Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What "Our Babies, Ourselves" taught me about my baby & myself



Welcome to the November Carnival of Breastfeeding! This is my first month participating, and we're all reviewing books and media on breastfeeding, birth, and parenting. Be sure to check out the other carnival entries at the bottom of this post!

Compare current United States parenting culture -- where babies spend much of their days in plastic car seats and strollers, sleep in a separate bed in a separate room alone at night, and, if breastfed at all, usually are weaned to formula and solids by 5 months -- with the !Kung San hunter-gatherers of Botswana, where babies are worn on their mothers' hips, sleep with the tribe at night, and breastfeed on average every 13 minutes, for 3+ years.

That's just what Meredith F. Small does in Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent -- give fascinating comparisons of the general parenting culture in a continuum from the !Kung San to the U.S. with several stops in between.

Small writes not just as an anthropologist, wanting to observe and record human behavior and how it relates to our biological and evolutionary roots as mammals, but also from an ethnopediatrics perspective, which seeks to advise us as parents how to integrate babies' innate needs with our culture in an infant-appropriate way.

There are no absolutes in this field, as there are no absolutes in parenting each unique child within each unique culture. Small reflects this in her book. Each culture has elements that conflict with what our species' young were designed to expect, some more than others. Even in the attachment-oriented Gusii people of East Africa, for instance, mothers wean abruptly by coating their breasts with bitter herbs and ignoring or punishing their children's cries. Other differences in culture are less ethically charged but are associated with what each culture values, either in children or in adults. Subsistence cultures with a high infant mortality rate might focus solely on preserving their babies' lives, for instance, whereas more affluent cultures have the luxury of focusing on goals of later development. American mothers talk to their young at a high rate, frequently in the form of questions, out of a belief that this will help them develop the verbal and cognitive skills prized in U.S. culture, whereas the Gusii think such one-on-one attention will create a self-centered adult who is not able to conform obediently to the collective. Neither culture is "right," or perhaps both are, in that each way of childrearing produces adults able to fit into the culture at hand.

For me, Our Babies, Ourselves was a fascinating look into other cultures, in the present and throughout history. In fact, it's inspired me to read more anthropological books on parenting -- I've already had recommended to me Mother and Child: Visions of Parenting From Indigenous Cultures and A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies, so stay tuned for further reviews!

As an attachment-oriented parent frequently at odds with the mainstream parenting culture here in the United States, I found Our Babies, Ourselves both to validate many of my current practices, such as sleeping with my baby, breastfeeding on cue, and carrying him throughout the day, and to challenge me to live up to what I believe are the ideal conditions for my baby, insofar as I can fulfill those needs: Since reading about the !Kung San (no, I don't know how to pronounce exclamation points, although here's a clue), I've been trying harder to read his signals and encourage him to breastfeed as often as he wants, even if it's been only 13 minutes since the last feed!

It's also pushed me to examine deeply ingrained beliefs I didn't even know I had because they were so bound up in my cultural perspective, such as my culturally prescribed need to talk to my baby constantly and even my assumption that babies require a great investment of resources in terms of time and money, that I am primarily the teacher of my baby, and that the goal of parenting is to produce an independent adult in a separate household. Compare this with other people groups' view that children are a resource in themselves who add to the family's fortunes and are expected to remain connected even into adulthood. I might sound hopelessly naive for saying this, but Small's overview of these fascinatingly divergent cultures really struck me with how differently each people group even thinks about parenting, much less practices it. It's not that I need to change every aspect of my parenting that's culturally informed -- but I think it's healthy to stay aware of those areas and intentionally choose which paths to follow.

Small acknowledges this disparity between human infant need and cultural practice: "Nowhere is the slippery slope between what nature might compel and what actually happens more apparent than in the arena of infant care."

This book, with its careful research and continual insights, gave me inspiration to be more like the mammal mama my baby needs, questioning my cultural assumptions as I live within them.

Check out the other participants' reviews in the November Carnival of Breastfeeding. I'll be updating this list throughout Monday and Tuesday as the entries are posted.



13 comments:

Susana la Banana said...

Hi, fellow Carnivalite! My post isn't up yet, but just wanted to say--As an anthropologist and a mama, I LOVED Our Babies, Ourselves. I almost reviewed it for this carnival, but I thought maybe one of the other mamas would do it, and I'm glad to see I was right! Great job.

Oh, and about the ! of !Kung...The closest approximation we non-natives can get to that sound is by placing the tongue on the roof of your mouth at the edge of the soft palate, then bringing it down in a click, as in, use suction or negative pressure or whatever to make an audible click as you bring your tongue down...but you also have to try to say 'kung' at the end of it. Pretty near impossible for me! When I was in college, my friends and I would try it for hours on end. =)

Happy Clicking!

MomOnTheGo said...

I love being the first to comment on a post! Our Babies, Ourselves sounds like a facinating book. Thanks for writing about it. Your review makes me think of all of the conversations I've had with people about what is "normal" to do with one's child when they're normal is so clearly culturally constructed.

Mama Bear said...

Wow. I didn't know the iKung San used abrupt weaning and punishment for crying. Yikes! That alone could account for emotional problems in adulthood later. Of course, that's my own cultural filter talking. Then again, I am pretty highly critical of my own westernized culture (and the way western culture often treats infants and children like property), so at least I'm consistent. ;)

Anyway, great review. :)

Sinead@BMums said...

