They say it takes a village to raise a child. Today, childcare still requires a strong support system, but for some households, most of the work falls on one person. In this MomViews segment, got a chance to interview Alma Gottlieb, a cultural anthropologist who studies the lives of young children and their mothers in communities around the world. Alma shares her thoughts on how childcare has changed over the years, and why it’s important to acknowledge how different communities view childcare. She also co-authored the book, A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Eight Societies. You can follow daily updates on Facebook.
MomViews: Caring for little ones seems a lot tougher than it was when my parents were raising my brothers and me. It was four of us, and only two of them. When I think back to my grandmother who had seven children, I wonder how she was able to manage her household. Today, it seems as though more parents are stopping after one or two kids. How has that made a difference in the way we parent today vs. in past generations?
Alma Gottlieb: In theory, having fewer children means having more time to devote to raising each of them individually. Intuitively, we assume there’s an inverse relationship between quantity and quality: the fewer the number of children, the more “quality time.”
But in practice, many poor and middle-class parents today don’t reap that reward. . . and unfairly blame themselves for situations beyond their control.
What are those situations?
For one thing, consumer culture keeps trying to convince parents that we need more-more-more stuff to keep our children safe/happy/stimulated.
We humans have raised other modern humans for ~100,000 years without Einstein-approved-from-the-grave musical choices, expensive designer clothes, or organized baby play classes. From peer pressure as well as media overload, these luxuries can seem like necessities, and make parents feel guilty when they’re unable to provide them.
But simple outings to the grocery store or park, and engaging with friends, relatives and neighbors can provide plenty of stimulation for babies and toddlers, while preschool/daycare and school environments can provide excellent contexts for emotional, intellectual, and social growth for older children.
But there’s the rub. All preschools, daycare centers, and schools aren’t created equal.
In European and some other nations that impose high taxes to support enforced national standards, reliable curricula, and well-trained teachers, parents can expect that their children will be well taken care of in daycare centers and (pre-)schools, and they need not fear abuse or neglect. In the US (and across the global South), the opposite is the case. Strong public (and private) schools mostly appear in neighborhoods with high tax bases—read, wealthy families. In impoverished neighborhoods (whether rural or urban), low tax bases mean less funding for schools. And less money for schools means fewer teachers; fewer (or no) after-school activities;
fewer (or no) “enrichment” classes in the arts, foreign languages, and sports; fewer (or no) supplies; and less (or no) maintenance on crumbling buildings.
These days, even public schools in middle-class neighborhoods in the US are experiencing these worrisome lacks.
No wonder parents in the US feel guilty about parenting. Too many of our communities aren’t providing the sorts of support that other economically advanced nations provide. In our book, A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Eight Societies, we profile some alternatives.
Imagine having a specially trained “maternity nurse” come to your home once a month for the first year-and-a-half of each of your children’s lives, to answer all your questions, share resources, and connect you with a local “new mothers’ group” that meets every few weeks. As our chapter by Mariah Schug details (“’Equal Children Play Best’: Raising Independent Children in a Nordic Welfare State”), that’s what happens in Denmark. After 5.5 years of training, maternity nurses inform pregnant and new mothers which local fish are safe enough to eat, and which are polluted with chemical pollutants. They weigh all babies monthly, to monitor their physical development. They advise about illness and connect mothers with doctors and hospitals in case of need. If a child has serious issues, they continue with these home visits for years.
And in these Danish communities, mothers leave babies in their strollers for outside naps a few hours every day, without worry.
In the US, we’ve socialized parents and children alike to fear strangers. When we combine this world view with the lack of government and community support, most of the burden of child-rearing in the US falls on parents—especially mothers.
MV: Your book, A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Eight Societies, addresses the implications of the most urgent challenges of the 21st century. Can you share some of these challenges families are facing today?
AG: In affluent communities and nations, the challenges come from an overabundance of information, resources, and options.
How can you choose an after-school activity for your child among the enticing flyers in the school hall advertising amazing-sounding violin lessons, soccer teams, dance schools, drawing workshops, and acting classes? Paralysis may set in, and a parent may end up doing nothing from indecision, and feeling guilty; or may arbitrarily choose one of these wonderful options and still feel guilty that they haven’t managed to squeeze in three more. Another parent may choose all these options, producing a constantly over-stressed, over-scheduled child. Should we be surprised to learn that our high school students in the US are self-medicating with amphetamines (7.7% of them) and Adderall (7.5%) to stay awake, and alcohol (58%), weed (35%) and hookah (20%) to “chill”?
