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Reading while pregnant

Maverick Citizen

REFLEXIONS: READING IN THE PRESENT TENSE

Reading while pregnant

From left. ‘Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth’ by Ina May Gaskin, Random House; ‘Montessori From The Start: The Child At Home, From Birth to Age Three’ by Paula Polk Lillard & Lynn Lillard Jessen, Schocken Books; ‘Go Diaper Free: A Simple Handbook for Elimination Communication’ by Andrea Olsen, The Tiny World Company, 2016.

Locked down, locked in, many of us have had time to read more books than ever before. Readers, passionate about their own favourite books, are curious to know what writers have been reading during this bleak and lonely period? What was already on their shelves, what did they borrow, buy or read online?

In this series, Reflexions: Reading in the present tense, established and younger writers and other creative artists will reflect on a text that moved them, intellectually engaged them, frightened them or made them laugh. Our reviewer today is Yewande Omotoso who considers four books about childbirth and parenting.

***

The run-up to conception was long. As a placeholder, I’ll use the word “difficult” to bracket that period of longing, compromise and loss – a lengthy reckoning with oneself and one’s complex desires. I became pregnant towards the end of 2019 as Covid was beginning to spread.  With isolation, I anticipated lots of reading but what I hadn’t expected was how almost all my reading would be geared towards birth and parenting. My energies were turned towards the safe passage of the new lives and now that they were finally coming, what the hell was I going to do with them when they arrived? When I look back over my reading list through that period I see a mirror, showing me the things I’d hoped, the ideals I wanted to reach for, and my fears.

The first book I read, quite early in my pregnancy, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, was recommended by a friend. South Africa is famous for its high number of C-Sections, urban legend suggesting that obstetricians prefer a delivery they can pencil in between holidays and at a convenient hour. At the stage of reading the book, I had already been cautioned by one expert that my age (advanced maternal age anyone?), the fact of twins and a previous operation would preclude me from vaginal birth. My feelings about this were complicated. I won’t pretend that the thought of pushing two babies out wasn’t daunting but I also knew women had been doing this forever. Indeed despite whatever fears I harboured, page by page of American Midwife Gaskin’s intimate delicate telling worked like a poultice. 

Showing exceptional wisdom, the book begins not with the ins and out of birth (‘scuse the pun) but with about 50 first-person stories from women who gave birth with the aid of Gaskin or a member of her team of midwives. Say hormones, say magic, but every single story made me cry. Something about reading the book also felt contraband, since so much of birth is shrouded. I enjoyed images of actual heads easing through swollen labia; I enjoyed the candour, stories of pain but also of power. Not every story was sprinkled with fairy dust: they were honest – this thing is hard but here are the ways giving birth can move from harrowing to hallowed. 

I may as well say my children came out the “sun-roof”. My obstetrician whom I trusted implicitly (there was no indication she was booking holidays) explained the risks and I surrendered to my particular circumstance. I’ve learnt not to judge it; I know for my scenario I chose what was safest. I’m glad I read Ina May, cried on my couch. Missing that particular kind of birth did not make me feel fake or less-than, rather it primed me to approach whatever the means of entry into the world, with reverence and rapturous solemnity. 

I carried the boys till exactly 40 weeks (people were stopping me in the streets, a security guard in a shopping mall approached unbidden and offered a wheelchair). My birth story had fluorescent lights, anaesthetics and the requisite scalpel; it was most definitely not at home. My only pushback against an established even admirable movement (natural birth) and well-worn lexicon is to suggest that no birth is unnatural and like most things, we would do well to examine our vocabulary. This was early days still but I would go on to see just how much the way we talk about birth, mothers and mothering carries so much judgement and can induce pain and suffering. I’m still a movement of one but I do think we ought to examine our language. Motherhood, I’m discovering, is fraught enough without all the ammunition of “properness” thrown at it. Instead Winnicott’s “good enough mother” is one I turn to frequently as a sensible compass for my life ahead with the boys.

The second read was an opportunity to learn more about a form of education I’ve always been curious about – Montessori. I read Montessori from the Start: The Child at Home, from Birth to Age Three by Paula Polk Lillard and Lynn Lillard Jessen. I confess I was reading about educational choices because I’d been told that I needed to register the kids at school while they were still in utero. The thought overwhelmed me but it did spark an interest in understanding more about different systems of education. 

What really appeals to me about Montessori is the emphasis on equipping a child for a productive fulfilling life away from you and creating the physical and emotional environment to engender that. Lillard and Jessen write “Adults cannot give children confidence and self-regard through external praise and evaluation; those come as a result of the child’s own efforts.” Instead “the adult’s role is to prepare an environment for the child, to guide her interaction with that environment and to give her freedom with responsibility.”

My seven-month-olds remain unregistered in any schooling system although I made a short visit to a Montessori primary school and am keen to visit a school up the road from me. I have a friend who home-schools her daughters. I recently met someone from the Reimagined Learning Community in Troyeville. Another old friend didn’t do anything with her kids but just followed their lead and provided materials when they expressed an interest in something specific. I’m not sure those options suit my circumstances, but I’m encouraged and inspired by the creativity. It’s comforting to know that there are many ways to learn and perhaps what’s most important is to find what fits, what suits. 

