Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mountain expats

I have a thing for “boat people.”  I’m not talking about those poor souls taking risky raft rides across choppy waters to reach greater economic opportunity or escape persecution.  This is not that kind of blog post.  I’m talking about people who buy boats.

They fascinate me.  Boats are one of the only “big ticket items” you buy that don't make any economic sense.  A house is an investment.  A car is incredibly useful.  A boat is basically for fun.  It’s an expensive money-sucking toy.  Other than the very wealthy, I imagine the boat purchasing saying, “Screw it.  I’m going to enjoy my money now.  I’m going to spend my weekends relaxing on the water, and fishing or water skiing, and definitely sipping drinks and laughing with friends. Which I'll have plenty of, because... well.. I'm the guy with the boat."

My family (natal and current) are not boat people.  We’re cautious, pragmatic, savers.  Every once in a while, we’ll splurge and enjoy our indulgence all the more for the rarity of it.  It’s probably a better way to go about things.  But still.. there’s something in me that admires the live-in-the-now joie de vie of boat people.

And (bare with me because this is a weak segue) that’s how I can best explain the culture up here high in the Colorado mountains where my sister lives.  Except instead of buying a boat, people here have bought the mountains.

They live up at these altitudes, where their closest neighbor is cluster of lodgepole pines because they love mountains and want to enjoy them every day -- not just on vacation.  It's not always a practical decision, but people seem to make it because, like boat people, they want to live their passion and enjoy their life.

My sister lives 9,000 feet above sea level, where their air is thin and dry and visitors are reminded about altitude sickness, hydration and chapstick.  But also where views of snow capped mountain peeks separate blue sky and rolling hills of evergreen. In the spring, the meadows are blanketed with wildflowers, and the rivers run with ice cold snow melt. You can't visit this area without words like, "majestic," "breathtaking" and even "heaven" running through your head.   

This is the view from my sister's living room.  Seriously.

And, not to be outdone, the view from her bedroom. 
But living up here is not an easy life.  The winters are long and cold, and the snow, while post-card beautiful, can be a menace.  In the winter it can dump feet at a time, and on at least one occasion their house was surrounded by so much snow my brother-in-law had to use an excavator (a snow plow was useless) to dig themselves out.  Plus, it's isolating, and there's not much in the way of services.  Each house has their own septic tank and water well, and trash service is not a given. The post office is open only a few hours a day, and the closest grocery store is 10 miles away. 

But while the post office may not be open all that much, the lady behind the counter knows your name and asks about your kids. Your neighbors might not be close, but they'll check in on you in a snow storm and bring you fresh baked goods during times of crisis or celebration. The grocery store may be far, but the national forest is your back yard. Drivers, even strangers, will give you a nod and a wave when they pass you on the road..

In a way the sense of community is weirdly reminiscent of my own ex-pat community in which people cling easily and naturally to one another due shared passions and experiences, due to enduring some hardships together.  Up in the mountains, live expats from lower altitudes. Every time I visit, I wonder if I should be one too.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The "down" side of breast feeding (or "Honey, should I get a boob job?")

Tucked in a window seat waiting for our plane to depart, I nursed my baby while my husband attempted to fascinate our 4-year-old with the emergency placard.  Having almost completely abandoned modesty, I looked down at my partially exposed breast and 15-month-old baby sucking the milk, the elasticity and the remaining youth from my mammaries. I looked at the slack skin and imagined the shape - a windsock on a calm day - of my breasts, which had nourished my first born for 2 years and would likely another 2 with my second.

Actually, "nourished" is not the whole story.  When you feed your baby "on demand," we're not talking some quiet moments separated by half of the day before naps and bedtime.  We're talking: after the baby falls, or if he's frustrated, or scared, or in a new place. Or bored. Nursing, for us, has been for comfort as much as nourishment.  Maybe even more.  It's not unusual for my baby Emmet to nurse an entire hour in the mornings as he gently and slowly wakes to face his day.

Partly, this is because I'm not working full time with this baby, so I'm home and on deck to be used as a human pacifier.  And partly it's because my family currently lives in Kenya, where nursing on demand is simply how you soothe and quiet your baby.  Any time Emmet fusses or cries, Rukia, the woman who helps us around the house, nudges me, saying "anataka kunyonya." Meaning: he wants to nurse.

