Wren


I live in a town in Central Australia, a racially diverse community, with a large Aboriginal population.

A white person like me, with progressive anti-racist friends, could choose to try and fool myself into believing that the different races, cultures are living side-by-side more-or-less in harmony. Nobody would deny there’s inequality, poverty, social problems – but we’re all working to fix those historical issues, right?

Wrong. This is a racist town. Perhaps not more or less racist than the next, but any racism is too much.

The racism is here all the time, built into the structures and culture of the place, part of the daily lives of Aboriginal people.

But there have been some recent local incidents which have brought the racism out into the open, got people talking about it.  In July, a young Aboriginal man was murdered by five white men. One charming local man responded to this by producing and selling white power t-shirts. Most recently, a cross erected in memory of the murdered man was  burned.

It takes the really ugly stuff which finally gets us privileged, well-meaning white folks to do something.

A couple of weeks ago there was a community announcement in the paper signed by over 300 locals offering support to the Ryder family and denouncing the racist acts.

Yesterday there was a community speakout against racism. A group of black and white people got together to talk about racism, the recent attrocities, as well as the more ingrained, long term structural stuff.

It was a powerful event. The kind of thing this town has needed for a long time. Bringing it out in the open.

And it was just a start. More is planned.

All of this has made me thing about how to introduce race and racism to Wren. We have not spoken about race yet and there’s a part of me that would like it to stay that way. But it’s becoming more apparent that it is something that can’t be ignored. I love the way he has no (obvious) prejudices now: he plays happily with kids of any colour, smiles at the homeless people in the mall. But no doubt he has noticed differences in skin colour, and over time some significance will become attached to that. It must be spoken of.

He came to the speakout yesterday. There were lots of kids. He was too interested in the balloons to pay any attention to what was being said. But for me, it was important that he was there.

I could try to keep him in a privileged cocoon, pretending there’s no such thing as race. But if he was another colour, it would be a different story. And it wouldn’t be right, not in the long term. If he is to understand the place where he is growing up, the experience of the black kids here, it must be spoken of. If any of us are to address our ingrained racism and privilege, it must be spoken of.

Arwyn at Raising My Boychick has just written an excellent post about the problems with colour-blindness and talking about race with children. She says it all better than me and I love her for it.

Also, I just read her link to this fascinating article, which really shows how trying to get rid of racism by ignoring it just DOES NOT WORK.

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When my mother-in-law, Wren’s Granma, came to visit recently, she brought Wren a toy truck and some little plastic people that fit in the truck. He was excited and played with it enthusiastically for a few days, as he does with most new toys. On one of these days, Turtledad came home in a big new work car, which he was using for a few days. Wren was excited and wanted to sit in it and press all the buttons.

Granma announced: Wren’s really into car’s and trucks! I could see her head ticking as she said this, thinking of her next car/truck-themed gift for Wren.

And thus gender stereotypes can become self-fulfilling, as each gender-normative gift generates gender-normative behaviour and, oh, it all just seems so natural, so innate.

But is Wren really into cars and trucks? Yeah, he’s into them.

But he’s into almost everything. He loves horses, tools, gardening, music, dancing, dolls, books, cooking, cleaning, balls, animals, shoes, jewellery, water, running, climbing, babies, the moon and stars, anything with buttons, anything that rolls or moves or crawls, anything that anybody else is doing. He’s a sponge soaking up knowledge about everything he can. He will investigate anything novel. He will keep doing anything that gets him attention.

So yeah, he’s into cars, but not like some toddlers I know, who are so excited by them they will run onto the road just to get closer. I’m not doubting that some kids do have definite interests from early on, but the subtle ways that these are produced or encouraged are usually overlooked.

If you really want to play the gender-stereotypes game – and most people do – you could try and fit most of Wren’s interests into ‘boy’s things’ and conveniently dismiss anything too ‘girly’ as a passing interest. But I reckon it’s a load of crap. If there is anything innate about gender, I’m pretty damn sure it’s not an interest in cars. He’s forgotten about Granma’s gifts by now.

Perhaps I should add that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with giving boys (AND girls) toy cars, diversity is great. My main concern is actually environmental because, (a) they were cheap plastic, that will surely end up broken and in landfill before too long, and (b) if I have any power at all to steer Wren’s interests, it will be towards environmentally friendly things, like plants and animals, and away from polluting cars.

