Even monkeys can raise their young!

Recently, I read Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller.  I think it will become one of those books that affects my life in a profound way and influences how I see the world – one of those books that continues to help me grow and one to which I refer back often to find perspective.

There are a few things that jumped out at me while reading Hand Wash Cold.  There are so many things that I’d like to write about and share, but I am not going to try to fit it all into one post.  I will focus on one thing at a time.

In chapter 10, Karen tells a story about a talk she was giving at her Zen centre “about the extraordinary challenges of parenting.”   As the discussion about how it’s the most difficult job in the world “wound on and on,” her teacher said,

“Even monkeys can raise their young!”

Wow, isn’t that the brutal truth?  Monkeys raise their young.  Many animals do and have been for millions of years, and humans for roughly 200 000 of those years.  We have been raising our young for hundreds of thousands of years.

So, why is it so hard?

It seems to me that we complicate it and make it harder than it needs to be – as individual parents and as a society.  We place so much emphasis on the expectations we have of our children, especially of their behaviour and their development.  We have theories and strategies for discipline, potty learning, sleeping, routine.  We have attachment parenting.  We have free range parenting.  We have lactivism and intactivism.  We have flash cards and sign language.  We have educational programs for infants and wait lists for high priced preschools.

I can’t help but feel that much of it places undo stress on parents and children.

Have we, as a species, so far removed ourselves from our environment and the world that we don’t sense our instincts, much less trust them?  It seems that we have forgotten how to breastfeed, how to listen to our babies and read their sleep patterns, evacuation patterns, and needs.  We think a lot, read a lot, and ask a lot of questions when I think that many of our answers lie within us and our relationships with our children.

Maybe I am romanticizing the past and the way humans used to live and operate – the simplicity of being governed by our instincts and tuned into each other and ourselves – like monkeys.  But, it seems like such a simpler way to live.  Easier in the ways ours is difficult and difficult in the ways ours is easier.  So much emphasis is placed on the physical in this world and I can’t imagine it’s always been that way. I can’t imagine that we have always been so detached from our collective spiritual, emotional, and mental states of being.

Not long ago, I was at the Toronto Zoo with Q.  In September 2009, a baby gorilla was born and this was the first time we’d actually gotten a chance to see baby Nassir.  As I watched the mother, I marvelled at how easy she made it all look.  She carried Nassir on her back, her front, in her arms… shifting his position as she moved around.  She nursed him and protected him from the male gorillas who got too close.  The fluidity of it amazed me.  She knew what to do and she just did it.  The baby gorilla was an extension of her – far from the centre of attention, yet influencing her actions.

To me, it seemed that this gorilla had it down pat.  I envied her as I preoccupied my mind with where Q was, what he was touching and how dirty it was, when he’d last eaten and if he’d had enough veggies, how tired he was, whether I should give him a soother in public when he is only supposed to get it in his bed… countless considerations and concerns.

I don’t want to live Q’s life thinking that parenting him is the most difficult job in the world.  If I approach it that way, it surely will be.  I want parenting him to be the most rewarding job in the world.  The most important job in the world.  Sure there will be challenges, but I wonder how many are of my own making.

Since he was an infant, I believed that I needed to trust my instincts in caring for him.  It shouldn’t be so hard to do, though.  It seems to me that it should almost be automatic.  If it feels right, chances are it is. But, my instincts conflicted with the advice I was getting, what the experts were saying, and what other parents were doing. So, I struggled.

Maybe, just maybe, we can learn a thing or two from gorilla mamas.

This is not baby Nassir, but a baby gorilla and mama from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. I chose this video because it best illustrates the interaction I saw that day between Nassir and his mama, Ngozi.

What do you think? Is parenting the most difficult job in the world? If so, is it because we make it so?

21 thoughts on “Even monkeys can raise their young!

