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.

37 comments:

  1. Great article. It is amazing how culturally we can parent so differently. We can take some tips from Kenyan moms for sure!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree with pretty much all of your points. I noticed a similar thing when I lived in Tanzania. Or even when I compare how my Grenadian side of the family operates vs American side.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Kavisa. It's always nice when someone else notices the same thing. It lets me know I'm not crazy. ; )

      Delete
  3. Lovely post Kim - I think you might be on to something here. I gave up trying to find my "parenting style" ages ago because all the options had me dizzy but it would definitely serve me well to find more humor in the challenging moments.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I should just give up too. There really are too many choices and all it does is make you confused and insecure about whatever you decide to do. I think that is another huge factor keeping Kenyan moms relatively more sane. For the most part, you just do what your mom, aunts and neighbors do and there's less decisions to make and be judged by. Sure, there's more rigidity in that, but there's also something liberating about it.

      Delete
  4. Fantastic reminder. I sometimes find squawking like a chicken (I mix it up with cows, pigs and the like) throws them off enough that they stop screaming long enough to scoop them up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Love it! Shock them in to submission.

      Delete
  5. HUMOR!!! I never have it when I need it at night with my kids. This is an amazing post because it's a great illustration. Do we get to see the drapes????

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, it's the hardest to muster at night. The drapes... kind of a disaster, but that's a different post... ; )

      Delete
  6. Love your observations and the Kenyan example you share! Thanks for the great reminder that a healthy dose of humor in parenting can improve most any situation. Kristin's idea to distract/short circuit the tantrum with humor is a good reminder, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, Kenyans seem to be really good at the distraction thing too. Instead of digging in for a battle, they seem to realize that it's probably easiest to just refocus the kids attention. Works surprisingly often!

      Delete
  7. I think if I had kids I'd be both A and B. At least that seems to be what happens when one of my cats does something s/he isn't supposed to, like steal a half-eaten egg foo young patty right off my dinner plate. Yep, happened last night.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cat thieves are the worst! I hope she got a stern admonishment. :)

      Delete
  8. Like Bee said, I'm A and B. Except for the child being temporarily subdued part. On Monday the toddler had the worst tantrum she has had yet at her speech therapy appointment. During the 20 minutes of eardrum-blowing screaming, she kicked the double stroller so hard it fell over with her 16-week old brother in it. People came out of their offices to see if I needed help, and given this centre also handles autistic kids that should tell you something about the level of this tantrum.

    I'm afraid I wasn't able to see any humour in this at all. After I carried her under my arm (the other arm was occupied with the double stroller and her now traumatized and hysterical brother) to the car and sat on her in order to buckle her in, I sat in the front seat and cried.

    Three months 'til mat leave is over...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Holy crap. That does sound pretty special. Sometimes it's just too hard to find the humor in a situation. That's when you find the tears. And hopefully a shoulder...

      Delete
  9. It sounds like parenting is a lot more laid back in Kenya. Maybe we need to find some of that in North America.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This does sound so very sane. If this version of parenting had been marketed to me, perhaps I would have tried it!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I love this post! Different cultures are so interesting and it sounds like the Kenyans have this all figured out! We could all take a lesson from them.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This was great, Kim!
    Although I am Canadian, I definitely do things a lot more laid back than most parents. We are free range, my in-laws live in the in-law suite downstairs, and I don't care what people think as much as other parents do.

    But mostly I don't freak out because I have learned and accepted a very honest truth.
    It won't help.
    I have a 7 year old stepson, a special needs toddler, and a 13 month old. Losing my shit burns precious energy and doesn't change my kids actions, so why do it?

    I wish that every parent in the world could find that kind of peace, because doing it any other way SUCKS!!

    Thanks for posting yet another super insightful article. I always look forward to reading your posts!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. See!! I found you - A North American parent who has not fallen to pieces raising her kids. You're right - falling to pieces does not help. It makes things worse. It's a hard lesson to learn, but I'm getting there...

      Delete
  13. I absolutely wish I had been in that room with you and Mama Brandon! I want to learn how to have that laugh and say "Ah...watoto." I get uptight with my kids over the silliest things!

    ReplyDelete
  14. So ironic that I posted about losing it this week.

    I try to keep my sense of humor, really I do, but some days are easier than others.

    I love the example and now aspire to that. Fingers crossed...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I read that and totally don't blame you. We all - everyone on the planet - lose it sometimes. I can tell from your writing that you do keep your sense of humor in most situations.

      Delete
  15. Great post, love your writing style. I agree with you - we, as Western society, could use a bit of relaxing in our parenting style.

    With that said, and with roughly 18 years of living in Kenya - both as a kid and as a parent - I will say I think the lackadaisical parenting approach can lend to the development of more substantial problems. While the mother looks gracious in the moment, I'm not sure that is the ultimate goal. Light-heartenedness towards my ability to parent is important, but demonstrating humor towards my children's 'non-happy' emotions in the moment, and in their presence, potentially creates adults who place little stock in their negative emotions.

