I love learning from others.
Especially from those different than me.
I seriously don’t think there’s anything more amazing than the opportunity to listen to the stories of those who have experienced some of the darkest and most beautiful parts of our world.
With that said, I am grateful I’ve had the opportunity to know many amazing women, here and across the sea, to influence who I am as a person and parent.
I’ve had the rare privilege of living among women in a one room house on the equator where our kitchen was a tub of water and a stove in the middle of the room, where we slept on mattresses on the floor with kids in our beds and mosquito nets protecting us from disease as we slept. Where life was beautiful and complete.
I’ve walked alongside women who just stepped off an airplane after traveling around the world to seek a safer and healthier life for their families, having lived in refugee camps their whole lives. Starting over without the communities they had back home, expected to raise children alone in a new place.
They’ve become friends and sisters and teachers to me.
When I struggled to provide for my son solely through nursing I thought of my friend who once fled through the jungles of Burma and cared for a baby using a teak leaf to catch water and feed him. I realized, I have an abundance of nutrients to provide for my son, even if it doesn’t only come from my body, and I felt grateful rather than ashamed.
I’ve listened to mothers tell the heartbreaking stories of how they’ve lost their children to poverty and war and other violences. I’ve cared for children living on the street without parents, homeless, school-less, with jobs at a young age. I’ve learned from mothers who are 14 and mothers who are 94.
I’ve rejoiced and celebrated and wept and grieved with every single one of them.
These women, among countless others from around the world that I’ve had the honor of knowing, have changed the way I experience life.
They’ve changed the way I am a mom.
I could write an entire book filled with their beautiful stories and lessons they’ve taught me, but for now I’ll share a few things that I’ve learned simply through knowing them. Maybe some of their wisdom will be meaningful to you, too.
1. My weight isn’t that big of a deal…
And it saddens me when I see you obsess over your own. You are absolutely beautiful. It wasn’t until recently that I cared much about weight. Upon having a baby and throw in a thyroid disorder, you could say I care a bit more these days. Then I see a beautiful woman, fearless to show her stretch marked belly because in her community she is seen as beautiful, baby strapped to her back, healthy, happy and confident. I see what matters to her- health, her family, children, food on the table, providing, education, safety, togetherness.
Usually not obsessing over the gym and carbs and fad diets that even I tend to care a bit too much about. I see all the beautiful women who love being able to provide for their families and themselves and put on some healthy pounds. It makes me love my body more, and care for it more. Just as I wish you would. It also helps me to be more gracious with the ways it has changed over the years. What a mighty job it’s done bringing a person into the world.
2. Family and community matter…a lot
It was in that one room house on the equator that I learned about intergenerational living. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were a regular part of everyone’s life. While I already had a close-knit family, I learned a lot more about the benefits of involving grandparents and relatives and community in the raising of children. Upon leaving, I returned to the States feeling isolated and lonely- even driving in my own car and living on my own seemed to waste so many resources that could have been shared.
It was that experience that influenced the way I responded to becoming a single mother. My son’s childhood would be as complete as mine was as long as I didn’t raise him alone. I am a woman with a career, I could have stayed out East to raise him on my own. I saw the pressure to be an autonomous “typical American thirty year old” not as an asset in this situation, rather an obstacle that challenged the essential importance of community. It is with my family, church community, neighbors, friends, and even coworkers that my son and I find our lives complete.
3. It’s OK for my child to sleep in my bed
As well as fall asleep nursing, or whatever other controversial act the littlest of people can do in our society. It’s OK that I depend on others for help. It’s OK to lay with my son as he falls asleep, or hold him in my arms. It’s OK that I never let him cry himself to sleep or that I never leave him with strangers he’s uncomfortable with. It’s OK for my child to get up after taking a bite of dinner and return later. It’s OK to nurse beyond the age of 1, or 2. Or to supplement with formula. It’s OK for my child to know about death and poverty and other uncomfortable subjects. It’s OK for my child to go outside when it’s cold. Or hot. It’s even OK for him not to be forced to share. Or to potty train at a later age. It’s OK as long as it’s safe and what he’s ready for.
No matter where you go in the world there are parenting practices more widely accepted than others. Women who have been parenting one way in their culture for generations may be ostracized for that practice elsewhere, for no reason other than it’s not common practice. In knowing women from Egypt, Thailand, Bhutan, Somalia, Ecuador and elsewhere, I find that some of what I feel pressure to do as a parent in the U.S., actually isn’t that big of a deal in other communities. Or many things women in other parts of the world feel pressure to do, aren’t an issue here. After all, something such as age appropriateness or sleep routines are norms that tend to be created by society. And as we know, societies can be vastly different. In knowing this I’ve found the freedom to parent in a style that makes sense to my family, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense to my neighbor.
4. Vaccinations are about community
Vaccinations were terrifying for me when my son was an infant. Imagining what was going into his body scared me just as much as when he had his first bite of cake on his first birthday (seriously, so much sugar that day). Working so much with international communities reminds me that the vaccine debate is a debate of privileged people living in developed countries who have never lived through a terrible epidemic that could have been prevented by access to vaccines. Basically, we’ve never been a child with a suppressed immune system due to malnutrition, living in an overcrowded region when an outbreak occurs. And most of us haven’t been a mother who has lost that child to a preventable disease. Or experience the depth of emotion involved when that disease has finally been eradicated.
When I sat my son down at his four year check up the other day, I explained to him why we get shots. I said, “Leo, this will help you stay healthy, and it will help all of your friends stay healthy, too.” To me, it makes sense. I would love to live in a world where we don’t need vaccines- I don’t like giving my son vaccines, but it’s vital to keeping our community healthy. Just because my son was born in the U.S. and not in Sub Saharan Africa doesn’t mean we have any less responsibility to keep our community safe.
5. Economic privilege isn’t always an advantage
I once talked with a woman in a small Ecuadorian village as she learned what someone in the U.S. earned in comparison to her husband’s meager salary. The difference was outrageous. Expecting her to say she wished they could move the U.S. for that salary, she instead expressed grief over what money like that would do to her family’s values. “I would care about money more than what’s really important in life, I would probably think I need the best and newest of everything.” She then added, “It would be nice to be able to buy my daughters a new dress, though.” I’m sure you’ve heard it said that some of the most joyous people in the world don’t have many possessions. I agree. They’ve got something going on with their priorities that I could learn from.
I’ve found that all the things I have can fog what really matters to me, especially as a parent who wants to provide the best for my child. In knowing women who live without many material possessions, I’ve learned that blessings are not found in my material fortunes, rather they’re in our ability to see goodness in whatever it is we have around us, even in dire situations. Even if we can’t have the best and the newest. Sometimes in parenting, depending on culture and community is enough.
Seeing it this way has allowed me to take more control over my attitude, and reassess what the best really looks like for my child.
It’s what has made living in my tiny apartment with my rambunctious four year old bouncing off the walls such a beautiful sanctuary, even when I constantly battle the desire to have a home as beautiful and large as others.
It’s what’s made me want to stop focusing on expensive diaper bags and all the things society says I must have in order to be a good parent and refocus on the amazing fact that babies are born and mothers are beautiful and sometimes nature takes care of the rest.
It’s what reminds me that no matter where we’re from or what we have, mothers have amazing wisdom and beauty to share with the world and I’ve never met a woman who’s shown me otherwise.
Learning from other moms, including all of you, is vital to my parenting. Are there any parenting practices that you feel are unique to your family or someone you know that we could benefit from hearing? I’d love to hear from you!