Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Searching for Genderless Toys

Yesterday, a facebook friend linked to Feminist Frequency's video discussing lego and gender (Part One and Part Two.  Transcripts included in the links).  In summary, the complaint is that Lego's new 'Friends' set, aimed at girls, is set firmly apart from what might otherwise seem to be a gender-neutral set: 'City'.  Through their marketing, Lego are actually working to segregate the genders, by having clearly distinguished boys toys and girls toys.  It's not their intent, they're simply following a successful model and did the research to back that up, but the presenter felt that they should be more accountable for the message they're sending out.

I am mostly in sympathy with the presenter here (can't say I agreed on every point), because this is an issue I ran into recently.  Only not with Lego.

My son (who turned three in December) has recently got into Fisher Price's Imaginext.  We have a few planes and some emergency responders and accessories.  He loves them, and I was very taken by them as well, to the point that I wanted to invest in some more and build up a really good set for him to play with.  Since all his figures were male, I thought a good starting point would be to introduce some diversity and look for some female figures.  This proved somewhat harder than I anticipated.

Although Imaginext looked to me like a fun and gender-neutral toy, it turned out that all these sets were marketed to boys and all the figures were male, with the exception of sets themed on an existing franchise.  So I can get a Catwoman figure, but not a female firefighter.

Bemused, I decided to look up Imaginext for girls, reasoning that such a successful line must have a girls' set of products, even if I've never seen them.  That led me to Precious Places, a cheerful little fantasy line, with princesses, princes, leisure activities, cute animals and, yes, it's fair share of pink and purple.

There is an awful lot I could say here, but I am just going to save my tirade on what constitutes a girl's toy for another post, when my daughter's older.  My current issue is that I have a son and a daughter.  I would like to buy toys that both children can play with together.  To, y'know, encourage a close relationship and to give them plenty of practice in cooperation.  When I decided to try for a second child, my motivation was that a sibling was the greatest gift I could give my son.  I am not going to create an arbitrary barrier between them just because that sibling was a sister!

Now clearly girls can play with boys' toys if they want to and vice versa.  My brother used to play My Little Pony with me; I used to play Transformers, G I Joe and MASK with him (actually, I'm a fan of Transformers to this day, despite the best efforts of the recent movies).  Similarly my son and my daughter are bound to have different interests.  And there are studies showing that boys and girls do play differently, even at a young age.

Nevertheless, while my daughter might ultimately decide she wants to play with dolls rather than her brother's train-set, I don't want her to feel excluded from the train-set.  And I certainly don't want to teach my son that girls have no place in action, adventure, motorised vehicles and emergency response.

Of course, there's always that marketing creed that boys don't want female action figures etc.  They don't sell.  I don't doubt that this has some truth (even if it is a sweeping generalisation) for older children, say, five and up.  But my son hasn't quite figured gender out yet.  He knows that there are boys and girls, but he doesn't really understand or care about the distinction (I have talked about the anatomy side of it on occasion, but I've not gone into any depth).

One of his favourite films is Lilo and Stitch, and he likes to pretend that Lilo is himself, repeating her lines and actions (Stitch is his sister--an apt piece of casting!).  I was surprised that he gravitated towards Lilo and not the more exciting Stitch, but it makes sense.  He doesn't watch many shows with an actual child character, and Lilo says and does things that he can identify with (particularly shouting "No!").  Her gender comes secondary to her age.

And of course, there's something rather wonderful about him being too young to be sexist or racist or any other form of bigot simply because he is genuinely blind to such differences.  I know that won't last, but I would love to be able to take advantage of it by populating his toys with diversity.  And, since he is not going to complain if one of his pilots has pigtails and breasts, why can't the pre-school marketed toys reflect that equality?

I should note that it's entirely possible that my son might turn out to be transsexual, but I'm assuming he isn't, due to statistical probability and the fact that he seems to act like all the other little boys of my acquaintance.  Of course, if he is transsexual, that would be even more reason to avoid any gender barriers!

Let's take another example: Transformers.  I'm not ready to introduce my son to combat storylines yet; I want to avoid the black and white morality of good vs evil, until he's old enough for me to discuss shades of grey with him.  Hasbro recently brought out a Transformers toyline and cartoon for a younger demographic, featuring Autobots and human allies as emergency response units.  This was right up my son's street, and he loves the cartoon.

All the robots in this line are male, but the cartoon features a woman as a helicopter pilot.  Much to my disappointment, the toyline uses different human characters, all of which are male.  To Hasbro's credit, you can buy female Transformers in the line for older children.  Of course this sets up the irony that they're now trying to reverse an attitude that they are instilling in the children to start with!

At first glance, I thought the solution to my problem would be to buy products for both boys and girls and blend them together, but as I found with Imaginext, that isn't entirely straightforward.  I could probably use the princesses and carriages from Precious Places with some of the other Imaginext fantasy sets, but my son isn't into fantasy, and the long dresses would preclude the princesses from fitting into his planes, even if I was willing to stretch reality.

