Stop the conflicting advice over childbirth – leave the black-and-white thinking to pandas

Like dying, birth is something we can all relate to.

There are many things you notice when you’re pregnant: the panicked look people give you when they’re not sure if you’re carrying a child or pronounced excess fat around your belly; the pointed glances from mothers with wailing toddlers that seem to say, “Just you wait!”; the almost competitive kindness of strangers to accommodate your new girth on the Tube (I’ve had whole rows urgently offering me their seats). Sometimes the attention is welcome – I’ll take the seat – but sometimes it’s excessive and wearying (the automatic download of unasked-for advice from veteran parents).

And then there’s the news. Stories directly relevant to my biological state cover the pages. In the past couple of weeks alone there was the furore around household chemicals that pregnant women were supposed to avoid: moisturisers, sun creams, food packaging, non-stick pans, shower gels, make-up. The authors evidently lived in a Henry David Thoreau-like wilderness, subsisting on a diet of home-grown turnips and forsaking all personal hygiene, such was the realism of their warnings.

Then there was the Drinking During Pregnancy Debate part 23, this time suggesting that the odd glass of wine was probably fine. To summarise all preceding 22 parts of the debate: it’s OK to drink, it’s not OK to drink; your child will probably be fine if you drink, you’re going to harm your unborn baby if you drink; your child will be a creative genius if you drink, your child will most likely initiate a school shooting if you drink – and so on. Most recently there was an anguished bellow about breastfeeding: apparently the number of children being breastfed has fallen for the first time in a decade.

On it goes: endless theorising, judging, arguing and counter-arguing about the best way people can do the thing they’ve been quietly getting on with for thousands of years. I don’t know if it’s worse now than it ever was: I’ve never been pregnant before. But quite quickly, as this small human grows inside you, you develop an awareness of the pious circus around reproduction, the apparently limitless opportunity for humourless hectoring, the persistent blast of moralising opinion.

At least I’m not Kate. Or Kim. Both the Duchess of Cambridge and the reality television star and mother of Kanye West’s child (I spent a long time trying to think of another, more succinct way of describing Kim Kardashian but there’s no way round it) have come under the kind of scrutiny during their pregnancies that might send any mortal mad. But then these women, by their own choice, exist for public performance. That is what they do. Even so, you can’t believe Kate enjoyed the bank of cameras outside the hospital where she was treated for copious puking; nor does it seem possible that Kardashian, the first lady of self-publicity, relished her ultrasound pictures being leaked to the press. Though she was happy to find out the sex of her baby on her television show, suggesting that her privacy barriers are somewhat porous.

Like dying, birth is something we can all relate to. Perhaps that’s why the appetite for such stories will never dim. Everyone can apply it to themselves even if they have no desire for children of their own: they were once born, they had mothers, they played their unrequested part in the life cycle. The closer I get to the big drop, as the father of a friend put it, the less I want to read and hear and talk about it. Or at least, the less I want to read and hear and talk about all the layers of stuff around it: the various methods and theories and speculations, which all seem to contradict each other, escalating into that high and agonising hum that calls itself, hilariously, a parenting philosophy.

I’m now firmly of the belief that childrearing should be approached in the manner I’ve found most reliable in other parts of life: chaotically muddling through.

Saying that, there has been one parenting story that has caught my eye in recent weeks, a story that I obsessively tracked around the internet for an evening. It’s the story of Haizi, a female giant panda in the Sichuan province of China who on 22 June, at around 5pm, gave birth to twin cubs. They came out ten minutes apart, both apparently healthy, and are the first giant panda cubs to be born in the world this year. Their conception alone is a sort of miracle – not quite immaculate but not far off.

Giant pandas are endangered (there are as few as 1,600 in the wild) and in captivity, they unhelpfully tend to lose their mojo, shall we say, and go off the idea of mating. Not only that, the females’ period of fertility is brief – only two or three days a year. Haizi hit the sweet spot in March when she mated with two males, Bai Yang and Yi Bao, and began to exhibit, the Xinhua state news agency delicately declared, prenatal behaviour in May. There’s some footage, and it’s an amazing thing to see: a hulking bear with her miniature offspring, skinny and pink. Panda cubs turn grey after a few weeks and only eventually black and white, and they start life a nine-hundredth of the size of their mother, one of the smallest ratios between child and parent among mammals. (I think of this fact, enviously, quite often.)

There was a particular line in the Xinhua story that stayed with me. The mother, wrote the reporter, has yet to release the first cub from her embrace. The conservationists think the cub is healthy from its size and the noises it is making, but they haven’t got their hands on it yet. Haizi is clinging on. I’m loathe to anthropomorphise, but I like the idea that Haizi is, perhaps, just for a few days, trying to protect her cub from the glare of the world; trying, also, to maintain a quietness around something intimate and private (the anti-Kim approach). She has done something simple, but also special, and ultimately it doesn’t concern anyone else at all.

One of the Giant Panda twins borned to a panda named Haizi in China. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.