Actual Risk versus Social Risk

Breastfeeding symbol

Image via Wikipedia

I posted a link to a book review to my Facebook wall, because I was really interested in the underlying thesis of the book, as explained by the reviewer. I haven’t really the book, but I’ve atleast read the review – and the argument was about what the author calls “neoliberal risk culture,” or the conflation of actual risk and social risk. Unfortunately, the example that was used by the author to illustrate her point was one of the most contentious of motherhood debates: bottle versus breast.

The actual risk of feeding your child formula, or the risk of not breastfeeding, is quite small. According to the review, the risk of not breastfeeding is a few upset stomachs. However, the social risk of not breastfeeding (at least amongst middle class women) is high — because of all the propaganda surrounding breast feeding, the decision of bottle feeding without trying to breastfeed is the social equivalent of saying that you’re not doing everything you can to make your baby smarter… and everything else that breastfeeding claims.

Bottle feeding does not carry real risk — rare is the baby in danger because they are bottle fed. That baby would have to have some severe allergies. But in an age of New Momism, the social risk is immense. So immense that women are pressured into trying breastfeeding when it might be better for them to bottle feed — and women who want to breastfeed feel guilty when medication, mental health, etc., prevent them from continuing.

The conflation of small actual risk into large social risk does a huge disservice to mothers, especially, and also society as a whole.

Another example for mothers is bedsharing versus co-sleeping versus nurseries. Bedsharing is considered the most risky, co-sleeping a nice middle ground (if you must have your child close), and a nursery the most safe. However, a close reading of the studies shows that the rates of SIDS is probably equal, and the cost benefits extremely personal, much like breast versus bottle.

I am a bedsharer. There, I said it. Socially, the sleeping arrangement that allows my family to get the most sleep, it’s the most risky. Common perception suggests that I am willingly risking my baby’s life for convenience, even though it was a decision I researched before making. Trust me, I do not lazily risk my daughter’s life.

I’m trying to think of a non parenting example — something where there is a small risk, but a large social backlash. Smoking is probably one, considering how much government propaganda surrounds not smoking. My occasional fast food eating is something I don’t like to admit, so I’d consider that an example of over blown social risk for something with minimal actual risk. I think that multiple sexual partners probably falls into this same category — as long as you practice safe sex, both physically and emotionally, it probably isn’t as risky as our society makes it out to be.

Life is risk, and yes, some risk is more risky than other risks. But, in the end, some things may be more about what works for you.

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