July 17, 2008. I feel her stirring beside me. I’m still groggy, it’s 6:15 am. It’s the second day that Maya has woken up an hour earlier than usual. Yesterday, I had protested this change, pretending to ignore her stirring, trying to fall back to sleep. But she had played with herself for a few minutes and then started pawing my face. That brought back memories of Kitty waking me up and I had gotten out of bed, grumpily. Today, I’m prepared to deal with the new reality. I pick her up with a smile and she coos happily. After taking her to pee, I put her back in bed while I prepare her milk.
A few minutes later, milk consumed, we’re downstairs. She’s playing with a spoon that I’ve given her, content to let me go prepare that wake-up elixir, coffee. I awaken the laptop from its sleep and sit down beside Maya, talking to her (more like muttering, since I’m not really awake yet). The coffee machine gurgles as the last drops of water filter down. When I return with the cup of coffee, I find that Maya has thrown away the spoon and has that “I need your attention” look. I pick her up thinking she wants to pee and find that her dress is soaked. She’s gagged herself with the narrow end of the spoon and thrown up a lot of the milk. I put the coffee down and pick her up to clean her.
An hour later, I’m rocking her to sleep. I try playing soothing sounds, slow, gentle melodies that reflect the morning mood for me. But Maya will have none of that. Since she’s discovered Sade, it’s nothing but her fast uptempo songs. So, at 7:30 in the morning, I’m playing “Paradise” and moving vigorously to the beat. Maya is asleep in a few minutes. Sade croons “Ooh, what a life !”
I’ve been meaning to write what about our approach to parenting in the initial months. I’ve written about my thoughts about watching her grow and the major (and minor) transformations of each month. But I’ve wanted to write about our perspective and our ideas. This entry is an attempt at that.
There is the famous adage, “Before I became a parent, I had three theories about parenting. Now I have three children and no theories”. Since we have only Maya, I guess I have two more theories left. In reality, our ideas about how we wanted to parent have so far largely borne out and we hope in some sense contributed to how easy and how happy Maya has been. These decisions were largely driven by our intuition, by Meredith Small’s incisive analysis and examination of parenting from an evolutionary perspective and across cultures in her book “Our Babies, Ourselves” and by having seen the results of a close friend who parented that way. The goal was single and fairly simple, to make Maya feel as secure, loved and accepted as possible. Our reading of various infant studies indicate that more than anything else, making them feel secure and loved was the bedrock to a happy and healthy individual.
Margaret Mead said that parenting was a reflection of the culture, that the general structure of any culture could be understood at a fundamental level by following the treatment of children. More recently, anthropologist Robert LeVine has said parental goals have little to do with the immediate situation of the child, and more to do with the entire social system and its institutional goals – especially in the areas of interpersonal relationships, the level of personal achievements expected, and the degree and manner of social solidarity that is favored in that particular society. For example, “independence” permeates the American child rearing lexicon. When I called the pediatrican’s office the first time because Maya was crying inconsolably for fifteen minutes (she was a month old), I was advised to put her down and walk away. “She needs to learn that you won’t be there all her life. She needs to learn to be independent”. I hung up in disgust.
LeVine says there are two kinds of cultures: agrarian and urban-industrial, and in both, parents want some things ”from” their children and some things ”for” their children. This translates to (in the words of Steven Pinker): “In contemporary middle-class American culture, parenting is seen as an awesome responsibility, an unforgiving vigil to keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life. And that race goes to the smartest, the most competitive, the most independent”. We didn’t want that. We wanted to deconstruct parenting as much as possible and choose consciously what we thought was best for Maya to feel loved and secure. We also told ourselves several times that we had no experience parenting and so we’d not assume that we know, but would be willing to learn, not hold on steadfastly to any idea save ensuring that she felt loved and secure. Dr. Spock and the associated mainstream American child rearing practices were out, ethnopediatrics was in.