Back to gender-stereotypes, I have been wondering why they are so much stricter for kids than for adults, like any progress takes longer to filter through to childrearing. For example, these days, it is not uncommon to see men around pushing prams or carrying babies, yet dolls and doll-prams are still considered girls’ toys. Likewise, there is more diversity in women’s clothing than there is in girls’ clothing. Many women have short hair, but it is still rare for little girls. I figure it is still important for the kyriachy to get that strict gender divide clear for kids early on, and then it’s okay to stray a little. Fathers can push prams, as long as they’re just doing it to help out the mother – it’s not their real job. Women can have short hair and wear trousers, as long as they keep up their feminine appearance in other ways. But as for kids, let’s not confuse them: its gotta be black and weight, pink and blue, cars and dolls.

I live in a very breastfeeding-friendly community. Most mothers I know breastfed their babies. Until recently, I have felt supported in breastfeeding and never felt uncomfortable breastfeeding in public.  But shortly after Wren’s second birthday, I looked around me and found I am now the only person I know who is still breastfeeding a two year old. I feel I have entered new territory.

What I am doing feels quite natural to me. When Wren was born, I didn’t have any definite ideas about how long I would breastfeed him. There were times when it was hard and I would never have imagined I’d still be going now. But the thing I didn’t realise was how much the breastfeeding relationship changes over time. Breastfeeding a baby who is dependent on you as their only source of food is quite different from breastfeeding a toddler. Some things are more complicated, but mostly I find it less demanding.  If I had woken up one day and been required to breastfeed a small child, it would have seemed entirely weird, but the change is gradual and natural. For him, he is doing what he has always done; getting nourishment and comfort from his mother. To start denying him now feels cruel and artificial.

So why has everyone else stopped? Even mothers who I would consider ‘lactivists’ have weaned, or cut down to one (private) feed a day. In many cases it is related to pregnancy or the birth of a second child. Fair enough – I’m in no position to judge that choice. I don’t mean to judge anybody’s approach. I would just like to explore some of the reasons. If an individual mother (or child) makes a choice to wean, that’s their business – but if masses of women are feeling social pressure to wean (or are feeling unsupported in continuing to breastfeed) then that’s everybody’s business.

How much is early weaning due to social pressure? There is a high level of squeemishness and outright disgust in the general population about breastfeeding toddlers, even sometimes babies. Boobs are so ridiculously sexualised in our society, that people think there is something wrong with a child who can talk and walk still having a intimate relationship with their mother. This is not supported by WHO guidelines which recommend breastfeeding for two years and beyond if both mother and child still want it. Anthropological evidence suggests the average natural age of weaning is between 2.5 years and 7 years. I prefer the term ‘full-term breastfeeding’, which implies the normality of breastfeeding for a number of years,  to ‘extended breastfeeding’, which implies that this phase is being dragged out longer than it should.

I want to keep breastfeeding my son. Why?

  • Because breastmilk is the world’s most perfect food, the only true wholefood.
  • Because it supports his health while his own immune system is still developing. This is particularly important for us, because Wren has cystic fibrosis. Despite having a supposedly serious chronic illness, Wren is the healthiest toddler I know, and I can only put it down to the goodness of breastmilk.
  • Because it gives Wren a way to calm himself down when he get overexcited/frightened/angry, until he has developed the skills and emotional capacity to do that in other ways.
  • Because it’s  the easiest way to get him to lie down and have a nap during the day. I know several parents currently battling to get their wired two-year-olds to nap.
  • Because it means I always have a snack/drink on hand.
  • Because it is a convenient way to keep him quiet at crucial moments, such as when I am on the phone.
  • Because he LOVES it and it is a joy for me to see his happy face when a boob comes out. I know we won’t always be so close.
  • Because weaning would probably be hard work.

Having said all that, I don’t want to suggest that our breastfeeding relationship is always good and easy, or that I never say ‘no’.  There are times when he wants to stay attached for too long, or on and off all afternoon, and it is driving me nuts and I have to draw the line. There are times when I want my body back. If I can identify what he really wants, he will usually accept an alternative to breastfeeding – often he just wants my undivided attention or some quiet one-on-one time, and sitting down in my lap and reading a book is a pleasant alternative for both of us. I am teaching him that there are times and places which are not for breastfeeding, such as the supermarket and when I am eating a meal. He is accepting this easily in general, and so I know he is ready. I have also recently stopped breastfeeding during the night – separate post on this coming soon(ish)!

But back to the issue of social pressure. Despite all the very important reasons I have given for continuing to breastfeed, I am feeling social pressure to wean. By social pressure, I do not mean that people are actively telling me to wean, or ridiculing/punishing me for continuing to breastfeed. I know some people are unfortunate enough to have family or friends actively pressuring them to wean, but for me the effect is more subtle. Yet given the number of pro-breastfeeding women I know who are weaning, I believe these subtler pressures can be very powerful.