It's hard to argue otherwise.  Nursing has always quieted and comforted him. And denying him something that would so easily placate him didn't seem to make sense.

Sweet, huh?  I guess.  But tell that to the windsocks.

I looked back down at my "lap child," calm settling over his flushed cheeks, quiet amid the preparations for take-off, even as other babies were starting screech, and I smiled.  And then I looked again at the deflated pacifier of a breast, and I sighed.

"Colin, should I get a boob job?" I whispered across the seats.

I said it just to say it, and not entirely meaning it.  I say things I don't mean all the time.  Just to throw something out there. To shock or challenge or test the waters.

I'm not exactly a "boob job" kind of girl.  I rarely wear make-up. I may own a pair of heals, but I don't think I could find them. I've never had a manicure. My style is probably best described as comfortable lazy with bohemian aspirations. Not exactly cosmetic surgery territory.

Plus, I have the good fortune to have a husband who adores me and even desires me despite my outward lack of detailed attention to my appearance.  So, of course I expected a response of either "Why would you want to do that, love?  You look amAHzing." Or "Bwa ha ha. Very funny Kim."

Instead, I got: "Huh. I wonder how much those things costs?" with a glint of hopeful excitement in his eyes.

To be fair, my husband is also not a likely candidate for someone titillated by fake body parts.  He prefers "the natural" and his only addiction is to the news.  So, I was taken aback by his, albeit baited, reaction, but I guess I shouldn't be.

Despite the fact that we currently live in East Africa, where exposed knees were not long ago considered more sexually scandalous than exposed breasts, we are still Americans, with a generally Western aesthetic sensibility. A sensibility born of Barbie's cartoonish proportions and nourished by the buoyant bust lines of Disney princesses and drilled in with the Judy Blume battle cry, "we must, we must, we must increase our burst!"

A sensibility that saw our fathers drool over Jane Mansfield and our brothers over Scarlett Johansson.  A sensibility that has forgotten the why of breasts and has no room for what results of their intended purpose.  And if HBO continues to produce some of the most compelling television, we'll be stuck looking more and more at pert naked busoms from the comfort of our living rooms. We simply don't have models of beauty that show what a realistic post-breast feeding breast looks like.  So it's a shock when our own turn southward.

But, so what? I've always enhanced what I had with bras that come with the words "miracle" or "wonder" in them. I can continue to do the same.

But maybe I shouldn't. My new shape is the result of nourishing and comforting my children.  In the same way that my laugh lines mark years of happiness, my less than pert bosom marks me as someone who has had the privilege to nurse her babies.  Some women desperately desire to have success in this arena and fail.  They'd probably gladly trade my saggy boobs for a chance at it.

By the time the plane landed, all this running through my head, my fleeting flirtation with the idea of plastic surgery had been put to rest. Given the youth-obsessed culture women inhabit, I can completely understand why some women would choose to restore their bustline to pre-baby altitude.  But for me, I've decided to see my new slack rack as a badge of motherhood, and to try and see the beauty and honor in my new shape.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Don't you, forget about me.

I'm not a great blogger for a lot of reasons. Hell, I have a whole page (that's what they're called, I've come to learn - those tabs at the top of the blog) dedicated as to why I make a crappy blogger.  I'm a half-assed user of social media.  I eschew new technology.  I'm a horrible keeper-in-toucher.  I'm uncomfortable with self promotion. I'm pretty lazy with the camera. Etc. etc.

But I have managed to be fairly consistent with my postings - about 6-7 decently thought-out posts a month.  That's a pace I can maintain pretty naturally without stressing myself out or forcing myself to write about things I don't actually care about.

Until now. I'm on my annual trip visiting family and it's been nearly 2 weeks since my last post.  Same thing happened last year and I opened my post saying "forgive me internet for I have sinned, it's be 10 days since my last blog post."  My sister read that, and gave me a puzzled look asking something to the effect of "who cares how long it's been since your last blog post?"

It's a good question. Probably nobody. But of all the blogging advice out there, the only onc I've been able to follow has been "post consistently" so I get mildly panicked or itchy when I don't.

