Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Parenting for Hippies (and Stone Age Indians)

This past week, in the name of research, I had the pleasure of watching the first part of a documentary about three radically different approaches to parenting. Like all good documentaries, this one is British-made (since the Brits invented the form shortly after the sandwich, circa 1762) and it follows three paediatric nurses and the families they are guiding through the early days of parenting, starting from birth. Each nurse is a proponent of a particular approach and considered an “expert” in the model.

They’re models we’re all familiar with: The first is the now (mostly) considered archaic routine-driven approach, with a strict six-ten-two feeding schedule and sleeps in between and also includes plenty of outdoor time. (This was tremendously popular in the good old days when nuns often ran the maternity wards. Coincidence? I should think not.) The second is the mother-as-expert Dr. Spock approach, which became every mum’s bible from the 60s and onward and is probably the most reasonable and realistic to implement. The third is based upon a book called The Continuum Concept. This book formed the model for what is now referred to as “attachment parenting” and is completely baby-centred, seemingly at the total expense of the mother.

“Attachment parenting” is simply a euphemism for “you’ll never even be able to take so much as a pee by yourself for at least the next five years.” This approach advocates such behaviour as breast feeding on demand, constant (and they mean constant, damn it) physical contact, even co-sleeping. This last concept means you’ll never actually get any restorative sleep since you’ll be too worried about rolling over on top of your baby in this most natural, wonderfully nurturing environment that you’ve created in your bed. But in fact, if you’re really going to adhere to this approach, plan on ditching your $2000 king firma-rest and simply replace it with some sticks and leaves. In fact, why not just sleep outside on a pelt from an animal you’ve recently slaughtered and leave your husband the bed? Soooo natural! So is getting cholera in certain parts of the world. No thanks.

The Continuum Concept was written by Jean Liedloff, an unmarried, child-free woman from California (big surprise). Who lives on a houseboat. With her cat. Her website explains that the inspiration for this model of parenting came as a result of Liedloff spending two and a half years living “deep in the South American jungle with Stone Age Indians.” It goes on to say that her “experience demolished her Western preconceptions of how we should live and led her to a radically different view of what human nature really is. She offers a new understanding of how we have lost much of our natural well-being and shows us practical ways to regain it for our children and for ourselves.”

Stone. Age. Indians.

First, I’m surprised that “Stone Age Indians” is still considered a politically correct assessment of the lifestyle of these peoples, but if anyone would know that information, it would be an unmarried Californian lady who lives on a houseboat. Did I mention with only her cat for company?

Second, “attachment parenting” is the very philosophy that begins to plant the seed in the child’s head that they are the very centre of the universe. It builds on their assumption that you had no life before they came in and took it over, and that you should continue to have no life until they’re well into their 20s (at which point you’ll look up and realise that your marriage has disintegrated and you have no friends or hobbies). This view is perfectly natural and just fine for the first three or-so months, but by age three years? And anything beyond that and it just becomes, well…obnoxious.

But my real issue with this approach is not so much what it eventually does to the children (although we’re just starting to see the long term effects of this now) but what it does to mums. And that is that to create an enormous amount of pressure from expectations that are completely unrealistic for a Western mother. And that is completely unnatural.

Okay, Jean, perhaps we have lost a lot of the “natural” experience of being a parent. We bottle-feed. We commute to work. We day-care. We over-schedule. But trying to rear children like we’re stone age Indians is like trying to party like it’s 1999: for good or bad, that era is over. For people in undeveloped parts of the world, parenting is about survival, plain and simple. They carry, sleep with and feed their babies that way because they need to. We don’t – and more importantly, in order for our survival, we can’t. Parenthood in the modern world is trying enough without these added layers of expectations about what’s “best” for baby. This is where the myth of supermum begins to germinate. Incidentally, one of the mothers-to-be in the documentary adhering to this approach almost lost her baby in an effort to have a “natural” home birth.

While the approach is obviously effective for the Indians, I think that’s where this philosophy needs to stay: deep in the jungle. It will be interesting to see how the rest of this documentary plays out. But I say let’s try and bring back the old-school routine. And speaking of: it’s 5pm, which means I have to freshen up the cigarette case, get to my drinks cart and make the evening batch of martinis.

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