (where the baby's head is too big to fit through the mother's pelvis) was around 30 per 1000 births in the 1960's and has now "evolved" to be roughly 36 per 1000. A tiny proportion of the total C section rate of around 250-300 or more per 1000 in many developed countries. The evolutionary effect of women like me surviving childbirth isn't a big driver in the increase in CS rates, there are plenty of other culprits to look for there.

Messin' with the gene pool


But even that small influence may be overstated by the research. Genetics isn't as simple as - you get what your mum had. There are multiple genes and environmental factors at work. Dad's also have something to do with it. A small headed woman, with a normal pelvis, and a mother who popped babies out with no problems, could find herself in need of a C section because her baby's father passed on a whole bunch of big head genes (looking at no one in particular Mr SB...). Probably more significantly, a lot of women with perfectly average genes produce overly large babies because of factors that are becoming far more common such obesity or gestational diabetes or just through plain old chance. 

Big babies are usually an advantage. Evolution doesn't make perfect finished products, it goes for the best possible compromise and big heads with their big brains are so useful to the species as a whole that nature is prepared to accept a few individual casualties where things go too far. So even without any C section caused evolution, big babies will continue to happen.

Even very big babies can often be born vaginally if they are in the right position. Heads squish and pelvises stretch. My first child was a stonking 9lb 10oz (about 4.5kg) but plenty of people have babies that big. Perhaps my pelvis was too small for her or, more likely, the problem was her difficult position. Babies heads aren't perfect spheres and pelvises aren't round holes, try to stick one through the other the wrong way around and it just doesn't work (See this blog about the study for a lot more info on that). 

So, as is so often the case, what we have here is some academically interesting work about something that isn't very significant for the vast majority of people but which has, by virtue of being about women's bodies, been built into a futuristic horror story. Something to both chastise us for our supposed choices and terrify us about our most powerful, normal, female act. 

There may be a slight evolutionary shift in how we give birth because of the availability of a safe way to save some of us from death in childbirth but it won't spell the end for normal human reproduction. I for one will be sorry if I have passed on genes to my daughters that will make it harder for them should they ever choose to become mothers. I hope the many other factors at work will spare them surgery. I would myself have preferred normal births to the blood loss and grueling recoveries of my c sections. But without those c sections I would not be here, my daughters would not be here and if the price of their lives, and all the other babies like them, is yet another tiny tweek in our constantly tweeked gene pool then tweek away I don't care, bring on the evolution.

SBx

Monday, 21 November 2016

Silencing Negative Birth Stories


Silencing negative birth stories only helps to create more, robs women of their voice and treats us like delicate snowflakes who can't be trusted with the truth. Remind me again what century this is?


Keep
Quiet
and
Carry
On


That seemed to be the message on twitter recently, from a senior midwife to women who've had difficult experiences of childbirth. She wanted more women to share their positive stories so that midwives could learn from them. But warned against sharing anything negative with our daughters or pregnant friends.

I'm not going to go further into names or details because this opinion is hardly unique. It's one I heard a lot when I was a first time pregnant mum myself, now more than seven years ago. I had however hoped it was dying out because it's flat out wrong for a number of reasons.

Firstly - who gets to decide who can share their story?

We live in an age when everyone can choose to share as much or as little of their life as they like. The right to free speach is brandished like a sacred weapon, even when what is said brings offense or incites violence. In that context are the everyday stories of women's lives so very shocking that they must be silenced? Why should a mother who lost her baby be less entitled to a voice than those of us who took our newborns home safely?

To tell your story, be it positive or negative, isn't a judgement on others. It isn't a lesson in how to (or not to) give birth. But all too often that is exactly how these things are interpreted. Tell a "horror story" and you are clearly looking for sympathy, being dramatic and trying to scare other women. Tell a happy tale and you are smug and judgmental.

Women have been told to keep quiet about our lives for millennia, now that we are finding our voices, let's try to listen to each other. Just listen. And accept the value of differing experiences and insights. Without assuming they say anything about us. Where there are lessons to be learned (for midwives or anyone else) they need to come from the good stories and the bad. Flying is (supposedly) the safest way to travel, but it didn't get there by only investigating the planes that landed safely.

Silencing the negative can also cause real, individual harm. I know this from personal experience, and to tell my story involves a confession: I was willfully, arrogantly, naive about childbirth.

I had always known I wanted children and years before I was ever pregnant I knew I wanted to give birth to them as naturally as possible. I wanted to experience that great universal female act. So I sought out information to help me in that aim. I read the books and websites, I did the classes and I embraced their message: You are made to give birth,  you just need to have faith in your body.

I was told to ignore the negative stories. Women die in developing countries because they are too small, young and malnourished to give birth. In the western world problems come when women are ill, fat, old or just get scared, wimp out and let the doctors start on their malicious interventions.

