Monday, December 24, 2012

I am a Kenyan grandmother. Kind of.

Last night while putting my 4 year old to bed I cuddled him so hard I nearly smothered the poor little guy.  I kissed him all over and tickled him, delighting in his laughter even as I knew this was bedtime play was ready to backfire.  I didn't care. This intimate, playful, loving closeness is my favorite thing about motherhood.

And then, as we both settled down into our more sleep-inducing routine of lullabies and back patting, my mind wandered.  It wandered back to my village stay and I thought of mothers I met in that poor rural village, and their experience of motherhood.

Our experiences of motherhood are worlds away for a lot of reasons. But this stuck out to me:  I hadn't seen a single mother play with her children. I hadn't seen a non-baby snuggle. Children put themselves to bed.  And there were no terms of endearment issued.  No "Sweetheart," "Lovey," or "Pumpkin," so common on American playgrounds.  Orders to wash the dishes or pick up a crying sibling were unceremoniously issued and obediently followed.

None of this is to say that these mothers don't love their children as intensely. They fret over a child's illness and are uniformly obsessed with finding enough school fees to give their children the best shot at a bright future.  To these mothers the saddest fate that could befall them is not baring children.

Still, the maternal physical and verbal affection is at minimum - perhaps lost in the necessity of daily chores or simply dictated by generations of parenting culture. Babies are snuggled, held, cooed at, and co-slept with, but when they grow into children they're simply ordered to fetch the water and wash the dishes.

It was a bit unsettling for me coming from an intensely affectionate family and demonstrative parenting culture. A culture where parents, bad knees be damned, get on the floor and push a train around a track with junior.  Where 10 year olds, to their perennial embarrassment, are still hugged and kissed in public.

But, then I noticed something else: mom aside, there actually was no shortage of playmates. Instead of an adult who might quickly tire of kicking around a ball, there always half a dozen little people with similar interest, energy and attention spans to run, play and laugh with.
You don't need mom to play with you when you have a constant brood of playmates.
And, despite my initial observations, the children did get some of that physical and verbal affection.  But instead of from mom, it was from grandma.

It was grandma who I saw kissing boo boos and delighting in watching the children play. She was the one more effusive with the praise from a high mark at school.  She was the one the kids ran to.  My suspicion that grandma was a main source and receptacle of snuggles and affection, was born out the more I spoke with Kenyan mothers.  Each one agreed that her mother would tend to "spoil" her children and that children raised by grandmothers are less disciplined and more wild.
Not the best pic and there's a huge smudge on my lens.  I only got about 50 watts of her 100 watt smile.  But grandma was easily the happiest person I met and universally adored by all the kids.
I suppose that's often the same dynamic in our own culture. Grandparents think of it as a right and a privilege to indulge their grandchildren.  But in the Kenyan village the difference was more stark. Motherhood seems more of a job.  A duty.  It's not until a woman has grandchildren that she appears to fully enjoy it.

In fact, when I asked each mother what they loved most about motherhood, they found the question bizarre and nearly impossible to answer.  It really stumped them.  Maybe it never felt like a decision they made.  They never had to defend the state of motherhood to some dubious childless peer. When forced to finally think about, to a person, they each said what they enjoyed most was the "help" children provided.

So, maybe modern Western motherhood resembles a lot more the experience of a Kenyan grandmother. Hey, by the time we get around to raising progeny, we're about the same age, and we tend to "spoil" our kids with affection and shower them with praise.  More than occasionally we even attempt to be their playmates.

And perhaps that's the trouble with modern motherhood. We're trying to be a whole village of people to our children.  And it's hard to be their teacher and disciplinarian when we're also trying to be a doting grandmother and a playmate. Maybe it's less confusing for kids to have these roles separated.  It's probably less emotionally taxing for the mother.

What do you think?  Am I way off base here?  Kenyans: Is this assessment even correct?  Would you "modern mothers" have it any other way?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Actually, Guns DO Kill People

We're all saturated with news and commentary from the recent tragedy in Connecticut.  I usually stay away from these topics on my blog since I usually don't have any particular expertise or insight to add to something so well covered by actual experts.

