Cavemothering: An Anti-Theory

Gina Who?

We’ve all seen them. Lurking there on the bookshelves in Borders, beckoning us with titles about happy, carefree, compliant children, and then threatening us with their how-to format, as though raising the perfect kid was possible in 10 easy steps and – what, yours doesn’t like aubergine? Doesn’t do up his shoes by two and a half? Isn’t reciting Homer’s Odyssey in Ancient Greek at bedtime by the age of six? For God’s sake, woman! Didn’t you follow the instructions?

Forgive me for stating the bleedin’ obvious, but children don’t come with operating manuals. Fortunately for them, they are not microwave ovens. Imagine the problems they would face at school if they were! All their school friends would want to reheat their lunches in them. On the upside, the ensuing psychotherapy sessions would be extremely straightforward: ‘Everyone just uses me!’ ‘That’s right. Now if you wouldn’t mind, I have a chicken kiev here I need to defrost, if you wouldn’t mind just…’

Books with alluring titles such as ‘The Contented Little Baby’, ‘The No-Cry Sleep Solution’, or ‘Happy Children’ all contain wonderful pieces of sound advice. However, they also undermine the reader’s sensitivity to their child’s uniqueness, dangling a golden carrot shaped like an impossibly well-behaved sproglet, and sending the innocent reader into such a tailspin of demoralisation that they feel they are a crap parent because their kids don’t act like the book says they should.

The guilt, the self-loathing this technique engenders is highly effective; people come back for more, because they feel they didn’t get it right the first time, or with this or that technique. A search for ‘parenting’ yields 72,260 hits on alone. Who are all these authors? How can parenting be so difficult it needs that many titles? And why are we so intrigued by the Holy Grail of perfect parenthood – are we really that addicted to success that we look for it even where it doesn’t apply?

Gina Ford. The name alone is enough to strike fear into the untrained cavemother. Despotic feeding and naptime timetables baffle the spontaneous, infuriate the anarchic and reduce the freedom-loving hippie to wails of misery.

It isn’t actually Ford’s routines that make these babies attain that ludicrously-vaunted triumph of ‘sleeping through the night’; it’s the way she advises mothers to put their babies to bed. Alone, in a dark room, in their cot, with the door shut, while still awake. Kiss your life goodbye, gals! No lunches with friends, baby snoozing away on the boob. No trips out to a restaurant of an evening. And most definitely NO HOLIDAYS!

Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution and supposedly Attachment Parenting-friendly, goes a step further and declares that if your 9 month old isn’t sleeping 12 hours a night consistently, he has a sleep disorder. Ding ding, out of the ring! You’ve failed, mamacita! He’s going to be SCARRED FOR LIFE!

Jesus. We have to give them something to resent us for when they’re teenagers, don’t we? If there are any readers out there unblemished by their parents’ ineptitude, please leave a comment. I am interested to know if there is any point even hoping.

Another book, Happy Children by Rudolph Dreikurs, from the Adlerian school of psychology (from which comes Family Constellations), has many genius ideas on how to encourage your kids to follow basic social guidelines, such as brushing their teeth, eating a meal with the family, and not smashing his school chums’ faces in.

However, his advice to show your child the logical consequences of their behaviour, inventing something else when the actual consequences are unthinkable (e.g. if Jimmy wants to run into the road, keep him playing indoors instead of letting him become roadkill) only really works on calm, practical-minded parents who are not on the verge of screaming down the street with frustration at their child’s obstinacy. How many parents of two year olds can keep their cool enough to work out a clever, rational strategy for not getting so stressed out?

The answer, I rather modestly proclaim, is the Cavemother mantra: WHATEVER WORKS. Turn it all on its end. So your toddler wants to sleep from 1am to 1pm? Great! You get the morning to yourself. She’ll only brush his teeth if you make up a crazy song about the Grand Old Duke of York’s ten thousand bums? Perfect for exercising your vocal chords! He won’t sleep unless he’s had eighteen squillion kisses and a hug you think will never end? Clearly going to be a fantastic lover when he grows up!

As every older mother will tell you, everything a kid goes through is ‘just a phase.’ How many thirty year olds do you know who sleep in their parents’ bed? Er…don’t answer that.

Rather than pounding your head against the brick wall of uselessness, the trick is to chuck out the unrealistic expectations that are the root of the problem. No theory can ever encompass the wonderful chaos that is a kid, nor replace the boundless creativity a parent will muster if necessary. Who’d want a robotic little creature that did whatever it was programmed to do? If you want a companion who’ll jump through hoops, get a dolphin.

Arf arf!

Holy Sh*t!