I had just turned 30, was six foot tall and in great health. I went into labour calm and confident and utterly unprepared for a 34 hour labour with a 9lb 10 oz back to back baby who's head size was off the scale.

I'd given no thought to emergency caesareans other than to tell myself it would never happen to me. The thundering clash between expectation and reality left the experience repeating in my head for years afterwards, and woke me sweating and panicked in my bed long after the physical damage had healed. Ironically, avoiding other peoples negative stories only added to the negativity of my own.

I won't lie to my daughter and say she arrived calmly in a birthing pool just as I'd planned, it is her story as much as mine, she deserves the truth. But I may gloss over some of the details, some of the fear. I'll tell her, as I tell pregnant friends, that I just got unlucky, we were both ok in the end and she was worth every minute. I want her and her sister to know that childbirth can be wonderful, joyous and empowering. But sometimes things don't go to plan and when that happens, if you are lucky enough to live in a developed nation, then modern medicine will usually get you through it. That even if the very worst thing happens, the thing you push from your mind as you stroke your growing belly, then you are no less normal, no less deserving of a voice than anyone else.

Which should surely all be obvious? We live in a time where Women are supposed to be treated as intelligent human beings. Where we are supposed to be supported to make informed decisions about our own bodies. So how does this belief that we can not handle the harder truths and should be shielded from them for our own good still persist?

Being told to hide away our stories of difficult births lest they scare other women seems both patronising and, worryingly for a message that comes mostly from other women, patriarchal: mustn't scare the weaker sex, best pretend it's all candles and cute babies or they'll get in such a fluster they won't be able to give birth properly, or  *gasp* they'll start demanding pain relief or C sections!

Seriously??

Most first time pregnant Mums are grown ups. We know that TV dramas aren't real life and that newspapers pick the most sensational stories. We know that just because something happened to the woman at the end of the street, that doesn't mean it will happen to us. We know that life isn't risk free but we still get up in the morning and get on with it.

You don't empower women by treating them like scared children, by telling us that life is all rainbows and unicorns and hiding the monsters under the bed so we will behave in the way you think best. That is true whether the "you" in question in a husband, a government, a whole society or a senior Midwife.

We need facts and then we need the support to turn these into realistic expectations, choices and personal opinions. We need to be prepared for the wonderful births and the difficult, complicated ones. Then the stories will be created. They may not all be happy, but each one will be unique and each one will be worthy of telling.

SBx

I want the truth!
You can't handle the truth!
(no idea what the weird eyes are about on here)

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Unreal World Of The Academic Scientist


I'm an academic (more or less). Which is great because it means I don't live in the "real world". No, I was born into a magical land where all I've ever had to do is sit in nice places (mostly Gothic in style), and think. I've definitely never worked in dull, crappy jobs to pay my rent or had to shuffle embarrassed from the supermarket when all my cards were declined. And my ivory tower is free of "real" things like bills and weather, so I've never gone to bed with two coats on to keep warm or lived somewhere where the rain came in through the bathroom wall.

I'm doubly lucky to be not just an academic but an academic Scientist. This means I am untroubled by all those things scientists aren't interested in, like personal appearance, or any kind of art. Even better I never have to bother with those tiresome sounding human relationships. I've never had a broken heart, lost a loved one or tried to juggle all my important thinking with caring for sick children.

Heck no, the real world isn't for me. I just think pointless thoughts, the magic spirits of academia sort out everything else.

Yes, I am being sarcastic.

Yes, this has been known to happen before.

On this occasion it was prompted by Tory MP Glyn Davis:


I'll admit sarcasm isn't a very mature or even a very vehement response. But, like most scientists and academics, I have come across  similar sentiments over and over again. We are seen by some as somehow "other". Different from "normal" people in their "real" world.

Scientists, and academics more broadly, are supposed to be aloof from reality and either baffled by or disinterested in anything or anyone other than our narrow little fields of interest. Ok, I'd be lying if I said there was no one like that. I've certainly worked with a few people who didn't play nicely with others, or consistently turned up in back to front and inside out clothes. But they are memorable because of their rarity.

I have worked with far more scientists who have very full and very "real" lives. My job often involves long periods of time watching experiments with other people. If nothing is going wrong, we chat. Yes about their research, but also about their kids; the problems of picking a school or juggling work and childcare when the cells in your dish won't let you work 9-5, but nursery still shuts at 6. There are fears for elderly relatives living far away or worries about getting another job once the latest fixed term contract is up. These are very ordinary concerns, a PhD certificate doesn't wave them away.

Then there is the related idea that academics have no interest in anything else, that we are lodged firmly and solely in our cold, rational left brains. Well firstly that left brain right brain thing is total nonsense and historically great scientists were often also artists. Science requires creative thinking. Not just looking at something and thinking ooh, that's pretty, but wondering why it is, wrapping your imagination around the question and asking - could it possibly be because of .....?

