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.



Sunday, November 25, 2007

Breastfeeding in pictures

A Californian photographer, Rachel Valley, has a site called NiftyImages.com that has some wonderful pictures of breastfeeding mothers and their children and partners. Choose the Mother-Culture-Art gallery, and then browse the images. If you scroll your mouse over the top edge of each photo, you'll see the title. [Updated link 08.07.09: MOTHER.CULTURE Photography Exhibition]

I enjoyed them all. I think Dirty, Gross, and Decency are quite thought-provoking and well-constructed, the kind of pictures I want to share with other people. (Which is why I thought of you!)

This reminds me that I really want to take some nice breastfeeding pictures. Well, have Sam take them, or possibly his sister if all three of us want to be in the frame. We have candid breastfeeding shots, because I wanted to be sure to document what's such an important and consuming part of my life right now. I'll shamelessly direct, "Get a picture of Mikko and me out here in this park!" -- "Get a picture of me nursing at Navy Pier in Chicago!" -- or whatever.

And, I put them all up on our family-photos blog, in a matter-of-fact way: Here's Mikko playing, here's Mikko eating, here's Mikko with Grandma, etc. This is all part of my grand plan to normalize breastfeeding...at least in my own family! I actually found Rachel's site through the comments section for this post at the Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog that encourages us to support breastfeeding in 2007 through concrete acts (not too much time left!). Posting breastfeeding photos online is not one of the acts suggested, but I think it counts in spirit!

But we're putting together special photo books for the grandparents as Christmas gifts, and we narrowed down our thousands of pictures to 30 pages of the most beautiful, iconic pictures of Mikko's first six months. And I realized that there really are no lovely, artistic breastfeeding pictures. Must remedy that, and before we finish the photo books!

What about other people? How have you captured your breastfeeding memories?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Mama bear

I think one reason I'm a fiction writer (in another nonpaying job) is that I've always loved to ask "what if." I take every real occasion and put myself in the other players' shoes, wondering what it would be like to experience, see, and react the way they do. I frequently daydream up scenarios with plenty of potential for drama and resolution: the marriage that almost dissolves, the loved one who goes missing (and I'm blamed for it!) and then is found in a climactic conclusion, the parents who die and leave me their orphan to raise (oh, the warming Hallmark moments).

Ever since having a baby, though, I cannot, will not, imagine my baby dying.

At some point or another, I've imagined every loved one in my life dying. It's not malicious; I usually cry, in fact, and then have to hide the tears in case someone asks me what's wrong and I have to say: "Oh, I was just imagining your funeral." I mostly just want to know what I'd do, how I'd feel, and make sure I could stand it. It's almost like practicing for the worst-case scenario, to help me get over my fears of death and also somehow to ensure that the scenarios I imagine now cannot happen. They're fiction, after all.

But Mikko's off limits. I can't watch TV shows where babies are in peril, because I can't put myself in those mothers' shoes. It would break my heart. And I can't listen to friends' stories of family secrets and tragedies, as heartless as it makes me seem to turn away. I glance at magazine articles about a death and turn the page after the first paragraph. Even statistics about car-crash deaths are enough to make me want to heave.

I knew that mothers were supposed to feel protective of their babies. I knew that it must have some hormonal basis, but I also thought it was probably part exaggeration, like those famous cravings in pregnancy. Probably expecting cravings makes you experience them or label them that way; every one wants a particular food at some time or other, and we all go through phases of eating the same food for a time, pregnant or no. I sort of thought maternal protectiveness must be along the same lines, a thin scientific basis overblown by generations of mothers explaining their obsessions with their own young.

Well, I don't care. If I'm manufacturing my own protectiveness, I guess it's still as real as a manufactured craving. For instance, during my pregnancy I wanted to eat pickles. I was going to fight it on the basis of its being far too stereotypical, but I decided just to go ahead with it, since I really did want them. So, whether these bonding, maternal-instinct feelings are chemical or psychological or what, I think they're worth embracing as a logical, evolved way to be a good parent.