What do I mean, then, by social pressure?

  • When people keep asking ‘are you still breastfeeding?’ and ‘when do you plan to wean?’ Even without saying there is anything wrong with it, it makes me feel like my choice is under scrutiny.
  • The looks of surprise on strangers’ faces when I begin to breastfeed in public.
  • My partner is a big factor. He keeps asking questions about whether Wren really still needs it. I can convince him of it, but I still don’t feel as supported as I’d like.
  • When we are out – at playgroup, for example – and breastfeeding, the sight makes other toddlers ask their mother to breastfeed too. I feel apologetic, because my choice to continue breastfeeding is making their choice to cutback more difficult. I feel like I am breaking some sort of unspoken social contract to wean.
  • Having nobody to talk to about the challenges and joys of breastfeeding a toddler, at least nobody who is going through the same things.

In some ways, I find these subtle pressures more difficult to deal with than outright pressure. The rebel in me wishes those shocked strangers in cafes would be brave enough to express their ignorant views, so that I could defend myself. There is a part of me which definitely enjoys pushing boundaries, challenging conservative social norms, but I don’t want to do it all on my own. If I had someone to share my breastfeeding battles and triumphs, it would be much easier, much more fun.

I am finding myself becoming increasingly irritated with Wren’s requests to breastfeed, particularly in public. At times I think that perhaps this is a natural/biological response to trigger weaning, something coming from inside of me. But more likely, it is a response to the external pressures eroding my confidence. This is why I am spelling it out here. To confront it head on, and stop it eating away at me, invisible, un-named.

I will continue to breastfeed beyond two, beyond three, who knows? I would love to hear from others who are doing the same. What social pressures have you encountered to wean? How have you dealth with it?

My mother-in-law (Granma) arrived to stay with us yesterday. We haven’t seen her for over 6 months and I was unsure how she would respond to the fact that I am ‘still’ breastfeeding Wren. I thought I’d keep it a bit private, but was quite willing to defend it if necessary. Wren, however, had a different approach.

Within half an hour of Granma arriving, Wren:

– pulled down my shirt to reveal a breast, asking for ‘milky’;

– offered his own nipple for Granma to have a drink;

– asked me to give some ‘milky’ to his new toy characters (presents from Granma) and pushed them down my shirt;

– asked Grandma if she would also like some milky from me.

This is the first time he has ever offered my breast to anyone else, real people or toys. Fortunately, Granma thought it was all quite hilarious.

Turtledad warned me about starting the kiss-it-better thing. Something about toughening him up, I think. But c’mon, one little kiss can stop the tears! Magic. Sweet, simple magic.

When I was a child, my parents didn’t kiss-it-better; they would ‘blow-it-better’ instead. I’m not sure why. But I do remember really believing that it helped.

Today, however, I was presented with two kiss-it-better spots which were rather challenging. This morning Wren pointed to the molar erupting at the back of his mouth: kiss better? kiss better? A little kiss on the lips was the best I could offer. He wasn’t quite convinced.

Later this afternoon, I was sitting on the floor reading the paper, when all of a sudden, there was a bare bottom presented in my face – downward dog style – Bum kiss better bum? I couldn’t kiss the part which was actually sore, but kissing a smooth, soft butt cheek was a pleasure.

Oh my, where to start? This has possibly been the worst week so far.

I have finally reached the end of my patience.  I don’t know how you get it back…?

Wren is being an average, energetic, authority-testing toddler – what else can he be?  At my best, I can laugh with him and eventually we get somewhere.  But this week, I am not being the mother I want to be.

I am afraid that in this previous post, I oversimplified my choice to delay returning to work. The truth is – and I am surely not the only mother to feel this way – that I am continually being pulled in two (or more) directions. But why is it me who has to be so torn? Why is it so much more straightforward for his father?

We have had a wonderful two years, but I think I may have reached a point where spending 24/7 with Wren is doing more harm than good. I want to enjoy his gorgeous company, not feel resentful. As much as I don’t want to put him in childcare before he is ready, what we have now is no longer working.  Oh, for some other option! Where is the village?

But don’t hold me to anything yet.  Next week I will no doubt change my mind again… about a million times.

p.s. I have just realised that Arwyn at Raising My Boychick has linked to here. I am so grateful for that, but somewhat embarrassed that it has come at such a low point. Apologies to any readers who may have come from there.

To allow to me to gloat a little, and for you to get to know Wren, here is a list of my favourite things about him and our relationship at the moment.

To allow me to vent a little, this is followed by a list of the worst things about Wren and our relationship at the moment.

I hope to do this as a regular list, for my own personal record, perhaps to share with Wren one day.