I've worked with people who have played in chamber orchestras, west end shows and rock bands. People who can draw wickedly accurate (and wickedly funny) cartoons or spend their spare time painstakingly restoring antique clocks. I have colleagues who are fabulous cooks, ultra marathon runners or computer game masters. And lots of people who just like to crash out on the sofa and watch Game Of Thrones, play with their kids or take the dog for a long walk.


Typical academic, turning his back on the real world.

All of my colleagues are extraordinary scientists, some excel in other areas too, but all of them do all the normal stuff. They all have to somehow pay the rent or the mortgage, not an easy task on a post doc salary in central London. They all have to go to the supermarket and take out the bins. None of us were born university graduates. Our institutions don't manage every aspect of our lives for us and unless we are very very unusual our salaries won't run to a PA and team of household staff.

Yet according to Glyn Davies, we aren't "real" and so our opinions, opinions on subjects we have studied and wrestled with for years, can simply be ignored and, sadly, he's not the only one.

A few years ago I was in a minicab and the driver asked me what I did for a living. It's a question that always makes me pause for a moment. Should I tell the truth? "I'm a scientist and I work in Cancer research". It usually goes one of two ways: "ooh that's really...worthy...(silence)" which is understandable, though a little uncomfortable. The other way, the way the minicab driver went, is the accusation that we are all going to hell for denying God (FYI I have plenty of colleagues with strong and varied religious beliefs, we aren't all Dawkins) and that we are hiding the cure for cancer.

The threat of eternal damnation upsets me, the accusation that I'm hiding the cure for cancer makes me furious.

Scientist do live in the real world, a strange little corner of it perhaps, but a corner where some of us get sick with cancer, and some of us die from it. All of us have watched loved ones battle through Chemo and wished there was something better and kinder. All of us have lost people we care about and would have done anything to save. The idea that we would simply let them suffer and die for the sake of some grand conspiracy and our mediocre pay slips would be ridiculous if it weren't so offensive.

We seem to live in a time when politicians sitting in ornate debating chambers and billionaires bellowing at thousands in a stadium, see no need for experts. We are all experts now, just decide what you believe and do a quick Google to find someone who says you're right. Those with power and money can define who and what is real to suit their agenda or prejudices. That scares me.

I want my house to have been built by experts who knew what they were doing. When I buy it I want an expert solicitor who will check every detail and when the boiler goes wrong I want the Corgi registered, highly trained expert to deal with the gas in my home. If my kids are sick I want expert doctors who have spent years and years training and working in that disease and drugs developed by expert scientists who've tested them in every imaginable way.

Because I have no idea how to lay a brick, write a contract or cure a sick a child. I may be an academic scientist, a specialist in my own little field but I don't have time to learn all those other skills, not to the level that people who spend their lives on them do. I'm too busy getting my kids out of the house on time in the morning, ramming myself into the commuter train, trying to meet my deadlines and get through all the laundry before someone runs out of socks.

You know, that stuff people do in the "real world", that place I've never been.

SBx

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Science Tries To Make Babies Without Women, Newspapers Try To forget Us Altogether


Stand down ladies, our work is done. Apparently scientists have found a work around for that one and only useful thing we do: helping men have babies. The poor lads no longer need to put up with us taking up space on the planet, they can replicate unhindered.




Various news sites have been reporting on a new research published in Nature Communications. The articles claim that it may be possible to create babies without an egg, by instead using a sperm and a skin cell. So far the work has been done in mice but we're told that if it works in humans then gay male couples could have babies with both of their DNA or men could go it alone and have a child that is solely theirs. Women, we're told, will not be needed anymore.

The Science Bit

Here's the thing it's easy to miss amid the chest beating enthusiasm: The research was done in mice and it used egg cells. Egg cells that had been tinkered with (so they were a bit more like skin cells) but real life - came from a girl mouse - egg cells.  Scienctists didn't just chuck sperm over supper potent male skin cells and POOF! baby mice. The whole skin cell thing is just an idea at this point, no one has actually done it.

Also, while the male contribution to producing a baby is often little more than the delivery of that one wining sperm, for women there is a little bit more too it; there's that whole womb thing for starters

Because those baby mice didn't just go "POOF!" and appear fully formed in the paternal petri dish. The Misters-are-doing-it-for-themselves embryos were placed into a lady mouse and it was her body which held them, her blood which fed every new cell, every replicating male gene. Scaled up to human size that equals nine months of hard physical work, of pain and sickness and exhaustion. Before you even get to the birth bit.

But this isn't mentioned anywhere in the articles. It's as if this research has wiped women from both the genes and the memory. As if we are nothing but packaging material - something to be tossed in the recycling bin once the goods have been delivered.

