Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The villagers, sans pitchforks

I've been meaning to write about this for a while, and Hannah's post about her search for a solution to her childcare problems just spurred me to stop procrastinating and start tip tapping away at the little black keys.*

Back in the mists of time, when Hilary Clinton was "just" the American President's wife, she wrote a book about child-rearing called It Takes A Village to Raise a Child. The very phrase has become a bit of naffness and I've never read the book, but since Wriggly's arrival it's run through my head not in the sarcastic tones it used to, but as a reflection of the reality I am living in; I'm not the only person raising this baby, and I'm not the only person he is vitally important to.

First and foremost there is Wriggly's other parent, his father. He's actively involved; he changes nappies, he plays with him, and when I go out of an evening it's Daddy who tries to convince Wriggly that the formula from the bottle is yummy, yummy, yummy. In the night we tend to alternate who gets up, regardless of the fact that one of us has to head off to paid employment most mornings. Wriggly's dad makes time in his work schedule to be there, whenever possible, for jabs and Plunket visits, and in a couple of months' time, when I go back to work, it'll be his turn to be at home as the primary care-giver.

Then there's the broader whanau - grandparents in particular, but also aunts and uncles, great-grandparents, cousins (first and removed and all that guff that I can never get my head around). Wriggly and I usually spend at least a day a week with my Mum (and my Dad too, before he passed away), and the help that they offered during the pregnancy and since has been overwhelming in its generosity. Practical aid, like coming around to clear-out and decorate Wriggly's room, cooking us meals, offering to help financially with some of the bigger items like the cot, and the emotional support that has kept me going so many times when this mothering thing just seemed unbelievably hard. Wriggly's paternal grandparents have been great too, particularly since the total number of grandparents went down by one, and they lovingly babysit whenever we ask. Wriggly's Grandma is a Plunket nurse and I've really appreciated the perfect balance she has found between being my mother-in-law and being an expert on child care and development. Her supportive advice has been a great tonic for the worrier in me.

So far, so ho hum. You'd expect family to support a newborn and their parents, or at least you'd hope they would. I'm very aware of the advantages we have; the closeness of our families (geographically and emotionally) means that support is offered and asked for with ease. We are lucky.

What makes us even luckier is the broader network of friends who have been stellar. A few days after we came home from hospital Apathy Jack dropped around some DVDs cos he'd heard new parents didn't get out much.** Homemade meals turned up from all over the place, including from members of my partner's church, mostly people who had never met me. We didn't have to buy much clothing for Wriggly because of the kind donations of those whose children were older now, and due to the amazing mountain of baby clothes we were given as presents. The same with books and toys. All of those presents, whether pre-loved or brand new, made the financial stress of a new baby that little bit easier to cope with, and meant that from the very first day he was carried into the house our son has been surrounded by objects that show how loved he is, and reflect the huge number of people who are so pleased to know him.

Many friends have offered to baby-sit, not least our amazing neighbours, who lend us their lawnmower whenever we ask, and look after the cat too. Sometimes I try to repay their kindness a little by letting Mr S have a rant at me about the 5-star softness of our prisons, but mostly I try to balance the favour ledger a tiny bit by letting them have lots of cuddles with Wriggly. Apparently that's a currency that is valued higher than black gold.

And the mothers of friends have been great support too, telling me about their own experiences and reinforcing my sense of belief in my approach to parenting. So many mums, and early childhood teachers, have instilled a confidence in me that I had feared would elude me for some time. They have helped me realise, just through the osmosis of being around them and hearing them talk about the children they have cared for and educated, that my son will develop in his own time, and at his own pace, and that the most important thing is to care for him, love him, and encourage him as he discovers.

