Tuesday, April 1, 2008

On the bookshelf

I've just finished one good book and am in the middle of another. Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn, was just as inspiring as I figured it would be from reading his articles online. The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff, is due in 2 days and has a zillion holds on it so I can't renew it, so we'll see if I can finish it in time or not -- I'm about halfway through but pretty determined. I feel like kind of a faker with The Continuum Concept, because I consider myself a parent of continuum principles, but I hadn't yet read the book. One of the many potential downfalls of having an actual baby, I guess!

I'm enjoying TCC, and belong to the listserv email list as well (why oh why isn't there just a normal message board? is this 1993?), but as with some of the lyrical participants on the listserv, I find that sometimes it's a little more poetic and less practical than I am. I agree with many of the premises, so I don't want to get bogged down in attacking details, but I do wonder if some of the conclusions are painted with too broad a brush -- for instance, I found interesting the theory that we seek as adults what our experience as a baby prepared us for. This would be an evolutionary mechanism, which till now has served humans well. Back in the day, we would have been raised in tribes, close to our mothers, eating on cue, and we would grown up to live in a tribe, close to our relatives and interacting well socially, and eating in a way that is healthful (physically and emotionally), etc. Well, now your typical Western babies are not held close and not raised in a tribe, so they grow up seeking solitude and detachment from humans. She gives examples of children who were injured by their upbringing such that they're happy as adults only when similarly disabled, because they seek the equilibrium with their infancy experience. It rings sorta true for me, and I can off the bat think of some people like this. But then I get stuck trying to categorize some other people -- myself, for instance -- and I think that maybe it's not so simple as spend-your-first-six-months-one-way = spend-your-life-that-way. Also, I fully agree that I was raised to be relatively lonely; I was not reared in a tribe or even with siblings close to me in age. But is that as simple as my mother's fault for screwing up my very early months? Or is it a complex combination of my own temperament, the broader American culture, experiences throughout my whole childhood and then adulthood, and so forth? I'd have to guess the latter.

And the fact remains that Mikko is not going to be raised to be a tribal baby. I've posted before that I like the idea of a tribe in theory, but my own predilections -- be they from infancy or from an amalgam of life experiences -- preclude my living in commmunity at this point. So he's necessarily going to be raised to be in a smaller grouping, and will probably end up in a similar situation as an adult. But is that a problem? Yes, no, both, sometimes, I don't know?

I feel these types of thoughts swirling through me as I read The Continuum Concept. I exult -- yes, yes, yes! That's so right! And then I cringe -- well, that's a little heavy-handed, isn't it? And then I feel guilty, like there's no redeeming all the harm I've already done in Mikko's 9 and a half months with me, and then in the next paragraph I'm feeling superior that I have done so much so well in that span. Oh, well -- it's a book, not my conscience. I guess I'll have to take what I can live with and try not to beat myself up with the rest, as indeed Liedloff herself advises.

But here's the part that keeps sticking out to me for making me feel like A. Bad. Mother. -- right in the introduction, no less:

"It is understandable that Western babies are not welcome in offices, shops, workrooms, or even dinner parties. They usually shriek and kick, wave their arms and stiffen their bodies, so that one needs two hands, and a lot of attention, to keep them under control. It seems that they are keyed up with undischarged energy from spending so much time ot of contact with an active person's naturally discharging energy field. When they are picked up they are still rigid with tension, and try to rid themselves of the discomfort by flexing their limbs or signaling the person holding them to bounce them on a knee or toss them in the air. Millicent [a GOOD mother] was surprised at the differences between [GOOD baby] Seth's body tone and that of other babies. His was soft, she said. The others all felt like pokers."