Ever willing to try out new theories, and usually stupid enough to risk endangering the hygiene of my sofa, floor and person in the process, I have lately been toying with the potential of EC, a nappy-free technique with the cringingly dorky full name of Elimination Communication.

The basic premise is that just as you tune into your baby’s signals that she wants to feed or sleep, you also tune into their sensation of a full bladder or a desire to void their bowels. You race forthwith to a potty or toilet, hold baby in an appropriate squatting position and – squirt! Guck securely caught and no horrible plasticky nappy to throw away, poo to get your hands dirty on, or cloth nappy to have to wash.

EC appeals to my fantasies of instinctual, primordial mothering – attempting to be with my children in a way that has worked for millennia of mothers before, in what conveniently seems to be the laziest way possible (breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing)…in short, the Attachment Parenting bandwagon.

It’s not actually such a barmy idea, either. Most parts of the world have not yet been hooked onto the heady opiate of Pampers, and in places where water is scarce, scrubbing poopy cloth diapers with water carried laboriously from miles away would be insane. Imagine the mountains of soiled disposables that would result if everyone used them; in the UK alone, about 3 billion are thrown away every year. Just as Blackheath in London was built up out of the corpses of Black Death victims, we’ll soon be living in cities built upon mounds of decomposing poo.

However, in practice, EC is quite a revealing experiment. For one thing, a newborn might pee every twenty minutes or so, as Rosa Nour (now six weeks old) seems to do. If it was that predictable, of course, I could just set an alarm to go off, but to catch every pee I’d have to have a potty strapped to my hip at all times and never do anything else. In my tentative experiments, though, I’ve caught a couple of pees every day for a week now, and last night even caught – drum roll – a poop!

The other thing EC exposes is the ease with which I am distracted. My cave has – like all up-to-the-minute caves – a broadband internet connection, the seat of all evils for easily distractable folk like myself. Ideas for stories pop into my head, emails that must be sent, and before I know it there’s a puddle on my lap and another load of laundry to do. And then, of course, there’s 2 year old Shamsie, aka Smashie, Caveboy, and General Havoc.

How does one dedicate enough mental energy to one’s offspring’s bowel and bladder activities to do the nappy-free method, whilst also making lunch, putting on said load of wash, and running around after a toddler who’s done a felt pen dot-to-dot on the kitchen wall/fridge/his face? How do women tune into it all succesfully – do they sprout antennae?

This line of thinking has taken me on a strange tangent: how the toilet habits of children have shaped cultural and even religious standards around the world. Growing up as a Muslim, I was always outraged that more women didn’t go to mosques. Now, it’s obvious to me that women in medieval Arabia were mostly concerned with being near to a suitable place for their babies to pee, which didn’t include prayer rugs.

Islam, however, places just as much importance on service to others as it does to outward manifestations of religion such as prayer. Why else did Muhammad (s.) say that “Paradise lies at the foot of the mother”? Running the gauntlet of pregnancy, childbirth and parenting has given me abundant proof that the spiritual path of a woman does not need hours spent in prayer, the study of heavy tomes by Sufi masters, or weeks spent in retreats repeating the names of God. What better exercise in humility is there than being pood on by a small child?

The very act of bringing new life into the world, witnessing first hand that mind-blowing coming-into-being so glibly called ‘creation’, is surely the ultimate spiritual priviledge: collaborating in the Divine work of blowing spirit into matter, opening a new window in the world for the Infinite to shine out through. The challenge is to maintain that sense of wonder despite – and throughout – the physical awkwardness, the midnight burpings, the umpteenth puddle on the floor.

But it must be in our nature to do so. Women around the world bear far greater loads than I for one would be prepared to, and seem to grumble far less about it. In Ladakh, I saw a woman walking stooped over with the weight of a basket on her back containing a small child and food from the veggie plot. In her hands she had a pair of knitting needles, supplied by a ball of wool in her pocket. Not only was she carrying her baby as well as food for dinner, she was simultaneously making a jumper for the baby on her back. And she was smiling!

Of course, I’m romanticising the ‘other’ and undervaluing my own kind, with all its irksome familiarity. Still, I’m sure that somewhere along the line, the gleaming allure of a better, easier life in the West has meant that the least suffering has morphed into an exhausting, outrageous imposition. The urge to secure our own safety, livelihood, and happiness means that giving our time to others without expectation of reward is deemed the most unbearable humiliation.

Most of us (and I speak for myself here) feel a nagging resistance towards that kind of service, demanding a wage or at least a pat on the back for our troubles. The ones who lose out in this equation are us, with the greatest riches imaginable – our children – and so many opportunities to forget how lucky we are.

Cleaning up poo has never seemed so holy.