Friday, March 27, 2009

A response to "The Case Against Breastfeeding"

I'm sure you've seen this Atlantic article making the rounds: "The Case Against Breast-Feeding" by Hanna Rosin, who decries breastfeeding as anti-feminist and overhyped.

It's engendered a lot of vitriol, much of it deserved and some maybe a little exaggerated, and it's also (on non-breastfeeding-centric sites) gathered a lot of accolades, that someone is finally saying what every mother thinks: that breastfeeding kinda sucks (more on my disagreement with that later).

First of all, the tone rubbed some people the wrong way: It's a sarcastically written article, which alternately amused and irritated me. When she describes how "the urban moms in their tight jeans and oversize sunglasses size each other up using a whole range of signifiers: organic content of snacks, sleekness of stroller, ratio of tasteful wooden toys to plastic," it's clearly a hyperbolic artistic illustration, but it comes across as über-judgmental. If you're a friend of Hanna Rosin, you're probably wondering now what she thinks of you — and what she writes about you in The Atlantic! As a fellow sarcasmo, though, I did feel like defending her right to express herself in a creative, if snarky, style.

But of course, beyond the tone was the message. Rosin thinks breastfeeding keeps women at home all day and night with their shirts half-off, while their menfolk and their lucky formula-feeding sisters go off and have fulfilling lives without them — or, as she puts it: "It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way."

There's a lot to unpack there. For me, breastfeeding has not kept me at home or indecent or unfulfilled. I've been able to write a novel while breastfeeding. I've made friends and volunteered and traveled. I've worked in our home business. It's raising a child that's curtailed some of my activities, but not breastfeeding by itself.

On the other hand, I personally dislike pumping. Unlike breastfeeding, where the baby does all the work, pumping is inconvenient to me, and it feels contrived. So, for mothers who work outside the home, I can understand the reluctance to go through the trouble of pumping when an artificial milk substitute is available. I give props to all the pumpers out there (unlike Rosin, who just kind of derides them: "One of them sat on my couch the other day hooked up to tubes and suctions and a giant deconstructed bra, looking like some fetish ad, or a footnote from the Josef Mengele years. Looking as far as humanly possible from Eve in her natural, feminine state."). But mostly I just wish that pumping weren't necessary. I wish that our economy and culture allowed for women (and men!) to take the time they need to be parents, to have families, and to enjoy meaningful work. We made a choice to work from home, but I acknowledge that not everyone can or does do the same, and meanwhile the system as it stands is incredibly harsh toward parents, and mothers in particular. I wish Rosin had addressed that instead of blaming breastfeeding as the cause of the death of feminism.

The other main thrust of Rosin's article is that breastfeeding isn't so great, anyway. She's examined the research, she says, and "the actual health benefits of breast-feeding are surprisingly thin, far thinner than most popular literature indicates."

Here I direct you to a lactation consultant who knows of such things. (Lactation consulting also rated a snicker in Rosin's article.) Tanya at the Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog gave a response to Rosin's article that focused on her selective reading of the literature on breastfeeding's benefits. One thing that struck me as I read the Atlantic article was that Rosin referenced a meta-study on breastfeeding that came up with lukewarm results for breastfeeding's superiority — done in 1984. I thought, There must be something more recent than that! And I therewith resolved to research that. Fortunately, I came across Tanya's post and realized she'd done it for me. Hooray!

The Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog post points to a 2007 meta-analysis that "found that a history of breastfeeding was associated with a reduction in the risk of acute otitis media, non-specific gastroenteritis, severe lower respiratory tract infections, atopic dermatitis, asthma (young children), obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and necrotizing enterocolitis." So Rosin can poke fun: "And when I look around my daughter’s second-grade class, I can’t seem to pick out the unfortunate ones: 'Oh, poor little Sophie, whose mother couldn’t breast-feed. What dim eyes she has. What a sickly pallor. And already sprouting acne!'” But, the thing is, she's wrong. So there.

Here's what also bugged me about the article. It kept comparing breastmilk to formula. Not breastfeeding, the act of transmitting the breastmilk, but the precious "milky elixir" (read in snide tone) itself. When she does mention breastfeeding, she dismisses the holistic benefits:

"In his study on breast-feeding and cognitive development, Michael Kramer mentions research on the long-term effects of mother rats’ licking and grooming their pups. Maybe, he writes, it’s 'the physical and/or emotional act of breastfeeding' that might lead to benefits. This is the theory he prefers, he told me, because 'it would suggest something the formula companies can’t reproduce.' No offense to Kramer, who seems like a great guy, but this gets under my skin. If the researchers just want us to lick and groom our pups, why don’t they say so? We can find our own way to do that. In fact, by insisting that milk is some kind of vaccine, they make it less likely that we’ll experience nursing primarily as a loving maternal act—'pleasant and relaxing,' in the words of Our Bodies, Ourselves and more likely that we’ll view it as, well, dispensing medicine."

This reminds me again of In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan, where he discusses nutritionism's deconstruction of food into discrete nutrients, each having more or less value depending on the current dietary whims. Ever since I read that book, I've seen nutritionism's hold everywhere. I hear well-meaning diet gurus rejecting, for instance, grapes because of the type of sugar in them. They're grapes! They're good for you. People in the Roman Empire already knew that. What have we learned since then? That we're kind of stupid when it comes to eating, that's what, and that we should stop thinking so hard. It's not each separate part of each separate food that's important — it's food itself. It's the entire package — eating a variety of fresh, whole foods. Of course grapes can be part of that!

It's kind of weird, because I do agree with Rosin in the above quote that it's pointless to think of breastmilk in such medical terms, because such deconstruction misses the point of feeding our young. But I disagree with her conclusion that it's some other disparate action instead (cuddling). It's all of it! As she's scrambling to prove that it's not the breastmilk alone that confers the "magical" benefits of breastfeeding, with the air of someone debunking the "secret" of breastfeeding's powers, I want to say: "So?" What's wrong with that? Why can't it be everything together — the milk, the antibodies, the fats and proteins, the sugars, the warmth, the closeness, the hormones, the time investment, the cuddling? None of those things by itself is enough — babies crave it all. And there are probably even more factors than that. Why think so hard about it when it should be perfectly obvious that feeding our babies the way mammals have fed their young for millennia just makes good sense?