Lego would seem to have an advantage here, since you can pop a female head onto a firefighting body, and ta-da!  One female firefighter!  Their Friends line doesn't help this by having completely different figures, but a few female figures from the basic line could at least be recycled.

The real problem however is the colour coding.  I don't have any problems with my son playing with pink and purple toys--he's quite fond of the colour pink, and always chooses the little girl in a pink outfit as his playing piece when we play Snakes and Ladders.  What I object to is that this colour scheme (along with sea green and white as needed for contrast) has been set aside specifically for little girls and doesn't reflect the real world.

So Montessori influence creeps in for me here.  We have a metal pan and a wooden spoon for the play kitchen instead of plastic ones, because that's what Mummy uses in the real kitchen.  I certainly don't use pink utensils, or wear a pink apron, and when I use a hammer or screwdriver, I use the same ones Daddy does, and they're not pink or purple or anything but very utilitarian in appearance.

One of the toys we already have is a ramp for the Fisher Prices Wheelies... a range of chunky plastic cars with rolling wheels and a (non-removable) driver.  The two cars that came with it both had male drivers which I named Jensen Button and Lewis Hamilton after the F1 drivers.  I decided to buy a couple of girl cars to complement the set, and immediately ran into the problem that while the male-driven cars were all in colours approximating what you would find in the real world (if somewhat brighter), the handful of female cars were in the market-approved colour scheme.  I ended up getting a plum race car and a sea green 4x4, consoling myself that at least the vehicles weren't dainty (their drivers were dubbed Thelma and Louise).

Thinking back to my own childhood, before we got into My Little Pony and Transformers, my brother and I both played with Playmobil.  Casual research on that shows a similar issue with certain sets marketed to boys and certain marketed to girls, although encouragingly, only the magical castle line is bombarded with the pink and purple.  All the modern sets use colours appropriate to the real world.  Even the boys' sets seem to have female characters, although they're still very much a token character in a male dominated line.

This kind of segregation is what sets the gender bias apart from the racial bias.  It's also tough to find action figures of different colours (in many cases, much harder than finding female action figures), but at least the black characters are fully interchangeable with the white ones.  Girls' lines are quite literally set in a world of their own.

Imagine if this did apply to race as well.  Imagine if stores not only had sections for boys' toys and girls' toys, but separate aisles and colour schemes for toys for black children too.  Doesn't sit comfortably does it?

The London toy-store, Hamleys, recently responded to pressure from parenting groups by neutralising their layout, and grouping toys by interest rather than which gender they're aimed at. (I've not been round Hamleys in years, but I'm dying to go now and check it out).  I'd love to see this trend take off with other stores.  You can still have a fashion doll section, but wouldn't it be great to have a fantasy section (where princesses and unicorns were allowed to rub shoulders with knights and dragons), or a city life section where dollhouses and leisure activities were next to emergency vehicles and construction?

However, when it comes down to it, toy companies aren't just marketing to boys and girls... they're marketing to us parents, and we're also responding well to the colour coding and gender segregation.  The companies aren't selling female characters to three year old boys because they won't buy them; they aren't selling them because their parents won't buy them. 

I don't consider myself to be on a big gender neutral crusade nor to be doing anything particularly unusual with my children.  But I will acknowledge that I'm in the minority for waiting to distinguish the genders (in play anyway; I can't say I'm putting my son in a dress nor have I opted for unisex names!), and that I too am susceptible to the advertising status quo.

Ultimately, I believe it's something worth stopping and thinking about.  When I decided to try for a second child, my motivation was that a sibling was the greatest gift I could give my son.  Am I to create an arbitrary barrier between them just because that sibling was a sister?

For more on this subject, here's an excellent article by Peggy Orenstein: Should the World of Toys be Gender Free? 

PS I've realised that when making comparisons to racial diversity in toys, I only referred to black characters, omitting the other races.  Obviously, this is a post about gender in toys, not race in toys, but I regret the implication that black characters are all we need for diversity.  This is perhaps its own comment on the presentation of racial diversity in toys...

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Pancakes and a few updates

Yesterday was Pancake Day, the traditional UK Shrove Tuesday celebration (the idea is you're using up the things you can't eat during Lent). Obviously, we're quite keen on keeping up with UK holidays, and this particular tradition is one of our favourites. At least, it is for me and my husband. Our children don't appear to like pancakes. Bah, humbug.

Still, we made them each eat one and after they went to bed, we and a couple of friends fried up the rest of the batter and used up vast amounts of lemon juice and sugar. Mmmm. Maybe next year the children will like them.

 I wanted to follow up on a couple of earlier posts: the one about discipline and the one on de-cluttering. My 'consequences without anger' line is working very well. I'm a lot calmer and feeling more on top of the situation, and my son is a lot more responsive. He still seems to be going through a difficult phase, and I'm still not sure how much of that is my own intolerance, but general behaviour is back to a functional level. I've also been trying to stay aware of when I'm cross with him just because he's irritating me rather than because he's doing anything wrong per se.