And, see, I can talk about it calmly, but it doesn't feel calm to me. It feels primal. I expected to love my baby, but not in this all-consuming way. I expected to want to keep him from harm but not for it to feel so fierce.

Before you have a baby, other parents tell you, "Just you wait." I always hated that. But there's no escaping it, is there? Because there really is no substitute or explanation or description for this aching, maddening love.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Enter his gates with thanksgiving

Well, this site kind of killed my Thanksgiving buzz, but it's not as if I'm a big holiday person anyway. Thanksgiving in particular always seemed a little pointless, being a typically American holiday of excess, consisting solely of eating too much, being with too many family members, and watching too much TV.

For the last several years, Sam & I haven't even bothered to celebrate it at all. The last two years, we were swamped with our former business, one that required us to be busier on holidays than not. We've been quasi-vegetarians for years (flexitarians, as Sam insists), so turkey has never appealed, and frankly, neither has tofurky. Sam & I have always wondered if these faux-meat products are created by carnivores who think every vegetarian really wants to eat meat so will take any meat-ish vegetable-based product available. I really don't mind vegetables, thank you. No shaping like a dead bird necessary.

Then there was the year we went to our new friends' house after we had just started the South Beach Diet. Phase I requires no grains for two weeks. We get to our friends, and it's simple-sugars city: the aforementioned turkey (not a carb, but not a treat), mashed potatoes, biscuits, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, sweet corn, and for dessert, I kid you not, bread pudding. We had such a high.

Thanksgivings at my parents' home for me were chaos of distant relations horning in on my mom's generosity to host, prepare most of the dishes, and clean up. Sam's memories were of his siblings bickering about which dishes his mom should slave over each year, so that each Thanksgiving the list of required dishes grew, to a ludicrous range for their family of five.

In general, Sam's family was much more concerned about tradition, to the point that Sam chucked it all when he left. For our solo Thanksgivings, we sometimes had mushroom pot pie, sometimes Chinese food, sometimes just green bean casserole, skipping the rest of the spread.

But this year we decided to give the ol' family thing a try. Sam's sister moved out here earlier this year, so with three of us plus Mikko, we decided we had enough for a small feast.

We made three dishes, with a possible fourth that we decided against once we realized we were full. See how restrained? And a dessert later on when our meal had digested.

Besides that, we talked a little, played with Mikko, and even put in a little work. It was a Thanksgiving of moderation, peace, and normalcy. How new and pleasant.

We also talked of what we were thankful for. I put out a limit of three items, but we all broke the rule. Which I think is good. I was going to suggest, as a joke, saying what we were unthankful for, too, but I'm glad I didn't. It's good to get in the grateful frame of mind and stay there.

So, here you are, my list for this year:

  1. Mikko, obviously. My little monkey has brought such joy and newness into my life. Feeding him, laughing with him, watching him change daily, snuggling close at night, waiting to see what each new day will bring.
  2. Sam, my best friend and favorite person.
  3. That our kitty, Mrs. Pim, is still with us. She has chronic kidney failure, and we didn't know last year that she'd see this year. She's a plucky little thing and has no idea that anything's wrong with her, and for that also I am thankful.
  4. Working from home, so we can all be together.
  5. Living in our little home on the beach.
  6. Time like this, with Mikko lying on my lap asleep, to write. I feel creative again finally. It's been two and a half years since I've had any amount of space free like this to think and dabble, and who would have guessed it would come after my baby was born.
  7. Everything we're looking forward to.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Monkey see, monkey do

I read this in Our Babies, Ourselves, by Meredith Small, p. 178 in my copy, and remembered I'd heard about it before. It's a fascinating story.

"[Diane] Wiessinger offered this story: A female gorilla, born and raised in a zoo, gave birth to an infant. In an attempt to nurse it, the mother held her infant incorrectly, with the back of the baby's head toward the nipple. The keepers feared for the infant's life and took the baby away. During the gorilla's next pregnancy, the keepers tried an experiment. They lined up a group of breast-feeding humans outside the cage and allowed the mother gorilla to observe. When her next infant was born, the mother gorilla, too, turned the baby toward her breast and everything went fine."