The Best of Wren:

1. Your love of music and dancing. You can dance to anything, any style of music. You are starting to request songs for me to sing. Your current favourite is the hokey pokey.

2. Your energy and love of a physical challenge- while sometimes exhausting for me, it is impressive. You are happiest running, climbing, jumping, and sometimes just want to run up and down the hallway with me, or around and round the lounge room, “fast, fast, fast!”. When we go for a walk in the bush and your favourite part is climbing the rocky hills.

3. Your growing capacity for independent, creative play. I love to see you digging away on your own in the sandpit, or playing imaginary games with your toy animals. Adorable. Oh, and it gives me a much needed break.

4. Your love of animal, particularly horses at the moment. The enthusiasm with which you spot them at every opportunity, in real life and in pictures (you’d be amazed how many horse pictures there are in this world once you start looking).

5. I love watching your growing awareness and knowledge of the natural world. You can “read” the landscape, for example knowing when we are likely to come across a waterhole. One day you’ll be a great tracker – you already excel at spotting animals holes / nests and particularly animal poo and can identify which animal it came from – kangaroo, dog, horse, rabbit.

6. Your social skills are better than mine. You love other kids especially and can win anyone over with a cheeky grin, friendly giggle and silly antics. You love to perform and be watched and feed off the energy of people. Your boisterous friendship with Jade is particularly lovely, and the way you look after May, who is only 15 months, is particularly lovely.

7. Your rapidly growing language – a sponge for words – I love the earnest way you repeat new ones. You talk a lot, though sentences are still forming.  You are picking up little instructional phrases like ‘keep going’; ‘come on’; ‘do it’; ‘find it’. I love it when you come back from walks with dad and rush to tell me “kangaroo… hopping… hill… rabbit poo… walking”. I also like it that I know you so well that I can interpret whole stories from just a few words, which are often meaningless to others.

8. You like to HELP. You are so proud when given a task which you can do, like putting things in a box or passing me clothes to hang on the washing line.

9. You are so healthy.  I am proud of myself for that, as I have worked for it, although probably it’s just you. I finally feel like I don’t have to worry so much since you got diagnosed with cystic fibrosis a year ago. You are growing and you can recover from colds and coughs without antibiotics.

10. You have recently discovered that you too have nipples. I find it so touching when you offer them to me to have a drink. Your dad thinks it’s a bit weird, but I think it is just sweet.

11. The way you kiss your dad goodnight and then instruct him firmly to kiss me. It makes you happy to see us kiss or cuddle.

The worst of Wren:

1. Kicking the dog, grabbing the dog’s tail, usually exactly because you know you are not supposed to. You do it just to get a reaction from me. You also try to ride dog, but this is just because you really want to ride a horse. The poor dog is so patient with you.

2. Kicking the chooks, chasing the chooks, and now even sometimes catching the chooks. I am glad you like them, but you just need to learn to be more gentle. I feel bad that when you disappear in the backyard, I tell myself you are playing in the sandpit, just to get a few minutes alone, when really I know there’s a good chance your torturing the chooks, or eating their food.

3. You are so goddam stubborn. You want to do be able to do everything yourself, not understanding why you’re not  allowed to drive the car, or help cook dinner (to be encouraged of course, but the knives are very sharp and the stove hot and your co-ordination still developing). I do hope this will be a positive characteristic in the long-run, but right now it’s annoying.

4. This leads to tantrums. hmmm.

5. Your renewed clinginess. I don’t want to be too hard on you, or force you to be independent before you’re ready, but it is hard for me, hardly getting a break.  Especially since for a while there, you were so confident and happy to be left with a number of loved people.

6. Sleep. I so wish you were a better sleeper.  Still waking up several times a night to breastfeed.  It’s exhausting. I’m going to have to draw the line soon.

7. When you are deliberately unco-operative even when you know exactly what is expected of you and have an interest in co-operating. Why – even when I tell you we are going to playgroup and you really want to go – do you run around and refuse to get dressed and ready to leave the house? It doesn’t make sense. Obviously, you have no sense of time yet or concept of being ‘late’. But why so much joy in making me frustrated?

8. The way you insist that certain jobs are mine, not your father’s.  Like putting on your socks. Why can’t your dad do it? He feels rejected.

9. The ‘mine’ phase. That word has such nasty sound when it comes of your little mouth as you snatch a toy away from another child. It is exhausting for me having to emphasise sharing and taking turns whenever we are with other kids; I don’t like to police your behaviour so much, but it is an important thing to learn. So many tears in the process. I realise it is a developmental phase; it comes along with you identifying that certain things belong to certain people, which is important to know, but why so much possessiveness?

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