As far as de-cluttering, I haven't been able to follow through on that as much as I'd hoped, but I did put a bunch of toys up in the attic, which has helped immeasurably. I wanted to do some more one on one play with the kids, but I'm struggling to find the right opportunities to do it, so that's an ongoing project. On the occasions that I have managed to sit down with them, it's been rewarding though. I could observe my daughter practising her fine motor skills, while my son and I did some colouring and tracing. I still worry a little about the attention span, but at least they've both proved themselves able to get absorbed in an activity.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Book Review: The Very Busy Spider

One of the things I've been meaning to do for awhile now is write out reviews of some of my (and my children's, where different,) favourite books that we read together.  I know quite a few bloggers do this, and I always appreciate them when I find them, because it can be a pain in the arse figuring out which of the many many children's picture books are the cream of the crop.  Ignoring my own childhood, I've been acquiring a go-to list of great books for over five years, ever since I started helping out with the toddler class at what is now my son's school.

But the first book I'm going to review is my daughter's choice.  I recently set up a box of board-books by the sofa, so she can pull one out and drag it over to me to read to her.  This has the advantage that I don't have to collect the book myself and the disadvantage that I can't sit on the sofa without having a book shoved at me.  Oh, and of course, that independent, she gets to choose the book and time to read thing (which is just as well, since I was very forgetful about making time to read prior to this).

This approach worked like a charm in instigating my son's love of books, and it's had the same effect on my daughter.  Her particular favourite was Eric Carle's The Very Busy Spider, which has now been relegated to her bedroom, so I only have to read it at bedtime, as opposed to twenty times a day.

The Very Busy Spider

Eric Carle is best known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar (which is brilliant for a number of reasons) and he's done a number of other books, some of which are brilliant and some not so much, but generally, he's a fairly safe bet as authors go.  I personally don't find The Very Busy Spider as engaging as some of his other stories, but both my children have loved it.

The gimmick of the book is "A board book to feel as well as read and hear."  The spider's web is raised on the page, so children can feel it.  The spider herself is outlined with a series of raised bumps, and there's a fly on most pages that gets the same treatment.  It's kind of fun, although the overall story and presentation are better.

I don't know if this is available as a paper rather than board book, but my recommendation would be to get a board book edition.  As with most of Eric Carle's art, it's very simple in layout, with big colourful animals and no backgrounds, appealing to babies while textured enough to fascinate older children.  The story is a little long for the youngest babies, but short enough to keep the attention of the under-threes (my daughter just turned one).

The overall story (and I am going to assume that nobody reading these reviews cares about spoilers!) is about a spider spinning her web in a farmyard, and ignoring the various farm animals who come and talk to her.  Double-page spreads are used throughout the book, mostly with a farm animal on the left with a fly buzzing around them, and the fence with the spider spinning her web on the right (she starts the web at the beginning of the book, and it is complete by the end).

Except for the beginning and end, the left-hand text goes: '"[animal sound]!" said [animal]. "Want to [activity]?"'  The right hand text is: 'The spider didn't answer.  She was very busy spinning her web.'

The final page features a night-time scene, and the web is invisible against the navy blue background, but the spider and her web can still be felt (my daughter usually ignores the previous web-pages, but she always scratches at the last one with a giggle).

Notes for the Parent

Once the spider's web is finished, she catches the fly that appeared on the lefthand pages (although it is not mentioned until the spread when it's caught).  The book doesn't mention what happens to the fly after it's caught and the next page depicts a fly-free web.  Basically, if you're squeamish about explaining to your child that the spider ate the fly, you don't have to.  It's too complicated a concept for me to bring it up with my daughter, but if her three year old brother is listening to the story, I tell him that spiders eat flies.  When the spider catches the fly, he now shouts "And ate it!" with entirely inappropriate glee.

The loose moral to the story is to work instead of play, but it's a bit vague, and you could equally say that it promotes anti-social behaviour, since the spider-heroine resolutely ignores the animals' friendly overtures!

The protagonist is female.  No other genders are specified (although one assumes the cow is female, the rooster is male and the duck appears to be a female mallard), but it's not really a story with characters to identify with, just to entertain.  There are no human characters.

Educational Stuff

This doesn't really teach anything, unless you count the animals and their noises.  It does introduce the concept of spiders spinning webs and catching flies.  The progress of the web-spinning is shown over different pages, which is a nice sequencing thing, although it's probably too complicated for the target audience to follow.

The art is done in Eric Carle's distinctive style, and although all the animals are coloured correctly (save the spider, which has a blue head and red body), it's not aiming at realism.  The spider itself has a more anthropomorphic than arachnid face (two eyes and a nose).  Due to the small size of the character, it's only really noticeable on the front cover.

Like a lot of Eric Carle's work, it encourages a left to right progression, with all the animals facing to the right.  The first two pages of the book, feature the spider-thread trailing across the pages (ultimately leading to the fence where she spins), and older children can trace this from left to right with their finger.

