Tiny Bubbles

I was washing dishes recently and noticed that as I got towards the last of the dirty dishes, the bubbles had all but disappeared.

Did you know that the bubbles — the suds — don’t actually do anything to make your dishes cleaner? We as consumers are just so ingrained in the idea or belief that they do, that if a cleaning product doesn’t bubble and suds like we think it ought, we usually use more, so that we can get the “proper” amount of bubbles so that our stuff can get clean. And when our soapy water runs out of bubbles, we think we’ve run out of cleaning power. But that’s not necessarily true. Dishwashers, for instance, cannot use the same kind of detergent that dish-washers (hand-washing) use, because the suds would bubble and froth too much inside the machine and leak out of the tiny crevices in the door, making a mess on the floor. Personal experience here, as a child. I wouldn’t recommend it. But dishwashers clean perfectly well without a single soap-sud in sight. High-efficiency washing machines, also, must use low- or no-suds formulas — regular soaps or detergents won’t work right. But they get the clothes just as clean, if not cleaner, with much less detergent and water than regular washing machines.

This isn’t a home-ec lesson, though. As I looked at the now suds-less water in my dishes, an analogy popped into my mind.

The tiny bubbles were all gone, revealing a sink-full of dirty water. My first impulse was to grab the liquid soap and squirt more in, and run more water, to restore the bubbles. But looking at the water, I realized that the bubbles serve a primary function of masking or hiding what the water truly looks like underneath those bubbles. We often want the “bubbles” that don’t really serve a function, not only because we assume they are the cleaning force, but also because when they’re gone and we see what the water really looks like, it looks dirty and distasteful.

The analogy that came to mind was the “face lift” that most hospitals have undergone in the last decade or two, in order to make women feel better about giving birth in their rooms. Some of the changes have been good — for instance, having the woman labor and give birth all in the same room, rather than wheeling a fully dilated woman in a flimsy gown on a gurney down the hall telling her not to push, while dozens of strangers stare at the commotion and see who-knows-what as she goes flying down the hall. But a lot of the changes have been mere “window dressing” — a mask of tiny bubbles disguising what the water really looks like underneath. They have prettier rooms so they can advertise that it’s “home like,” but the soap-suds have hidden the fact that you will be required to stay in their beds the entire time on your back, despite the discomfort and down-right pain that it causes. In the “birth tour” you take to familiarize yourself with the hospital prior to giving birth, they may talk about their wonderfully efficient nurses, but fail to mention that those nurses must be so efficient because they have to care for too many women at once, so your nurse may only have time to check your monitors without checking you. They may promote “rooming in” while neglecting to say that they will only let you have the briefest of glimpses of your baby right after birth, before taking him across the room for all the newborn procedures — procedures which could be done with you holding him — bringing him back only after he’s bundled up like a burrito, so he gets no skin-to-skin contact with you. They will be promoting their state-of-the-art nursery, without disclosing that your baby will be spending those precious first few hours of alertness in the nursery away from you, crying, while nurses mechanically check on him, bathe him and diaper him — but not comforting him; while you spend your post-birth high fidgeting and wondering where your baby is.

Don’t mistake soap suds for real cleaning power. And don’t mistake hospital window dressing for improvements in care. When you strip away the bubbles, you reveal how dirty and disgusting the water really is. You wouldn’t want to wash dishes in water that was obviously dirty and even greasy. The bubbles can mask that; but when the bubbles go away, and you see the true state of the water, you can either grab more soap and make more bubbles to hide the yucky water, or drain the water and start afresh with clean water. Yet how many women are deceived by the “bubbles” in hospitals that disguise the disgusting water underneath? Often women only find out the deception when it’s too late — they’ve had unnecessary interventions that were convenient for the doctor but harder on them and their babies; maybe their babies even paid a stiff penalty for that convenience (fetal distress brought on by unnecessary use of Pitocin, as an example); or the moms ended up with an unnecessary C-section with all the attendant long recovery; or it could be as “mild” as the mom and baby being unnecessarily separated, so that the nurses could more quickly and easily process the baby after birth and get on with filling out the paperwork; or the mom being made to feel like she was a danger to her baby because of the interventions used to speed up the birth; or the mom being made to feel incompetent as a mother because she was powerless during labor and birth.

Continuing the soap vs. suds analogy, the bubbles don’t really do anything — it’s the soap in the water that you can’t even see any more that is the real cleaner. Similarly, the window dressing of some hospitals does not actually improve the quality of care a woman and her baby receive, nor the quality of her birth experience — it’s just bubbles. But real soap — true improvements — do. Real care does safeguard the life and health of mother and baby, but it does much more than that. Real care looks at women as both whole and human, not machines. Real care-givers will provide care (not just medicine and machines) to the mother and the baby — together or separately as the case may be, always remembering that both are persons and need to be treated as such. Real care recognizes the feelings of women, and seeks to make them feel strong and competent and able — to labor with, to give birth to, and ultimately to mother the baby they have grown.

When you choose where and with whom to give birth, look beneath the bubbles and see if the water is clean or dirty. Don’t be deceived by the bubbles, but check to make sure that they actually have some real soap — make sure they will actually care for you and your baby, and not just pretend to.


3 Responses

  1. Naomi Wolf wrote a good account in Misconceptions of the hospital birth center tour and how, in reality, the birth center served as a marketing device and was rarely used. Women somehow *had* to be taken to L&D.

    I personally found the mauve and faux-brass 80’s style headboards behind the hospital bed very soothing and inspiring. All I needed were some Reeboks and a (betamax) tape of Bosom Buddies.

  2. Nice analogy!

  3. Awesome post. Love the analogy!


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