Sunday, February 28, 2010

Yesterday we cooked

The idea was simple, pick a recipe, bring the ingredients and then we will all work together to cook.

It was as simple and wonderful as it sounds. My friend Deirdre arrived around half past nine with her two beautiful girls and the ingredients for a spinach and ricotta quiche. We had an easy day together cooking quiches, spaghetti bolognaise and foccacia bread.

The cooking seemed so much less stressful than when done alone. Being interrupted from the task at hand to deal with an unsettled child did not seem like any inconvenience at all. Stress or difficulty that might generally be associated with attempting to do a big job while looking after children seemed negated by the fact that it was being done with someone else. When one of us stopped to tend a child there was someone to pick up what was left off.

Working together made the task at hand just more enjoyable. I was attempting to make bread but water was breaking through the well of flour and running all over the kitchen table. I was scooping up flour and dumping it on the rogue streams making even more of a mess. My friend and brother were laughing, as the gloop on the kitchen table looked increasingly like a failed mess that would require a lot of work to clean up. It was fun rather than disheartening, and the thought of cleaning up a big mess did not seem a concern. Nothing seemed like work.

The children experienced all this in a very unforced way (Jean Liedloff1 would have been proud). The children watched sometimes, and sometimes they joined in, they rarely stayed long, and we did not force them into helping. My friend’s youngest daughter watched with interest as the herbs were put into the mortar to be crushed. I handed her the pestle and let her have a go. Her other daughter later came to help smear the herb and oil mix all over the shaped loaf of bread.

I really loved looking after our children, it was so different from what we would have done had we been at home alone. We were just as attentive to their needs as we would usually be, however things just seemed a lot easier. I also believe that the children benefited from it. When I sat on the lounge to breastfeed my daughter, I sat next to my friend’s three year old who chatted with me, comparing my baby to her own twelve month old sister. Both myself and the three year old were socialising. My own daughter seemed much more content being passed from arm to arm all day. At times when she was put down she remain settled for periods longer than usual, watching what was going on and listening to the banter.

As the mother of a twelve week old girl I loved the opportunity to watch the other children. Having not been around children for nearly twenty years, the little I did know was long forgotten. It was interesting seeing our home from the perspective of another mother (cockroach baits around the kitchen and a distinct lack of plastic cups).

We did something that I have heard a number of other people refer to as a ‘cooking swap’. I like the term and will use it along with related terms such as ‘gardening swap’ and ‘housework swap’. I want to make it clear that I believe these activities are a core part of what together parenting should be. These are shared activities that serve the purpose of creating a strong bond amongst a small group of people. keep in mind that the smaller the group the faster a strong network will be formed. Together parenting is about more than the occasional cooking swap it is about bringing women out of systematic isolation. Getting parents together on a regular basis is a very important part of making parenting less isolating.

Having said all that, I am looking forward to doing this again next week, it has been such a wonderful social opportunity. I find myself wanting to invite far more people than will fit in kitchen.

1Liedloff, J. (1989). The Continuum Concept. Penguin books

Monday, February 22, 2010

My private exhaustion

I am 32 years old. I am well educated. I have a loving husband. I have a newborn child.

I will skip the part where I tell you how much I am in love with her. I will skip the bit where I describe how often I am just struck my the miracle of life. I will skip the part where I tell you that my husband and I continually look at each other with adoration and smile in disbelief. I have to write just this much though, I have to know that you know I love my child. I have to be sure you understand that my exhaustion does not mean I would change anything about her. I am a mother, we need to be certain you know these things before we dare say that we are even struggling a tiny bit.

I am exhausted, utterly exhausted, mentally and physically. Plus I am in desperate need of a shower. However I am sitting uncomfortably on a kitchen chair nursing my twelve week old with one arm as I am type with the other. My arm is aching from typing as I cannot get close enough to the desk to rest my elbow. My progress is slow, and my typing errors are many. I can no longer see the keyboard because the sun has just set and the lights are off, but I am not game to move because my daughter is asleep. She has been fussy* all afternoon so this, the scenario I just described, constitutes me taking a break.

My days are no longer my own, I knew it would be like this but I did not realise just how hard it would be. She wakes me in the early hours of the morning for a feed. Sometimes she returns to sleep, other times she stays awake. I will remain in bed with her until she has another feed and falls asleep. She will sleep for less than an hour with me out of the room so I have to have a shower quickly, eat breakfast, put a load of nappies in the washing machine and then do some housework.

My daughter will wake up around 8 o’clock. I greet her with a smile and play with her on the bed for a little while. I then spend the next hour giving her a bath and feeding her. Sometimes it takes less time, sometimes it takes more. This is followed up by the easiest part of my day, I put her in a baby carrier where she will fall asleep while I do the housework. She is generally asleep before I finish hanging out the washing. I now have a baby attached to my chest, but I can still get lots of things done, though taking her out of the carrier is sure to wake her, and she will probably, though not always, begin to stir if I remain stationary for too long. I check emails in between doing housework trying to get as much done as possible, as this is the most productive time part of my day.