Our Babies, Ourselves sounds like a fascinating book. It sounds like another I'll have to add to my list of must-haves!

Hobo Mama said...

Oh, look, I figured out how to moderate coomments. LOL! Lauren

Hobo Mama said...

susana la banana (loving that user name): Thanks for the click tips. I've been practicing now, much to my baby's amusement. I kept thinking someone else would review the book, too, since I knew so many people loved it, but was glad to do the honors. Do you have any other recommendations for anthropologically based parenting books?

momonthego: Exactly! And I realized how I'm so guilty of the same thing, even though I try to be thoughtful and aware. I love it when books like this come along to challenge me.

mama bear: Just to stand up for the !Kung San, it's actually the Gusii who did the abrupt weaning, IIRC, but they were also very (in my opinion) gentle, attached parents up to that point. I totally agree with you -- my cultural filter found it distressing to imagine being one of those poor kids. The book also talked about a group (the Ache? I don't have the book in front of me and have a sleeping baby on my lap) that carried their children constantly until preschool-ish age ("preschool" another cultural filter, I know!) and then refused all of a sudden, ignoring their wails of protest and forcing them to walk. And then there are the infanticides and child sacrifices.... I guess it just goes to show that it's not just aspects of mainstream Western parenting we can disagree with! :) It definitely helps remind me that one group isn't wholly "right" and one "wrong."

sinead: My list is growing exponentially! :) I love this opportunity to get so many great suggestions.

Crunchy Domestic Goddess said...

i loved this book as well. it's another that i feel should be "recommended reading" for new parents.
btw, glad to find another AP mama out here in the blogosphere. :)

Susana la Banana said...

Oh, and Sheila Kitzinger and Katherine Dettwyler are somewhat famous "parenting anthropologists" too...they just haven't written books of parenting advice...as far as I know...yet.

deborah said...

i read this book when i was pregnant and absolutely loved it. i found that it just put things in such perspective. it is the focus on the context that i always appreciate...and the reminder that even within this country people make parenting decisions that are best for themselves and their baby based on the context they find themselves in. great review!

Andrea said...

Thank you for this thorough and thought-provoking review. Our Babies sounds like a fascinating book--and even though my babies are now 2 and half and six, I think I may check it out--because you can never outgrow examining your assumptions and behavior in a cultural context. And I'm so relieved to know that there is now an alternative to "The Continuum Concept" which I found so un-scientific and painfully dogmatic and preachy (even though I did agree with and practice many of the attachment parenting priciples espoused by the book). I just found it not at all well-researched and overly judgemental. "Our Babies" sounds much more broad in its exploration of a variety of cultures and what the implications of each different way might be. (And I'm glad that I'm not the only one who chafed under the pressure to talk, talk, talk to my babies constantly...sometimes I just wanted to enjoy their presence silently and communicate through touch, gesture and expression!!)

hobo mama said...

crunchy domestic goddess: Likewise -- I'd been enjoying reading all of you Carnivalites' blogs for awhile and am glad to finally "meet"!

susana la banana: I love Katherine Dettwyler's articles online. I'll have to check out Sheila Kitzinger. And encourage them both to write books for me! :)

deborah: ITA. It definitely had a perspective, but I felt like it was unjudgmental in staying aware of how our context and culture influence our decisions, and that that's fine as long as it's not an excuse, I guess, to mistreat our babies.

hobo mama said...

andrea: I think you'd still enjoy the book, from a learning perspective, as you said, and also because "babies" in terms of the book can go up to the ages of your children depending on culture. I finally have out The Continuum Concept to read next, so I'm interested to see what it's like. I think I'll agree with you on some points -- from reading on the TCC website and forum, I really like the IDEA of TCC, but I'm a little wary of some of the limitations, such as focusing solely on one people group and presenting it as the ideal of human existence, or the author's lack of credentials or parenting experience (not that either is a good enough reason in itself to discount her observations), and the dogmatic approach of some proponents, which I guess is a risk in any parenting philosophy. I really liked how OBO broadened the perspective by presenting several cultures, and I'm looking at some similar books to learn even more parenting points of view. Fascinating!

Oh, and I'm with you on the not wanting to talk all the time -- I really think our babies can absorb communication with us that's nonverbal, and sometimes that's so much more meaningful. I was glad to be made aware of that so that I didn't feel that pressure to keep babbling. Have you ever read this article by Scott Noelle? /www.scottnoelle.com/parenting/child-centered.htm It really helped me clear up some of the disconnects I was feeling between TCC and American/Western parenting reality, and it speaks specifically to direct interaction being more a part of our culture than others and how we need to deal with that rather than just saying our way is bad and their way is good. It also helped me understand how I might interact with my baby in a more liminal way.

Andrea said...

Thanks for the Scott Noelle article--I like the way he sort of bridges the continuum concept ideas with western culture. It's been some time since I read it, but think that was one of my other problems with the book--that it tried to apply the practices of a rainforest tribe directly on nuclear families in houses. (I do always think about the part where the mothers stride through the jungle without looking back and the small children trot right along behind when we're all trying to get down our very long driveway to the catch the bus at 7:30 a.m.)

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