  1. I think we make it much harder than it should be – no doubt. I appreciate the advances that research has taught us, when it pertains to the big stuff (the dangers of belly-sleeping, etc.) but try to ignore some of the other ‘research.’
    I think we get too wrapped up in what we’re supposed to be doing, or what’s the best option out of 5 great options, that we forget that one of the most important things is to play with and interact with our children.
    I went through a phase where I was reading tons of books about discipline and tantrums, and Joe reminded me that if I just paid closer attention and played more, there wouldn’t be the need for the books. He was so right.
    I think you have to trust your instincts. We have the luxury of research, but when all things are pretty equal, we should just trust ourselves.

    • I completely agree. it is hard not to get wrapped up in the the shoulds and just trust ourselves, especially when some of the experts opinions conflict with each other. How are we supposed to know who to listen to if not ourselves?

      I read one book and I abandonned it after Q turned one. For the first year it was helpful to know that things were normal, but after that it not only didn’t help us, it put pressure on the milestones and developement.

  2. Great post! I am an “older parent,” and I’ve watched people tread this well-worn path before, and I do agree that we make it way more complicated than in needs to be.

    I try to get by on common sense, amy own instincts and the wisdom of people I trust who have gone before.

    I give my little guy lots of room to explore, don’t invest a lot in expensive baby-related stuff (you need it for so little time and they don’t care!), hold him when he needs me, feed him what he needs without making a big deal out of it, give him time with other kids, and never over schedule him or us.

    I hope the result will be a nice, confident, caring, curious kid.

  3. Parenting is certainly one of the most difficult jobs in the world, but that shouldn’t be considered a bad thing, nor should you or Q have any undue stress from the idea of living under that reality. Indeed, the degree of difficulty and complexity is why it’s also the most rewarding when you succeed, either at those smaller interim moments like potty training, or later, when the job is “done” and you’ve launched a competent, self-actualizing person into an independent life.

    I certainly don’t want to dismiss the value of instinct, so long as your instincts are sound, which is more likely to be the case if your own parents had good instincts. This indicates that what we usually call “instincts” are not true instincts in the scientific sense (i.e. the inherent inclination of a living organism toward a particular behavior; fixed action patterns that are unlearned and inherited), but partly a collection of acquired attitudes and values. I think it’s a long time since we passed the point where true instinct is enough, and even the augmented version that we informally call “instincts” often needs to be supplemented or even corrected because we no longer live in the kind of world where the true instincts evolved and in which they were sufficiently adaptive to ensure survival. Remember – the monkey mother raises her baby by instinct, it’s true, but she’s doing it in a simpler environment, and when she is finished, what she has is another monkey. A monkey is a good and precious thing, but it’s definitely not a competent, self-actualizing human being – that’s a product that requires different ingredients than a monkey or a dog or even an earlier kind of human. I think that, as with so much in life (and I believe I’m reading this between your lines as well)it’s really a matter of balance. Trust your “instincts”, yes … but use your uniquely human mind as well, and accept that neither is perfect, but that together they can do the job.

  4. I think we tend to overcomplicate things and parenting isn’t hard, but challenging for sure. We go with our own instincts and I agree that is the best. But with our society the way it is today it isn’t as simply as teaching our kids to read and write. There is right and wrong and so much grey area in between. So many more situations can arise than I can even remember from when I was a kid.
    So while even monkeys can raise their young, I wish it could only be that simple for humans. I love being a parent and wouldn’t trade it for anything, but it can be tough.

  5. Yes, we definitely make it more difficult for ourselves. There is so much information out there… in books, the internet, media, opinionated people. We get caught up in it and we start to feel inadequate, stressed, guilty. I agree that if we just listen to our own instincts and not so much of the outside world that it is much easier. There is a better flow.

    For my first child, I read a ton of books, and I tried to stick to the schedule he was “supposed” to follow. It was difficult. I think sometimes I was starving him (not literally, but he was hungry).
    With Miss M, things were easier. I wasn’t hung up on any books or advice. I followed HER schedule and it was so much easier.

    Great post, Sarah. Lots to think about.

    • Thanks, Shannon! Once I surrendered to Q’s schedule, everything seemed to fit into place. He sleeps when he is tired and eats when he is hungry… and I can almosst set a clock by him. I think they know what they need – we just need to be in tune with them and listen.