But this time I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop looking at my children and tearing up.  And I can't stop ranting about it, to the perpetual annoyance of my husband who just wants to enjoy his coffee in peace.  

And what I'm focusing on this time around is all the arguments of the pro-gun people.  Look, I'm usually able to look at both sides of an issue, but the preponderance of reasoning and evidence really points, this tragedy aside, to more gun control. 

None of the arguments coming out of the anti-gun control camp hold up to much scrutiny.  

Let's take them one by one:

"Guns don't kill people, people kill people."  This is an old one. And patently ridiculous. Sure, inanimate objects have no volition, but you can't argue that guns don't make it easier for momentary rage or fear or drunken irrationality to turn quickly and irrevocably fatal.  A mentally unstable person wielding a knife is going to do a lot less damage than that same person putting a few pounds of pressure on a trigger. 

Keeping the onus of responsibility away from the gun and on to the shooter, gun advocates remind us that the solution is really for better mental health services. Yes.  Great point! This country could use more support (programs, research, educational anti-stigma programs) for people suffering from mental illness.  And more gun control too.  Listen, even if we could achieve the impossible Utopian vision of effective mental health treatment for all, we'd still have angry or immature inebriated people getting their hands on easy instruments of death.  We'd still have senseless accidents. Next...

The more intellectual set likes this argument: "If more people were packing heat, the real criminals and sickos would be deterred from using fire arms."  These people reason that if the Sandy Hook principal had access to a firearm, she could have stopped this tragedy. This argument falls apart if you think about it for more than 5 minutes.  Sure, in some academic game theoretical thought experiment, it has some logic.  But show me a country awash in guns where people are and feel safer.  We can't go around arming everyone to deter the 'bad guys.'  We never know who that 'bad guys' really are.

There are those who deify our founding fathers and argue: "Government tyranny is kept in check by an armed populous."  OK.  What century are these people living in?  So, I guess easy access to guns is what's keeping most stable and prosperous European governments accountable? Nope. And, most countries awash in guns do not have an accountable governments. I prefer to keep my government accountable by checks and balances inherent in our political system and a free press.  

In response to this tragedy specifically, they argue "Connecticut has some of the toughest gun laws, and it still did not prevent this tragedy."  To this, I say: (1) Maybe even the "toughest" gun laws of our time, don't go far enough.  (2) Still, this is but one example.  If you look across states, those with the toughest gun laws still have the fewest death by fire arms.  


Anyway, look, my biggest gripe is that nearly 9,000 people died in 2010 from fire arms in America.  That's 24 deaths a day.  That's a Sandy Hook massacre taking place EVERY DAY in our country.  The victims aren't all innocent school children, though plenty are.  The victims are often poor, urban and minority.  But we can't argue that they deserved to die.  Or that the rights of hunters and paranoid right wingers to bare arms made for the battlefield should trump measures that could reduce the chances innocents dying.  All 9,000 victims presumable left family shocked at how instantaneously and senselessly their loved one could be taken from this earth.  

I'm not naive to the political realities and the powerful lobbying voice of gun owners. We won't eliminate the 300 MILLION guns in American.  But that doesn't mean we have to be held hostage by gun enthusiasts.  That doesn't mean they get carte blanche.  Ban assault weapons made for the battlefield.  Institute buy-back programs and background checks, close the gun show "loophole." Real experts I'm sure have better suggestions. There are things we can do, and it's time.  


P.S. My Kenyan friends are all shocked by this tragedy.  How a country they often admire and which has so much wealth and freedom could see something so barbaric happen.  How is it that such a presumably advanced country trust their fallible citizens with such unforgiving instruments of death?

If you agree with any of the above, sign this petition to the President, and let him know!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Learning from Kenyans: How to keep my cool as a mom

I'm guessing many of you reading this can relate:  Your child does something you don't want him to.  Or doesn't do something you do want him to. He runs the other direction when you tell him it's time to go home.  He collapses in a heap telling you his "legs don't work" when you're trying to get out the door.  He finally agrees to chew a piece of the offensive dinner you've slaved over and then slowly pushes the chewed up morsel out of his mouth, which lands squarely on his plate, a disgusting masticated symbol of the end result of your best intentions.