The animals are loosely ordered by size, going from large to small--although they are not drawn to scale!  It reads a little like a reverse of "There was an Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly", starting with a horse, and ending with the spider catching the fly on the suggestion of a bird.

Overall, it's probably the repetition (and the animal noises) that makes this a big hit with my children.  After several iterations of 'The spider didn't answer.  She was very busy spinning her web,' my daughter will turn to me, grinning broadly, when the spider catches the fly instead.  My son was besotted with it at a similar age, and still enjoys it, but he never chooses it himself.  He's moved onto more elaborate stories.

For a parent book recommendation, check out the series of books based on the webcomic, the Order of the Stick, the proposed reprints of which have been making Kickstarter history for the past month.  Grown-ups can have picture books too!

Monday, 13 February 2012

Communication with a past self...

I am in the midst of another cold.  Both children look like they have it too.  Aargh.

I will never, ever again make a start of year post about how much fun I intend to have this year.

But I will do a quickie post, because after my daughter's birthday last week, I got all nostalgic and just for kicks, went back reading old journal entries in previous Februaries.  I came across something I'd written on 9th February 2008, as I was preparing to move to the next step of fertility treatments (which ended up being IVF).  I was despondent about how long everything might take, about how much more delay there would be before I could get pregnant, and annoyed with myself for being so upset about such things when other people had far longer waits.

I naturally wondered what it would have been like had somebody told me then that I would have my son by the end of that year and that three years later, I would be in the hospital following the birth of my daughter.  (A similar scenario takes place in the book, The Time Traveller's Wife.)

Somewhat to my surprise, my instinctive reaction was that I was glad nobody had told me.  On further thought, that's ridiculous.  Knowing that I would have my son, certainly, meant I would have fretted less during the early stages of pregnancy, and arguably might have been better prepared for the actuality of his birth...  It might not have changed my life in any concrete fashion, but I would have been much more relaxed and happier.

So why can't I help but feel glad that I didn't know?  A subconscious aversion to going against the order of nature?  Or perhaps because that stress has all gone into what makes me me today.  We grow through our suffering and all....

On the other hand, I'm reasonably sure that back in February 2008, I would have preferred a spoiler for the eventual outcome of our efforts, even if it was that we would have had no children at all.  Or maybe it's just easier for me to say that now.

Too much pondering makes my head hurt.  Off to blow my nose again...

Saturday, 11 February 2012


We had some snow this evening, with a chance of more overnight.  It's the first we've had, since the winter's been so mild up until now.  Last weekend, we bought a sled on clearance at Target, thinking that we might be able to use it next year.  With a bit of luck, we might be able to use it tomorrow...  But not too much luck.  I'd rather not be snowed in for the next week!

That said, what I really need is to do some spring cleaning.  If there's one aspect of Montessori that I'm very very bad at, it's the prepared environment.  I do not have tidy habits....  It's something I try to work on, but I'm like a rollercoaster dieter: I'll tidy furiously, and keep up my resolutions for a week or two (usually getting frustrated by how the children will not let me devote all my attention to it), then slack off again, and the house will go back to it's cluttered state.

Of course, I do like the way Montessori emphasises order and tidiness, and part of that is because I want my children to be better at this than I am.  So ever since my son was born, I've made it a priority to keep his space / things clean, clear and organised, and he has indeed been tidier than me since about the age of twelve months.

The problem is that the arrival of my daughter made it that much harder to keep up, and three years on from my son's birth, we have a lot more toys.  I've also got the challenge of keeping my child-friendly environment accessible and stimulating both to a non-walking baby and a three year old. 

For example, we have one of those storage units with multicoloured bins downstairs.  I made sure all the lower racks contained baby-friendly stuff, while the small and/or delicate things were on the top shelf, out of my daughter's sight.  However, while my son is well able to take one of the bins to our living room rug (i.e. the designated play area), my daughter can't carry them yet, so she just sits next to them and pulls everything onto the floor.

These days it's not just my daughter who's doing it.  Ever since Christmas, I've been noticing that my son has been getting less focused in his play and more likely to dump toys on the floor or start throwing them.  He knows perfectly well that if he wants to throw something, he should throw a ball--he'll parrot that rule back at me as soon as I bring the problem up.

The misbehaviour in itself is not what's bothering me (although I don't like it), it's the fact that it's become a rare thing to see him absorbed in his activities, and when I try to encourage him to do something, he's defaulting to a refusal.   Again, not always, but it's unusual for him to be willing to do anything that's my idea.

I do need to account for the fact that nearly all of 2012 so far has been spent with some illness or other working its way through our household.  As a result, I've been more tired, more distracted and more irritable (see also every blogpost this year, save for the first optimistic one!).  That kind of thing is always going to have a negative effect on my children's behaviour.

Nevertheless, his sudden lack of focus is disturbing... At the beginning of the year, I was anxious about how best to capitalise on a recent interest in learning the alphabet.  I needn't have worried, because he hasn't shown any interest in letters for weeks now, but it's not because a new interest has come along to replace it.  He's just not wanting to do anything.  At school, his behaviour and motivation have not changed; it's a home issue.