Now, as to some people's positive responses to this article — I've been fortunate that breastfeeding has come, mainly, so easily for Mikko and me. I have heard of other mothers' struggles through mastitis and low milk supply and premature births, and I hear their disappointment that they were unable to breastfeed the way they wanted, or sometimes at all. I can understand that, for those women, an article like this might help them feel less guilty, and that's cool. Why judge yourself for a medical condition and a good attempt? And I don't mind someone telling it like it is for them, even if that means popping the rosy bubble of beautiful mommyhood (especially then). What worries me most about this article is that I foresee women who were wavering on the subject of "to breastfeed or not" will read a blurb of "breastfeeding isn't all that hot after all" and will swing toward not, without ever looking into it further.

As a final thought, it bemuses me that Rosin seems to be stuck in an (admittedly very fashion-conscious) attachment-parenting crowd out there on the East Coast, and here I am stuck in a conventional-parenting crowd on the West Coast. She would never hear condemnation of her formula-feeding ways in my group. Maybe we should switch places?

I'm going to need some tight jeans and oversize sunglasses, though.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Cloth diapers the easy way: Use a diaper service

I love cloth diapers, and I hate doing laundry.

When I was pregnant, I blithely nested by buying used prefolds from consignment shops and WAHM-made diaper covers off eBay and assumed I'd get over the hating-laundry part.

Fast forward to having a newborn. Nine weeks in, after all the relatives have left and helped me with a mite, I turn to the hamper to do my first load of laundry. And find that the items at the bottom have mildewed. Yuck (in so many ways, yes, I know).

Fortunately for me, a dear friend anticipated my need and gave us the gift of a cloth diaper service for our first month of newborn life. To be honest, my pregnant self was slightly dismissive — sure, I thought, it will be nice for that one month, but then I'm using my own diaper stash.

Ha ha — that little laundry episode showed me that I really, really liked the diaper service after all. And, hey, while we're at it, how's about a laundry service in general? (And, yes, I found one on craigslist! I'm so spoiled.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Can an attachment parent use daycare if there's not a really good reason?

Ugh. Well, I've been trying for a week to break this monster below into smaller chunks, and all I did was succeed in adding on to it with a couple related posts. But this is about our ambivalence in enrolling Mikko in preschool, and I'm running out of time to get this posted before he starts already (as I post this six days after I first began writing it). So, as Sam assures me, writing can be any length you want on the internet! I will try to break it up with catchy subheadings and pretty pictures.


We're enrolling Mikko in a German immersion preschool.

Well, I haven't sent in the deposit yet. You can see the ambivalence there.

This isn't my post only on the preschool itself (though I do get to that later) but on the advisability of sending a 21-month-old to one in the first place, when there's no real need for it.

Daycare, schmaycare, or enjoying a devil-may-daycare attitude

I've had the luxury of being ambivalent about daycare. Granted, it's a luxury our family of three deliberately cultivated, but we're blessed to be in a situation (personal, cultural, financial) that's allowed us to make such a choice.

Sam and I have worked from home since our marriage, first telecommuting (Sam) and doing contract work (me), and now running our own home business(es). We initially considered it temporary, that eventually we would become normal and work in an office, but we grew used to it. And we really, really liked it. So when Sam's salary job ran out, we found a way to keep the experience of working from home if not the stable paycheck.

It's meant sacrifices, although I don't usually think of them that way. We're not even close to the amount of income needed to buy a house, even in this crappy economy. We've had to borrow money from relatives on occasion (hooray for no-interest loans), though we've repaid it all. We've had stretches of eating pasta that we could pick up on clearance from Big Lots (59 cents a box for cheese tortellini, baby!). I remember the day I considered the holes in my socks and wavered on whether I could afford a new pair. That's when I knew I was truly hobo. Well, no, maybe that was when Sam came excitedly back from taking out the trash and said the Dumpster was ripe for the picking — someone had moved out of our apartment complex and inexplicably tossed all his belongings; Sam sold them on eBay for a few extra bucks (without mentioning their provenance).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Monolingual raising a bilingual baby, or why we're choosing a German immersion preschool

I've been interested in the idea of multilingualism ever since we moved to Berlin for several years when I was 10. I had visions of rattling off a new language with fluent ease, and everyone who spoke only English would wonder what fabulous things my German friends and I were talking about. I practiced by babbling to myself, pretending I was saying something insightful.

The dream didn't come true. German has never been easy for me like English, and I think the main reason is I started too late. My first year in Berlin was spent at the American school, and then I transferred to a German-American school. The second was much better at teaching German, but the rest of my classes were still in English. And, as traveling Americans rely on, everyone speaks English, so I didn't have a problem navigating the city with my limited skills.

I took another year of German when we returned to the States for my high school years (the only year that was offered at my schools), and then I minored in German in college. My college classes especially helped me progress in my abilities, but I've remained self-conscious about speaking German with actual native German speakers. Americans at the same level as I am — sure. But real, live Germans or Austrians, etc.? Not so much.

So the wish remained, a regret that I never did become fabulous in another language.

And I realized — it could be so much easier. My German friends who are fluent in English started learning English in preschool. Why do Americans, by and large, wait until high school? It's so much harder then.

And there are so many benefits to multilingualism: increased cognitive skills, better proficiency at reading and writing (there seems to be something about learning more than one language that makes you aware of language as a construct and helps you decipher the parts more readily, so therefore:), ease of learning additional languages, acknowledgment and appreciation of cultural differences, and greater creative thinking in general, among more practical possibilities like having an easier time in foreign-language classes at school or in getting a job in a language field.

So when I was contemplating having a baby, I thought — I'll make it easy for him. (Forgive the masculine pronoun use, but I ended up having a boy, so it makes sense to me in this case.) I'll start him at birth, before birth even.

But was it even possible? Could a non-native speaker raise a native-level speaker?

I found a book at the library that inspired me no end: Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens, by George Saunders. It looks to be out of print (and holy-cow expensive), but maybe your library also has a copy or you can access it through interlibrary loan.

George Saunders is an Australian who learned German well enough that he figured he'd give raising his children in German a whirl. He's also a linguist, so this sort of thing amused him. I'm so glad that it did! And that he documented his experiences.