[I've loved other things I've read and heard from Diane Wiessinger, the lactation expert quoted in this passage. She has a website here filled with commonsensical, reassuring wisdom about breastfeeding. It's fun to peruse, and you might find the gorilla story on there somewhere!]

In this bottle-feeding culture, we witness babies being held face up and in the cradle hold, when for breastfeeding, face in with the cross-cradle hold, for instance, works particularly well. It's difficult to know how to breastfeed when all we see is a different behavior. We can't get an idea of positioning when we're not culturally allowed to look directly at breastfeeding mothers, or when mothers cover themselves up because of these taboos. We can't get an idea of how often babies breastfeed when mothers do it in private or at home, or feed on a schedule. We don't even imagine nursing a toddler, let alone understand how to manage it, when breastfeeding past the age of one is kept in the dark.

That's why, although I don't feel I nurse out of some sort of political statement -- I breastfeed because my baby needs it and I'm the mother -- I do feel that every time I nurse in public I am making some sort of change in the world.

I demonstrate that breastfeeding is natural. I normalize it, every time I casually bring my baby to my breast during a conversation, or a dinner out, or in a parking lot after Mikko's woken up from a carseat nap. I'm putting it out there. I also talk about it, as I would any other integral part of my day, and I answer people's questions about it openly.

I feel that every time I breastfeed in the presence of others, those people might be more accepting of the next woman they see breastfeeding, more encouraging of breastfeeding of their own children, and more educated in passing along information to someone who's struggling with or interested in breastfeeding. I also hope that I'm helping to raise a new generation of daughters who will breastfeed and sons who will support it.

I want breastfeeding to taken for granted, and I'm doing what I can to make it so.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why do we push our babies out of the nest?

My thoughts on a passage I came across in Our Babies, Ourselves, by Meredith Small, p. 104 in my copy:

"The independent self-reliant individual is one of the strongest ideological threads running through American culture and history. ... Because [children] have few responsibilities and don't add to household production, children are seen as a cost rather than an asset. Childhood is considered a time for learning, when children are trained by parents and educators to gain skills that will eventually allow them as adults to achieve on their own. ... Parents see themselves as teachers rather than protectors, and parental investment in terms of resources and time is expected to increase over time. This investment pays off when children eventually leave home as young adults and start their own independent households. As such, American children are not seen as resources but as burdens and responsibilities that require heavy investment until such time as they are independent."

For years before having Mikko, I struggled with the question of why even have children. It seemed so pointless to invest all this energy into raising kids who won't appreciate it and will grow up to be willful 20- or 30-somethings who will resent you, move across the country, and purposely do everything the opposite of what you've chosen for your life.

This quote and the book as a whole have really put things into perspective for me as to why I would even frame the situation that way. The Western model of parenting and childhood is that children are a burden on resources of money, time, and energy, and that children don't contribute anything useful to the family. They become contributors to society only when they leave home and are under no familial obligation to give back to the parents who raised them or to care for them as they age, as is expected in certain other cultures.

This is simply how things are in my culture, and it's neither good nor bad on the outside. But it certainly made me wonder why I would want to make such a sacrifice -- what was in it for me? The kids don't appreciate you when they're young, and they don't agree with you when they're older, so what do parents get out of this arrangement?

It's not as if the world population is in danger of declining anytime soon, so I didn't have a biological imperative to procreate. My religion doesn't now require that I bear children simply because I can, though that has been a dictate in the past. I didn't really have that supposedly inborn desire to pass on my genes, because I know they're not that great.

But reproduce I did, and the questions still remain. This book has helped me crystallize the thoughts misting through my brain.

America in particular, but this applies to other Western cultures as well, has a cult of independence. Everyone has to be self-sufficient to succeed in what we see as a cutthroat, competitive market.

We start this drive toward independence with our tiniest babies, by feeding them on our terms, by placing them in hard plastic shells instead of human arms, by putting them to sleep in a dark and lonely separate room.