As I contemplated (not without trepidation) the cost of caring for two, the matter of formidably expensive disposable diapers came to mind. Even from an environmental perspective, I understood that the toll would be heavy. Curious about alternatives I trawled the Internet, read countless articles (diapering was by far the thing I researched the most in my 40 weeks of gestation) and watched video upon video. Very soon I became clear that I would cloth-diaper the boys (although I allowed for the fact that for the first month or two disposables would be used guilt-free). I wasn’t trying to be a hero, just wanted to do what fits my pocket and conscience. 

I joined two Facebook groups and connected with a large South African cloth-diapering community. From there the segue to “Elimination Communication” (EC) was easy. I was curious about this way of interacting with babies regarding their poos and pees and Go Diaper Free by Andrea Olson was a good introduction. EC is based on the premise that babies, like all living beings, do not wish to sully their living space; instinctually a child wants the opportunity to have a space to soil and a different place to play, live. It’s possible that the diaper industry (with the gels that keep the diaper dry for instance) results in us teaching children to ignore this instinct and then of course at a certain age we need to re-train them to go somewhere separate (toilet, potty, bush) to defecate versus in their pants. It is an interesting fact that cloth diapers came about some 200 years ago and babies were usually potty independent between 9 and 18 months. From the late 1950s, disposables shoved that average age right up to 36 months. I enjoyed the history lessons and references to indigenous communities especially in India, Asia, Africa, China and South America that are not diaper-dependent. 

I bought a potty early on and within two months was following Olson’s suggestions (including observing the child diaper-free and recording baby’s cues and timings). It worked mostly and the kids were pooping and peeing into the potty. Around month 4 though I decided to pause. We were having on-off success with the pottying, I’d developed De Quervain’s tenosynovitis (“Mommy’s Wrist”) and carrying my well-built boys back and forth to potty several times a day was wearing on me. Reminding myself not to be a martyr I put the potty away. Perhaps I’ll reintroduce it when they’re one and see how we do. EC is not meant to be coercive or forceful – I like that.

I came to the fourth book after my kids were born. Elevating Childcare: A Guide to Respectful Parenting by Janet Lansbury is a book that introduced me to Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), a not-for-profit organisation founded by Hungarian-born educator Magda Gerber. I’ve always known that I want to raise self-possessed independent children. This is something that surely doesn’t happen when they suddenly turn 12 but is a slowly accruing achievement, starting possibly with proper attachment and then gentle opportunities for agency. I think the intention is obvious enough (even ubiquitous) though hindrances to the application are more insidious than we might think. 

On Janet Lansbury’s eponymous blog I read about something I’d instinctively wanted to be able to afford my kids: time with themselves, time to explore, to learn their bodies. RIE advocates for as much time on a play mat as possible, for babies to be laid on their backs from as early as one day old — initially for a few minutes with you right by their side and then progressively longer – with the carer further away – as they become more independent. Another tenet of RIE — babies don’t need to be exercised. They maintain that all children learn how to move without needing to be shown or taught as it is mostly innate. All they require is a safe space and opportunity to move in their own time (versus by a specific age) and in their own way. Direct communication with the child is encouraged (Can I pick you up…I’m going to pick you up now…) and pausing in anticipation of a response which comes sometimes bodily and perhaps later in sounds, words and phrases. They argue for passive toys that the active child can manipulate versus active toys that require passivity to be experienced. Similarly, while keen observation and play are encouraged with the child they point out that mostly adults play for children rather than with them. 

I was sufficiently intrigued to research deeper into RIE, coming upon their webpage and writing to them requesting materials. I explained my location (they are headquartered in LA) and my inability to attend the online classes especially due to a whopping nine-hour time difference. However something worked out, I found a class at 8.30pm SA time and was even offered a sizeable discount due to unfriendly exchange rates. I attend classes once a week with a motley crew of five other parents. It’s a strange way to find community but these are strange times.

In the video See How They Move Magda Gerber talks about children needing to learn how to fall. She cautions parents from rushing to rescue at every instance as this can easily breed a sense of fear versus trust. I also appreciate the distinction drawn between struggling and suffering. Every cry, sound or shout might not require lots of cuddling and cooing. I’m slowly learning to understand the different cries. As my kids now start to move, some of the sounds they make are sounds of exertion, frustration. I’m learning to allow them that. I might say “You’re trying to move” or “You’re hard at work”. I might drop down and accompany them a little and yes I might also pick up and soothe. It’s great to have a repertoire of responses that hold the babies – however small and seemingly delicate – in high regard, respecting their autonomy, their rich inner lives and, perhaps like larvae to butterflies, their need for some struggle in order to one day take flight. DM/MC/ML

Yewande Omotoso is an architect and works for Greenpeace International as part of their Story Team. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. Her debut novel Bomboy (2011 Modjaji Books), won the South African Literary Award First Time Author Prize. Her second novel The Woman Next Door (2016 Chatto and Windus) was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Literature Prize. Omotoso’s latest novel Unusual Grief (Cassava Republic) is forthcoming in 2021.

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