It's the final straw in a frustrating day, and you can feel your blood boiling, your chest tightening and your wits escape you as your emotion takes over.

You do one of two things. You become:  a) The silent scary mom, where your anger is just bubbling under the surface, but it's fierce and you make it known.  Your eyes bug out, you clench your jaw and your threat is issued in a throaty whisper -- the kind Satan might have.  Your child is temporarily subdued/scared into submission.  b) The batsh-t crazy mom, in which you just let it all out, scream things you'll later regret at an instantly cowed toddler.
It's like this but with less eye make-up.  (photo credit: Poulson Photography)
You feel you're driven to this kind of behavior. It's hard being a mom. It wears you down to fail to convince irrational and nearly helpless small people to do what you ask all day.  You're vindicated by the scores of mom-bloggers who commiserate and joke about being driven to drinking wine out of sippy cups.

Unless, apparently, you're a Kenyan mom.

OK. I could be way off here, and please do correct me if I'm wrong, but I've never seen a Kenyan mom driven to these adult temper tantrums.  Maybe it's just more of a private display, but I rarely see them explode like this, and when they do it's never with the undercurrent of actually losing their minds.  They never seem to require a mommy time out.  There might be a yelled threat of a beating, sure, but it doesn't seem to wear them down personally the same way. There's a "nitachapa wewe," and then they move on to whatever they were doing before.

To be fair, I know some Kenyan moms struggle the same way American moms do, and certainly some American moms manage to not fall to pieces when raising young children (though I've yet to meet them).  But, I've definitely noticed a cultural difference in my two years living here.

So, I have a convoluted constellation of theories as to why motherhood does not drive Kenyan women as crazy as it does their American counterparts (assuming this is a correct assumption).

There is more help from extended family; there are fewer parenting philosophies to pick from, doubt and then be judged by; there's no scheduled sleep times to disrupt; there's a more relaxed free-range parenting style; it's a less tightly wound culture in general; there's not the pressure to be the main source of entertainment for your children.

But I'm writing a blog post, not a book, so I'll just highlight one of my half-baked theories here.

It's best explained by Mama Brandon.

Mama Brandon came to our house unannounced yesterday.  She was going door to door looking for work as a tailor with her two year old son, Brandon, in tow.  It turned out I did actually need some curtains made, so as we discussed specifics, Caleb and Brandon dug into our basket of toy cars.

When we had finally negotiated a deal and they were about to leave, Brandon had to give up the toy car he had been playing with.  Well, this did not sit well with the young lad.  He threw a mighty, screaming, jumping-up-and-down-with-two-feet fit. It was quite the spectacle.

What did Mama Brandon do?  She simply continued, at a relaxed pace, giving us her goodbyes, took time to pinch Emmet's cheeks and gather her things.  When she finally acknowledged the stampeding elephant in the room, she asked him to quiet down.  Then, she tried to distract him with another toy.  It didn't work.  Then.... she laughed.  Not at all a nervous embarrassed laughter, but a laugh that found the humor in the whole out of proportion emotional melt down.  She scooped him up and departed, smiling, shaking her head and saying, "Ah... watoto."  "Oh children."

OK.  An American response would have probably treated the whole thing a lot more seriously - like a battle that needed to be won, or at least a toddler who needed a lesson reinforced about appropriate behavior and sharing.  And then, facing inevitable defeat, the mother would feel embarrassed, frustrated, perhaps judged by the other parent, and maybe even a bit resentful of her child.

And of all the reasons I can come up with that Kenyan mothers seem to keep their cool, this one I can probably try.