I haven't even mentioned yet the numerous people involved in the health system who have looked after Wriggly in various ways - everyone at Waitakere Hospital back in January (more on this another time), the two independent midwives who looked after us for the first six weeks, the two Plunket nurses at the Plunket Family Centre who rescued me from mastitis and helped both of us learn to breastfeed, the regular Plunket nurse who I suspect is visiting us a few extra times,*** our GP and the nurses there who have given Wriggly his jabs, two paedeatricians at Starship who checked his heart murmur, the ECG operators, the radiographer who x-rayed his chest, the two cardiologists who further checked his heart murmur, I'm sure I've forgotten someone. And that's without listing all the people behind the scenes who we maybe never saw, but whose work is so crucial to keeping the wheels of our health system going - the cleaners, the orderlies, the receptionists, the admin staff, the cooks.

Other new mums truly have kept me sane, with their admissions of their divergence from perfect motherhood. Deborah (who isn't a new mum of course) revealed to me several things by email which relaxed me a great deal, in particular the news that at this point in time Wriggly can learn much from simply watching me have a snack. This might seem pretty straightforward to you, but that one comment from my co-blogger has been instrumental in helping me keep making breastmilk for my baby, by keeping my food intake up. And you too, dear bloggers, with your writings about how it was for you and how it is now, be it by comment, email or on your own blog. Plus there are the other mums I've met at the Plunket parenting class (with yet another very helpful Plunket nurse presiding) - we're trying to keep in touch, attend a playgroup together, have coffees from time to time, and email about milestones.

This post probably only scratches the surface. I could mention the people who are supporting us too, by giving Wriggly's dad leave at the time of the birth, by helping my family to cope when Dad died, by doing a million things for us and with us that give us the strength to be parents, and those who run the free or donation based activities we head along to, like Mainly Music and the Greyfriars playgroup. Typing it all out now it just seems to be this never-ending list of those who surround us and support us, with the aim of giving Wriggly the best childhood possible.

We are talking about a community of support that far exceeds the bounds of a village. Some people will leave, as their time to help passes, and new folk will arrive as we go out into the world more and more. I'm sure that our village will grow just as Wriggly does.

And writing this all I'm aware of our good fortune. That we have these people, these opportunities, in our lives is in part a reflection of our Pakeha middle-class-ness. I wish all babies, and all parents, had it this good.

* Although to be honest I actually had to stop at this point and go feed Wriggly, organise his bath, clean-out the cupboard in his room while his father bathed him, etc etc.
** We still haven't finished watching them, but we're trying!
*** I think this is probably because I am at pretty high risk of Post Natal Depression.


Anna said...

This is the way it ought to be! When people I know have babies I try to establish what it is they feel would be useful, and help them that way. You occasionally come across people whose help is actually really demoralising - it feels less like help and more like a criticism of what you're doing wrong!

Stephanie said...

Awwwh! That post filled me with warm fuzzies.

Anna, as a helper I've sometimes worried that I'm coming across as critical and a know-it-all which has stopped me offering help since I'm not a mummy what the hell would I know? (well except for ex-expat's 'sack of potato' baby hold)

Anna said...

Ex-pat, in my experience the unhelpful help has come from other mothers - I've experienced a sort of competitive thing from some mums which I think comes from parenting being a bit of an undervalued activity.

I've usually found non-parent helpers to be respectful of boundaries, eager to listen and sympathetic to how tough first-time parenting can often be.

But other mums have said a few things to me which have made me feel incompetent: things like, 'I never used disposable nappies' or 'I always had my kids bathed and in bed by seven o'clock'. Different ways of saying, 'You're not doing it right'.

Anonymous said...

This is a lovely post, Julie. Particularly with our second child being special needs, we were very conscious of how much help we got from our community. Now our kids are older, we do our best to give it back to our friends who have younger children. That's practical help, not advice, which I don't give unless I'm specifically asked.

Things weren't always so rosy, though, when my partner was primary caregiver for our children. There was some serious resistance, particularly from women, of a man being 'mum' for a toddler.

Anna said...