Maybe that's why I'm writing this lame excuse for a blog post.  To scratch that itch and to assure the tens of readers of my blog that I still exist.

There's actually pretty awesome blog fodder jumping back home - the reverse culture shock observations, the things you notice about your home life after you leave it for a while, the family shenanigans. Lots to write about but little time to do it.

So, this is what you get.  A desperate plea not to forget about me and a promise that blog post worth your time, to at least the same degree as watching cats being cute on youtube, is coming. In the meantime, you can check out a piece I recently had published on Brain, Child - which is easily my favorite magazine for parents, and if you're not reading it, you should.  That publication is actually a much better use of your time than watching cats on youtube.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Not every culture forces their kids to share. And maybe that's not such a bad thing...

"Mo-oommm...  But it's not fair!!!" whines every pre-schooler from Fresno to Philadelphia.

"Well, sorry dear, life is not always fair."  replies every harried mother, settling the issue at least in her mind.

But the thing is, despite their proclamations, American parents work tremendously hard to try and make life as fair as possible for children.  They break up fights and force apologies.  They enforce the "take turns" policy.  They repeatedly implore their little charges to "share nicely," and they dole out consequences when someone is being too selfish. They ask "who had it first?"

I suppose this would be my modus operandi as well.  Though with only one kid there were less opportunities to enforce this system of fairness.  And by the time I went from having one child requiring entertainment to two children requiring a referee, I had been living in Kenya for the better part of two years, where such a regime of benign rights-based interventions does not so much exist.  So, I've, somewhat subconsciously, adopted the Kenyan system, which is this: Everyone defers to the noisiest (generally youngest) child.

When we first moved to Kenya and Caleb ran around with a mixed-aged group of friends, I observed this in practice.  Caleb and another child would want the same toy, and Rukia (his care giver) would almost always ask the other kid to give Caleb the toy.

It made me cringe.  I assumed she forced the other children to give him the toys because well... the toys were his... and I somewhere I suppose I feared that she deferred to his whims because he was the lone mzungu child.  When this happened I would always intervene, telling Caleb his friends were "guests" and we needed to give them a turn with the toy too. I'd force him to give the other child the toy.

This invariably resulted in a full scale temper tantrum.  After being told by Rukia that he could have the toy, I'd undo that, making it worse.  Everyone would stop and stare at his meltdown, and my lesson in sharing and being a good host would get drowned out by the screaming. I was left feeling like I did something wrong, but had at least imparted an important lesson that I hoped would eventually sink in.  I had restored life to a more "fair" balance, even if I created more chaos.

But my reaction was out of step with the culture.  For Kenyans, it seemed that preventing the chaos was what was most important. The child who is the least able to weather the disappointment of losing a toy, the one who is least capable of understanding mine/yours/who had it first, basically the youngest, is the one who wins. Because when he wins there's less noise for everyone.

What I had failed to realize was that Caleb was getting his way because he was the youngest child in his group of playmates.  When a child younger than Caleb entered his group of friends, even he was asked to defer to the littlest playmate.

To Americans, this probably seems supremely unfair, but it's really just a different set of rules and, amazingly, the older kids simply learn to sublimate their own needs.  And that's probably not such a bad thing to learn how to do.

Now that Emmet has grown to the age in which he has toy preferences, a strong will, and an impressive set of lungs, we've asked Caleb to generally defer to the baby.  I know that this is VERY much against American sibling rivalry advise, which says that if you don't want the older child to resent the baby, you can't always let the baby win.  But so far - and probably because the culture reinforces this different set of rules - Caleb is with the program.

The problem is that we are currently back in the US, where babies are expected to understand, or at least play along, with the take turns/who had it first policy.  Forgetting for a moment where I was, I recently asked Emmet's cousin to give up a toy Emmet was crying for.  His mom, carefully reminded me that her son had been playing with it first.

And that's when it hit me:  Here in the US we really do see each child, and even baby, as having particular individual rights. When those rights are violated we work to restore order and fairness.  We hope that our children learn to share, but they certainly learn that some justice is owed them.  Kenyans, by asking children to put others before themselves learn, not that they have rights, but that they have a responsibility to keeping the peace for the group.

I don't think one way is necessarily better than the other, but, like all parenting practices, they make sense given their context.  But, I have to say, having experienced both, the Kenyan way is definitely less noisy.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Maybe THIS is why Kenyan children are more obedient...