I don't have an extended family to pick up the slack.  I do have a head spinning array of parenting philosophies to choose from and then doubt.  I can't be as free-range or schedule-free. But I can try and find the humor in the situation, and I can let go of winning all my battles, all the time.  From the looks of Kenyan children, my kids will grow up just fine despite that.  And, they'll have a happier mom in the process.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Completely deserving but unsexy cause

From a post recently featured on World Moms Blog, an excellent Website that features moms from all around the world.  Kind of the UN of the momblogs world. 

There’s a minuscule pot of money globally to solve those intractable problems of poverty around the world. Sure, there are a lot of sources: foreign aid, UN agencies, global and local charities. But they are dwarfed by the size and scope of human need, which governments in low-income countries cannot, for a variety of reasons, completely address. The international development world is in constant battle for this pot. 

Look at me!” says HIV/AIDS.  "Over here!” says Food Security.  "We’d like something, too!”, says Access to Credit for Small Business.  ”Don’t forget about us!”, say Malaria and Tuberculosis.  These are all worthy causes, so it’s a struggle.

And the global community does not necessarily prioritize or coordinate our global giving on the basis of need of recipient or effectiveness of the solution. Generally, it appears based largely and unscientifically on “what’s sexy” at the time.

So, what makes a cause “sexy?” Well, it helps if your cause wins some Jolie-Pitt endorsement. It helps a lot when NY Times writer Nick Kristoff writes a book about your cause. Oprah will do wonders. The more you can argue your beneficiaries are “deserving” of aid – that they had no part in creating their own suffering – the better.  Children and victims of violence pull on heartstrings and wallets.  Victims of epic natural disasters animate our compassionate imagination and spur our giving. More money flew into Haiti in the wake of the earthquake and Indonesia in the wake of the tsunami than NGOs had the capacity to spend.

So, what if you have a completely deserving, but unsexy, cause?  What if your cause is the polar opposite of sexy?  What if it's worms?


Parasitic worms affect 2 billion (that’s with a “b”) people, mostly children, around the world. They live in their tiny guts, sapping nutrition from sometimes meager meals, making them sick, lethargic and less able to learn and thrive. They rarely kill, but they exact a large slow toll on millions of humans’ potential.  They keep children from escaping poverty.  They arguably keep whole countries poor. In fact, research shows that part of what kept the American South economically lagging behind the North is explained by the parasitic worms endemic to that area.  Once hookworm eradication began, literacy rates and even income levels shot up.   

And in many areas of the world worms are so prevalent that parents sometimes view them simply as a symptom of childhood and, amid myriad other concerns, neglect to get their children treatment. Even when parents do desire treatment, health centers are often far away, expensive or under-resourced.  So, despite the fact that worms are treatable, they are often left untreated.
All of which is doubly tragic because unlike so much other global disease burden, there is, in fact, a safe, simple, and inexpensive solution.  

Deworming pills cost pennies and are completely safe even if a child does not have worms, which negates the need for expensive diagnostic tests.  Rigorous research has shown that dewormed children are healthier, attend more school and, remarkably, even make more money as much as a decade later!  But how to get the pills in the mouths of all these children?  

Enter school-based deworming.  Because there are far more teachers than health workers and schools than health centers, using the schools to distribute deworming pills, once or twice a year, is incredibly efficient and cost-effective.  Teachers can be trained easily to safely administer the tablets, and un-enrolled students can be invited to attend a “deworming day.”  Literally, millions of children can be reached this way in a matter of days. 
Source: dewormtheworld.ord
The Deworm the World Initiative, which I currently work for, is engaging countries around the world, advocating for school-based deworming and assisting countries to get programs implemented.  Kenya, where I live, is currently undergoing a mass school-based deworming program targeting 5 million children, and the state of Bihar in India has completed the second round of the largest ever school-based deworming program, reaching a staggering 17 million school children.  


But the fight, even in these places, is not over.  Even though a small pill will kill the worms currently infecting their child host, children can become reinfected if sanitation is not improved, and the overall worm prevalence will likely rebound unless a multiple year campaign is launched.  Because worms spend part of their life cycle in human guts, a sustained campaign can significantly reduce the overall prevalence of worms.  But funding a sustained campaign is often difficult for cash strapped governments, and charities struggle to raise continued funding. 

