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Briefly, on Awareness in Self-Help Media

I love to give unsolicited, anecdotal advice. I don’t do it on purpose or all of the time — I just like being helpful. But there I am, anecdotally giving advice on any topic that I feel qualified, unaware that I’m going to cringe in a year or so when I think back on it. (See: any relationship advice given by me, ever; also, much of the breastfeeding opinion pieces written before 2011.) Now I’m all wise and definitely not going to embarrass Future Ashley with my opinions.

One of the things that nettles me about anecdotal advice — including my own — is the lack of awareness when the giver doesn’t consider other life circumstances and experiences. In a point made by an article I can’t find on my Facebook, a lot of budget advice is aimed at a middle-class of people who have money to get by, but could stand to stretch it further. This advice is actually pretty useless to people trying to stretch from paycheck to paycheck. Breastfeeding (and other parenting) advice is very much the same. Basically all “pumping in the workplace” advice assumes you’re in an office environment, and that as a middle-class woman you have access to certain amenities and can afford specific items.

Actually, all advice seems to be for white middle-class people. I suppose it’s because this is assumed to be the American default, and these are the voices given more volume in popular media. Which is stupid, because the United States has a wide range of people in an even wider range of living experiences. While not all advice can work for all people, we should at least do our best to stretch it a bit further than we do, and acknowledge when our advice is limited and non-universal.

All this word vomit has been brought to you by the cookbook Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. My ex-husband has been telling me about this cookbook for years (he works in a bookstore), since I got very into homemade things as a form of economy when we moved the Lawrence in 2010. (Only later did my homemade goods become a form of snobbery.) This Christmas he gave me a copy, so that was kind of him.

The author (Jennifer Reese, apparently of The Tipsy Baker, which is the best food blog title ever) won me over in the introduction, which is beautifully self-aware. It’s about a page long, so I’m really only going to quote my two favorite parts.

A few caveats before we get started. First, although, like most people, I think about money, I’ve always been able to clothe my children and pay the mortgage and if I couldn’t, whether I bought or made the crème fraîche — or bread, to use a less absurd example — would make no difference. It is frivolous and deluded to think it would. […] This is not a book about how to scrape by on a budget and it is not a book about how to go off the grid.

(I cut that one down a little bit. I’m typing this here.) So she addresses the money thing, and then beautifully address the reality of being a person as well:

But when you’re exhausted and overworked, even the simplest kitchen job — even mixing a jar of salad dressing — can seem like too much. When I say “make it,” I mean that when you have the time and the inclination, the recipe in question is something you can do better, and/or more cheaply, than the supermarket. By no means do I think everyone should make all (or even any) of these foods, all of the time. I sure don’t.

All hail actual human Jennifer Reese! I think the introduction is a perfect example of acknowledging what it is and what it isn’t — and the ways in which her book would not be helpful.

I think it’s a great example of awareness and understanding that a lot of DIY and self-help media lacks. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing.