Saturday, March 17, 2012

Attachment parenting, feminism, speaking out

Oh there have been some good things to read on the internet today. First up Olivia McRae on the ways in which the views of parents are ignored by the government, even as they claim to be interested in improving life for vulnerable children. I cannot decide which bits not to quote, so can only suggest you go over and read it. It is on the Otago Daily Times website. For the moment, here is part of her piece:

I know that research tells us that socioeconomic factors play a large role in child abuse and the overall health and wellbeing of children. Yet poverty is carefully omitted from most discussion documents, in case the Government should be forced to admit that real poverty does in fact exist. The Salvation Army recently released its annual report, The Growing Divide, which clearly shows that a deepening gap between the haves and have-nots is having negative effects for our children and society. People often refer to the problem of poverty as "child poverty", yet in my view no such thing exists as children don't generally have money, or a lack of it.

It's parental poverty that exists and impacts severely on the ability of parents to provide the necessities. Parental poverty creates family environments dominated by financial stress, where the struggle to feed, clothe, and house our children takes precedence over the emotional and physical needs of our children.

A discussion about vulnerable children, void of their parents, helps set in place yet another lengthy political discussion about people instead of with people. This means that policies, legislation, and lives are all set to be changed by everyone but those who will be most affected by those changes.


I'm glad she isn't being silenced for having the audacity to speak up about the general silencing of parents receiving the DPB. I wish her article had made it to Bryce Edwards' New Zealand Politics Daily roundup. I don't know if the topic was seen as too soft or not highly topical to the particular day's news, but the voices of beneficiaries speaking out are rare and should be listened to rather than those people, arguably parasites, who presume to speak about, over, 'for' them for a living.

Next up is Women and Children First, an article about the work of Sarah Hrdy (I want a vowel in that name every time I look at it). Here is the blurb:

For decades the science of child-rearing was guided by patriarchal ideas, but now the cradle rocks to an older rhythm. Eric Michael Johnson, in conversation with eminent evolutionary biologists Sarah Hrdy and Robert Trivers, explores how Mother Nature and the social network that nurtured our past have been remembered at last.

The article links Hrdy's own experiences growing up in Houston, Texas in an era where parents of her social class were expected to withold affection and actively keep their offspring from forming close bonds with primary caregivers, with her work as an academic. I think it the article is compelling and totally worth reading in full, but for the moment here is an extract:

The uniting of behavioural and genomic evidence, something that Hrdy and Trivers have independently explored throughout their careers, has revolutionised the way that mothers and children are viewed from the perspective of natural history. And rather than an evolutionary logic that places men at the top of the hierarchy, followed by women and children at lower levels, the perspective has now been inverted.

"Instead of the classical, so-called 'patriarchal' society," Trivers says, "the logic goes the other way around: children; women as primary investors; lastly and hardest to justify, males."

In turn, what Hrdy finds is that a supportive network of caregivers is an evolutionarily stable strategy, ensuring children have many attachment figures. Patriarchal society isolated mothers by creating an environment that immured them from the social support that has long been the hallmark of our species. The image of the mother as "an all-giving, totally dedicated creature who turns herself over to her children", says Hrdy, is not one that "takes into account the woman's perspective".

Thank you to Blue Milk for alerting me to this. I've put Blue Milk on my blog roll to keep up with her own fabulous posts. Back to Hrdy's work though, and I'm drawing some links between the phenomenon of the uber mother, seemingly in a million places at once as she ensures her children get to explore all their sporting options, learn at least one musical instrument, dance, sing, learn to swim, get extra academic tuition, learn to fly (you mean your child hasn't had flying lessons yet? What kind of parent are you?). Most of these women, anxious to hold or advance their child's class position in society (though that phrase has yet to be honestly articulated by anyone in my hearing), are working as well. This stuff costs, and not that many people can do it all on one income. In an increasing range of families, both parents are practically supporting this project, and I notice at ballet that grandmas are wonderfully enabling for this whirlwind.

I never imagined myself as the parent of multi-activity-need-a-timetable-just-for-after-school children. I'll come clean and fess how much the tally has risen to, despite me saying no to several requests:

Fionn (9): swimming lessons, drum lessons, kung fu, permission for one winter sport granted (despite him asking for FOUR)

Brighid (5): swimming lessons, ballet, kung fu, plus she is currently requesting a winter sport as well.

I notice some satisfaction from friends who have had to put up with me denouncing multi-activity madness in the past as I 'fess how the load has grown. (Does that sound like a bad parent for calling it a load? I've got a point coming up on that) They point out quite reasonably that keeping them busy now pays dividends in the future, when they are busy teenagers and not delinquents.

Actually, not all teenagers who don't do a lot of wholesome, organised, out of school activities are delinquents. But letting your kids wander the streets (and streets are actually pretty safe where we live), or play on the computer for ages if you've got one, or have a raw, unpolished CV... well that's what poor kids do. They do it because they have little choice. Extra curricular madness is the privilege of those with money and time, and by that I mean enough money and time and utterly superior juggling skills for the most part given the difficulty of funding this stuff on a single income.

So. Extra-curricular madness (yes I know it is virtuous, but virtue and madness are not mutually exclusive conditions) is in part a reaction to the fear of poverty for your offspring. Given the shitty lives many poor people have, it's not an unreasonable fear. I have, after all, begun this post with an article about poverty and vulnerable children. But in a society which still assumes that mothers bear the primary responsibility for raising children and for holding the moral tone of a household, the stress of the uber mother alone is relevant to Hrdy's points about the patriarchal erosion of wider support for parenting.

Favourite Handyman, nicknamed on this blog so back in the days when my life was based more firmly at home, has always been involved in supporting extra curricular activities. He started with the male sanctioned ones like rugby league practice (simply cos' that's what Fionn did first, back in the balmy days when there was only one activity) and branched out from there. Now that I have increased my hours, he has increased his input and tomorrow I shall buy a noticeboard for the kitchen for the sharing of information about kit, costs, dates and times.

It's awesome that extended family and other networks are assisting with supporting these activities that (my children at least) ask for and enjoy. If, however, you are a mother involved with this and you are not the person who organises who goes where, who takes who and makes sure it all adds up to the expected number of children in bed at the end of the day and not one still waiting outside the music teacher's house, then I think that is a) fantastic and b) statistically unusual.


2 comments:

Annanonymous said...

Really enjoyed this post, Sandra. I too want to put a vowel in Hrdy's name, and hope she isn't a victim of vowel poverty.

The after-school activity business is a tricky one. On one hand, there is an amount of privilege attached to it. On the other, getting to try stuff ought to be integral to your childhood educational experiences, and there's usually no other time in a person's life when s/he has time to do these things, or they have so much educational and social benefit. Our kids aren't too immersed in that stuff yet - partly because M's not as strongly interested in sport as some - but this is beginning to change as K develops his own interests. We do a fair amount of stuff that isn't organised activity as such - library visits, museums and other educational adventures. At this stage, it's what the kids like most - plus it's cheap, and it's less stressful than trying to fit around other people's classes and timetables!

Sandra said...

Thanks Anna, both for the compliment and for the helpful perspective on childhood activities. I'm not sure quite why extra-curricular volume irritates me so at a deep level, but the feeling that I scarcely see the kids at home is almost definitely part of it. A weekend day with all of us home just doing stuff around each other is possibly my very favourite way to spend a day.