And here we come back to the unfortunate unsexiness.  In the last paragraph I mentioned "guts," "worms," and "human hosts."  I spared you "fecal contamination," "stool samples," and the grittier details of worm transmission and detection.  I also spared you the mundane details about training, monitoring and implementing a mass deworming program.  None of those details inspire or animate donors. 

What should inspire donors is the idea that this program works.  This program helps children now and well into the future, and at a relatively low-cost.  This program addresses a multiple of sectors: health, nutrition, education, and economic security.  This little pill just might unlock a lot of development.  Now we just need to unlock all that funding.

[ For the holidays instead of giving a $25 amazon gift certificate, you might considering buying a YEAR's worth of deworming for 100 children.  You can do so here. If you want to learn more about school-based deworming, visit the Deworm the World Website.]

* Views expressed in this blog are the author's alone.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Heresy: Maybe you CAN spoil a baby

It's fun to read antiquated parenting advice and laugh or shake your head disapprovingly at their strange and possibly harmful ideas.  Slate just wrote a piece about some of the more bizarre parenting ideas of the past few centuries, all of which were by the way written by men.  It's comical.  Bathing the baby in lard?  Ridiculous.  Introducing solids at only a few days old?  Idiotic and dangerous. Not playing with your baby or comforting her when she cries for fear of "spoiling" them?  Cruel.

Or is it?

Most of my friends have a story about their mom or grandmother admonishing them for being overly attentive to their infant.  "You're going to spoil that baby" they hear. "The baby is manipulating you" they're told when they run to pick up a fussy little crier. "He's turning you into a human pacifier" hears the on-demand breast feeder.

Foolish ancestors, we think.  Don't they know that "you can't spoil a baby?"

It's the conventional wisdom of our parenting age, doled out as gospel by every attending nurse in the maternity ward.  "They are establishing trust" we're told.  You must attend to their every infant whim.  We're told that under 3 months is a critical time of development and attachment building.  The baby is learning to "trust."

But I have no idea how anyone knows this for certain.  Sure, if you neglect a baby entirely it could do irreparable psychological damage.  But there's a huge spectrum between attaching junior to the boob 24 hours a day and utter neglect.  Does anyone really know what letting a child cry for 15 minutes a day will do to a 2 month old? Hell, apparently an entire generations have let children cry and they didn't all grow up into sociopaths.

So, now I'm finding myself questioning the conventional "you can't spoil an infant" wisdom.

Here's the why: letting a baby cry a bit seems to be the magical key to having the holy grail of motherhood - a good sleeper.  And the kicker is, the earlier you do it the better.

I first came across this idea in the book Bringing up Bebe, in which the author, an American expat in France, learns that the key to getting babies to "do their nights" (sleep through) is not running to them each time they cry.  From day one, you do a pause and give them an opportunity to "learn to soothe" themselves.  Remarkably, nearly all the French moms she meets have babies who sleep through the night before 4 months old.

This observations is born out not only in her fun ethnography, but actual science. A randomized trial of women who intended to breast feed their babies found that those who were given instructions just after birth, which included waiting to attend to their newborn and refraining from nursing during 5 hours of nighttime when possible, had much sleepier babies than those who did not receive any instructions.  In fact, amazingly, at 8 weeks 100% of the moms with instructions had babies sleeping through the night, compared to 23% of the control group.

All of which pisses me off.  Why am I just learning this now!?!?  Apparently this kind of gentle sleep training is possible to achieve until about 4 months, after which habits formed are hard to break.

Of course, I'm learning this after the magical 4 month widow has closed. I have a baby who at 9 months wakes every 2 hours to be comforted by his indulgent mother.  Last night he woke up 3 times.  Three times before I even made it to bed.  Then another 4 times throughout the night.  Each time I nursed him back to sleep.  Could he be spoiled?

Maybe.  You might just say I've denied him the opportunity to learn how to self soothe.  Or that he's become dependent on nursing-to-sleep associations. Our grandmothers just might have told me that I'm spoiling him.  Maybe there was some truth to it after all.