Well, crap, my baby's a poker. He's totally the shrieking, rigid, spasmodic type. And we carry him all the dang time! So what are we doing wrong? In some ways, I know what we're doing wrong -- it's that we're not active enough. I fully agree with that. When we take Mikko out all day, to the zoo or walking in the park, or even to the store, he becomes much more manageable and quiescent. But the thing is, I'm not a tribeswoman, carrying water and gathering roots. I work from home, mostly on my computer, sitting on my fat butt. And this kid is hea-vy. He hit 20 pounds at 9 weeks, and my back and arms can take only so much, and I've tried all the carriers out there. I'm not saying they don't work -- I couldn't carry him for any length of time without them; it's just that even with them, there are limits for me, lame-o sedentary Westerner that I am. And Mikko refuses to be in a carrier if I'm sitting down, so most of the day he's just on our laps and then occasionally carried in arms as we perform simple tasks that don't require much time or energy expended, since that's all our arm holding him can take. So, yeah, Mikko's learning from Sam and me how to be a lazy, fat American, because -- hey, that's what he's called to be! That's what he was born to be!

Anyway...I'm torn. This book both makes me want to be better...and makes me want to scream that I'm doing the best I can.

In my defense, Mikko was a spaz pre-birth. He was always kicking and flipping and flexing in the womb. The whole birthing time was feeling him spin around in preparation for descent. When the afterbirth came out, there was a footprint-shaped dead spot on the wall of the placenta right where he kicked the most repeatedly, up near my right rib cage. So I'm sure a lot of it is just who he is, and not that I've failed to make him into some idealized Yequana baby.

To that end, I'm also reading Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. :)

I said I wouldn't just pick apart points I disagree with or have problems with, so I really will try harder next time I write more thoughts, as I hope to do about any and all of these books. Because, honestly, I think they're all helpful. I'm really loving the beauty of the core philosophy of The Continuum Concept, and Unconditional Parenting made me take a hard look at the (usually) unchallenged beliefs in our culture's views on discipline. A big one to get my head around was that punishment (i.e., doing something unpleasant to someone weaker) is not a moral necessity when a child misbehaves (i.e., does something that annoys you or goes against the often arbitrary rules you've created). I realize Mikko's not old enough to need "discipline" yet, but that's why I'm trying to get a head start. Firstly, because I can always use reminders to patience and seeing his perspective. Even now, it's hard not to retaliate when he frustrates me, such as by biting me when nursing -- it seems like a moral imperative (no, really, it's hard to get past this for me!) to make him also feel bad about it, by withholding nursing, turning away, saying something sharp to him. I like Alfie Kohn's admonitions to turn around that age-old "Because I'm the parent, that's why" stupidity with the crystal knowledge that yes, I am the parent, and that's why I can be mature and unconditionally loving.

Secondly, I need to bone up on what I might encounter as Mikko moves into his toddler years and beyond so I don't feel as guilt-stricken reading Kohn's book after screwing up Mikko's life for good as I do reading The Continuum Concept as his deficient in-arms phase is nearing its end. Ha ha ha!

So, questions I have for anybody who has a perspective on these books:

(1) How bad a mother am I? No, just joking.

(2) Can anyone point me to a blog or article of someone applying Kohn's principles to their children? I like Kohn's examples with his own kids, but I'm hoping someone else out in blogland has other concrete and day-to-day experiences to offer as I try to imagine raising a maturing little guy.

And I'll throw in (3), in the spirit of (1): Can some of the deficiences of a sedentary in-arms phase be redeemed when a child becomes mobile? I'm sort of hoping that once Mikko learns to crawl and then walk, run, jump, and so on, that I can just get out of his way and leave him to expend all the energy he needs to in that way. I'm really not that active a person; I don't fidget; I don't get antsy very easily; I continually look for ways to get around manual labor. But I don't have a problem with Mikko being entirely different from me, and I won't stand in his way. I wonder if the Western children's "poker" qualities are bad (as in, harmful to them) or just their safe and acceptable way of blowing off that energy. Is it necessarily better that continuum babies are (or might be, as I don't have firsthand experience with this) so floppy and toneless because of expending their energy through the bodies carrying them rather than on their own? I guess Liedloff's point is that everything that's in continuum with our expected evolution, which would include being carried actively, is indeed better. But how does that play out in this case? Does a Western spaz baby end up being worse off as an older child or adult, at least within his own particular culture?

Hmm. Questions, questions. Feel free to ignore (3), too. I really would love an answer to (2).


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