He followed what's known in bilingual circles as OPOL, or one parent, one language. (I learned a lot of such terms when researching these things.) That means that, in his case, he spoke only German to his kids, and his wife spoke only English. You can see from the cover two things: (1) One of his kids did the illustrations, and (2) his kids learned to speak English to his wife and German to him and to expect responses in kind. I'll add a third thing that you see from the cover: George Saunders is very hairy and well-built.

I was encouraged by the positive results of George Saunders's little experiment on his children. They all grew up speaking German with near-native accents and breadth, and their German writing skills were only slightly behind their English skills. There's always debate about what being "fluent" in a language means, or what standards to set for being bilingual (or tri-, etc.), but that was more than successfully bilingual in my book. I'd be happy if Mikko had a decent passive understanding of spoken German and could carry on conversations, preferably without any of my paralyzing social fears.

I wasn't too keen on the OPOL idea, because I'm just so much better in English. As a writer, too, I love to express myself in my mother tongue, and as a singer, most of the songs I cherish and want to pass on are in English. You come to realize when you're considering bringing up a baby with a minority language just how much culture and language are inseparable. Your books, your stories, your songs, your nursery rhymes, your proverbs and catchphrases, your jokes, even your slang and the cutesie nicknames you give your child — all require a wide and deep experience in the language you've chosen.

I checked out a range of books from the library and started reading articles online, and I found out that there's a debate about how regimented you have to be in your language use with your child. There's a large camp that says very and suggests strategies like OPOL or both parents speaking a minority language at home, which wouldn't work with us, as Sam doesn't speak a word of German (he literally refuses). There's another side that says kids will figure it out eventually, and you can be a little more laid-back. They point to a lot of Spanish-speaking enclaves in the United States where the children grow up speaking a Spanglish conglomeration, mixing words and grammar casually, but at school the children are able to separate out the English rules and vocabulary.

At any rate, the latter appealed to me more. Maybe it's my unschooling, they'll-get-there-eventually philosophy, or maybe it was just my reluctance to speak only German. I figured I'd speak German sometimes, and that I'd start during pregnancy.

Boy, did I feel like a fool. I could barely speak to my little one in English during pregnancy, let alone in a language that no one around me could understand. Even when Mikko was born, I found it strained. It was like talking to the cat, or to myself. When I spoke English, I knew that Sam at least was catching what I was saying, and any little jokes I was throwing in. Speaking German felt very isolating, since Mikko wasn't responding in any case. And, since Sam couldn't join in, it felt a little rude as well, as if I were purposely excluding him.

I bought German books and CDs and sometimes remembered to use them. I joined a Seattle-area German-speaking parents group, but here's the sad part — I've been too shy to meet any of the members. I signed up for the email list, and I follow along and mark invitations to church festivals and coffee groups and toddler story times on my calendar, and then I never show up. This goes back to being self-conscious about speaking German to actual German speakers, and I feel doubly bizarre for being a non-native speaker who's interested in raising her son to be bilingual. Most of the other families have one or both parents who are native German speakers, sometimes on contract assignment in the U.S., sometimes a mixed marriage that's relocated to the area. I kept wishing I had someone like me, an American who's just trying her best to understand and speak and who's interested in the language but not an expert. My usual social copout of bringing Sam along won't work, since he doesn't know German.

I also failed to find support among my family and friends. For my family, this is just one more weird parenting thing I'm doing (I can hear them sighing right now). For my monolingual friends, they can't see why I'd bother. For my friends raising a bilingual baby, they're in the same shoes as the native German speakers above: They have a reason to be doing so. One half of the couple speaks another language, or the grandparents do, or so forth, and they've been a little dismissive of my attempts to create from scratch an artificial bilingual environment. It doesn't help, either, that German is not considered a practical language in the U.S. If I were teaching Mikko something "useful" like Spanish or Chinese, I think I'd get some more understanding, but my high-school Spanish is execrable, so German it is. I understand, I do, that what I'm doing is weird. I just wish I had more gumption to do unusual things when I'm not getting support.

So, all in all, I've really been a slacker at the German thing. Now that Mikko's starting to speak, I really can't put it off any longer. I read a statistic that children need to hear a language at least 30% of the time to take it in. I recently resolved to pick days of the week and speak only German to Mikko on those days: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and whenever I feel like it the rest of the time. That way, it's finite, and I know I can enjoy English the other days if I want to. And it takes away my forgetfulness, because I have no idea how often he heard German before this. I've kept the German books and music handier now, because I need them on our German days. So, despite my love of all things loosey-goosey and unscheduled, I found out that I needed to be more definitive about when I would speak the minority language if I was going to speak it at all.


Our other big change is that next week Mikko will start attending a half-day German preschool two days a week. I have more posts in me about that decision. But the basic reason for it is that I've determined that I can't shoulder the responsibility of raising Mikko to speak German on my own, after all. I don't mean that I'm giving up. I don't mean that I need to be better at German. I just need more outside resources. Ideally, eventually we'll maybe connect with those German-speaking families for free, but for me, this preschool is my less threatening entry into the German-speaking world. I'll pay someone else to do for Mikko what I've been putting off for close to two years — surround him with German speakers.

Even though he hasn't started the school yet, I already feel more natural speaking German with him. I have renewed confidence that he's understanding me, or will come to. (I even do find myself speaking to the cat in German!) And now I have his teachers and the other parents and children to interact with, so maybe I'll be thrown head first into an immersion environment myself. I'm even finding myself wanting to speak German on my English days, which I go along with whenever the urge strikes.

And it's perfect: If Mikko will talk to me in German, then I'll have my friend — my American friend who's learning German just like me, and who will go with me to the playgroup outings!

Or maybe he'll be embarrassed by my German and leave me behind...