    I'm not suggesting we don't pursue giving ourselves (and Lord knows our little ones) more grace - but I do think Western pursuits of a parenting style that teaches,empowers, and validates is a good thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great point Sarah. I know kids get frustrated when people laugh at them during their frustration. There has to be a happy medium though. The mother here tried to reason then distract, but when it got to the point that things would have boiled over for a typical American mom, she managed to find the humor. I actually doubt Brandon noticed it given what a blinding tantrum he was having.

      I know what you are saying about the laughter. I do wonder if it does't bother Kenyan children as much though given it's the norm here. An American child, who's used to being reasoned with might be taken aback by a parent laughing AT him during a tantrum, in a way that a Kenyan child who's used to this (and it *is* ubiquitous) might not. Who knows?

      Good points though and I was kind of wondering what you'd make of this post... Thanks for commenting!

      Delete
  16. Wow. This was fascinating. I want you to dig in more and write more about it! could you do a thesis for me, maybe? Seriously. Really interesting.

    I've been in that bat shit crazy place. It's the worst. THE WORST.

    http://www.truthfully.ca/2012/07/23/owning-my-shit/

    ReplyDelete
  17. I tweeted this, but I can't find your link to twitter on this page to tell you there, so I'm telling you here!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Great, thought-provoking post, mama. I loved your honesty. I am a little of 1 and 2. I have a tween and a teen, and they still throw occasional temper tantrums and drive me bat-shit crazy sometimes.

    I so admire Mama Brandon's relaxed confidence in her parenting. We could all use some of that, no matter what stage of child rearing we're in. I think it has everything to do with the fear of judgment. Obviously, that's not an issue for her.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bingo. It think what makes so many American moms on edge in public is that legitimate fear of being judged by others. Who needs that extra stress on top of the actual stress of dealing with an overemotional little person!?!

      Delete
  19. I wanna be Mama Brandon! I am getting better at keeping my cool, but NOT in front of other people. Well, I mean I hold it in and then flip the F out later.

    ReplyDelete
  20. This was an awesome post. I'm mostly option A but when option B is exercised WATCH OUT! Mommy is about to role model some horrible irritation management skills.

    I wonder how much of the relaxation you describe among Kenyan parents has to do with the overall culture's attitude toward children. Like everyone who saw a tantrumming two year old would just be like, "Watoto" and smild fondly rather than giving the parent and child the side eye and whispering audibly about how 'kids these days have no respect.'

    I've noticed that, for me anyway, I'm much more relaxed when I'm a situation where I know people get what it's like to have kids so are sympathetic or I otherwise feel that the people around are 'on our side.'

    If my kid has a tantrum (which is really just another way of saying, 'acts like a normal kid') in the middle of the grocery store I get stressed out and worked up because I feel like the other shoppers are annoyed and judging me. If my kid has a tantrum when we're hanging out with friends who have kids of similar ages I feel like they just smile, nod, and go about their business so I smile, nod, and go about mine too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks a great point and I think a HUGE part of it. No one seems to worry, quite legitimately, about their child bothering anyone if they have a melt down or being judged by other parents on how they handle it. It's just not part of the equation in my experience, and that's partly why I love raising my kids here. Everyone is "on your side" as you put it. In fact, if I admonish my child for bad behavior, people will consistently tell me not to worry about it and just let him be. They're not bothered. He's "just being a child." Sometimes it actually makes it more difficult to discipline him like I want to, but overall it's nice not to feel judged or like I"m going to annoy someone. Really great point Larks!

      Delete
    2. Larks absolutely hit on it here. I'm way more easy-going with their tantrums if they happen in front of my friends/family who have kids the same age, because I know they get it and (usually) are not judging me. It's the general public thinking (often out loud) that I just don't care or normally discipline my child (so that's why she's being so wild) that upsets me.

      Delete
  21. I am so glad I'm not the only one who has a kid who falls on the floor with legs not working! I had not heard of that before my son.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah. It's ridiculous. When I ask him to apologize he tells me his mouth isn't working. I guess blaming body parts is easier than admitting you're being stubborn. ; )

      Delete
  22. I'm going to remember "Ah... watoto." Kids are kids. We make so much of their behavior when they are, after all, kids.

    ReplyDelete
  23. What i do not understood is actually how you're no longer really a lot more well-liked than you may be right now. You are very intelligent. You understand therefore considerably in the case of this matter, made me individually believe it from so many varied angles. Its like women and men are not fascinated except it is one thing to accomplish with Woman gaga! Your own stuffs nice. At all times care for it up!

    Also visit my weblog; London Escort

    ReplyDelete

There was an error in this gadget