Monday, December 31, 2012

Why We're Not Meant To Parent Alone

" …There would be little if any difficulty exchanging a Cro-Magnon and a modern infant, but great incongruity in making the same switch amongst adults of both cultures.”  David Barash: The Hare And The Tortoise: the conflict between culture and biology in human affairs (1986)

On December 19, 2012, The UK's Daily Mail published an article titled "I locked our toddler in his room every night to save my marriage." 

After their child tried everything to escape the bedroom and come to them, they took the door handle off of his bedroom door, and replaced it with a lock. 

"Sonny was blessed, or rather cursed, with escapologist skills to rival Houdini’s.

Predictably, he soon learned to undo his stair gate, and in the middle of the night would blunder up and down stairs in darkness. To him, this was an exciting new game. But, as we live in a three-storey house, danger was everywhere.

Heaven knows how he did it, but one time he even made it down two flights of stairs in his sleeping bag. We were woken by the sound of the dishwasher crashing open.

So long as we woke immediately, it was fine. But what if we didn’t?"

This came on the heals of my reading a Facebook status update of a friend forced to listen to a family member's story about a mother who took Nyquil and used ear plugs for a week until her child "learned" to sleep through the night.

I've heard the story so many times, and read them in the comment sections of articles such as the one mentioned here, on people's blogs, and in casual conversation. It worked for our family. It helped us focus on our marriage. Babies are spoiled. They'll never leave your bed. Baby needs the sleep, too. Sleep deprivation leads to a mean mommy. I don't need to go over the counter-points to all of this. If you are a regular reader, you already know what they are. I want to talk about a different point.

One comment left on Facebook said it well:

Parenting does not come with instructions we sometime need a helping hand. It's about education and support between peers, we need to help each other through the good and the bad. I just wish they had of had the support when they needed it and maybe they would have made a better decision."

This is more true than the commenter realizes.

We are not meant to parent alone.

Human babies are born about 9 months too early. The current accepted theory is that our large brains required earlier births. Human babies are born less developed than any other mammal. It was one of the physical requirements for our evolution.

Human children take longer to mature than other mammals, and longer than any of our prior ancestors. Part of having larger brains and complex thought means that our children needed more time learning how to be human. Our culture is as important as our biology.

"The baby's brain is doing a lot of growing in the first year - it more than doubles in weight. The enormously increased glucose metabolism of the first two years of life, triggered by the baby's biochemical responses to his mother, facilitates the expression of genes. Like so much else about human development, genetic expression frequently depends on social input to become manifest. The hippocampus, temporal cortex, prefrontal and anterior cingulate are all immature at birth. But the success of their growth and genetic development depends on the amount of good experiences the individual has. Lots of positive experiences early on produce brains with more neuronal connections -more richly networked brains...

Towards the end of the first year, the preparatory phase of infancy comes to an end. In some ways, the human baby now reaches the level of development that other animals achieve inside the womb. But by doing it outside the womb, human brain building is more open to social influence. This extended human dependency outside the womb enables an intense social bond between caregiver and child to develop. This generates the biochemicals that facilitate a high level of neural connections and brain growth which will never be as rapid again." Sue Gerhardt, "The Power of a Smile," Source Link)

The babies spent millennia staying within immediate contact with their mothers and caregivers. They drank their mother's milk or the milk of another of their own species. They slept with their families. They took their time developing their sight beyond a few inches, developing object permanence, learning to walk, slowly growing teeth. They took their time because they could.

After over 2 million years, our culture began outpacing our biology. Agriculture made it possible for mothers to have more children and still keep everyone fed. Human populations exploded. Technology exploded. In 10,000 years we advanced at a pace never before seen in hominid history. The last two centuries have seen the industrial and now the technological ages. We live farther away from our nuclear families. We leave our children in the care of strangers. We eat foods our bodies barely recognize as food. We move at an unprecedented pace. Our reward for our efforts is nothing short of magical, with explorations from the bottom of the ocean to beyond the skies into outer space, advances in medicine that cure disease and replace broken parts, and agriculture capable of feeding billions. We are busy, busier than ever before.

Now babies are fed formula made from plants or the milk of other species, and breastmilk containing chemicals and unfamiliar foods (many people on earth today have still not evolved to tolerate lactose), and they experience colic, acid reflux, and food allergies. They are left in playpens and car seats away from adult faces and voices. They sleep alone, and when they protest, they are ignored. When no one comes, they shut down and turn off some of their functioning in order to survive. They don't learn to self-sooth, they go into shock. "The adult must be missing, the mother must have been eaten by a predator. I am alone and no one is coming. I have to preserve my strength if I want to live."