In case you were wondering, I present you with internet evidence that, apart from George Saunders, I'm not the only freak monolingual trying to raise a bilingual kid:

  • Bilingual Parenting in a Foreign Language has this excellent FAQ that answers questions such as "Do I know enough of my second and non-native language to try and teach it to my children?", "If I want to teach my children my second language, how can I compensate for my non-native language abilities and help my children learn beyond my abilities?", "If neither my spouse nor I speak a second language, how can we help our child become bilingual?", "Isn't it unnatural to try and use a non-native language as the primary communication with your children?", and "Will my children pick up my mistakes and is that a problem?" — basically, all the questions that come to your mind when you consider non-native bilingual childrearing! Besides the FAQ, the site has survey results from real-life families using a foreign language(s) in the home, and links to various resources.
  • Bilingual Babes asks the question: "Should I speak a non-native language with my child?" (not to spoil it, but the answer is yes). She includes links in her sidebar to profiles of other non-native parents raising bilingual babes. She also talks about the usefulness of baby sign language as a bridge for spoken bilingualism, which was one of the reasons I started baby sign with Mikko. (As a plus, her blog has a gorgeous header photo!)
  • The Linguist Blogger gives practical tips on raising bilingual children, based on another out-of-print George Saunders book, Bilingual Children: Guidance for the Family.
  • On the WordReference Forums, ILT in the second post down relates her positive experiences as a Spanish-native mother speaking English with her son.
  • The Multilingual Children's Association asks the question "Why would you speak to baby in a language not your own?" and answers "Why not?" This resource and others confirm my experience in gradually feeling less silly speaking a minority language to my kiddo: "So, what about the awkwardness of speaking a foreign language to your child? The only way to find out if this is a problem is to try. The general consensus from parents who have, is that the first few weeks are awful but after that things get easier."

I hope to put together a list of some more general multilingual resources another day. Viel Spaß!

Letter jumble photograph courtesy of Manu Mohan on stock.xchng

Friday, March 13, 2009

To the lady at Chocolati who hates children...

mute knocker...and, specifically, my child.

I realize my 21-month-old was being rather boisterous at times. He had had a long day, and here he was in a hot-chocolate shop, being pretty dang good, we thought (whatever "good" means). He was amusing himself and not physically accosting patrons at other tables, as he has done in the past. He was periodically making noises, but they were happy noises — babbling to himself, singing a line of a song only he knows the lyrics to, pointing out the air conditioner and lights to anyone who was as interested in such structural minutiae as he was.

For much of the time, he wasn't noisy at all. And just before you walked by us, I had realized that his voice was louder than usual, and I was trying to tempt him toward me with a singsong call of his name and an offer of raisins.

And then you, with your snide, "Some people are trying to work here, you know," and your storming off down the left me feeling like a red-faced doofus with a handful of raisins.

There were so many things I could have said to you, if you had stuck around instead of scurrying away like a name-calling coward.

I could have asked you to whom you were addressing your complaint — our group of four adults talking in conversational tones, or the toddler letting fly his glee. I assume it was the latter, but I couldn't really confirm, because you had hightailed it after delivering your parting shot. I couldn't have any sort of conversation with you, or explain our side, or point out that I was in the process of quieting him, because all you seemed to care about was shaming me and my child in front of my friends, and ruining the rest of my time out with them.

So let me take this opportunity to tell you a few things:

     1. Chocolati is not a library, and it is not a private office. If you choose to work in public, then you need to be prepared for, you know, the public to be there with you. Your 8-ounce Dark Vader does not rent you four hours of a table, free wi-fi, an electrical outlet, and perfect stillness. Bring an iPod like everyone else, or learn to tune it out — or go somewhere that is expected to be quiet. Such a place is not an establishment made expressly for people to gather and get somewhat giddy on chocolaty goodness.

     2. I'm going to assume you don't have children, because I would hope that people with children would not be so judgmental (ha ha...OK, but seriously). As evidence for how bad Sam and I would be in a court of law, I recalled you as in your late 20s, so pre-reproductive, and Sam thought you were in your 40s, so post-. Either way, you came across as self-righteous in your certainty that you were doing the other patrons a favor by driving out such pesky hooligans as families who dare to emerge from their dens without benefit of a babysitter. As Sam said about you later, you think you're making the world a better place, but you're what's wrong with the world.

     3. If you know of a toddler volume control, please let me know. It would come in handy in church and all those other family-disapproving places. You didn't see the aftermath of your little snit, but we tried unsuccessfully to hush Mikko, in all our shame-facedness and our worry that the other patrons were hating on us as well. It ended in Mikko screeching in protest — was that better than his happy babbling? Of course, neither would have satisfied you, but at least in this case we were making Mikko suffer as much as you apparently were.

     4. Let me tell you a little about my life, something you neglected to consider when you dehumanized me into A Bad Mother who can't control her child. I had just received a notification that we were selected (oh, joy) for an audit on our last four years' state excise-tax returns. I was trying to forget it and enjoy my one weekly evening with friends. This regular night out together is restorative, and having my child with me, making connections to my friends, is something I cherish.

     5. You don't know my financial or familial situation, and whether I can afford or choose childcare. Regardless of whether alternative care is available to any particular parent, families have the right to exist outside of their homes. They have the right to be seen in public. They have the right to be heard in public. We try to follow the noise code of whatever particular place we're in, but embarrassments like this make parents feel like pariahs, and children feel unacceptable being children.

     6. From now on, I'll be self-conscious going to my weekly get-together. I'll cringe at every peep Mikko makes and wonder whether we're offending someone. I'll worry that you complained to the management instead of just walking out in a huff, and that they might ask us to leave what has been a welcoming spot. Maybe you meant to make me this anguished. If so, you succeeded.

     7. I'm trying not to hate you the way you hate me. I cut all the swearing out of this post. I hope that someday you'll have children (if you're the age I thought you were) and realize that parents could use some tolerance and love directed toward them as they raise the next generation.

Despite not getting to tell you face to face what's on my's hoping we don't meet again.

Photo courtesy of Jörg Ruth

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Parenting alone: We need more allomothers

I've been overwhelmed with posts that I've had the urge to write. I started one two days ago, and it was so long and still unfinished that I realized it needed to be about five. I've resolved to take it one step at a time, and try to break things up by theme. This, oddly enough, all has to do with our decision to enroll Mikko in a German-immersion preschool two half-days a week, but I'll have to get to that later. Don't bother trying to make this post fit that topic, because it's only incidental.

Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding — Sarah Blaffer HrdyToday's installment is based on a New York Times article that's making the rounds, previewing anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's newest book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.

The article is In a Helpless Baby, the Roots of Our Social Glue, by Natalie Angier. I haven't read the Hrdy book, so don't take this as an endorsement. I was intrigued enough by the article, though, to continue researching the intriguing term "allomothering."

