Sunday, August 12, 2012

Book Look: How Eskimo's Keep Their Babies Warm

How Eskimo's Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and everywhere in between) by Mei-Ling Hopgood

I couldn't put it down, that's the first thing you should know. I love books like this (similar to Pushed in that it's a nonfiction-can't-put-it-down but more anecdotal).

Hopgood anecdotally describes various parenting techniques around the globe, explaining that she specifically chose examples as vastly different as possible. She briefly discusses in the end of the book that globalization is not just effecting economy but also deeply effecting culture - so in choosing the anecdotes she chose those traditional to each culture. She then backed up anecdotes with research on why the parenting practice is not detrimental to children - even if we would be appalled by the same practice in our culture. So she deftly describes a difference, discusses her attempt or thoughts at implementing such practice, and never seems judge-y - as is so often the issue with any parenting advice verbal or written, in our culture.

I immediately felt better about our parenting. The first chapter describes Hopgood's experience living in Buenos Aires where she birthed her first child. This is a chapter of bliss. Bedtimes are not strictly followed - if there's a party or some other important event children stay up to participate, perhaps taking a mid-party nap on a few chairs pushed together. Children get all the sleep they need - just not necessarily at night. This isn't a nightly occurrence, but bedtime isn't something parents are overly concerned about.
Hopgood discusses her inclination to follow the cultural lead in her new home but also the pull of her upbringing in feeling guilty that her daughter, Sofia, is up so late. And also the cultural pressure of family and friends when she visits the states.

What makes this work in the Buenos Aires culture is that children are expected to be part of the normal routine of the larger culture. While children are typically required to go to school, as in this country, after school it is expected that children will participate in life. That means spending time with grownups, particularly in social settings. Babysitters are used somewhat but according to Hopgood some parents will go relieve the babysitter at some late hour and bring the child back to the party. Children are not seen as a nuisance in public - even when they act like children. How refreshing.

I feel this is how we've always parented. We'll do our best to maintain a routine but we're not going to leave a party early because our kids will not be in bed "on time". When they are falling apart and the party is no longer fun, that's our cue to say our goodnights - always much earlier than the described Buenos Aires 1am or later end time. But we are often the last to leave a party - and definitely the last family to say our goodbyes.


In the next chapter Hopgood discusses the merits of French diets, and what that looks like where children are involved. She does concede that while this ideal French Diet that has been discussed at length in our culture - it is quickly becoming a way of the past for the French too as fast food restaurants encroach on French culture as well as a more harried schedule, more typical of our culture. Having said that, the primary take home piece for me was: there is no special "children's menu". Food is food. No chicken nuggets and french fries. Kids eat grownups eat. The end.
Check. Again, how we've tended to feed our children. Yes we have cheddar bunnies in our pantry right now, but they are delicious. And what Hopgood proposes is that the children raised on the "kid's menu" will continue to want that food fare. Thus the appeal of Cheddar Bunnies to the grown up set in the house.


In chapter three Hopgood discusses how Kenyans survive without strollers. In my attachment parenting world I'm not sure the merits of avoiding a stroller even need to be hashed out (again!). For Kenyans it's not practical to use a stroller from an economic standpoint and a convenience standpoint. We use strollers here because they don't have to be expensive and because they are convenient, for most. In our experience we felt drawn to babywearing over and over. Did we use a stroller? Sometimes. More after baby #2 was born and we weren't making day trips to Boston as often - where babywearing on the subway/underground/metro -whatever it's called in Boston - is way way easier than finagling a stroller. I've tried both. Babywearing hands down.


In a discussion on the Chinese practice of early potty training Hopgood shares conversations she had with experts on pottying who overall seem to believe that early potty training is detrimental despite the occurrence of early learning in China, as well as in our own culture when cloth diapers were the norm and parents were more motivated to end diapering. We introduced the potty earl on with both kids and both learned to consistently use the toilet around 2yrs. With our second we even dabbled in Elimination Communication with some success before it became less of a priority for us so the diaper use increase as the potty use decreased in the early years.


AKA Pygmies make the best fathers, according to Hopgood, and this seems largely due to cultural norms of this people group. Males and females are equally valued - not just because the value is placed on what each gender can do - because each gender can (and does) every aspect of life. Hunting is a team effort and as a result children MUST come on hunting and gathering expeditions. As the dad is typically stronger than the mom and the baby is heavy, the father generally wears the baby with skin-to-skin contact. When mothers are out gathering and fathers are standing around socializing, they have their babies nuzzled to them.
In college there were discussions with peers about how we would all do it different than our parents. We would shun the typical stay-at-home-mom model and parenting would be equitable. In reality the majority of our friends have found that the cultural pressure to parent as our parents did in light of gender roles makes it seem sensible for the mom to be the primary caretaker (stay-at-home-parent or not). It's just easier.
Fortunately for us we have a life that is often equitable. Sometimes not, but often is - because, like the AKA Pygmies, our roles are interchangeable and they can be because we work together in two small self created businesses as well as on home duties. This isn't the average situation, as much as it would seem to help with the issues of equality in parenting and general home life. There are definitely days when I'm frustrated because I CAN'T complete this or that task because my muscles are just not as strong or the way I form ideas is not as logical. There are days when I'm frustrated that Ren Man can't see why this or that makes more sense in the social/PR sense. But together, with respect and a general sharing in work and play activities we have what I think the most equitable relationship possible given our cultural constraints. For that I'm very thankful.
And yes, some days I dream of being a stay at home parent who is responsible for caring for children, cleaning, and cooking. Not the other stuff. And in some way more importantly, not responsible for those things WITH someone else. It's not easy coordinating two adults in accomplishing daily/hourly demands - in ways it would be easier to be the one solely responsible. But this is us, and I like that we've managed to find a way to live together so closely and intimately in our daily lives - no 40hour+/week separation.


On close family relations: big families are complicated in different ways than smaller families. Hopgood talks about how large interconnected families create their own insular group that has its pros and cons and also touches briefly on adoption in light of large families. I'm interested in Hopgood's ideas on adoption as we have begun working through the fostering/adopting hoops. I did a brief search and saw that this author has written another book about her experience in her book Lucky Girl. I've requested it from the library.


In a chapter on pregnancy Hopgood described the sacredness placed on pregnancy in Tibet. The conclusion is: trust the woman's body to do what it was designed for. Are there complications? Sometimes. 35% of the time (the c-section rate last time I checked)? Not even a little bit close. Are monthly and then weekly prenatal appointments necessary? Probably not.


Through four more chapters Hopgood follows a similar pattern of introducing the topic commonly causing anxiety in parents in our culture (children fighting, academic ability, child's work, child's play) through anecdotes of other culture's typical approach to said topics, Hopgood's attempt at assimilating aspects of these approaches, and research findings. Interestingly there is no chapter on how Eskimo's keep their babies warm ... unless I missed it ;)

In short: thought provoking, interesting, affirming

There are lots and lots of ways parents and cultures raise their young and these children survive, thrive, and grow to raise their own young. Some of these practices are very very different from our own. These children STILL survive, thrive, and grow to be successful human beings in their society (and even in others!). So is my parenting perfect? The only way? The best way? Nope. No way. Not at all.

For right now, it's what's working best for my family and while I'm happy (thrilled!) to share our experience and our values around parenting - what's most important is that everyone is thoughtfully considering their parenting and other interactions, with the understanding that even when they make a decision, draw a conclusion, take the next step - this is "right" for them in that time - but maybe not their friend, neighbor, cousin, stranger.

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