anthropology, babies, babywearing, child rearing, culture, ethnopediatrics, feminism, modernity, motherhood, mothers, nature, parenting, simplicity, society, village life
In my heart and bones, there is a village.
The smells of wood smoke and cooking fill the air as a new day begins. The women of the village join each other in the morning sun and start their work, all the while breastfeeding, chatting, laughing, arguing. Their children play around them as they grind grain, weave baskets, and stretch leather. They chat about their work, the weather, their men, their children. They gossip and scold and sing as their breasts swing and sway to the rhythm of their toils.
The one thing they don’t talk about, however, is how to parent their children. They don’t discuss the pros and cons of breast vs bottle feeding. They don’t fret over co-sleeping or how to stimulate their children’s cognitive development. They don’t dicker over methods of discipline, or the latest research on child psychology, because here in this place, they do as they have always done.
We have children. We raise them. We bring them up to share our values. When a child misbehaves away from his mother, his aunt or his grandmother or his neighbour will step in, because the rules are the same for everyone.
Parenting, here, is just an organic part of what is.
Here, women don’t wonder how to divide themselves between their roles as parents and their roles as members of the community. There is no need to choose between motherhood and productivity. Your children go with you, because they are a part of you. Motherhood is not a sideline, or an interruption of one’s career. Nor does motherhood define you. Motherhood is blessed, and womanly. Motherhood is life.
The village is filled with helping hands who will hold your baby, teach your toddler, and chide your cheeky child. There are no play groups: just step outside and your child’s siblings, cousins, and friends will go running by. There are no “Mommy and Me” classes. Every woman is a mother, here.
In the village, children are valuable resources, not expenditures. There are no diapers to buy, no bottles to fill. There are no strollers, no toys, no music lessons, no college funds. Children cost next to nothing, and they can herd the cattle, sweep the hut, and watch the younger children. When they are grown, they will provide for their ageing parents. Children are a retirement fund. Children are gifts, never burdens, even as they ride on your back, or hang on your hip, or lag behind and try to snare your shadow with stomping feet.
Here, babies curl into their mother’s bodies at night, nursing as needed all night long. Sleeping through the night is not discussed or thought of. If he wakes in the night, you can sleep longer, or go to bed earlier, because here there are no alarm clocks. In fact, there are no clocks at all.
…Now, I know, intellectually, that this village comes with a price. There is no medicine, no clean water, and no birth control beyond breastfeeding. There is sometimes famine and hardship, and often babies die. There are no books, no movies, no video games. There is no take-out for when you are too tired to cook. There is no warm bath to soak in after a long day. There is no room for people who are different.
I believe in medicine for the sick and that everyone has the right to clean water. I am grateful for antibiotics, and epidurals, and sterile suture stitches. I revel in science, and children’s literature, and Nanaimo bars and diet Pepsi. I believe in women’s rights, and children’s rights, and marriage for homosexuals. I believe transsexuals deserve sex reassignment surgery, and that religion is a personal matter that has no place in government policy. I believe in multiculturalism, and social programs, and anything starring Hugh Laurie or Colin Firth.
But my bones believe in more ancient things. They don’t understand about science, or social freedoms, or new episodes of Glee. I am controlled by genes that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years; antibiotics and astronomy and A.A. Milne are but tiny blips in the time line of my ancestry, and my DNA knows them not.
I believe in vaccinating my baby, and baby-proofing my house. I read him books and give him toys that beep and dress him in cute outfits. I will put him in daycare and go back to work when he is a year old. I own a crib, and a stroller, but neither of them gets much use. I prefer to carry him on my hip in a wrap, and I fall asleep with his head pillowed on my breast in the middle of the night. I don’t want to leave him with a stranger. I want him by my side.
My brain is at odds with my body. I know I am fortunate to have clean water, and low infant mortality rates, and electricity and indoor plumbing and chocolate. I know that day care and milk pumps and traffic jams are a small price to pay for a life of such immeasurable luxury.
But my heart and bones remember a village, and that part of me will always be homesick for somewhere I have never been.
Deborah the Closet Monster said:
Everything you’ve written here is so evocative, and so expressive of things I’ve felt but not–till now–understood.
Thanks for the praise. It means a lot.
Very well put.
My children are all school age now but I still feel the longing for the
village in my cell-memory.
Thank you, I think many of us do.
Hi, I'm Natalie. said:
I have felt this way for a long time but you put it to words so perfectly!
That was lovely. I think I sometimes am wistful for a life I never knew too. Beautiful post.
Perhaps I am too cynical. I don’t believe such a place has existed in any time. Shared values with no disagreement and no need to discuss change, no competition, jealousy or heirarchy seems incompatible with humanity (or most other forms of life) to me. I do agree that our current social structure also seems somewhat incompatible with parenting sanely, though.
I think the choice has less to do with modern medicines and technology and more to do with whether we place higher value on indivual rights and freedoms or on the wellbeing of society as a whole. The middle is a precarious and artificial compromise, the left extreme eats itself and the right extreme is the world of Camazotz, the Borg, the Stepford wives.
Aren’t I a ray of sunshine today?
I didn’t say there was no disagreement and no hierarchy, or no jealousy. Not only are there all of those things, but there is dysentery and parasitic infections and all of the rest.
My village is no utopia. Simply a place with shared cultural values when it comes to child rearing. Values based off of thousands of years of evolution, not a few decades of science. Lots of societies like those exist, although Western culture is slowly absorbing and destroying them.
You can read “Our Babies, Our Selves” or “Mothers and Others” for more on child rearing in other cultures, and the evolution of child care and mutual helping in the human species.
Modern medicine and technology have a lot to do with our current (Western) values of childrearing. In the early 1900s, as medicine began to evolve at an extraordinary pace, scientists and doctors began to make recommendations to mothers on the “scientific” way to raise children and keep them healthy.
They recommended against “baby talk”, “spoiling” the baby by attending to its every cry, breastfeeding (formula, being a scientific invention, was deemed more suitable) and other practices that had been part of childrearing for millennia. Instead, they told mothers to avoid kissing their babies (especially sons), to speak in adult sentences, to let their babies cry at night, and to feed with formula, supplementing with solid food starting at two or three months of age. They didn’t realize that evolution is stronger than culturally-influenced false logic.
Much of the way that Western industrialized parenting differs from other cultures comes from this movement in 1900-1950.
Over the last fifty years, the pendulum has slowly been swinging back as psychologists and some pediatricians try to reverse the damage done by decades of scientific men who thought the old ways were stupid, not realizing that the old ways were our instinctive ways and had evolved to be perfectly suited to an infant’s physiology.
No, my village exists in many places around the globe. But does that mean that the trade off wasn’t worth it? THAT, I’m not sure of. I think it might still be.
If you find one like that, but with interwebz, can you send me a map? 😉
What a beautiful post; you say something I really feel too. Though I am sticking with chocolate myself.
You’re a brilliant writer – and your courage to write exactly what you believe with no coating is admirable. I got chills reading the last line. Beautiful. And how much babby has grown! Oh, so beautiful.
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I would like to live in your village 🙂 In some ways, the medieval European village (when not being invaded by warring kings or overrun by pestilent rats) was much like this.
Only… they DID have tolerably effective birth control that wasn’t breastfeeding, they didn’t need as many antibiotics because they didn’t have the chemical pollutants and nutritionally-deficit foods we have today, most babies didn’t die (though accidents were more rife) and there was remarkable tolerance for people who didn’t conform. On balance, I think it would be worth it 🙂
I have been doing some poking around and reading and am very much enjoying your blog. My little guy is 2.5 and I feel your ‘living in Vancouver blues’ at times as well 🙂