The article gives Hrdy's view on human babies' astonishing dependence, as distinct from certain other advanced primates. Because of this long period of utter dependence on adults, humans have necessarily developed a form of cooperative breeding, "a reproductive strategy in which mothers are assisted by as-if mothers, or 'allomothers,' individuals of either sex who help care for and feed the young."

Either because of this or in response to this, humans are relatively trusting and cooperative. We may deplore our warlike tendencies, but that started mostly to compete with other tribes, not among those we trust. In contrast to animals in the wild, we're pretty tolerant of each other, even in close quarters. Hrdy gives the example of a hypothetical cross-country flight:

"Chimpanzees are pretty smart, but were you to board an airplane filled with chimpanzees, you 'would be lucky to disembark with all 10 fingers and toes still attached,' Dr. Hrdy writes."

In the realm of baby care, mother chimpanzees and gorillas won't give up their newborns to others, fearing rightly for their baby's life. Human mothers, on the other hand, expect to hand the baby into other trusted arms. I found these statistics of traditional-society babywearing interesting:

"Among the !Kung foragers of the Kalahari, babies are held by a father, grandmother, older sibling or some other allomother maybe 25 percent of the time. Among the Efe foragers of Central Africa, babies spend 60 percent of their daylight hours being toted around by somebody other than their mother. In 87 percent of foraging societies, mothers sometimes suckle each other’s children, another remarkable display of social trust."

In the culture of those who adhere to attachment-parenting and continuum-parenting ideals, we're faced with a dilemma. We strive to emulate the traditional tribal ways of breastfeeding on cue, wearing our babies, sleeping close, and continuing our daily tasks — but without the tribe. Think about those Efe mothers who have responsibility for their babies only 40 percent of the daylight hours and the sort of rest and activity they could get done.

The long-term consequences of allomothering has been to encourage long childhood dependence but still allow the mother to regain her fertility quickly:

"With helpers in the nest, women could give birth to offspring with ever longer childhoods — the better to build big brains and stout immune systems — and, paradoxically, at ever shrinking intervals. The average time between births for a chimpanzee mother is about six years; for a human mother, it’s two or three years."

It's not just humans who use allomothering, though, and it was in her study of various monkeys and apes that Hrdy first started applying what she witnessed to human child rearing. For instance, allomothering in monkeys has such benefits as allowing the mother time to forage for more food and reproduce more quickly. For the allomothers themselves, it gives them practice in parenting (in monkeys, allomothers are often females who haven't yet reproduced) and cements bonds within the group — such as assuring males of their paternity and making it more likely that the baby will be cared for if the mother should die.

I really enjoyed a similar article, by Claudia Glenn Dowling, titled "The Hardy Sarah Blaffer Hrdy," that delves more deeply into Hrdy's experiences as a mother who maintained her professional life while raising three children, with the help of just such allomothers as she researched. I won't even go into the point here that no one would be speaking of such things as her family life if she were a male anthropologist, but consider it noted.

The article gives more examples of allomothers and the risks of not having such support:

"Historically, humans have made use of allomothers, [Hrdy] maintains. Allo means 'other than' in Greek, so allomothers are group members who help a mother rear her child. They may be female (older sisters, aunts, grandmothers) or male (brothers, lovers, and fathers). The absence of support networks for modern mothers may explain why so many newborns are dumped in bathrooms, Hrdy says."

Some parents are fortunate enough to live by extended family or within a network of friends who are eager to help. But many in Western culture, particularly in urban places, live independently, and any tribe we surround ourselves with we have to create. For most, the choice is limited to one of two options: Either one parent, usually the woman, stays home to be a full-time parent and has all the responsibility of caring 100 percent of the time for her young, or the family employs hired professionals for some of the care. For working parents, their allomothers of choice might be nannies or au pairs (as Hrdy was privileged enough to choose for her children), or daycare for the less affluent.

"Those experiences [as a working mother] have made Hrdy a fierce advocate for good day-care programs, which she considers the modern substitute for a tribal network of allomothers. She visits centers around the world to study their techniques and lobbies government childcare agencies for higher standards. 'Stability, stability, stability,' she reiterates. She finds it inconceivable that anyone doubts that quality day-care programs are worthy of public funding. She says the woman who drowned her five children in the bathtub in Texas is a tragic example of the need for a support system. 'She should not have been alone in that house with five young kids and a record of depression— it's a no-brainer. Not even a mentally healthy woman should have to be in that situation.'"

In fighting so hard for attachment parenting — carry your baby, breastfeed day and night — I feel like sometimes I miss the point that traditional mothers would do this with help. We weren't meant to parent alone, and our babies weren't meant to be so isolated and attached to only one caregiver.

Sometimes I need to open up my heart and let Mikko bond with other allomothers, like the lovely nulliparous (my other new word from researching this post) women who hang out with Sam, Mikko, and me every week for a small group meeting. And I've so enjoyed seeing his face light up when his aunt comes over, or hear him yell out "Nana" when a picture of my mom comes up on my screensaver.

Sometimes I have to accept that I can't be all things to Mikko, and nor should I be. And I shouldn't have to feel guilt about that (though I do, as you'll see in upcoming posts...).

He needs his mother, but we need other caregivers around us, too, for all our sakes.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Screaming in sign language: When caregivers don't understand baby sign

I keep hoping my cool new related posts widget will, you know, actually show related posts. So far it seems random to me, but maybe it's using some algorithm I know not of, or maybe I'm expecting magical mind reading rather than technology. Anyhoo, I'll just have to keep linking the related ones myself. To that end, I'm referring to these today: yesterday's post on changing our sleep schedule and a recent post about our mixed feelings on putting our baby in the church nursery (where all your helpful comments have made it clear that we're not alone in our wishes and concerns), as well as my post on Mikko's progress with baby sign language. You don't have to read them all in advance — I only point them out to refer back to if you're wondering what conversation I'm continuing here.

Yesterday we were cranky all round because of trying to get to bed and up early and having only alloyed success at both. Mikko was what I like to refer to as fragile — sometimes calm, sometimes giddy, but on a knife's edge for turning into a howling banshee.

Signing Time DVDsWe decided to try out the earlier service at church, since it might fit in better with our new schedule, and Mikko was signing to nurse as we walked in, late. I went on in to the back and tried to breastfeed him, but he would have none of it. He kept straining and twisting and whining loudly during the prayer. Prompted by Sam's pained expression, I gave up and walked Mikko down to the nursery instead. He went in calmly enough without me and headed straight for the toy trucks as usual.