I have absolutely nothing against the science. I don't hold with slippery slope arguments and invoking Brave New World or 1984 as a means of stifling scientific curiosity. I want to know about the world, I want to use that knowledge to make it better. This work - and more importantly the work that will follow as other scientists repeat and dig deeper into it - could help us to better understand conception, which in turn could give clues to treating infertility or perhaps preventing miscarriage. I can see why Gay men may want children that share their biology or why a man may want to go solo into parenting, as many women already do.

The Ranty Bit

What bugs me isn't the genetic avoidance of women in the science, it's the complete absence of us from the commentary. If this technique can help two men to create a child why not a woman and a man who would otherwise need IVF and an egg donor? The BBC article doesn't think to mention this but surely our female skin cells are as capable of transformation as a mans?

And where is the discussion on how all those babies will be gestated? We don't have artificial wombs, so where are all these insignificant  human vessels to come from? Perhaps it's not too surprising that The Sun, a paper that glories in supplying men with women's bodies, didn't question this, or dwell over long on the more subtle potentials of the science. Instead it ran with the headline:


Well in that case ladies, I say we let them. I've done three pregnancies, ending in three surgeries, let's let the "blokes" reading The Sun take a turn with the stretch marks and heart burn, with the months of exhaustion and worry, with the uncertainties and risks of giving birth. While they're at it they can have menstruation and the menopause too. Because I think our half of the species is long over due a break. When is science going to come up with that?

SBxx

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Surprise! Dolls Don't Stop Teenage Pregnancy


A young woman is woken in the middle of the night by the sound of crying. This is the third time so far and she is exhausted. She pushes back the duvet and swings her cold feet to the floor, wondering what awaits her, another feed, another wet nappy? What has the programming decided to wake her for this time?



Fake baby dolls have been used all over the world for years to scare teenagers, usually girls, off the idea of getting pregnant. If you've experienced the utter soul sapping exhaustion of caring for a new born it seems like common sense, give a teen a taste of that and they will be put off the idea of taking it on for real. Right?

Except assumptions, even when they seem so obvious, can be wrong. This is why sometimes we need people who ask seemingly silly questions and scientists who will answer them.

Scientists like the group in Australia who looked to see if the baby dolls really did lower the teenage pregnancy rate and found that not only did the dolls not reduce the number of girls getting pregnant, they actually seemed to increase it.

Given how widely the dolls have been used it is perhaps surprising that no one has ever done a proper scientific check before to see if they actually work. But there is no published data. So the Australian team set up a controlled trial. They recruited 57 schools and randomly assigned them to be either test sites, where the doll program was run, or controls who just got standard health education classes. In all, almost 3000 teenage girls were involved and the researchers used medical records to follow them up until they reached twenty.

When they put all the numbers together it was clear that those who took the dolls home were more likely to have a baby or an abortion in the subsequent years.

But perhaps that shouldn't be such a surprise. It strikes me that the doll program grossly oversimplifies both being a mother and being a teenage girl.



Firstly, girls often only get the dolls for a weekend, and while two or three nights of disturbed sleep is tough, it's nothing compared to the accumulated exhaustion of being in demand 24/7 for months or even years. I also doubt the cry of a plastic toy could truly grab you by the heart and guts in quite the way that the scream of your own flesh and blood baby does.

Besides, real life new mums are taking on far more than just sleep deprivation and night feeds. There's the physical after effects of pregnancy and birth, the constant worry over keeping the baby safe and over every one of a million choices in how to raise it. Then there is the probably permanent loss of your previous, child free life. Nothing in the world can truly prepare you for the realities of becoming a mother. So it's perhaps not so surprising that a weekend with a demanding doll doesn't do it either.

But the dolls failure says less about the girl's inability to grasp the reality of motherhood than it does about everyone else's poor understanding of the lives of teenage girls.

Most of them are smart enough to realise that there must be some positives to motherhood. After all, most women who go through the months of new born chaos are eventually quite keen to do it all again.

More sadly, some teenage girls see few other options in their future. The dolls may give them a breif glimpse of a purpose or even of some kind of status. "Mother" is the only roll that seems both significant and achievable. Even though girls now often outperform boys at school our society still focuses on what women and girls do with our bodies and present motherhood as an essential, an ultimate purpose and duty. Often little else is on offer.



Trying to scare girls off teen pregnancy with a weekend of simulated semi motherhood isn't going to work unless we can ensure girls have desirable and attainable alternatives and that they believe their worth doesn't rest solely in their reproductive organs. That of course is far harder. It also involves the boys. The study didn't look at the effect of boys taking the dolls home or how this may have changed their behavior with girlfriends, their opinion of motherhood or the role of women.

As ever, the responsibility for pregnancy and preventing it is placed entirely on the potential mothers, even when they are still children themselves. Even when the baby is a doll.

SBx