Let me explain that again, the most productive part of my day involves something the size of a small dog being strapped to my chest that insists I not remain stationary for too long. This means if I am at the computer I have to rock continually, it also means in summer I have a sweaty head stuck to my chest.

After an hour or two she will be wanting her next feed. The day will continue like this until 9 o’clock at night. Some weeks she is glowing and will play happily for fifteen minutes but in other weeks, like this one, she will start to cry after only a few minutes. I spent a day on the couch with her last week. She fed and slept while I watched the Winter Olympics, other days she cries if I stop moving for any length of time.

If this blog entry is actually beginning to sound a bit perky it is because it is 9:06pm. My daughter is asleep, I can have as much time to myself as I want. That is as long as I remember that this is her big sleep for the night, every hour of time I am awake is an hour less unbroken sleep that I am getting. I want to admit to you that for the last few week she sleeps for eight hours straight at night, but I am afraid you will read that and wonder what I am complaining about. I am afraid you will think that it is not as hard as I say it is.

The exhausting part of all this is that it happens every day, and I do not have anyone that I feel comfortable enough with to actually ask for help. My family live far away, my wonderful work colleagues seem like they are in a different world and my new mother friends are just too new.

There is also a hidden fear that I am doing it all wrong. That if someone else observes the way I am doing things, they will call my child spoilt or clingy or some other label that subtly tells me that I am doing it wrong. The trouble with wrong is that I also get the feeling that there are lots of conflicting versions about what is wrong. Will they think I am feeding her too much, too little, are they bothered that I popped a boob out in front of them, do they think my sling is the problem, do they think she should sleep in a bed during the day. The grandmother that approves of me not using a dummy calls her a bit spoilt later on, was she disapproving of me sticking a boob in her mouth every twenty minutes to settle her. I hurriedly explain that she is usually asleep in the mornings, but then I wonder if she also disapproves of my letting her sleep in a sling attached to my body. The bigger question that looms is this, could they possibly be right could I be bringing this exhaustion on myself?

I need some help. I am not about to breakdown. I am not depressed. I am just exhausted and a little bit dumbfounded that us mothers are expected to do all this by ourselves.

10:16pm ~ my hour is up.

*Fussy is the term us mums use to describe the times when our babies are crying for long periods of time with no obvious reason. Fussy is too polite a word, but we do not want to use the word whiney with our new babies. Fussiness means that we have to try lots of different things, generally many times, in order to have our babies settle for even a few seconds. We check nappies, try feeding, try bathing, and generally do a lot of bouncing and walking and talking. The problem is that these fussy periods mostly happen at the end of the day, and by that time we can no longer muster the energy to settle our children. As an aside, I often wonder if fussiness is at all related to our own exhaustion.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

“Together Parenting”

The goal of “Together Parenting” is to develop personal relationships that cross social boundaries. Parents must have a network of of people who can and will come to help when needed. The key is too create a network in which the parent feels comfortable enough to ask for help when needed.

While each group is informal and there are no real rules for how this might work. It is important to remember that this is about more than a weekly barbeque, the meetings at each others houses are about more than just socialising. They are intended to assist in the breaking down of social boundaries. When you have helped clean your friend’s toilet it is not so hard to call them at six o’clock in the evening to ask for help.

An element of formality is required in order to meet this goal. This is very much like the formality of rounds at the pub. The drinkers don’t buy their own drinks, they take turns buying them for each other. There are rules to the system, but they rarely need repeating.

Creating a group is not quite as simple as grabbing four other willing mothers (though it might be for you). The goal is a long term commitment to each other, so it is important that you all suit each other. Things to consider include age, parenting styles, social attitudes, educational backgrounds, gender, life history, other commitments. In short, it is important that you believe this is the type of parent you could form a long term friendship with.

The other consideration is time. A stay-at-home mother may have the time to commit four or five days a fortnight to togetherness, a mother working part-time, might find herself with less. Your group needs to discuss how to arrange this, considering also the time needs of the mothers. A stay-at-home mother may need togetherness for four to five days a week, while a mother working part-time may feel socialised from her job.

Raising the comfort levels
The term team building summons up memories of dressing as an American Indian and running around Toowoomba completing a scavenger hunt with a bunch of accountants, but it is a lot like what needs to happen. The type of help that mothers, especially new ones, often need is the type of help that we feel most uncomfortable asking for. In order to cross these social boundaries the group members need to feel comfortable with each other, the team needs to be built. Having morning tea together once a week is just not going to cut it as far as bonding this type of group together is concerned. The group really needs to feel comfortable in each other’s houses and each other’s lives. Remember we are looking for our isolated mothers to have a network of three or four friends who will have a good idea when help is needed and will not hesitate to give it.