And, oh, it works. The result? I'll say it again: Children who won't appreciate you and will grow up to be willful 20- or 30-somethings who resent you, move across the country, and purposely do everything the opposite of what you've chosen for your life.

Why are we so married to the ideal of independence?

Even when arguing for cosleeping, on-cue breastfeeding, and other attachment parenting philosophies, we justify them by assuring the naysayers not to worry, that the children will be even more independent as a result of these early attachments.

Well, self-confident, I hope, and self-reliant to a healthy point. But I've come to believe that having my child dependent on me for love, support and guidance might not be such a bad thing after all. It might make having him worth it in the end.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Beginning to communicate

It's so exciting to see Mikko begin to signal, even though at five months he's still pre-verbal. Well, by pre-verbal, I mean that he babbles all day long, but he's the only one who can make any sense out of what he's saying.

But he's started telling me when he wants to eat, by plucking at my shirt and ducking his head against my chest. I've been enchanted. My baby is speaking to me!

I know pulling at a mother's shirt to nurse is sometimes considered ill-mannered, although usually in older children. And I know there's that stupid argument, "Once they can ask for it, they should wean."

But I am so very excited that my baby knows me, knows what he wants, and knows how to tell me so. Hooray!

And I think that, if at 5 months, a baby can "ask for it," then that shoots the weaning-at-that-point argument dead. Right? I hope most people even in the US aren't icked out by a 5-month-old breastfeeding. (Sigh. I just realized there must be plenty of people who are.)

Here's a good post with good comments on "extended" nursing that references what I was saying above. It's been funny to read Our Babies, Ourselves, and see Meredith Small mention that such and such a people group weans early...at 2 years. I love it! What a great anthropological, mammalian view! That's why I'm putting "extended" in quotes, because for humans, according to Kathy Dettwyler, true extended breastfeeding would be anything over 7 years. :)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Simple housecleaning: I love you, vinegar!

My handy housecleaning tip of the day:

1. Take a spray bottle.
2. Dump in some white vinegar (the really cheap, store-brand kind). Maybe 1/4 full, maybe 1/3. I don't really care, and neither does the vinegar.
3. Fill the rest with tap water.
4. Use it on everything.

Ta-da! When water alone or with a little dish soap isn't cutting it for you, or when you're in the mood for a "real cleaning," get out your handy-dandy spray bottle and go to town.

I do find it won't cut through rust stains in the bathtub, though. For that, I rely on professional cleaners. No, I don't mean professional-strength cleaning agents -- I mean, two guys who come in every month or so and deep clean everything in exchange for money. Gotta love those guys! But that's a tip for another day...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Insight from "Our Babies, Ourselves" on cosleeping & sexuality

I'm reading Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent, by Meredith F. Small, and want to post about interesting items as I come across them as well as do a general review/recommendation at the end.

P. 124 has this tidbit that ties into my last post:

"Adults may sleep together because their relationship is sexual, and intimate, and bed is the place for sexuality and intimacy in America. Moreover, interdependence between a couple is seen as the contemporary ideal. But children are not part of that intimacy or sexuality, nor are they considered part of that interdependence."

This highlights American (Western) culture's disconnect with touching in the form of innocent, familial touching and the jarring transition from touching a baby to touching a spouse, as I mentioned before. It makes me wonder if other cultures don't have that transition and discomfort from switching between, for instance, sleeping with a child to sleeping with a spouse.

By the way, I'm not entirely happy with my choice of the word "innocent," because it's not as if sexual touching of an appropriate partner is "guilty." I just mean it in the sense of nonsexual touching in the case of people who are not sexual partners. Maybe "appropriate" is better?


Sunday, November 11, 2007

I touch you once, I touch you twice

Posts about postpartum sex are always hard to write...so I won't bother. I'll just say that the difference in surface area is jarring.

I recently had the occasion to spend some time feeling up the hubby at leisure (thank you, long baby nap), and it amazed me how foreign he now felt. I'm going to say words that are going to sound dirty but are meant to be only descriptive: hairy, hard, long. Oh, golly, I'll stop there. I really am serious, though -- think about a male adult thigh compared with a chubby baby one.