We felt that the basic attitudes that we needed as parents was captured best by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn in “Everyday Blessings”: sovereignty, empathy and acceptance. Sovereignty implies that the child has a perspective, and that it maybe different from mine. Empathy implies that I can commiserate with her perspective. Acceptance means that I accept the conditions for what they are even if they’re not what I want them to be. For example, if I want her to sleep because I’m sleepy, I have to consider that she may not want to sleep because she’s not sleepy, and knowing how difficult it is to sleep when you’re not sleepy, that I accept her not being sleepy and play with her even though I fervently wish that she would sleep and allow me to. An alternate way of being, which we rejected, is to think that she’s deliberately manipulating us, or that she’s a “difficult child” or “hyperactive child”.
An infant’s needs are fairly primal: food, sleep and poop. Initially, an infant uses her cry to communicate everything, be it hunger, sleep or attachment. Studies that I’ve come across indicate that an infant doesn’t have the machinery to manipulate parents until they’re much older, six months at least, much later according to one of our close friends. So our first decision was to to respond to her cry immediately and do what was necessary to soothe her. I’d like to think that this is a reason why Maya never cries much. In the initial weeks she cried a little more as we struggled to figure out what she was trying to say. She probably also cried because the whole thing was so alien to her, she who was comfortably ensconced in Shanthala’s womb, her every need automatically taken care of, not needing to breathe, eat or poop. Past her sixth week, when we began to read each other better, she became a very easy and happy child. Everyone who sees her remarks on how happy she seems. That and what beautiful eyes and long eyelashes she has.
Research by James McKenna, a medical anthropologist and sleep researcher, has shown that when infant and mother sleep together, the two function as a dyad, their sleep, arousal, breathing and heart rate synchronizing with each other. There is a significant push by pediatricians in this country to have the baby sleep separately. The American Association of Pediatrics strongly recommends against sleeping with the baby because of increased risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), of suffocating the child by rolling over it and because of possible psychosexual problems. There aren’t studies that back these claims. The psychosexual babble is a holdover from an 18th century church edict. Among African and Asian societies where cosleeping is common, there are hardly any reports of these problems. James McKenna postulates that a possible cause for SIDS is that infants with their immature nervous system have not yet learnt how to breathe and go into deep sleep at the same time. He says that cosleeping helps them learn how to breathe and go into deep sleep. In the US, Dr. Richard Ferber’s method of putting infants to sleep is the most common practice. The method involves leaving the infant alone in their crib and letting them go to sleep on their own and not responding to their cries. When Shanthala and I first heard about it, we cringed. There is an interesting article in the New Yorker from 1999 about one person’s attempt to put his son to sleep the American way that includes an interview with Dr. Ferber in which the doctor recants his method, somewhat. So another decision that we made was to have Maya sleep with us, in our bed.
An infant also loves being held, being enveloped in the warmth of our body. Reading books about the real life experiences of parents, I found that so many speak of difficult sleep times, of crying insistently on being put down, of suffering from that fearful word, colic. Meredith Small says that studies have found that incidences of colic are very small in Asian and African countries where traditionally infants tend to be carried more compared to the Western societies. So we decided that we’d hold her as much as possible, even carrying her in a sling as a new born while she slept. I found that she slept longer when she either slept in the sling or when she slept on me.
No disposable diapers was another major decision. We have both tried to keep as small a footprint as possible given the current environmental conditions on Earth. It’s been a modest attempt compared to some others I’ve known, but we try. Disposable diapers are the third largest item in this country’s landfill and we didn’t want to add to it. There were other positive consequences of this decision, but more on that later. Shanthala researched a lot and stocked cloth diapers before Maya was born, buying good quality, some used and some unused diapers, from eBay and other outlets for throwaway prices. She also decided that we’d wash our own diapers rather than use a diaper service. The whole thing has turned out to be fairly easy.