My daughter's focus has never been as good as her brother's.  It might just be her nature, but I've always wondered if it's because there's a lot more distraction in her environment... the television is more likely to be on, there are more toys, I'm messier than I used to be, etc. etc.  Now I'm worried that this messy environment is having a negative impact on her brother.

Whether I'm right or wrong on that score, I can't allow him to continue making a mess with his toys.  Since my efforts on that line have been failing, I need to reduce the toys.  My plan is to cut right back: Anything with lots of parts is going to get relegated to storage; make sure that there are no more than two things on any shelf, and try and keep the contents of storage bins to a minimum; Eliminate 'lights and noise' toys from the living area.

Step Two will require me to be more diligent about sitting down with the children and enforcing the rules: all toys stay on the rug; return toys / activities / work to their proper place when finished.  I'm generally happy to turn a blind eye to toys left out on the rug, provided they're cleared away by evening, but my daughter's just starting to follow directions, so now's a good time to be firmer about the rules and certainly more consistent!

Short term, I'd like to be able to sit down and work with either child more readily.  Long term, I'd like to bring some of the more complex toys back to the living area, and see them regain their novelty.  But ultimately, I want to see my son regain his attention span, and I'd like my daughter to improve hers.  Fingers crossed that this works.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Birthday Guilt

My daughter's birthday did not start well.  For me, at least.  She thought everything was just brilliant.  I, however, was afflicted with a chronic case of maternal guilt, comparing her birthday to her brother's, and feeling we weren't as excited this time, there weren't as many toys, less party guests....

But in the end, I don't really see what else we could have done.  Her birthday was on a Wednesday, so inviting people would, in many cases, mean asking them to take the day off--I could have had the party on the weekend, for all the difference she would have known, but precisely because she didn't know what was so special about the day, I felt we had to celebrate on the day.... if that makes any sense?  Besides, I don't really believe in having large parties for one year olds anyway: too much stimulation.

As far as toys went, she already has all the toys that her brother had at that age, and more.  I don't want to buy her toys just for the sake of buying toys, nor do I want to clutter up the house with a dozen more baby/toddler toys that both children will have grown out of in a year.  So we had a few toys on the wishlist, but we also asked people to buy her clothes, and we deliberately didn't get her a 'big' present, since we'll only end up buying them more stuff over the summer anyway.

Finally, there's our own enthusiasm.  OK, I can't do anything about the fact that her birthday came after we'd all been sick for two weeks and most of us were on antibiotics.  But still... shouldn't this be more fun?  A friend of mine today admitted that she wasn't looking forward to doing the whole first birthday party thing again, and I felt so relieved to know that I wasn't the only one.  It's not that I feel the occasion is any less special...  but the shine of planning the celebrations has turned into the stress of organising the day's events. 

Then there's the stress of having to make it comparable to her brother's first birthday.  True, for all she cared, she would be over the moon if I spent eight hours reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? to her.  The problem is that we have all these pictures of her brother's birthday and the festivities surrounding it.  I even put together a video of the day.  And yesterday morning, all I could think of was my daughter in ten years time going: "How come there aren't as many pictures of my first birthday?  Where's my video?  You love him more!"

These are the perils of living in the digital age.

Still, despite these morning doubts, the actual birthday panned out very well, and even the party was good fun.  She might not have had as many toys and guests, but I did improvise a play feature, to distinguish this from any other gathering.  We have half a dozen cheap dancing scarves in the primary and secondary colours.  I strung some yarn across the living room and pegged the scarves up to make a 'rainbow' for her to crawl through.  She loved it, and so did our cat.

That'll be something else for the rainy day ideas list!

It also bothered me more than I expected that she was turning one.  When I put her to bed last night, I couldn't quite get past the fact that it was our last interaction while she was still a baby, less than a year old... (actually, our last interaction was me putting her back to sleep at 11pm).

For the most part though, I'm just deeply grateful for all that I have, and so proud of my one year old girl for how far she's come.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Plague

A week and a half ago, I optimistically thought we were on the mend from the cold.  Hah.  The beginning of this week was rife with appointments being made, ear and eye infections being diagnosed and prescriptions being filled out.

Spread over the household, I've been administering medication nine times a day--and that's not counting vitamins or non-prescription painkillers.  Oof.  I lasted one day on the strength of my memory, and then I made a chart of what I was giving to who when, including when each medication was being discontinued... plus a space to make note of when I'd last given either child some pain medicine. 

Thanks to that, we've made it through the week with only one missed dosage and one overdose (the latter was myself... just taking the same pill twice instead of opening the other bottle--fortunately, no harm done).  Were I at school, I'd consider that a shocking track record, but at home, with just braindead me having to keep track of it all, it comes under the category of close enough.  I now have a renewed sympathy for all seriously understaffed hospitals.

