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?