Saturday, 20 July 2013

Back to basics

Women have been having babies for a very long time - to make a totally obvious statement. As a species, we've been reproducing, nurturing and parenting our young for tens of thousands of years. It's only really in Western culture, and in more recent times, that the whole process has become so medicalised, institutionalised and criticised...the latter by everyone from our peers to so called 'experts' and lots of folk who have had no actual hands on experience of any of the process.

One of my good friends, many years ago, laughingly described me as 'a primitive' and urged me not to change, because our world needed more primitives. It was in reference to my ineptitude with technology at the time, when I was much more comfortable with a lump of charcoal or a paintbrush in my hand. The same friend says now - I have an iPhone, I blog, I work online, etc - that an alien has stolen her primitive friend. As far as the use of technology is concerned, I have moved beyond the primitive, but it appears that many of my views on parenting - from conception onwards - still fall within the 'primitive' range, in the opinion of some of my peers, and compared to a lot of what I find in contemporary media. Imagine my pleasure when I found an article on Kveller - an online parenting mag I subscribe to (not the least because it is where Mayim Bialik's blog is published - Amy from Big Bang Theory) that echoed many of my own sentiments!

The article, Parenting Tips from the Developing World, by Alexis Kort, shares insights she gained through travels to twenty different developing countries that, she says, shaped the person she is, and most definitely shaped the way she approaches parenting. The handful of things she focuses on in the article are such simple, basic things - sadly, things we've largely lost, and her implication is that we've lost them because we have so much - too much, sometimes, perhaps. There is a simplicity in the examples she gives that we would, in the main, be enriched by reclaiming. I don't say that lightly.
Her first point is about the naturalness of breastfeeding - where ever you are, whenever the baby needs to be fed, and her country of example is Uganda, where children are carried by their mothers and nursed (in traditional communities) until they're around three. Kort doesn't mandate that we should all copy this to the letter. What she does point out is that this is something people do there as a matter of's not weird, self-indulgent, or something that will warp and/or otherwise damage a child. It's just what, biologically, we are designed to do, and Ugandan women still do it, with no dramas.

My mother, of blessed memory, was something of a forward thinker. At a time when birth was highly medicalised, she'd got her hands on Dick Grantley Reid's book about natural childbirth, and despite being forced to deliver me on her back with her legs in stirrups, she did it by using the breathing exercises she learned from the book, with minimal pain relief. She also breastfed me until I was three months old - and had she not had an old school baby nurse give her a hard time at that point about losing her milk (I was having a growth spurt and what she needed to be told was to stop doing everything else and go to bed for a couple of days and just nurse me frequently to build up her milk supply), she'd probably have gone on for longer. She watched me nurse the boys way past the then recommended six months with not a little envy... I know some women have difficulty with breastfeeding, and I firmly believe that everyone should have a choice in how they feed their babies, but had I not had the support I had OUTSIDE the local baby centres, nurses, and various well-meaning but misinformed family members,  I think I'd have found it very difficult to stick to my guns in the face of some of the criticism I got - particularly at 'landmark' points... "Oh, but he's got TEETH!" - got that a lot. "But he's walking now..." Another common one. And, worst of all - apparently - "OMG, but he's TALKING!" You know what, I don't remember ever getting sprung in public - and I did nurse in public, discretely. And by the time No. 1 was both walking and talking, and still nursing, it was only before his afternoon sleep and before bed at night - he was far more interested in other foods, and those two breastfeeds were part of his going to bed routine, and dropped off - one when he stopped having afternoon naps, and the last night he cuddled in, sort of thought about latching on, and then didn't, and that was it... No dramas. He just stopped. I truly can't believe the fuss and carry on that's raging in the media right now about women breastfeeding in public - you have to wonder what the hell has gone wrong with our society when it's these mothers who are the ones in the spotlight...for WHAT?

She also highlights something that was definitely part of my childhood, and something that both my children experienced...and something I see very little of in more contemporary parenting. From her time in Nicaragua, she writes:
In much of Central America, people eat a lot of rice and beans; maybe an egg in the morning, a little chicken once a week, a few vegetables, and lots of fruit. From what I saw, kids tend not to be as picky eaters in places where there is just enough to eat. And children eat what everyone else is eating for dinner, not chick’n nuggets or plain pasta with butter.
There's a whole blog post I could write about children and food, believe me. I've actually started several drafts and they turned into rants, so I deleted them! Children grow to be picky eaters in Western society because we let them... We get our knickers in a twist because they refuse one food, so we offer them something else and they refuse that too, so we scramble around getting stressed and bust a gut trying to find something they will eat... What are the children in this scenario getting? Attention.... Stop and think about it for a minute. No healthy child will let itself starve. If it chucks a fruity at dinner time and refuses to eat what's put in front of it and the parent stays in parent-mode and doesn't give in, said child may end up going hungry if it's stubborn enough to also not give in. But that will only last until the next meal - where it will be so hungry it will probably eat whatever is put in front of it without a murmur.

I don't recall ever being fed special 'kiddy' meals as a child, but my mother was guilty of this with my children. I remember her turning up one day when No.1, aged just under one, was gleefully tucking into a crust of the homemade pizza my Italian next door neighbour, Mrs M___, had delivered (she was convinced we were all starving because we were all so slim...and kept feeding us!). Mum was horrified - "What's he eating??? He's just a baby!" She had no counter at all for my reply, which was something along the lines of, "the same as Mrs M___'s grandchildren!" Another time when I took them to her place for dinner, she drew me aside and said, "I have some steak for us, but I've cooked little lamb chops for the children, is that all right?" She was a little dismayed when I said no it wasn't... I couldn't afford steak very often at the time, and they got the, then, much cheaper lamb chops most of the times we ate meat, so I told her they'd probably feel a bit miffed to not be getting the treat of steak! It was the last time she cooked them a 'kiddy' meal.

