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Parental enthnotheories

Thursday, 18 April, 2013

Let's take a shot at a short(er) blog post.

This week I've been sick with some sort of viral infection thingy manifesting itself in the form of a sore throat and a mild fever (though if that was mild, I'd hate to have a serious one). Being sick while trying to look after a small child is challenging, but fortunately for two of the days, I had booked half-day childcare in advance, and on the other day, Ben was also home sick, which made things feel easier even though he was also not in very good shape to share parenting duties.

This morning, hearing of my situation, a very kind church friend invited us over for a playdate—and even offered to mind Astrid without me and take her up to childcare when the time came if I was too ill. I was functioning on four hours of sleep, but I was feeling better—and as it turned out, well enough to stay for the duration of the playdate and enjoy my friend's company while Astrid enjoyed my friend's children's. The three of them played together quite happily and relatively independently, allowing us to actually have some semblance of a continuous conversation throughout the morning.

And I was struck by several things—firstly, how less intense parenting seems once the adult-to-child ratio rises above 1:1 (even if the ratio is in favour of the children); secondly, what it's like to juggle and attend to the needs of two little people (a skill I haven't yet needed to master); and thirdly, how important and valuable it was for me to be able to witness the lives of other people's families and their particular mix of personalities, the ways in which they operate from day to day, their attitudes and methods when it comes to parenting (which also arise from the personalities of their children), the things that the parents struggle with, and so on.

I think it's important because often I can get stuck in this little bubble of how I think parenting and family life ought to work—a view that can be reinforced (negatively) by the culture of parenting around me. I'm not sure if I've ever written about it here, but the state of modern parenthood—modern motherhood—seems to me to be immensely challenging: never in my life have I felt so much implicit and explicit judgement on my actions as when I became a mother. Once I did, suddenly everyone—from my immediate family to the stranger on the street—had an opinion on how I ought to be raising my child. (And it didn't matter if the person voicing the opinion was a parent or wasn't.) I used to think I was just being paranoid about it, but then after talking to other mothers, I've noticed that they feel it too. I visited a friend with her newborn in hospital recently and she expressed the same feeling to me too—that she constantly felt like she was doing the “wrong” thing; that she never knew what she ought to be doing; that even though she was sick of being hospital and wanted to go home, going home terrified her because then there would be no one around who could tell her what she should be doing with her baby. She had only given birth a few days before and already she felt the weight of societal judgement! I came away feeling amazed, slightly amused but also rather angry.

I don't think I'm the only one who's angry about it. I've noticed a whole bunch of articles coming through my Twitter feed about modern parenthood and the so-called Mommy wars. There's a growing recognition—at least among parents of my generation—that parents have very little control of how their children will turn out—that living up to some impossible standard of parenting is ridiculous—that one can only do one's best when it comes to one's child—that every child is different, every parent (and parental unit) is different and therefore every family is different. Whether or not this way of thinking will permeate into the rest of western culture remains to be seen (and probably there will be some sort of backlash against it too). But one of the threads of this reaction against modern parenthood that I've found very interesting and enlightening looks at modern western parenting in context of both parenting history and parenting in the rest of the world. Slate often has some fascinating articles on this subject—for example, this one on the history of toilet training advice (spoiler alert: a good portion of it has been dreadful) and this fascinating exploration of parental ethnotheories—that is, parental attitudes from different parts of the world. This paragraph (and the ones immediately following it) were particularly interesting for me:

Every society interprets its children in its own way: The Dutch, for example, liked to talk about long attention spans and “regularity,” or routine and rest. (In the Dutch mind, asking lots of questions is a negative attribute: It means the child is too dependent.) The Spanish talked about character and sociality, the Swedes about security and happiness. And the Americans talked a lot about intelligence. Intelligence is Americans' answer. In various studies, American parents are always seen trying to make the most of every moment—to give their children a developmental boost. From deep inside the belly of American parenthood, this is so obvious it isn't even an observation. It is only by looking at other societies that you can see just how anomalous such a focus is.

(Definitely go read the rest of the article if you're interested. It's totally worth it.)

How other countries and cultures thought about children and why had never occurred to me before. It made me think about the modes of thought and trends that are influencing the way my particular segment of the world views childrearing … and why. The article's author Nicholas Day writes, “Culture operates at a deeper level than any individual parenting choice”, and that struck me as being particularly important as I continue to work out what sort of mother I want to be and as Ben and I determine how we'd like our family to be.

All this haphazardly flashed through my head as I watched my friend and her children. It made me think that perspective is a beautiful and helpful thing. (Well, at least for me.) It stops me from getting too neurotic about what I am or am not doing right, and frees me to be a little more relaxed about the whole parenting gig. It also reminded me of something Tony Payne wrote in Briefing #343—not about parenting, but about applying the Bible:

The wonderful thing about the Bible is that it addresses reality—in both its simplicity and complexity. Its moral demand on us is, in one sense, simple and universal: love God and love your neighbour. No-one is exempt from this, and no-one has a higher obligation than anyone else. It's a truth that addresses every one of us identically. And yet the landscape in which we live out this singular command is complex and varied, and as individuals we are complex and varied. To speak the language of ethics, the moral field that confronts us is pluriform. (p. 5)

(Sorry I seem to be jumping around a lot. Let me see if I can pull it all together.) I think sometimes we parents can get a little too caught up in the nitty gritty of the practicalities of parenting—for example, whether we discipline our children by using the Naughty Spot or by taking away privileges, or a combination of both. Because of the implicit and explicit judgement we face, we can often feel like we're doing the right thing or the wrong thing when it comes to our children. Which then results in us worrying about whether we should have done something else because it's better. But if we are Christian parents, the moral demand God makes of us is to love him first and love our children. How we live out the latter command is complex and varied, and furthermore, that's okay.

This sounds like a rather simple and obvious conclusion to come to. I suppose I am having my own little reaction to the state of modern parenting. If I have bored you with this post, my apologies; please feel free to skip all future parenting/domestic posts and read the work-related/writing/arty ones.

Hmm, better stop there. After all this time, I still have issues with being brief.

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