We're still following this regime until the middle of next week, but we all seem to be well on the mend now, if utterly exhausted.  Most nights, at least one child has woken up wailing and naps have been hit and miss too.  My son's been off school, we haven't been able to do much playing with other children, and trying to keep up with the errands and chores has been an ongoing battle.

It's funny though, that this stress I could handle.  I think a lot of it was because I didn't have to work out what the problem with the children was.  One my daughter's eyes began streaming mucus, it was obvious, and my son could tell me himself once his ear started hurting.  I knew this wasn't going to be a quick fix, but I took on the challenge with relish and felt quite smug over how I kept things going.

Wish I was this composed about every parenting challenge!

Anyway, the children are no longer contagious and  my son's gone off to a super bowl party with my husband, while my daughter and I stayed at home, because I didn't want her staying up late and because I am very very bad at tolerating sports.  This is one American tradition that I'll let my husband handle.

It was kind of fun to be just the two of us for the evening.  I made chicken noodles with peanut sauce because the male half of the family don't care for it, so it was a real treat for us two.  My daughter was thrilled, bouncing in her chair and making happy noises as she ate.  It wasn't the easiest thing for her to manage, but she kept at it and only one string of noodles ended up on the floor--we follow the baby-led weaning method, so she feeds herself.  I was quite impressed, since concentration is not her strong point.

She'll be one year old next week...  That's sneaked up on us rather.  We only remembered today that we hadn't ordered her presents or bought her cards--fortunately, both are done now.  We've known what we're doing for the birthday for awhile, but the whole plague thing made us forget to start implementing said plans.

Also, she'll be one year old.  Huh. !

Friday, 3 February 2012

Embryos and Ethics

The above is a picture of my daughter.  She was eleven cells big.

OK, she could have been the embryo on the bottom, just five cells, but all indications are that it was the eleven cell embryo that took.  (I could also be completely wrong on which embryo is which.  I don't claim to be an embryologist.)

Alternatively, the picture doesn't show my daughter at all; rather the embryo that would achieve its genetic potential of becoming my daughter.

Why am I showing off my embryo pictures?  Because Newt Gingrich recently spoke out against embryonic stem cell research.  To quote from the linked article:
“I believe life begins at conception, and the question I was raising was what happens to embryos in fertility clinics, and I would favor a commission to look seriously at the ethics of how we manage fertility clinics,” Gingrich said at a news conference outside another Baptist church here. “If you have in vitro fertilization, you are creating life; therefore, we should look seriously at what the rules should be for clinics that are doing that, because they are creating life.”
Honestly, I think he makes a good point.  This is in no way an endorsement of Gingrich himself, who I consider odious even for a politician, but I absolutely agree we should all be thinking seriously about this issue and figuring out our ethical views on it.  My ethical views happen to be very different from Mr Gingrich's, but that's not necessarily relevant.

The problem comes when you try and get a hard and fast legal stand on this.  This has been discussed at length before on the internet and in the real world, most recently over The Mississippi Personhood Law.  If life legally begins before birth, it creates a host of issues, from a passport being required for a foetus to mothers being charged for manslaughter over a miscarriage. 

I'm not going to get into that here.  Instead I want to focus on when life does begin.  Even from a legal position it's more than 'at birth'.  There's viability, i.e. the point at which, if a baby is delivered pre-term, doctors will try and save its life (generally around 24 weeks).  This, of course, is not determined by when 'life' begins but rather when saving the baby's life becomes a realistic possibility.  A 20 week old embryo cannot be saved; a 25 week old one can.  A cold, hard truth, and I'm not the only mother who quietly breathed a sigh of relief at the 24 week mark.

However, let's go back to the basics, and look at Gingrich's belief that life begins at conception, something he's not alone in.  Certainly from a scientific point of view, embryos are definitely alive, but nobody's actually talking about the scientific definition.  We're looking at one more spiritual.  When does human life begin?  Or when does it become wrong to endanger / terminate the embryo?

(There are dozens of articles on this at The American Bioethics Advisory Commission if you're interested in something other than my take.)

A Look at Embryos and their Development

While undergoing fertility treatment, I was obsessive about the early stages of pregnancy and embryonic development, which ultimately changed my own thoughts about when life begins, so let's have a review of this.

For the in depth version, I can't do better than point you towards this blog-post by Fertility Lab Insider, but to keep things concise, I'm going to highlight what I consider to be the relevant points.

From conception and for a few days afterwards, the embryo is simply a dividing bundle of cells.  There is no distinction initially as to placenta cells or foetus cells.  It's only five days past conception, when the embryo becomes a blastocyst that an inner cell mass becomes visible: that is what's going to be the foetus.

Not all embryos get to that stage; not all blastocysts have an inner cell mass.  If you're really unlucky, you have a molar pregnancy where the cells implant but just become a (sometimes cancerous) mass rather than a foetus.

At around seven days post conception, the embryo begins to implant.  Many home pregnancy tests can start getting a positive about ten days post conception, and for the average woman, once you see that second line, you are more likely than not to be giving birth within nine months.