There are many ways a group could build their team, this is my suggestion. Do your housework together. Set up a schedule, go to each house every fortnight and clean together. I am talking about doing the dishes, cleaning the floors, scrubbing the bathroom, changing bed sheets, doing laundry, dusting, ironing and definitely cleaning the toilet. In short, getting their hands very dirty. Once you have cleaned someone else’s toilet, asking them for help just doesn’t seem quite so hard.

But not just housework
The group needs to develop friendship with each other, over and above the feeling of being a team. Cleaning together represents a way to build the team and break down social boundaries. However the group needs to be friends as well. Socialising should be the easiest part of the group. Take the time to sit and chat, have barbeques in the park, go for a walk around the town, go shopping, or even watch a movie.

Your children are an incredibly important part of your lives, however they will benefit from seeing adults behave, as much as adults will benefit from not always engaging in child-focused activities.

Extend your activities and your friends
While my suggestion of cleaning together is what I consider to be the foundational activity of the group, there are lots of other more social activities that can be engaged in.

  • Set aside a day to cook bulk meals together.
  • Use cooking days (and the like) to invite a new person along. This will give you a chance to see how well they fit in with the group, without having to fully commit.
  • Get the entire families together for a game of cricket at the local park.
  • Get the husbands together to teach the kids how to create a vegetable garden (yes, I am being increasingly stereotypical).
  • Plan a day without any children (save some pennies and head to a day spa together!)

What about the children?
The children have not been mentioned so far in this blog. It is undeniable that for every group of parents at least as many children are present. It is important in these settings that, mostly, children are not the centre of attention. These are not play groups that see a bunch of mothers sitting in a circle watching their children play together. These groups are about the coming together of mothers. The children are there, and the mothers will work together to look after them, sometimes this might consume all of a mother’s time, other times it may require little more than checking up on them occasionally. It takes a village to raise a child, but this is something for another blog post.

But I am not a stay-at-home mother…
The beauty of this concept is that it is flexible. It can be adapted and applied to all types of parents, mothers, father, full-time workers, part-time workers and parents working at home. It is also independent of parent style. Whether you are an avid attachment parent-er, or believe the Wiggles DVDs are the best parenting tool since the pram, this concept will work, especially if you take the time to find parents who are well-suited to you. I have referred to the stay-at-home mother because I believe her to be the most common and the most isolated.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The beginning of something

There is something wrong with the way mothers in the western world are allowed to become isolated when they leave careers to raise a child. A mother in a westernised country, such as Australia, is expected to raise a child predominately on her own. Generally a mother will give up employment, while her partner continues to work, leaving her home alone with a young child for the majority of her day. It is little wonder women struggle, it is a wonder that nothing is being done about it.

I am at home alone as I type this, one-handed at my keyboard while I use my second hand to support my 12 week old baby on the breast. It is six o’clock at night and I am talking with my husband via Skype, he has been working out of town for about six weeks now. I am alone. I don’t have family living near me, my good friends either have grown up children or none at all, the new friends I have made as a mother are exactly that – new. It takes a village to raise a child, so why am I sitting alone?

On Thursday I have invited two new friends to come over to cook with me. We will meet at my house, each bringing along the ingredients for one meal. We have set an amount of $30 to each spend. We will work together to cook up the meals and to look after the children. At the end of the day we will divide up the meals for our freezers. It is a small start but I have grand plans for where this would end up.

I have been thinking this over for some time, considering what could be done to bring western mothers out of isolation. Books such as Leidloff’s ‘Continuum Concept’ push the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. However even amongst staunch Attachment Parenters the isolation of the mother has not been dealt with in a way that fits satisfactorily into a western society.

We settle for playgroups where a bunch of mothers sit around watching their children play for an hour. We ship our children off to child care centres and return to work just to restore our own sanity. These attempts do not actually bring a mother out of isolation. While at a playgroup the mother is still soley responsible for her child, and at child care centres she is not there at all. Where is the middle ground?

We can dream about an idyllic community in which young families share vegetable gardens and play on car-free streets, in communities dedicated to working together. The picture I paint looks increasingly like a commune, a system which, among other things, requires the families to relocate and fit in with a large community. This offer small scale change to a select few who can both afford cost (financial, geographically and social). In order to bring women out of isolation we need a simple system that mothers everwhere can participate in.

My idea requires groups of women to step across some social boundaries in order to create relationships that bring them out of isolation. Ideally groups of three to four women will come together in what I can only liken to the way men 'shout' rounds at the pub. The women will invest a great deal of time, but this isn't a problem, it is the solution. The amount of time women spend at home in isolation is the problem. So I propose that women come together for several days each fortnight, gathering together at each house in turn. The women will come together to cook, clean, garden, mind children, talk and relax. These women needed to be suited to each other, prepared to develop friendships with each other and willing to support each other.

Society allows mothers to be abandoned and these woman pay the consequences. Once brilliant career women spend day after day alone in their home with no one but a newborn for company. These strong women desire to be good mothers to their children, and give up major parts of themselves in order to do so, they than become confused when they struggle with all that is required. It takes more than one person to raise a child, it takes many people to raise a child. Women need to start coming together.