"Evolution has not prepared the human infant for this kind of experience. He cannot comprehend why his desperate cries for the fulfillment of his innate expectations go unanswered, and he develops a sense of wrongness and shame about himself and his desires. If, however, his continuum expectations are fulfilled — precisely at first, with more variation possible as he matures — he will exhibit a natural state of self-assuredness, well-being and joy. Infants whose continuum needs are fulfilled during the early, in-arms phase grow up to have greater self-esteem and become more independent than those whose cries go unanswered for fear of "spoiling" them or making them too dependent." "Understanding The Continuum Concept," Source Link)

The problem is, someone forget to tell the mothers. They forgot to tell the mothers that babies haven't changed, we have, and we're alone.

We human mothers are supposed to have a tribe. We're supposed to live near our mothers and grandmothers and sisters and aunts. We're supposed to have all the time we need to stay home and nurture the brains and bodies of our progeny. We're supposed to breastfeed them wherever we are without social constraints. We're supposed to be honored as preservers of the species and teachers of the next generation of human beings.One theory for why women experience an end to fertility as we age, while men do not, is that older relatives stop having their own children so that they can help care for the upcoming generation. Babies were never alone, but were never with the same person for extended periods of time - father, mother, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, all of them came together to help complex, high-needs babies and children with their larger brains and requirements for biological and cultural development. 

We're not supposed to reach "desperate."

"The discredited behaviorist view sees the baby as an interloper into the life of the parents, an intrusion who must be controlled by various means so the adults can live their lives without too much bother. Perhaps we can excuse this attitude and ignorance because at the time, extended families were being broken up and new parents had to figure out how to deal with babies on their own, an unnatural condition for humanity--we have heretofore raised children in extended families. The parents always shared care with multiple adult relatives." -  "Dangers of “Crying It Out: Damaging children and their relationships for the long term." Source Link

Our solution to parenting with just one or two of us has been to replace people with things. We have stuffed animals that mimic human heartbeats, swings and baby bouncers to mimic our movements, and baby monitors so that we can keep our babies away from our beds and our rooms and our space. We put our babies on feeding schedules, no matter how thirsty they get, no matter how hungry, because we are tired, and we have things to get done, and there isn't enough of us to go around to do it all. We have baby gates and playpens and barriers to keep our babies from exploring and interfering. We are training the babies to catch up with the times. And it isn't working.

We're still depressed, and our babies pay the price.

This is what I did when my baby was born. I strapped him to my body, and I went out into the world. I went to restaurants and book stores and museums. I went to La Leche League meetings, made new friends, and started my own weekly playgroup out of my own house. Everywhere I go, I go online and find mothers like me and I meet with them. I meet with them every week, several times a week. I talk to them online. I bring them meals when their babies are born and they bring me meals when my babies are born. We swap clothes and cloth diapers and parenting advice. We have our own tribe.

When I lived near my mother, I handed her a baby when I needed a shower. My sister often had her hold the baby while she took a much needed nap. Once a month, we mothers get together at a restaurant for a drink and some cake and leave the babies with fathers and babysitters. We reach out to each other. We make our own connections. Some of us even take our babies to work. We get out because we refuse not to.

"Mothers do need baby breaks. This is why shared parenting by the father and other trusted caregivers is important. But with attachment parenting, instead of feeling tied down, mothers feel tied together with their babies. Attachment mothers we interviewed described their feelings: "I feel so connected with my baby." "I feel right when with her, not right when we're apart." "I feel fulfilled."
Remember, too, that attachment parenting, by mellowing a child's behavior, makes it easier to go places with your child. You don't have to feel tied down to your house or apartment and a lifestyle that includes only babies." Dr Sears, Source Link
If you are feeling bored, isolated, burned out, and regretful about being a parent, first of all, that doesn't make you a bad person. You are doing something extraordinary by trying to raise children in a world that grows more and more anti-children every day, and you are just one person doing work that used to be shared with the village. It's okay to look around you, say screw it, and take a day off to just leave everyone in their pajamas and have cereal for all three major meals of the day. If you are single or working, or have one of those partners who doesn't contribute much to the parenting and home management, it's even more important to just let go on some days. 
This is hard, under-appreciated work. Teaching our children how to navigate through our complex society is not the same as teaching our children to hunt and gather. We don't have a litter of furry babies ready to follow us, copy us, and move on before the year is out. Our job is the culmination of billions of years of evolution, or if you don't believe in that, masterful creation by deity. Either way, it's profound. There are going to be days when you wish you could stop doing it for a while, or at least sleep for a day or two before coming back into the fray.

