I have a hunch that most of the issues we have with parenting in our culture, particularly things like post-natal depression, are born from the huge mismatch between our nature and our culture. I first had this situation explained clearly and logically to me in the book I reviewed a couple of weeks ago Breastfeeding, Takes Two by Stephanie Casemore.
Breastfeeding is natural. Mothers and babies are biologically programmed to have a breastfeeding relationship. It is not breastfeeding that ties us to our babies but nature, because staying close to our babies is also natural.
Human babies are born far too early compared to other mammals. In order to squeeze their large heads through pelvises that allow us to walk upright, they need to be born at least three months earlier than they should be.
Many people talk nowadays about a ‘fourth trimester’. Consider that our newborns have been held inside us, constantly nourished, never too full, never too hungry, never alone, never in silence for over nine months. And now consider the shock of being born into a world where you are sometimes desperately hungry, sometimes uncomfortably full, sometimes left alone with no human contact, and, for some babies, occasionally left alone in a room that is silent.
Newborn human babies need time to adjust to being outside the womb, and it’s usually at least the first three months (hence the phrase ‘the fourth trimester’). Many parents will recognise that this is the time their babies start to ‘wake up’ and become more interested in the outside world. Before that point, their whole world is Mummy, and that’s how they’re set up biologically to live.
Babies don’t become clingy and tied to their Mum because their Mums keep them close, they are biologically programmed to be clingy and tied to their Mum. It is normal human baby behaviour.
It is not normal in our culture, however, to allow this to happen. For over a century we have been told by baby ‘experts’ to train our babies to be independent from us as early as possible. To train them to be able to fall asleep, and stay asleep, apart from us. To be with other adults without being distressed – or even to just be alone without being distressed.
We are told we need to send our children to nursery in order to learn how to socialise, and to school in order to learn how to live. It’s as if the ‘experts’ believe that eighteen year olds will still need to be breastfed and sleep with their parents if they’re not forced to learn how to be self-sufficient by the age of eighteen weeks!
But this simply isn’t the case. You can trust your baby to become an independent adult one day, but that’s easier said than done when we parent in a culture that doesn’t trust in that process at all.
And that is the crux of the painful feelings that many mothers experience – the mismatch between what our bodies and our babies bodies are telling us, and what our culture is telling us. In addition, we live in a culture that doesn’t respect or value children, mothers or families.
It’s easy to blame breastfeeding for a feeling of enslavement, but it’s not that at all. If this is you, I can categorically say that you haven’t ‘made a rod for your own back’. It is likely that your babies will grow up secure and happy and all this hard work will pay off in the end. It is nothing you’ve done that has created this situation – your baby is simply behaving normally. It is our culture that behaves abnormally, and our culture that has created this situation for you.
Imagine living in a culture where children were not segregated but were, instead, welcomed as full members of society. Imagine working in jobs where babies can come with you, and toddlers can play around your feet while you work. Imagine mothers being valued and celebrated. Imagine a society that did what it could to make life easier for mothers – sharing child-caring duties, large groups of children of different ages who play with and learn from each other, children who are enabled to learn about the adult world by living in it.
Can you see that if you lived in a more natural culture like this, breastfeeding wouldn’t be a tie at all? You would simply keep your baby in a sling, get on with your life, and feed your baby whenever she needed it with very little disruption to you. And when you needed a break from your baby (which you probably wouldn’t), your baby would have been brought up spending so much time around other adults and children that it is likely he’d be more than happy to be held by someone else for short periods of time…so long as that separation is managed by him, not you.
Can you see that if you lived in this culture, it wouldn’t be unacceptable to say ‘sorry, I can’t do this job just this moment because my children need me’? Instead, if you said that, everyone else would say ‘of course! We adults can wait because we have learnt that, and children can’t – see to your child and then we can talk’.
So breastfeeding and responsive parenting isn’t a tie – our culture makes it isolating and solitary, hard work. But how on earth do we do it, then, if we feel it’s the right thing for us and our babies but we live in this bizarre culture?
The best thing I can suggest if you are one of the mums who is feeling this way, is that you seek out other parents who are parenting in the same way you are, and talk to them honestly. Bad patches are normal, but they’re scary when we have to live through them on our own, so tell people, and let them hold you through it.
Having a support network around you can also help with things like sharing parenting – visiting places together takes the pressure off you, and someone else can help your toddler do up her coat while you breastfeed your baby so you don’t have to get flustered trying to decide which thing to do first.
It’s not helpful to choose support that consists of people who will tell you just to put your baby in nursery, or to wean them off the breast if that is what is important to you, so be prepared with what to say to people who suggest that. Tell them exactly what help you need – a listening ear? an acknowledgement of how hard you’re finding it? practical help like doing your laundry for a couple of weeks?
You are not alone if you find breastfeeding, or any aspect of close, responsive parenting stifling and frightening. You’re normal and not struggling with mothering but with mothering in our culture. And your baby isn’t being clingy because of anything you’ve done, but because he’s normal, and you’re expecting him to behave in the way our culture tells us babies behave…which isn’t normal.
So find a support network, and be honest about your feelings is my suggestion for how to survive if you choose to breastfeed and/or to parent in this close, responsive way.
Exceprt from Free Your Parenting blog (http://freeyourparenting.com)