(Want to find “Your Conscious Choice Community?” Check out Pathways Connect groups in your local area. These groups are free to parents and sponsored by the nonprofit magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness.)
“We were never meant to do it alone,” writes Robin Grille in his book, Heart to Heart Parenting.
Thinking about all the parenting literature that abounds these days, I was recently struck by this question: In most instances, why are only two people mentioned—you and your child? As I read I feel like saying, ‘Hey, where is everyone else? Where is all the help and support? Where are the grandparents? Where are the uncles and aunts? Where are the friends, neighbours, and community? Is it all up to Mum and Dad?’
Most of what we read about parenting has been produced in the past 20 years in industrialised and affluent societies, so it reflects cultural biases—no surprises there. Extended family and community have become so fragmented, family life so private, that it doesn’t even occur to us any more to turn around and ask where everyone went. When we get tired, confused or grouchy, we think the problem lies with us as parents, or with the child (‘He needs to learn to behave’). Is this normal?
When it comes to our perceptions of what parenting is all about, we virtually need to start from scratch because of this remarkable phenomenon: the way we perceive our children changes altogether when we feel emotionally supported. Did you realise that? Check it out for yourself. When you feel at peace, when you are feeling loved, supported and fulfilled, your vision of your child is transformed; the child you see is very different. When we are stressed, the child seems irritating and over the top, and the baby seems difficult and strident. When we feel connected, supported and have time on our hands, the very same child seems playful and exuberant, the same baby seems healthy, deserving, and in need of holding. Our choices and responses are entirely different according to how well supported we are and how fulfilled we are in ourselves. Parenting is a pleasure and our children are more settled and happy when we parents have enough support.
Did you know?
Anthropologists have known for some time that children who are raised in communal parenting groups fare much better. In the nineteenth century (a time of huge child abandonment rates all over Europe) the island of Sardinia enjoyed one of the best infant survival rates, despite being one of the poorest economies. Unlike most European mothers, Sardinian women joined together in supportive, cooperative mothering groups. Mothers who don’t parent alone tend to be much happier.
Postnatal depression (PND) is virtually absent in societies where women band together to raise their children in caring, cooperative groups (among the Kipsigi of Kenya, for instance). In the Western world, mothers spend far too much of their time alone with their babies and children, a recipe for depression and exhaustion. It would take little effort to create a better balance between communal life and the privacy and personal space we enjoy at home. If we pay more respect to our natural needs for community—particularly when raising our children—the rates of PND would be drastically reduced.
When you get tired, frustrated, exhausted, there should be someone with you who can take over, someone else to play with your child, someone else to hold your baby while you catch forty winks. If you renew and replenish yourself, your heart opens again. Cooperative parenting is actually Nature’s design for humans; most problems with our children arise when we stray from this design. Cooperative parenting is the natural inoculation against depression, postnatal depression, anxiety, attentional and behavioural disorders, and a broad range of social ills.
Your baby or toddler probably prefers you to anyone else, and if you’re his mother or father, that’s normal and natural. But when you get tired and irritable, and the pleasure goes out of parenting, your baby will be better off spending some time with his second favourite or third favourite person for a while until you can refresh yourself. We need to weigh up two needs: your baby’s need to be with you and your baby’s need to be with someone who is energised, emotionally available and ready to connect with him. Your child, as soon as he is able to, should be given the opportunity to bond with more than one or two special people who can be responsive and loving. I am also thinking of you here: you deserve your parenting journey to be as enjoyable and pleasurable as it can be.
You might scoff and say this is unrealistic. We all lead lives that are too busy, everyone has their own problems, our own parents live miles away. Besides, who can afford the extra pair of helping hands?
Aunties, uncles, grannies …
Anthropologists have known for a long time that grandparents and alloparents (other significant attachments) are essential for family wellbeing and children’s health.
In only three mammal species the female, through menopause, becomes infertile while still young and strong: pilot whales, elephants, and … us.
There is a good evolutionary reason for this. In primates, survival rates are much better among groups in which the grandmothers are free to join in the care of the young. Children always seem to do better in societies that surround parents with supportive elders. Isolated nuclear-family parenting is inherently problematic; we are not designed to be able to cope well with it. We have taken a wrong turn and need to re-establish cooperative parenting.
Well, I think it is unrealistic to do it alone, and in our society, most of us have been doing it unrealistically for quite some time. As parents, we have become cut off and deprived of the sustenance that we are meant to receive, so we get exhausted, angry and depressed. For hours each day we hand our babies and toddlers to professional strangers who have little personal investment in our child, with whom our child will never properly bond. At home, we let a television do the job, perhaps for several hours each week, so we can scratch out some time to get things done. Communities are disintegrating. The need to spend time with relationships is being rapidly replaced by spending money on things. Depression rates are spiralling out of control, a recognised result of the deprioritising of human relationships. This trend is unsustainable, alarming, but it is a trend that you can personally help to put the brakes on, and even put into reverse.
The cost of parenting in the fast lane
The more you learn to listen to your heart and your parenting intuition, the more you come to realise how many of today’s parenting strategies are shortcuts that you can no longer accept, and this can be quite confronting. These shortcuts can hurt you and your child, undermine your relationship and lead to behaviour problems. Shortcuts, like early weaning, sleep training, electronic babysitting (television) and early daycare seem to give you, the parent, freedom and support in the short term, but they can borrow heavily against your child’s long-term emotional health and the quality of your family’s relationships. All of us collectively inherit the social problems generated by the fast-food, fast-living and fast-parenting trend. Humans, and especially children, simply cannot do without regular doses of sustained, loving connection—without it we soon break apart. The classroom, the street and the marketplace become the stage on which the emotional wounds of broken attachment and social disconnection are destructively acted out.