Take a moment and read the rest of this excellent short article. It's a well put reminder of how simple the stuff of parenting can be if we don't get caught up in what people tell us we should be doing - whether it's our nearest and dearest, some well meaning health professional who is busy pushing their opinion, or the latest trend that's being pushed in the media. We have to go back to the simplicity of what these families in simpler cultures are doing - lets face it, if they can manage to parent and hold their families together with so much less than we have available to us, surely we can take a step back and just use what is absolutely necessary...without all the extra 'stuff' that can so get in the way of that most basic of relationship building experiences...between us and our children. Not us and all that 'stuff'!


  1. Hmmm. Used to think it was just an American thing. Now here's an Aussie doing a session on it. So is it an English-speaking thing, or a developed nation phenomenon? What is "it?" The way that the only things anyone gets excited about anymore is the chance to mind someone else's business for them.

    Got a neighbor who won't even nod and say "Morning?" Tell him you're for (or against) gay marriage, and see what happens! Are you shunned at the office? Stand up with an opinion about any issue, from car registration fees to water fluoridation (never mind the niceties of breast-feeding), and you'll get enough conversation to last you for the rest of your life! Nothing brings 'em out of the woodwork like the chance to stick their noses where they have no business.

    Really good observations. Everyone who reads this will be saying, "Yeah, that describes everybody else to a T! I wonder how I was able to avoid being like that..."

    Epiphany: I wonder if this is the norm in societies where people have been relieved of the non-stop effort to feed themselves, and so feel the need to fill those free hours with pointing out what's wrong with everyone else?

    1. Hi Jack,

      You have a point - and it's the same thing that I think is the main thrust of Kort's article, albeit not spelled out, is that we in the West have 'developed' ourselves to a point that we've lost touch entirely with what it takes to actually survive. Most Western countries have some kind of welfare system, so even for those doing it tough, there's a roof, there's food, there are TV's and other luxuries even... It's not to say that life isn't necessarily difficult - I've been there, and it wasn't easy, but I was well aware that in other countries single women in my position, with children to support, didn't have the safety net I had in the form of a government pension while I got myself back on my feet.

      When we lose contact with the elemental level of the cultures in the articles, we start to focus on all the things we DON'T have, it seems to me, and life becomes a process of chasing acquisition after acquisition. We forget to be grateful for the things we have - and THAT is the epidemic in Western society today methinks.


  2. Love your blog post and agree with the points you make, especially about BREASTFEEDING - the food that nature has provided for the same time it is important to appreciate that a mother who is bottle-feeding her baby may be doing so because she was unable to breast feed for some reason and just because it is a bottle, doesn't automatically mean that there isn't breast milk in that bottle. As soon as people stop judging mothers, it will be a better world.

    However I do believe that there needs to be more education in society and support for breastfeeding mothers and we can all share in that responsibility for nurturing the next generations.

    Have you also noticed there seems to be an attitude towards the next generations (children) that they are a liability instead of an important part of society that needs to be nurtured and loved and educated to take their place in the world? There once was a time where, when two equally qualified people applied for a job, the parent got the position in preference to the single person in recognition that the parent has family responsibilities and the job will support more than one person. Nowadays, employers see parents as liabilities, as 'unreliable' people with more absenteeism due to family responsibilies and greater expense because of parental leave etc.

    I don't understand why people have forgotten that we are all human beings, biological organisms, and not robots. Why can't they see that raising children well is the most important job in the world?

    Thank you for leaving a comment on Footprints so I could find your blog!

    1. Hi Jodie!

      I'm glad you found my blog and stopped by! Thanks for your feedback.

      Absolutely, there needs to be WAY more education and support for nursing mothers. As long as we have a situation - that appears to be worsening rather than improving - where the women are being penalised for feeding their babies, and are told that what they're doing is 'disgusting' (something I saw recently as a comment in a newspaper article from some guy interviewed) and the flip side of that is that young men and women can be running around in revealing clothes that are intended to make a sexual statement that's not always, in my opinion, appropriate, then we have a skewed view of the world operating... Messy sentence that! Sorry!!

      And your second point - absolutely. I'm very lucky with my current job, where that wouldn't actually be an issue - even if my kids still required more active time from me. Those of my colleagues who do have younger kids are well supported. However, it's not always been the case in other jobs, and I've had to fight to get and hang onto jobs in the past.

      We need to rethink the way we operate as communities so that people CAN live sustainably - and that's not just about environmental sustainability. It's about the village that we've lost... Food for thought!

      Good to have your comments - hope to see you back sometime!


  3. Oooh, I feel like a proud cyber-matchmaker now!

    Great post, Karen. I can remember putting all our meals into the food processor when the children were babies so they could eat real food and letting them practise feeding themselves with steamed veggies and homemade rusks. And, as for breast-feeding, it was 12 months when mine were little and each of them went to 14 months before self-weaning. I think I missed it more than either of them.

    1. You yenta, you, Rach!!

      Thanks for your comments. Oh yes - the beloved boys got all sorts of food pureed and mashed. I made a baby muesli from scratch that they got initially mixed with breast milk until I could start them on yoghurt and stewed fruits. To this day, they eat a way wider variety of different foods than most people I know their age...let alone the current generation!

      And yes...I was sad for days when mine weaned themselves... It's such a special time. And I used to feel SO proud when they were tiny, and stacking on a pound a week - and it was ALL my milk!! GOOD stuff!