At three weeks post conception, the heart starts beating and the brain is beginning to form.  You can see/hear the heartbeat as early as six weeks pregnant, and once it's confirmed that that happens, your chances of miscarriage drop dramatically.

At twelve to fourteen weeks of pregnancy (ten to twelve weeks post conception), you're out of the first trimester.  If the foetus has made it this far, it's probably got what it takes to go full term and become a 'take home baby'.  Many people choose to announce their pregnancy at this point.

My Own Thoughts and Why They Don't Matter

I take a slightly religious slant on this, associating life in an ethical sense with a soul, and my belief (because it certainly can't be proven!) is that there needs to be a body for the soul to go to, so life begins sometime between five days and three weeks after conception, that is, sometime between the mass of cells destined to become the body forming and the basic structure for that body being developed.  The pre-blastocyst embryos are simply genetic material, much like eggs and sperm.  They have all the information set for building a unique human being, but they are not that being.

My stance is, of course, phenomenally vague, faith-driven and personal.  How could I begin to impose it on another person?  If, having read the above, you come to the same conclusion as me, that's great.  But if you come to a different conclusion, then I'd not be particularly surprised.  I think it's a basic human right that we are entitled to form our own beliefs (religious or otherwise)... in fact, I consider it our responsibility to form our own beliefs, giving them careful thought in the process.

I've always considered myself pro-choice.  I would hate to face the prospect of an abortion myself (I could say I'd never do it, but that's too easy when I'm never likely to be in that situation), but I have every sympathy for any woman who has one, all the more so because it's not something you can talk about openly.  I have always been grateful for the fact that nobody in our acquaintance has rebuked us for doing IVF, although chances are that some of them feel it's an immoral decision.  It's been respected as our choice (I'm not expecting the internet to grant me the same courtesy, but that's no reason not to post).

This respect is so important to remember.  I once witnessed a well-meaning person tell a woman to stop mourning her miscarriage because the foetus hadn't been alive.  That diminishing of her grief was one of the cruelest things I've ever come across.  I don't consider myself to have had a miscarriage, although technically, I've lost three embryos that were transferred into my uterus and never implanted (or failed soon after implantation).  For some women, that is a loss, and I respect that.

Even for me, the lines are blurred.  When we transferred the two embryos in the picture, we had wanted to avoid twins, had strongly considered just transferring one embryo, and felt guiltily relieved that one of the embryos was rather sorry-looking.  Yet I couldn't help but root for them both to make it, even though the thought of a twin pregnancy terrified me (and I was opposed to selective reduction).  I still attached sentiment to both those embryos, whether I considered them alive or not, and wanted to give them every chance.

The Attrition of Embryos in IVF

Now Gingrich was specifically addressing IVF, so let's look at the realities of that.  One of the common errors the media makes when discussing IVF is saying that the doctors implant the embryos into the woman's uterus.  The fact is, nobody fully understands what makes embryos implant.  All the doctors can do is transfer the embryos to the uterus and hope for the best.

To maximise the odds, they try to create lots of embryos so that they have some choice, although it still comes down to guesswork.  Transfer usually happens on day three or day five.  Waiting until day five (the blastocyst stage) means that you have a clearer idea of which ones are developing the best and thus are more likely to implant; however, there's a train of thought that embryos do better in the uterus than in a petri dish, so it's better to transfer on day three rather than risk weakening the embryo.  (There are probably other factors at work too, but this is how I understood it when we did IVF--we had day three transfers).

In either case, you should expect leftover embryos after the best have been transferred.  This, obviously, is where the ethical minefield comes into play.

Firstly, I'd like to point out that lots of IVF cycles don't have any embryos left over--some don't even have any for transfer.  The number of embryos is largely dependent on the number of mature eggs the woman can produce after undergoing hormone stimulation (the man's fertility issues may or may not be a factor).  Some women produce more than twenty... some less than five.  There isn't really a normal.

What is normal is a heavy attrition rate from eggs to viable embryos.  Not all eggs fertilise, some won't fertilise normally, and a high proportion of embryos stop dividing after the first day or two.  With fertile couples, there's only a 20% chance of well-timed intercourse resulting in a positive home pregnancy test.  Infertile couples obviously have even worse odds, and that's what medical science is trying to overcome by fertilising several eggs at once.

The Catholic stance on IVF is generally a firm 'no', but I understand that there are some Catholic IVF clinics, who take the line that it's OK as long as every embryo is transferred.  To achieve this without resulting in Octomom, they fertilise only as many eggs as they are prepared to transfer.  This, of course, reduces the odds considerably, and means that the couple is at greater risk of having gone through all the cost and effort for nothing.

As an illustration, I'm going to provide the stats for my own IVF cycles below.  As I said, there is no normal, so I can't be considered representative.  However, I'm not atypical either.  To give the relevant factors, my husband and I were thirty at the time of our first cycle and thirty two for our second.  I have polycystic ovarian syndrome; my husband has no fertility problems (actually, he received compliments on his sperm.  Smug git).