I grabbed a pager and settled back in upstairs with the adults to be nice and quiet.

In just a few moments, my pocket suddenly started vibrating. I leaped out of my chair as if I'd been electrocuted and ran off downstairs, forgetting to let Sam know in passing, who had his eyes closed for another prayer.

I could hear the wails as I descended, and a harried volunteer met me at the half-door.

"He keeps pointing to his stomach and head," she told me, clearly concerned that he must be dying.

"Oh," I said, reaching in to pick up my screeching son. "He's signing." I tried to reassure him and her at the same time. "That just means he wants to nurse and he wants me."

I don't think I explained it very well, but I was under some duress, what with the screaming and all. I realized she probably thought he was pointing to the places on his body that were distressing him, but really he was just using his own adapted baby signs for breastfeeding (he kind of just points to his stomach) and mother (he uses his index finger instead of a thumb for mother and father signs).

There was no going back into the nursery, even after a long session of nummies, which he accepted this time, and sitting silently in the service was still out of the question. It was such a very quiet service, maybe due to the early hour. So the three of us ended up in our old haunt, the cry room, where we bugged the heck out of some poor single guy who must have thought it was overflow seating.

What I took away from our experience at this service, good and bad:

     First of all, we all really need to get used to being up early. We've put off starting Mikko in his new preschool until next week, when we hope he'll have adjusted to our revised schedule and be able to accept a separation from us with more equanimity.

     That aside, one thing I liked about the childcare at this early service is its very features as a reduced option. It's only for 0- to 5-year-olds, and what I most appreciated was that all the children were in one room together rather than separated out by age. It also was a smaller group, about eight kids total, so it might be less overwhelming and have a better teacher-to-child ratio than during the busier main service.

     What discouraged me was not unique to this service, but it was the very fact that no one could understand my son's efforts to communicate.

Don't get me wrong — I'm not some baby-sign nut who thinks everyone who doesn't know basic vocabulary in American Sign Language is being rude to my child. I mean, you might want to learn some basic ASL vocabulary anyhow, since it might come in handy (for instance, if you volunteer in the church nursery) and just because it's fun. But I certainly don't expect it of anyone.

Baby Signing TimeBut the fact is that anyone who's close to my son knows his most common signs. "Nummies," in particular, they would have had a chance to see many times over if we had spent even a couple hours together. My friends and family have all learned the sign and many other of the popular ones, just by hanging around Mikko.

These church nursery volunteers, I'm having reemphasized, don't know my son or me a whit. We've never spent time talking, and there's no opportunity when I drop him off for even a few minutes to explain that he signs or give them a quick rundown on the more useful ones.

In contrast, if I left him with family, as I've done a few times, they can figure out what he's trying to tell them. Whether or not they can provide him with what he wants, they can at least reassure him that they understand his desires and can offer an alternative form of comfort.

I feel bad that Mikko was signing so energetically and, as far as he was concerned, clearly, and no one was grasping his meaning. It must have been so discouraging for him and only increased the frustration he felt at asking for nummies and me.

This happens to speaking children as well, of course, before they can be clearly understood by any but their dearest loved ones. (My poor uncle has stories to tell about babysitting me when I was a demanding but unintelligible two-year-old, for instance.) But the benefit of baby signing is supposed to be that it's easier for these verbally challenged young kids to communicate — but it doesn't work if no one's able to receive the message.

This is firming my responsibility to interpret for my son in these situations. I've told his preschool teachers that he signs, and fortunately they already learned the basics for signing with their own son. I've resolved to run through his particular variations with them when I take him there for the first time.

What to do for church I still don't know. We're going to give the early service another shot, and I think I'll try to get there with time to spare for some conversation with the volunteers.

Or we could always just scare people out of the cry room again.

As I try to steer Mikko into bilingualism* (I really need to write a post about the German preschool and my lingual hopes next, I think), I'll have to be prepared for these translation difficulties to continue. I'm looking forward to the day Mikko starts commanding the nursery staff in German while gesturing wildly. He'll get kicked out again for sure.

I used up the only baby signing photo that stock.xchng had, so I've chosen Signing Time ads for illustration instead, because hey, they fit the topic, and I'm happy to be an affiliate now with this mama-started business. I can do a full review later, but if you are interested in signing with your children, I'll just say that we love the Signing Time DVDs (and no one's paying me to say so) for painless vocabulary learning (for the adults!). I haven't tried the Baby Signing Time DVDs yet, but I just checked a couple out of the library and will see what they're like. Since Mikko doesn't watch them but Sam and I do, I figured the older-kids version was right for us! If you're interested in learning baby sign or American Sign Language as a way to communicate with your baby or as a second language, you might find out if your library has any of the series available or suggest they add them.

*Or will it be trilingualism if he keeps learning ASL?

P.S. Is that John Travolta signing "car"?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lazy night owls vs. industrious morning larks

yawning catIn honor of the sluggishness I feel today, I thought I'd tackle the myth of the idle night owl.

Today's lethargy is part springing ahead à la Daylight Saving Time and part a deliberate change in our schedule to move us up from vampirism to normalcy.

Sam and I have struggled with being awake during sunny hours throughout the decade of our marriage. Before that, school and parents demanded that we rise and sleep at times that were relatively consistent with the rest of the culture, although weekends and vacations always found us sleeping in and staying up late. When we graduated and started working from home, we could set our own schedules, and the schedules our bodies came up with involved staying up further and further into the wee sma's and getting up correspondingly later into the afternoons. Eventually, we would end up catching the sunrise as we irritably closed the curtains on that infernal sun so we could get some sleep.

Good thing we don't suffer from SAD, right?

The only thing that would break our ever-meandering sleep shifts was an event or appointment that forced us to be up during business hours. We would jerk ourselves into normalcy. We'd blink outside and grouse and swig caffeine and joke about what that flaming ball of gas in the sky could possibly be. Then we'd vow that we would use the opportunity to be awake during the day once again — but inevitably we would push our bedtime a little later, or we would be so tired we'd take just a little nap and then not be able to get to sleep till late, and the cycle would begin again. I even started to wonder if perhaps our internal clocks were not 24 hours long but some other variant, because we were never consistent, our bedtime always moving a little later and so our waking time as well.