You were not meant to parent alone. So if you are, find a tribe, an extended family of other parents, and create a community for yourself. Make your own village. 
"The report Changing Face of Motherhood examined 1006 mothers of children aged 16 years and younger, and found 36 per cent feel alone on most days.
 “Mums struggling with sleep and feeding issues are often afraid to reach out and ask for help. There’s a perception everyone else is doing okay, leaving mothers feeling isolated,” said parenting expert and author, Pinky McKay.
She believes we live in an era where there’s less community. “When visitors vanish, and Dad’s back at work, you’re just stuck on the couch at home with those hormones raging. There’s an expectation to love every minute, when in reality, it can be pretty messy business.” 
...She believes alloparenting, an age-old system where mothers are supported by family members and the wider community, is the answer. “It’s how we evolved so it is hardwired in our DNA. The need for support is natural because it is primeval,” Pinky explained. “Throw the baby in a sling or the pram, and take a walk down the street or to the local shops—people will talk to you.” - Buellens, Hayley. "Motherhood Captivity"
“The day Vicki brought her daughter home from the hospital she walked into the house and burst into tears. She was terrified by the thought of coping alone with this new baby. I, too, had my own lonely days with my infant son. My husband left for work, taking our only car, before I was even out of bed. The day stretched out endlessly in front of me--changing diapers, washing clothes, cleaning house--with at best the TV or radio as a substitute for adult company. During the cold Canadian winter, even getting outdoors was a challenge.

Vicki and I were spending hours on the phone with each other, but that didn't help. So we hit on this new plan--on one day her husband would drop her off at my house on his way to work. We'd spend the day together, doing housework and caring for our children, and then at the end of the day her husband would come back to our house, and both families would have dinner together. The next day, I'd get dropped off at her house…”  Pitman, Teresa. “Finding Your Tribe

"Three years ago, I had just moved from a village in western New York to this mid-sized university town. I knew almost no one. In our previous life, my husband and I had shared care of our son while each of us took turns working. In leaving New York state, I left my profession as a soil scientist to become the full-time mom of a 9 month old.

Fortunately, even before I began to seriously unpack, I found my way to the Athens Mothers Center . I didn't even know that I'd already missed registration for that quarter. Certainly, no one held up any obstacles to prevent my feeling welcome. Joining up with a group for new moms felt right because I certainly saw myself as new to motherhood. Luckily I returned home with a copy of the current member list. I would need that list when I broke my right foot just days later…” – Smith, Victoria. “A Nurturing Circle of Moms

“They would do everything together. Take the textiles or clothing to the water to wash together, prepare food together, clean together, socialize together.. and above all, they would mother together. Women with several children had several sets of eyes on their babies. They shepherded each others children, nursed each others children, comforted each others children, taught each others children. Mothers in a village were never alone. Mothering is not meant to be done in isolation.

I find myself wondering if this one of the reasons why being a mother is so hard. SO much responsibility on one person, paired with lack of sleep and pure exhaustion is a recipe for anxiety, depression, and resentment.

America doesn’t live in villages anymore. But that doesn’t mean that mothering needs to be done alone. We need to create our own mothering villages.” Karns, Lindsay. “It Takes a Village


  1. This is hard for me because sometimes there is no tribe or the women you do have around you don't share your parenting values so when you do need help you hear "just let them cry" or "give them formula" instead of "I understand, let me help you." I remember living in Wyoming and a young mother had a son who died in a tragic accident. At his funeral I saw another mother holding the bereaved mothers wailing infant so I offerred to nurse the baby. I received a cold stare and a "she can self soothe; she will suck on her fingers to calm down." At that moment I wanted so much to be in an African tribe where such a thing would be acceptable.

    As a foster parent I felt a lot of pressure as well to help my foster child sleep well. I was being judged on my parenting in a very visible way and there were a number of times I succombed to the pressure and acted in a way inconsistent with my values.

    Being a mom is the most difficult job but so wonderful as well. I enjoy my daughter more than I can say, but I do long for a tribe of like minded moms.

  2. I am heartbroken that the other woman would not let you nurse the poor baby. It must be very lonely not having attachment parenting families around. I would hate it.

  3. Thank you! My mid-life return to academia seems to be paying off.