10 eggs
3 did not fertilise
2 abnormal fertilisations
5 fertilised normally

Day 3:
1 seven cell embryo
1 six cell embryo
1 five cell embryo
1 four cell embryo
1 three cell embryo

We transferred the seven and six cell embryos.    A single pregnancy and live birth resulted.

The remaining embryos were given a day in culture to see if they would develop further, but were ultimately discarded.

15 eggs
5 were too immature to fertilise
1 did not fertilise
1 abnormal fertilisation
8 fertilised normally

Day 3:
1 eight cell embryo
1 seven cell embryo
3 five cell embryos
1 four cell embryo
1 three cell embryo
1 one cell embryo

We transferred the seven cell embryo.  No pregnancy resulted.

The eight cell and five cell embryos were frozen (I do not know the exact cell numbers at time of freeze, although they would have continued to divide up until that point).  The remaining embryos were given a day in culture to see if they would develop further, but were ultimately discarded.

FET (Frozen Embryo Transfer)

1 ten cell embryo thawed perfectly
1 embryo lost some cells during the thaw, but continued to divide afterwards

Transfer (the day after thaw)
One eleven cell and one five cell embryo were transferred.    A single pregnancy and live birth resulted.

A few clarifying notes: there is more to embryo quality than cell count, which is why in our second cycle, we had a seven cell embryo transferred over the eight cell (though, as it turned out, the seven cell wasn't viable, while the eight cell likely resulted in our daughter).  I never asked for a more detailed grading of my embryos, simply because I didn't want to know.

Our clinic made the decision on which embryos were worth freezing, but note that they gave all embryos four days in culture to confirm that they had stopped dividing (i.e. that they had died).  That included a one cell embryo... or a normally fertilised egg that never actually divided in the first place.  They were, however, candid with me at all times about which ones we could expect to be viable, so I never had false hopes.

So what about those leftovers?

The astute among you will have noticed that at the time of my last transfer, we still had two frozen embryos.  I am not going to talk directly about those embryos, since that would mean bringing my husband's point of view into it.  Another post, perhaps.

But we're the perfect example: a family has two children (one of each, in fact), and could quite reasonably be considered to be complete.  Yet they have two more potential children hanging around in deep freeze.

Nobody goes into IVF wanting to have leftover embryos--most people want to have some to freeze in case the first try doesn't work, since a frozen cycle is so much easier and cheaper than a full cycle, but the secret ideal is to finish your family with nothing frozen.

Of course, when you just want to have a baby, it's easy to put off such thoughts and think: "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."  Reportedly, there are thousands of embryos frozen across the States because the couples responsible can't make the decision about what to do with them.

What are the options?  Well, one is just to transfer them anyway.  If they don't take, at least you gave them the chance.  If one does take, then your family is a little bigger than you planned, but that's not a big deal--obviously, this becomes less feasible if you have several extra embryos.

Another is to just keep paying the fees for freezing them indefinitely, so you never have to make the decision.

The more conventional options are as follows:
  1. Donate them to another couple
  2. Donate them to science (embryonic stem cell research)
  3. Thaw and discard them
Obviously, the pros and cons of these choices will depend on the individual's point of view.  Maybe it seems straightforward to you, or maybe it seems impossible.  Perhaps it would be easier or harder if you were facing this in reality rather than on a hypothetical basis.

Once we made the decision to do IVF, our clinic gave us a huge amount of paperwork to fill out before we could begin.  I don't know how much of this was required by law and how much of it was their own policy.  As part of this, we had to indicate our wishes regarding any frozen embryos in the event of one or both of us dying. 

This obviously was a prudent move to avoid lawsuits down the road, but it had the effect of making us think about it and discuss it with each other before we even started the drugs.  While my husband and I didn't have much trouble reaching an agreement, I can't imagine what it would be like if you find that you disagree after the embryos have been created....

The Role of the Clinic

So far, I hope I have made it clear that I do take the responsibility of these embryos seriously.  So in many ways, I am agreement with Gingrich.  However, he said: "We should look seriously at what the rules should be for clinics that are doing [IVF], because they are creating life."

Notice where we part ways?  Gingrich is placing responsibility on the clinics, rather than the parent, perhaps because it would be easier to get laws in place controlling the clinics.  But such laws could take ownership of the embryos away from the parents.  What exactly Gingrich thinks we should do with the thousands of embryos in storage, I've no idea, but I'm not going to assume I'd agree with him.

I would have no problem with regulations being enforced to make sure prospective patients are counseled about embryos and encouraged to discuss with each other what they would do with any spare.  But I would be fiercely opposed to anything that denied the parent the right to choose.  I shudder to think of somebody disposing of my embryos in a way that contradicted my ethics.

Obviously, the other concern is that this is simply Gingrich's way of beginning a crusade against IVF in itself, but that's a whole other set of ethical issues, and I'm not going to get into those--not in this post, anyway.

In the end, it doesn't matter to me whether the embryos pictured are my children or my genetic material.  I took on the responsibility for them, and I'm hugely grateful that I was granted the right to do so.