Then we had a baby. And everyone told us — babies need routine!

I didn't quite believe them. First of all, newborns need nothing like routine. They live by the moment, not the clock. They don't use day planners or schedule out when next to eat or sleep.

Wait for it, the advice-givers told me — older babies, at least, need a set schedule.

I tried. Sam tried. Heaven knows we've tried. But we're not routine types.

This January, one of our New Year's hopes (I won't even bother to call it a resolution at this point) was to Get On A Schedule. We blocked it out in an Excel file in bright colors coded to each member of the family. We followed it for, days. I didn't even get it printed out to hang up, because that required plugging in our old inkjet color printer, rather than the black laser we use for business, and I never got around to it. I guess I should have put that on the schedule.

Well, we're once again trying our hand at waking with the sun's rise instead of with its set, and this time we have motivation.

We're thinking of enrolling Mikko in a German-immersion preschool twice a week for half a day each. I'm still not certain, but I'm excited about the possibility, and that's a blog post or several in itself, so I won't go into it here. I'll just say that I was happy that the German half-day was in the afternoon, because I thought that would fit with our schedule better than the morning Spanish option. Then Sam and I blocked out when his naps would have to go to allow for our evening commitments three times a week, and leaving room for at least one of the three services on Sundays, and we realized — oh, horror, we'd have to get up at 7:30. As in, ante meridiem. I don't like o'clocks that start with seven if they don't accompany dinner.

It also means going to sleep by midnight-ish. Which means no saying, "Just a half-hour more..." to finishing up an email, or a DVD, or a blog post. And it means the time we've carved out for Mikko's nap and bedtimes will have to be sacrosanct. No errands that would encroach on that time, and we'll have to rush back from our evening appointments rather than linger to talk.

We're going to become those parents. The parents whose kids go to bed frick-all early, and who can't do anything fun at night.

We're going to be the type of parents who have a routine. (Well, maybe — you've heard enough now to be skeptical, I hope.)

So, today we started. We went to bed last night at a decent hour, even with the leap ahead. (We were tired anyway, because we'd had to shortchange our sleep Saturday morning to get to the preschool's open house.) We got up today in the dawn light and struggled our way to the early service at church. We drove right home, stopping off at only four quick places (that's good for us) so that Mikko could get back to sleep.

We're all groggy. Mikko was alternately screaming and frenetic all morning and was booted from the nursery (again, another post), and Sam and I feel like we could drop off at any moment. I know it's just the first day, but here's where I'll make my argument:

     Being a night owl does not make you lazy.

There, I said it. No one believes it, though. You don't, I can tell by the way you're reading this. (Do you feel spooked now? I'm right behiiiind you...) I don't even believe it, really.

It's so ingrained in our culture. Industrious people — early birds, if you will — get up and get going. They're up at the crack of dawn and they have the whole day ahead of them, not the whole night.

Night owls are sleepyheads, slow to get moving, bleary-eyed instead of bushy-tailed.

But what the morning larks don't see, after they've toddled off to bed at 8 p.m., is me working my tail off at 3 in the morning. Somehow it doesn't count, though, if you're industrious at 3 in the morning. It smacks of procrastination, as if you really should have done that earlier, but nice try catching up.

Consider this situation and see what your first uncensored thoughts are.

     Person A goes to bed at 9:30 p.m. and gets up at 6:30 a.m.
     Person B goes to bed at 4 a.m. and gets up at 11 a.m.

Which person is lazier? You want to say Person B, don't you? It's there; it's in our culture. People who get up at 11 a.m. are layabouts. People who stay up till 4 a.m. are not to be trusted. They couldn't be up to any good at that hour. Never mind that Person A got nine hours of sleep, and Person B only seven, because it doesn't matter. It's not how much sleep you get that makes you perceived as lazy — it's when you get that sleep.

(For what it's worth, for American up-and-at- 'em-ness, I blame Benjamin Franklin, the Puritans, and Thomas Edison.)

I happened to get seven hours of sleep last night, from 12:30 to 7:30, and it was not enough. Now, 4 to 11 would have been just about right.

If I ever have something to accomplish, I'm much better able to do it if I stay up, even pulling an all-nighter if necessary. If I try to get up early, it doesn't work. First of all, I just goof off for awhile instead of going to bed right away anyhow. Then I can't wake up in the morning and I keep snoozing the alarm. (Note that we can get up sans alarm at 11.) And then I'm not fully conscious for hours after waking. Sometime I'd like to force a morning lark to stay up to finish something just so we can all admit that we have different styles and abilities when it comes to sleeping and waking, and that that's OK.

Funnily enough, my mom realized this even when I was a preschooler myself, because she deliberately chose the afternoon half-day of kindergarten for me instead of the morning, so that I could take my time getting ready, eat a leisurely lunch while watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and then be fully conscious when it was time to interact with people.

All right, that was my insightful rant on night owls vs. morning larks (I'm loopy enough that every thought seems insightful), and a plea for good wishes as we head into becoming normal. Perhaps. Sorta. It would help if we'd maybe given birth to a morning lark, but it's all night owls in this house!

If I were any other animal, I'd probably be a nap-happy cat. Photo courtesy of Andrew Langham.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Give birth like other mammals — peacefully

When I was pregnant and studying Hypnobabies, we were taught to surround ourselves with good thoughts about pregnancy and birth. It can be hard to do when, if you flip on the TV, you might be assaulted with the likes of an A Baby Story non-progressing C-section saga, or a sitcom "humorously" depicting birth as changing loving wives into screeching hags.

And, yet, I craved videos of true-to-life births, both to prepare and to celebrate. As someone who had never seen a birth in real life before, I wanted to see the possibilities. As someone who expected and hoped for a good birth, I wanted to witness what could be beautiful in the process.

I found my answer in YouTube. And it might not be what you were expecting.

Certainly I watched my share of homebirths, water births, natural births, and experiences with childbirth hypnosis.

But what really brought tears of joy to my eyes were watching animal births. Dogs, cats, horses, zoo animals, even water mammals — I was struck by how well these creatures embodied the Hypnobabies philosophy of having no fear in birth, no expectation of things going wrong, complete trust in their bodies.