In impoverished communities and nations, the opposite is true: the challenges for children and parents come from a lack of information, resources, and options.
In my chapter, “Luring Your Child into this Life of Troubled Times: A Beng Path for Infant Care in Post-Civil War Côte d’Ivoire,” I profile newborns who risk dying from tetanus because the state does not provide an effective vaccination system to reach remote villages.
In another chapter (“A Baby to Tie You to Place: Childrearing Advice from a Palestinian Mother Living under Occupation”), Bree Akesson documents the risk to Palestinian children of dying from gunfire . . . or being tempted to become terrorists when they are older.
In immigrant and refugee communities, still other challenges abound. In a chapter about West African immigrants in Lisbon (“Never Forget Where You’re From: Raising Guinean Muslim Babies in Portugal”), Michelle Johnson highlights the danger to children of losing their cultural roots and feeling lost in a new land that never quite feels like home.
No matter what the context, parenting is never easy. My best friend in a Beng village in the West African rain forest used to tell me, “If you raise children, you’ll understand madness.”
Now more than ever, parents need resources to help navigate whatever challenges we face, whether these be from excess or insufficiency.
MV: Regardless of our differences in parenting practices, there’s one thing that remains: we’re all raising future generations. What role does religion play in these practices?
AG: In the book, we highlight communities belonging to many different religious orientations, from Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims to Buddhists and animists.
Our modern world tends to emphasize the differences between these and other religious traditions. Readers may be surprised to see the similarities!
All the parents we’ve profiled think about how to offer the best life they can to their children, and that includes introducing them to religious traditions. All the families and communities we profile plan rituals to celebrate big moments in their children’s lives, whether that be naming or male circumcision (for Jews and Muslims), beginning religious school (for Muslim West Africans), or honoring ancestors (for Buddhists and animists).
At the same time, many families worry about temptations that may lure their children away from those religious traditions. Religious minorities, such as the Muslim West Africans we profile in Portugal, or the Muslim East Africans we profile in the US, are especially sensitive to such influences.
MV: Are there any customs you’ve found to be interesting? If so, which one(s)?
AG: Among the Beng people of Ivory Coast in West Africa, babies are considered especially precious because they’re seen as reincarnated ancestors. Everything that new mothers (and others) do with babies is meant to convince these tiny humans to remain in this life, rather than returning to the “afterlife” from which they’re said to have come.
To lure their infants into this life, mothers decorate them twice a day with paint and jewelry. They make sure their babies are carried snuggly on someone’s back for most of the day. They breastfeed whenever their babies fuss, sleeping shirtless next to them at night to ensure easy access to their breasts all night long. When I asked nursing mothers how many times their babies breastfed at night, they laughed: “How should I know? I’m sleeping!”
Everyone talks and sings directly to babies constantly, to include them in conversations. (Adults say that babies understand all the languages of the world—left over from the afterlife, where the ancestors are said to be polyglots.) When a baby cries for no obvious reason or falls sick, moms take them to diviners, who often recommend giving their babies gifts of items (such as white clothes, colonial-era French coin necklaces, or cowry shell bracelets) that babies are said to miss from the afterlife.
In short, babies are treated as quasi-divine, miniature persons with thoughts, feelings, desires, and identities—not as “blank slates.”
MV: What tips would you offer a new mom looking to “do the right thing” while caring for her little one?
AG: If our studies of the world’s parents have taught us anything, it’s that there’s no single “right thing” that works for all babies, all parents, and all communities.
Of course, child abuse and neglect are troubling exceptions. But most cases of abuse and neglect have institutional foundations that urgently need to be addressed at national and community levels, while the “right thing” comes in many flavors, sizes, and colors.
Reading about the eight different varieties of child-rearing that we highlight in our book may reassure nervous moms that our foremothers have experimented with many ways to raise children, and our species hasn’t died out yet.
Join me next week for another installment of MomViews, insights from moms like you.