Friday, August 31, 2012

Village Stay: No Rest for the Weary

I'm now back from my village stay, resting on what feels like an unreasonably large and cushy king sized bed.  “King sized” is a good name since I feel something like underserved royalty perched on this comfortable bedthrown knowing the children in my homestay family are sleeping on a straw mat.  No.  Make that 1/3 of straw mat that they all share.

I kind of don't know where to begin.  Much of what I could tell you could easily look like a cliche or the superficial observations of an armchair anthropologist. I found, as I expected, astonishing natural beauty, poverty, drudgery, real human tragedy and surprisingly sincere joy despite it all.  All cliche but nonetheless true.  

There's so much I could tell you, but since I'm lying here on this bed and am currently obsessed with the topic, I guess I'll pick the theme of sleep.

As mentioned, a bed with a firm mattress is an unheard of luxury in the boma (homestead) I stayed in.  A mother, if she's lucky, might have a bedframe with a few wood slats and thin mattress, which she'll share with a baby and maybe a toddler.  When the youngsters outgrow this arrangement, the girls will likely sleep in the kitchen (really a thatch hut where the wood fire cooking is done) and the boys in another room in the house.  If there are a lot of children, they might sleep in a children's hut.  My translator had 6 primary-age children who all slept in their own hut - girls on one side of the divide and  boys on the other.  They shared a straw mat.
This is the children's hut
I don't have any pics of peoples beds/mats, but 2 kids did use a couch like the one on the left as their  bed each and every night.

As a guest in the village, I was treated to my own bed. I brought a small bassinet for Emmet and Caleb would be sleeping with me. Luxurious by village standards. Still, I was nervous. I'm, lets just say... a ... "delicate" sleeper and can barely share aforementioned king size bed with another human, and Emmet has been (as I've mentioned) waking 8-9 times a night even in familiar circumstances.

It did not go well. Emmet, as usual, woke so often the woman who slept in the hut with us (she insisted so that I would not be alone) thought there was something medically wrong with him.  The bed sunk in the middle, so Caleb kept rolling fully on top of me. Just when I would gently return Emmet to his bassinet after a feed and close my eyes, Caleb would wake asking for something. Finally, he peed on our bed.  Need I say more?

So, how do people make these cramped and communal sleeping arrangements work?

Of course, they are used to it. I was in a separate crib from time go. I got to stretch and wiggle and make myself comfortable in whatever unique way I desired, but had to rely on myself when I was scared or needed something – a pretty nice metaphor for the challenges and opportunities of the Western world.

My village friends have never really had to sleep alone. They've had to contort and wiggle to accommodate and conform to their family members but also never feel totally alone – a fitting metaphor for the challenges and opportunities of village life.

This is all fine. We all become used to what we're used to. That is, until we in the Western world decide to procreate and out pops a baby who is fully expecting the co-sleeping arrangement humans have been doing since the beginning of time. And that mismatch is at the root of so many of our baby-mama sleep woes.

When I spoke with the village mamas about how long it took their kids to sleep through the night, they shrugged. Some couldn't remember. Others guessed somewhere between 2-4 years old. It wasn't something they tracked. It didn't disturb them. I was told, “it's only natural” and the conversation moved on.

I'm guessing this is why: If you've been co-sleeping your whole life, you become accustomed to the movements, sleep spasms and night murmers of your fellow bedmates. Adding a nursing baby isn't as disruptive to you. You can nurse, which also has a soporific effect, barely waking up. You don't own a watch and don't obsess and fret over achieving the magic 8 hours a sleep a night, angrily counting the meager hours you achieve as proof of some kind of martyrdom. You'd barely know if the baby woke 4 or 8 times in a night.

But this same infant, demanding attention every few hours of the night, is simply the bane of a Western new mother's existence. This woman is unaccustomed to enduring or sleeping through multiple disturbances each night. She sleeps anxiously, not having had any real contact with a baby for likely a decade prior to her own and having little consensus from relatives or friends on what to do with said baby.

So, she beats the system. She puts the baby in another bed, feeds it on a schedule, lets it learn to “soothe itself.” There's a lot of crying – on both mother and baby's part – while they work it out, but for most by a year, babies are sleeping alone and through the night.

Like a lot of women, I'm trying to carve out a space somewhere between these two extremes. Emmet is in a crib that abuts our bed. I nurse him on demand throughout the day and night. I can't stomach letting him cry. But it's not been easy on me.  I'm trying to be that village mama, but I don't have her training. 


  1. As a delicate sleeper (I'm holding on to that lovely way of putting it) myself, I loved this post. And I especially loved the metaphors. I have zero experience with village cultures, but I often wondered, while I waited and waited for C to sleep through the night, HOW they do it (sleep in communal beds, for life, basically). Now that he has been for a couple months, it's off the radar again, but know that I can commiserate. Those are tough times for us Western mamas.

    1. Yup! I feel like the Princess and the Pea sometimes given how hard it is for me to do something as supposedly natural as sleeping with my baby. Tough times indeed!

  2. I LOVE your analysis of how the sleeping habits in these two cultures are metaphors for life in each culture.

  3. When MaryJane, our helper, had her four daughters staying here, they all slept in the same bed. She has a small room (like all Hong Kong rooms - not because she's our helper!) with a bed that's smaller than a regular double. So, pretty small. And her girls are all gangly tweens, tall with long limbs. We had set up a bed in the spare room for them, and also another double mattress on the floor, but for the entire six weeks they all top-and-tailed in MaryJane's bed. We couldn't believe it, but she shrugged - that's how they'd slept growing up, and how she herself had slept growing up. It's not normal for them to sleep alone. In fact she said when she first moved to Hong Kong, she slept on the floor because she couldn't get any sleep alone in a bed! Whereas for me, the idea of sharing the bed with my whole family makes me feel so claustrophobic!

    It's interesting to read this post especially thinking about the troubles we had with getting my youngest to sleep. She didn't sleep through the night until she was 3. The battles we had! The competition between my husband and I, the physically destroying exhaustion! I used to be proud that she never once slept in our bed...even if I was going to get only three hours' sleep a night, it was going to be in my own bed without a baby. Now, I think it would have been easier for everyone if we would have just let her sleep with us. Live and learn...

    Great post.

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