      Great point.

  6. I think you are right on. We think too much, worry too much, and enjoy too little. When my son was born I read two books, vowing to keep reading as he got older. But I didn’t. I just kind of go with the flow with him, getting advice as needed, and learning to trust myself. It isn’t easy, and I often second guess myself and still worry endlessly. I think it’s that way with the first kid, and it gets easier as you add more. Or maybe life just gets crazier, so you can’t obsess as much.

  7. After four kids, I definitely have had to simplify things. I do my best for them, and hopefully that’s enough. The truth is, they will develop into self-actualized human beings with a lot of parental love, but does the rest really matter? Everyone’s journey in life is different, but the majority of us turn out okay, regardless of what the self-help industry wants us to think. Outside of hideous neglect or abuse, I think most parents do a pretty good job on their own.

    • Absolutely! The majority of parents are decent and good who raise decent and good people.

      I really do believe that love makes all the difference and I live by when in doubt, love.

  8. Yep. You have to let your intuition be your guide. It’s something I didn’t figure out until after my 1st a year old. But if you just pay attention, you will know your child’s needs and be able to respond to them.

  9. First of all…I hate that I got the darn capitalization on the title of the book wrong in so many posts! Who would have thunk it? Really, wouldn’t you say it’s lowercase. Okay, I digress.

    I was struck by this passage in the book too, but mostly because I think the second time around I’m much better at trusting my own instincts. Some of that comes from having less time to worry and read and stir myself up into a frenzy of whether what I’m doing is right. Some comes from the confidence of doing it a second time, and some just comes with getting older and trusting myself more.

    But, and yes there isa but. While I do, largely agree that we probably as a society over analyze our parenting choices, I do also think that some of that comes from the fact that we ar an intelligent race. Learning and changing and adapting. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with knowledge. Knowledge can be power, as long as we employ in practical and meaningful ways.

  10. Have you read her other book, Momma Zen? I think you’d really like it.
    I couldn’t agree with you more – and that book had a huge impact on me as well. The simplicity is beautiful, in so many ways. And applying that into each aspect of our lives, parenting included, makes such a difference.

    • I haven’t read Momma Zen, but I am thinking I will. I am interested to see more of her perspective on parenting.

  11. Okay, you and Christine and Corinne have officially convinced me: I need to read this book.

    Thanks for this post and for your ideas about parenting and instincts. I think you’ve put your finger on something so true but so often overlooked: we have been programmed to do this job. I have found that, whenever I’m feeling uncertain about a choice as a mom, the answer can often be found simply by listening to my heart. It rarely leads me astray.

    That being said, one of the things that I think might make it hard to be a parent these days is how far we have gotten from traditional ideas of community. I don’t know much about monkeys, but I suspect that monkey mamas aren’t living alone, far from family and friends, trying to raise their kids by themselves. I know that I for one would feel a lot more confident about some of my instincts if I lived in a community that felt more like a village and less like a faceless city.

    • Definitely worth the read, Kristen.

      we have been programmed to do this job. Exactly!

      You make a good point about community. I think it makes a huge difference. We don’t have the support systems that other animals have. I think it truly is a detriment to everyone. Children need to learn for many people, as do parents. So many of us are very much alone in this journey.

  12. Wow – the responses to this post are great and thought provoking. I love to read what others have to say, even if I don’t agree.
    I do agree though that going on instinct is the right way to go. You cannot force kids into a schedule to suit you, you all have to find your own way and it will all fall into place.
    Thanks for all the interesting comments and posts.

    • Great, isn’t it? I love to see the different perspectives.

      No, trying to fit Q into the schedule I chose for him never worked!

      • Definately great. I keep thinking I should start a blog. But don’t know where to start and right now don’t have the time. I feel I’m too glued to the computer as it is and need to be spending that time with the boys. Maybe one day…

        • You should start a blog! I’m not gonna lie, it takes time. However, I feel like it takes time away from other things I do online (like Facebook) instead of time I spend offline.

          Lemme know if you want to get started and I’ll help ya out if you need it.

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