It's happened so often I'm almost immune to it.  Almost. Caleb is hanging out with some Kenyan kids and something happens that sets of his very typical American 4-year-old will to disobey or lodge a protest.

Yesterday, while playing at a friend's house, he was offered water. He wanted juice. I gave him the bad news that this was not an option, which upset him to the point of kicking his feat and vigorously whine-screaming.  The Kenyan kids' reaction: One of them scrunched up his face as if to say "What's wrong with him?"  The other one burst out laughing.

OK. Are you guys sick of me writing about this?  Because, good news! I have come a full inch closer to decoding the conundrum of generally better obedience among Kenyan children, which I am convinced is not solely the result of a fear of a whacking. (And better news yet, if you want to go straight to the point, see the bolded below.)

It came to me when we were visiting Caleb's old friends in Busia.  Like usual, they were aware of our arrival as soon as the car headed down the craggy road to the compound, the word spreading through the child-sized human grapevine.  As usual, they started erroneously singing "Happy Birthday" when they saw the popcorn and juice we brought for them to share.  And as usual, they obediently complied with our requests to sit politely and wait their turn to be served.

All that is, except Caleb, who, typical mzungu, fought us on some of these requests.  Yes, we are his parents, and children, the conventional wisdom goes, fight their parents more than other kids' parents.  Still, when his friends were called home by their own parents or older siblings they ran off without a fight. No one minute warning.  No "If you don't listen there will be consequences."

But watching this mixed-age group of children playing together made me realize something: The younger kids were watching the older children - and constantly - for cues as how to behave.  Most of their time is spent, really as soon as they are ambulatory, in the presence of older kids, not their mothers.  Caleb, instead, was watching his parents for requests of what to do in order to define his independence in opposition to those requests.

The other day I wanted Caleb to step out of his bath.  He wanted to play.  I got frustrated and said "Caleb, I'm going to count to three and if you don't...." and then I noticed it: He had one foot out of the bath ready to exit until I issued the ultimatum.  In that nanosecond of realizing there was a battle, he (literally) dug his foot back in the bath.

Like teenagers - that other developmental stage of internal chaos - toddlers and pre-schoolers rebel against authority at the same time they desperately want to fit in with their peers.  The problem is that our Western kids are constantly pitted against an authority figure (mom) and Kenyan children generally spend more time with the crowd, learning what it's like to be a member of the group.

They are learning to wash their hands before they eat. They are learning to shake the hands of adults.  They are learning to sit when asked to, without the threat of a consequence, all from older children who have already internalized this compliance.  The simple imperative of "fitting in" appears to be a much more effective motivator than bribing with M&Ms or coercing with time outs.  In this way Kenyan village parents can be a lot more "free range" and still end up with more compliant children.


This emphasis on being a "part of" instead of "independent from" may even define the differences in our child rearing from as early as infancy.  More "traditional" communities value the collective and inter-dependency and more Western communities value independence and assertiveness.

Apparently this emphasis of the collective over the individual starts from infancy on. Nick Day, has recently wrote some fascinating posts (here and here) in Slate, highlighting research that shows some early differences in baby/child development due to slight differences in the way we approach our babies.  For example, due to our greater eye-to-eye contact and play, Western children can actually recognize themselves in a mirror a lot earlier than West African children.  We treat them as unique and separate individuals from day 1, and they internalize this.

In contrast, the Cameroonian children in the study were worn in slings close to their mothers and spent more time looking at the world from their mother's vantage point. They were not interacted with face-to-face or played with as often.  But even at 18 months the Cameroonian children were a lot better than the Western children at following simple directions.  The authors reason that these young toddlers had already internalized that they were part of the group and had better ability to put others' needs before their own.

Obviously neither way is superior in some absolute sense to the other. We are just fostering different attributes - the ones that make a successful adult in each context.  Temper tantrums and obstinacy are no fun for parents, but they mean that our children are learning to assert themselves.  Kenyan parents definitely look puzzled to see some of Caleb's defiance, but they are also amazed at and often charmed by how much he talks and the things he has to say.  I guess, for better or worse and probably without conscious intention, I'm raising an American.