So, what do we do to resist the pressures, financial and cultural, that force us away from our children? It’s made more difficult for us in some countries, such as Australia and the USA, where parents receive far less financial and social support than in many other democracies. Even less-developed and less-privileged democracies, such as Bulgaria, give a lot more support to parents than we do. Europeans have come to understand and prioritise something that we are yet to come to terms with.
Here, in Australia, if we want support, we have to create it.
It’s time to take our children back
Children and parents are spending less and less time together. The average child spends more time bonding with a television than with her own parents. Increasingly, babies only a few weeks old spend many more hours in daycare centres with well-meaning strangers than they do receiving the vital bonding they need with their parents. Everywhere I hear parents shocked by the massive amounts of homework given to their children today, and their children are often at near breaking point under the weight. Are we saying goodbye to childhood?
In Australia, parents are working longer hours than ever, we are more affluent than ever and we are more depressed. Government and industry cry ‘Socialist!’ when anyone calls for more time for parents with their children. How many families enjoy nightly dinners with everyone present, sharing conversation, laughter and stories—around a table and not in front of television? If it wasn’t for the fact that Aussie parents bend over backwards to take children to sports games on weekends, and to tennis, ballet or piano lessons etcetera after school, I would say we are hardly watching our children grow up any more. How much time do any of us spend with our children every day, just talking with them and listening to them?
If the pressures of our productivity-mad culture are driving a wedge between family members, this is not through necessity, it is by choice. If you ignore for a moment our astronomical levels of debt, we seem very well off financially, but when it comes to relationship, community and time, we are indigent.
It’s time to fight for the staples of daily family life (in all the diverse family styles that exist): the dinner and conversation, the parents rocking the baby, the noise of children playing in the street; it is time to take our children back. It’s time to review our shallow sense of economics and bring relationships into the equation. Our assets and techno goods are wonderful, but they are not more important than our children, not more important than time to ourselves, not more important than our need for loving relationships and time to just hang out together.
Institutions that care for babies will never replace Mum and Dad; they can’t even come within coo-ee of a parent’s love, no matter how high quality they are. As far as your child is concerned, no one can do it like you can. You are your child’s hero. And all heroes need a team.
Creating the support we need
It makes a world of difference to not be alone, to have a group of familiar people around us. Those of us lucky enough to have an extended and supportive family nearby who we get along with are indeed blessed. But there are many of us who need to think of joining a parent support group or creating a parent support group ourselves in our locality.
Starting your own group
If you don’t find a parent support group that you feel comfortable with, why not start your own? Call it whatever you like— ‘parenting support group’ would do fine. Alternatively, you could come up with a name that represents your values as a parent. Mothers’ and fathers’ groups that meet regularly are a wonderful new feature of our times, but many people end up joining parenting groups by default, based on who happens to be available in the neighbourhood centre, the birthing classes or at the hospital. They don’t get an opportunity to screen the other members for compatibility. Consequently, some of these groups work well, others don’t.
When participants have fundamental differences of attitudes and approaches, clashes can occur and people move away from the group. We are in the middle of a societal shift in child-rearing attitudes in our times, so it is not unusual to encounter a clash of values. Your parent support group, if it is created around shared core values, is more likely to be one you look forward to seeing, that nourishes you and that you have fun with.
The people with whom you share a commitment to creating a child-friendly world will form a deep bond of friendship with you. Don’t be surprised if you make some of your life’s warmest and most enduring friendships through your parenting community.
How often should your parenting group meet? As often as you’d like. How about meeting with at least one other parent (if not the whole group) every day? For a short while at least? Or almost every day? Can you allow yourself to envisage never having to be alone? Can you imagine only being alone, or alone with your child, when you actually want to be? What if your time of early childhood parenting can be the best time you have had in your life?
A starter kit for gathering like-minded parents
The first thing to do is to see if you have existing friends or relatives who share your core values about how to raise children and just talk to them about how you might be able to help each other and spend time together in cooperative parenting every so often. It could be that the best people for you are right in your neighbourhood and you might even know them already. Think about your existing circle of friends and acquaintances, your sporting club, church group, yoga class or book club—are there any other parents in those circles whose style might be compatible with yours?
If you don’t have people in your life who share your values, then you may need to reach out and find some. You could post notices in your local newspaper, on noticeboards in your area, at the community centre, the shopping mall or the family health clinic. People don’t always take the time to read posters, so the more eye-catching and easy to read you make it, the more likely it will be read. Make your advert friendly, inviting, warm and personal. You might even consider including a photo of yourself.
Some of you may feel turned off by the prospect of fielding calls. What if, for instance, you occasionally have to turn someone away if you feel that you won’t get along with them? If so, you might prefer to team up with at least one other parent you know to begin with and share the work of growing a group. Alternatively, you could look around for an established group that shares your values.
Starting a parenting group can be very daunting for many of us who have grown accustomed to living privately. It can, therefore, be helpful to find an already established parenting group. Local councils, community centres and maternity hospitals are increasingly acting as hubs for forming parenting groups. This is a truly positive trend, although groups formed around locality don’t necessarily guarantee a commonality of attitudes.
Thousands of parents around the world have joined support groups that help them to embrace the newer and more natural parenting styles. These groups have adopted a range of names such as, attachment parenting groups, natural parenting groups and continuum parenting groups. The label matters little; what counts is making supportive connections with others who basically share similar views. There are many ways you can tap into a wider community of parents who share your values.
Published in Kindred, Issue 25, March 08
©Robin Grille, extracted from Heart to Heart Parenting, Nurturing your child’s emotional intelligence from conception to school age by Robin Grille; ABC Books; rrp: $35.00; Available at ABC Shops, ABC Centres and wherever good books are sold or online at abcshop.com.au