I realize that I've never touched someone so long or so frequently as I have now as a mother with my child. I'm always holding Mikko, having him sit on my lap, picking him up, having him climb on me, snuggling him close to nurse or sleep. Right now he's trying to bat my hands at the keyboard.

I know it's not a required Americanism that you shy away from touching others, that hugs between friends and family are brief and sometimes awkward, that kisses are reserved for young children and lovers, that sleeping in the same bed with someone besides a partner is considered archaic and even dangerous -- but it does seem to be the cultural norm. I love it when a friend reaches out to play with my hair, but I never feel comfortable requesting or initiating such innocent contact, except with my spouse. It seems like anything that feels good, like hugging, kissing, holding hands, back rubbing, etc., could eventually feel so good that it would be ideal for leading to sex...so better not do it with anyone except a sexual partner, just in case.

The only other acceptable person to touch, at least in my culture (middle-class white American of northern European descent, and I think "repressed" goes without saying), is a child who is related to you: your own sons and daughters, younger siblings, or close nieces and nephews and grandchildren and the like.

I still find myself reaching out to ruffle my baby brother's hair, and he's 22! I wouldn't do this with just any 22-year-old, only one I conditioned myself, with our 9-year age difference, to feel free with about innocently touching.

But I never, even with a younger brother and now in the delightful freedom of having a husband, have ever touched anyone as much as I touch Mikko. Sure, other people hold him, particularly Sam, but Mikko always has to come back to me to eat, at the very least, and I'm usually the one he falls asleep on or beside for his naps.

So I've gotten used to him. Soft, small, pudgy, squirmy, sharp nails and wild hands, always dewy with a patina of drool, alternately grabbing and stroking my hair, scratching my breasts, pinching my neck and leaving baby hickeys, exploring my lips and eyeglasses, kicking my computer, reaching for my food, leaning with his full (considerable) weight toward the floor, expecting me to catch him every time.

How different, how unbelievably different, from my husband's grown adult man's body, with its ossified bones and its planes of muscle, its crisp hairs and broad proportions, its tender power and controlled movements.

It's a switch. What a trip being a mother is.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Google doesn't like-a da boobies

I put a Google site search box on the right-hand side, because I somehow thought Google would, I don't know, have a good search function.

There were two problems with it right off the bat:

First, it wouldn't pick up on anything added recently, say, within the last two weeks. That's pretty far back for a blog.

Secondly, and this one's funny -- Safe Search was the default, so it was pretty much not returning any results from my blog at all. Too many breasts, and nipples, and other fun things.

Sam monkeyed around with the code for awhile and got it to turn the Safe Search off and look prettier, but it's still not pulling up recent results. I don't know what its indexing schedule is.

At any rate, I'm debating taking it off entirely and just relying on the Blogger navbar up top there ^---. It seems to work just fine, and it doesn't seem to mind my breasts.

My one fear is that people won't realize it exists, because -- gasp -- I didn't even see it there. I treat that navbar solely as my Dashboard link, and didn't even notice the search function. Oh, well!

Where do you look for a search on a blog, and is it something you find useful?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Breastfeeding doesn't make you droop

I already knew that it was pregnancy, not breastfeeding, but it's nice to have it confirmed again:

"Don't Blame Nursing for Saggy Breasts"


I think it's funny (not ha ha, but peculiar) that women think they can stave off sagginess by not breastfeeding when it's already too late. Not that I think a little droopiness is such a horror. I wish such a stupid reason wasn't used as an argument (excuse?) not to nurse. If having babies is important enough to you to risk sagging and stretching and bigger shoe sizes and so forth, then breastfeeding them should be important to you, too.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Jon Stewart references Halloween hobos

The Daily Show yesterday admired Stephen Colbert's paean to hobo cultivation:

"Colbert thinks trick-or-treating is panhandling. ... He thinks it's training to be a hobo."

So true. And what a beautiful thing.