That's a great shame, Ghet - there are still some funny ideas about men and kids out there. Luckily, my partner has only got positive responses to his being a stay at home dad, and both our kids think the world of him!

Anonymous said...

Julie - wonderful post and so glad you have so much support. It is so important.

Anna - I am with you on the "different ways of saying you are not doin it right". I have found this the hardest. I have been havign a rough time recently with my three and someone kindly said I'd bought it all on myself for not letting them cry as babies. Ahh gee thanks. How about just offering to take them for an horu or two?

stargazer said...

i often wonder how people survive if they don't have strong family and/or community survived. i know i couldn't have survived without my mum, who came every morning and looked after the second one for two hours so i could catch up on sleep. baby was a really bad sleeper, up every hour, so this was a lifesaver for me.

i remember after the birth of the first one, just being able to leave baby with mum while i did the grocery shopping was a huge relief. i enjoyed the time-out even if i was doing mundane things, and it helped me to be much more relaxed when i got back.

anyway, thanx julie for pointing out how important it is to have people around. parenting is not something you can do successfully alone.

Deborah said...

Tears in my eyes, Julie, for your kind words. Thank you.

My girls still find what I am doing fascinating. I have three dusters, because if I get one out to start doing the dusting, I get at least two helpers, if not three. they love vacuuming. And they especially love baking and cooking with me.

I'm glad I could provide some e-mail support at what is a very difficult time. That new little baby is so precious, but he or she turns your life upside down, and you get to engage in reconstructing your understanding of yourself, and renegotiating your relationship with your partner, all while suffering from sleep deprivation.

Stargazer, we moved to Adelaide where I knew no one just one month before my eldest was born (we subsequently moved back to NZ for about 8 years before heading this way again). Unbeknownst to me, several of my friends were desperately worried about me, and they all called me regularly, to make sure I got through those first few weeks and months intact. We were living in Palmerston North when my twins were born, again with no family in town, but my parents were just a few hours drive up the road. They came to stay often, did the housework, chopped firewood, did maintenance, built a fabulous sandpit, looked after the girls while we went out, arrived with chilli-bins full of freezer meals (my dad's lasagne, made with homemade pasta, is to die for). It made such a difference to us, and to me, to feel that I was loved and cherished, and my babies were loved and cherished too.

Ghet, my husband looked after our eldest for six months while I was working on my thesis. It did tremendous things, for all three of us, and for the two who came along a bit later. He was okay with it, and for some reason, because she was under one (I used to bike home at lunchtime to feed her, or he would bring her down to campus), mostly he just got lots of support from people. Julie, I hope it works like that for your partner too.

Art and my life, aaaagh. Bugger them (the f-wit, that is). I find that things don't go so well with my three when we are stressed, but when we are better, the girls get better too. Funny that. Wish I could be there to help a little... As for the f-wit who told you it was all your fault, well, actually, you don't want to read what I want to say about people like that.

I have a lovely younger brother (I have two lovely younger brothers, actually, but one in particular said this), and a few weeks ago he said something very interesting. He said that he had realised that no matter what, as a parent, he would get something wrong. But he was determined to do much more right than wrong, and to get over the 'wrong' things. He said this in respect of our parents, who we both think really were, and are, fabulous parents, even though, inevitably, they got some things wrong. Of course they did - they're human beings. It has helped me to relax, just a little bit, about some of my own parenting.

And Anna, yes, I have gotten the I-am-a-better-mummy-than-you advice too. Made me want to scream.

Anonymous said...

Deborah: my partner's always been very glad that he had those years with the kids when they were little. I think we're all closer because of it.

We live in a poor, socially-conservative neighbourhood. Things were okay when the kids were babies, that was cute. When he started doing kindy library, he was the only male some of those kids ever saw in a caring role. He still wasn't allowed to have the children sit on his knee. If they climbed up, he'd have to push them off. I know that touch-phobia existed for women as well, but it was worse for men, especially in Chch post Peter Ellis.