In an essay titled “Negotiating Violence”, the author, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah writes: “A native of Ghana, I have lived in the US since I was six years old.. My family strongly believed in traditional African values and principles such as prerequisite respect of elders, the unspoken second class citizenship of children, and the collective endorsement of corporal punishment.” The traditional African values don’t sound very different from traditional Indian values or at least different from the way I was raised. Even in America today, spanking a child is a divisive subject, with quite a few considering it acceptable, even though it is illegal. That is not how we want to raise Maya. Corporal punishment is out. As Danquah writes: “.. to understand that love and violence do not go together and should not be accepted when given hand-in-hand by the same person – be that person a lover, a friend or a parent.” I still remember vividly the terror of being beaten by my father, the indignity and humiliation from feeling violated, being subject to what seemed to me as a child, the mood of my caregiver. Just as we reject an abusive husband’s excuse “she made me do it”, we must reject a parent’s twin excuses of “the child’s actions made me do it” and “it’s only for his good”. If we use violence to teach something, the evidence indicates that the lesson will not be learnt. We don’t even want to threaten her. No “or else”.
Despite all this, it has been surprisingly easy for me to get frustrated and angry. Between Shanthala and I, I’m more patient except when it comes to Maya. Shanthala wins hands down in that category. Many times, I’d put Maya down and go to the next room to scream my anger or frustration, I’ve picked her up a little less gently sometimes. Eventually, I figured out that most of my anger came from lacking control, control as I know it. Once I realized that my anger or frustration was a consequence of counter-factual thinking, of wanting things to be what they’re not, I calmed down considerably. I realized that with an infant, you don’t set the agenda. She does. It’s still hard to accept on days I’m tired or sleep deprived, when I’m upset with something at work or I feel overwhelmed.
Food turned out to have been decided for us. Shanthala couldn’t produce enough breast milk to satisfy Maya’s needs right from the start. At best, she gave her fifty percent. At the end of her second month, we gave up and continued to feed her only formula. The decision was not easy, but we had little choice after trying everything possible from finger feeding her and using the breast pump to Shanthala taking pills and herbal supplements to produce more milk. The positive benefit of this has been that I’ve been involved intimately in feeding Maya which delighted me (the flip side was that I had to share the load of waking up in the middle of the night to feed her).
We hardly watch TV, using the set only to watch movies. Just before she was born, we gave away the TV and DVD player. We didn’t want her to grow up watching TV. We now watch movies on our laptops, maybe once a week at most. We also consciously avoid having Maya see us in front of the computer, though not always successfully. I attend to work email in the morning as I sip my coffee while she’s next to me, babbling away happily.
I came across a study the other day with the headline: “Sociologists are discovering that children may not make parents happier and that childless adults, contrary to popular stereotypes, may often be more contented than people with kids. Parents ‘definitely experienced more depression,’ says Robin Simon, a sociologist at Florida State University who has studied data on parenting.” What is interesting is that Robin Simon also states: “People ought to understand where this unhappiness comes from. I would say it’s not from their kids per se, I would say that it comes from the social conditions in which contemporary parents parent.” The headline could’ve been: “Parenting needs stronger support from society”, but that’s not as catchy. One of the earliest decisions of our marriage was that we’d have a child when we could devote all the time that was needed to raise her/him. I didn’t want having a child to be just a milepost that we cross in this journey we call life. Or even a tourist spot where we checked out the highlights. We wanted it to be a place where we stopped. For a long time. Where we checked out the terrain intimately, got to know the locals, understood what it meant to be a native of that place.
It’s 6:30 PM. Maya has woken up again. We head out for our evening walk with Maya comfortably ensconced in a sling. As we walk by a house with people sitting out, enjoying the chilly summer evening, we greet each other. They notice the baby and ask the usual questions. An older man comes out of the house and seeing Maya asks “How old is she ?”. “Five months”, we reply. “She’s so alert. She looks ready to do calculus”, he says.
It’s 10:30 by the time Maya falls asleep. I was so sleepy at 8′o clock and now I’m wide awake. My brain is too exhausted to do anything much.
What has caught me unprepared and still struggling with has been the lack of solitude, of time for myself and in my control. I want to run, to write more, to read, to reflect. When I switched to working part time, one of the things that I enjoyed most was the expanded time I had. I didn’t do anything different, but just having it and knowing that there was the potential to do anything I wanted was liberating. I had come to dislike the schedules set by the alarm clocks and daily grind at work, even though it was work that I enjoyed and was good at. I yearned to march to a different drummer. And now I am, to Maya’s.