Yes, I know animals aren't conscious in the same way humans are, and I know we're not built exactly the same, considering that they tend to walk on all fours and we prefer standing. But I took inspiration and comfort from how calm they were in the face of similar physical forces, and how effortless they make birth look. For instance, watch the giraffe birth below and be astonished at the idea of casually letting your newborn drop from a height of several feet onto straw! :)

So, if you're pregnant and thinking about birth, in this post are a few videos for looking forward to the beautiful event. There are many more if you search, although, as always on YouTube, be cautious in what you choose. Also, I don't always appreciate the human presence in the pet and livestock births, because it seems like the animal mamas are doing just fine on their own, thankyouverymuch — another inspiration for taking charge of your own birthing! Below is a necessarily unassisted dolphin birth:

Enjoy, and a peaceful birthing to you! May you be as casual as this panda giving birth to twins:

P.S. I had Mikko watch the video below today of a dog giving birth to a puppy, and he thought it was hilarious! See, nothing traumatizing to it at all.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Reviving Dr. Seuss and other old favorites

Hop on Pop — Dr. SeussI'm not actually bringing Dr. Seuss back to life, but I will point out that yesterday was Theodor Geisel's birthday, a fun fact I learned from an Amazon blog post. I found the Amazon post while setting up a book blog for someone, and it made me laugh. The author reminisces about growing up with Hop on Pop (one of my all-time faves — I would cover up the "NOT" in "You must not hop on pop" and then proceed to pounce on my dad) and points to a reader's review that is a hilariously detailed Cartesian analysis of Green Eggs and Ham. (Sample quote: "[Sam-I-Am's name is] a clear reference to Descartes' famous 'I think, therefore I am' statement, which we can extend upon this reading to 'I think, therefore I am Sam!')

I'm really enjoying reading with Mikko now. He's not yet to the stage where he'll sit still and listen the whole time, but we've at least moved beyond those board books with one picture and one word on each page to books with an actual story to them, and I'm thrilled.

First of all, it's much less boring.

Secondly, and more importantly, I'm getting to read all my old favorites again.

We went to a small elementary-school book sale the other day. There were half a dozen tables with printed signs marking which was which — half of the signs decorated empty tables, because there simply weren't any books in that category, I guess. No matter — Mikko ripped down all the signs he passed, anyway. Oops. He was really fast about it. We just took them from him and laid them on top of the table instead, out of his grabby little reach.

(We have given him the nickname Mikko, Destroyer of Worlds, for good reason.)

While Sam chased Mikko down the length of the hall, I combed through the haphazard stacks and piles of children's books, ignoring Baby-Sitters Club (though I have fond memories!)* and other older-kid fare, anything we already had, anything preachy, anything boooring, and anything that looked like it had been in the clutches of a child even more destructive than Mikko.

Morris the Moose Goes to SchoolWe still ended up with a nice big stack that included — do you remember? — Morris the Moose Goes to School. I wondered if it really is a good book or if I just remembered it as one, so I read it with some trepidation last night. It really is good! Bonus: It's an old library copy, and Mikko is as fascinated with the old-school checkout-card envelope pasted inside the cover as I am.

I also snagged Danny and the Dinosaur, even though I couldn't remember the plot, for the same reason of vague fondness.

*[A meandering and entirely unessential sidenote on the Baby-Sitters Club that I include for your amusement. I found the closeup at rightThe Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy's Great Idea of one of the totally tubular old covers, and this link to a review that includes notable clothing descriptions, to wit: "Short, very baggy lavender plaid overalls, a white lacy blouse, a black fedora, and red high-top sneakers without socks. Her long black hair was carefully arranged in four braids. Her makeup was blue and gold eyeshadow and magenta blush. — Claudia. Baggy yellow-and-black-checked shirt, black pants, red jazz shoes, and a bracelet that looked as though it was made from a telephone cord. Dangling jointed skeleton earrings that jump when she moves completes this ensemble. — Claudia. Stacey had on a pink sweatshirt with sequins and a large purple parrot on the front; short, tight-fitting jeans with zippers up the outsides of the legs; and pink plastic shoes." The '80s were an awesome fashion decade.]

Big Dog ... Little DogWhen we saw my mom last month at a family wedding, we went to Powell's Books in Portland, and when I told her what Mikko's bookshelf was lacking, we beelined to the children's section to find Big Dog ... Little Dog (The bird's got the word!), Caps for Sale (fun to act out, I have rediscovered), and Are You My Mother? (You are not my mother! You are a snort!)

(I will complain a bit here that the sturdy and toddler-friendly new board book versions have condensed and, I am almost certain, changed some of the wording of the originals. I'm going to try to Are You My Mother?check the originals out of the library and write in the missing lines! I want my memories intact.)

One of Sam's favorites as a kid was Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, which is a rhythmic story about monkeys drumming and a treat to read aloud.

Today we were at our Bible study at a café and I was trying to distract Mikko from pulling me away from the group. I rummaged through the diaper backpack o' fun and pulled out Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, Hand Hand Fingers Thumbwhich I'd forgotten was tucked away in there. I wondered if Mikko would remember it from last time and be intrigued.

Well, he started hitting me. I persisted in reading, wondering what he was up to. I looked up and saw that he was grinning, and I realized the hitting was rhythmic and flat-handed.

He was drumming!

My little monkey, enjoying the books we love.

What are your favorites? What are your kids' favorites? I'll take recommendations and reminders of what wonderful children's books are out there. I never really did leave children's books behind, but I'm loving my very good excuse to dive into them again.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Continuum Concept book list

old book pagesI belong to The Continuum Concept email forum, and one of the members has kindly put together and posted a reading list:

Continuum Life Booklist

The book list comprises forum members' recommendations of books that align with the values espoused in Jean Liedloff's classic The Continuum Concept.

You can find help for thoughtful and traditional parenting in the many books listed. Topics covered range from the anthropological (hunter-gatherer cultures) to the comprehensive (nurturing parenting) to the practical (feeding baby).

I'm personally checking out several of the "alternative princess" children's stories listed (meaning, those that run counter to the damsel-in-distress, Cindrella myths), and I plan to post reviews once I've read them. I love me some good liberated princess stories!

I hope you enjoy this resource and find some inspiring reading in it! Thanks heaps to Lisa for putting the time into administrating this list.

Photo courtesy of Zsuzsanna Kilián