Saturday, April 6, 2013

Can We Afford Another Baby?

The French have an old saying that goes something like this: every baby is born with a loaf of bread under each arm. 
            Our Rachel cost us $25. Really. The year was 1984. We were living in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was our 4th child, born 2 years short of 5 weeks after our twins, Isaac and Ruth. The twins were born 2 years minus four days after our eldest, Abraham. I had breastfed all of them well into their second year. We had decided I should stay at home while they were babies, even if the extra money would have helped, had I been working. This was our investment: the effort, time and attention our children needed, especially in the vital first year of life. It is like going into business. If you don’t seriously invest all of your energy into them, the end product will fall short of perfect (or at least the very best you could do.)
We were actually living below the poverty line at this point in our lives, by choice, to avoid paying taxes that would funnel into the military which we opposed, but the children didn’t seem to notice. Or mind. They had the raspberry patch they would breakfast in before the serious work of the day: PLAY. They would continue whatever scenario had begun the day before: building miniature birch bark tee pees for their coffee can menagerie of tiny dolls, farm animals, plastic men and women, and little hairy rubber trolls, (no little soldiers or guns allowed); or a wedding for the cats, acorns being collected and thrown in lieu of rice. On rainy days they stayed indoors, stringing buckets of buttons, or learning to braid little loaves of challah bread, reading stories, building log cabins for the trolls.
We had gone against the stream of the American way of thinking for many years already, so when we considered another child we knew we wouldn’t be fitting in anyone else’s box as far as numbers went, but we did find out what the latest statistics were projecting the cost of raising a child in the U.S. in the 1980s. The Consumer Expenditure Survey by the U.S. Department of Labor recommended $124,800.00 as the minimum amount that you should project for the cost of raising one child from birth to 18 years old. We figured that at that rate the human race was doomed to become extinct, so us poor people might as well help populate the planet because no one else would after considering those figures.
As a first-time mother in 1980 I had wondered at all the things my friends thought were absolutely necessary when they were expecting their first baby: a crib, a fully furnished nursery room with matching sheets and curtains, blankets, a little bath tub, room monitor system, mobiles, toys, powders, creams, lotions, baby shampoo, paper diapers, outfits, clothes, shoes, playpen, windup swing, stroller, pacifiers, bottles, bibs, Sippy cups, sterilizer for the bottles, baby spoons and warming dishes, baby food grinder, nipples and bottle rings, breast pump, nursing clothes, nursing bras, and the list goes on and on and on. And on.
Before we began our family, David and I had volunteered to teach English to Hmong refugees as they began arriving in Minnesota in the late 1970s. We would pick up families at the airport when they landed, (with practically no luggage, we noticed), find housing, and then help them through the myriad appointments: the Public Health Department, ESL classes, job readiness training – you have to have been through it to know exactly what I am talking about.

We noticed that our Hmong friends’ babies, when awake, were tied on with cloth carriers to mom, dad, grandma or aunt, it didn’t matter who. They had no cribs in the beginning, so their babies were carried or played with until they walked, it seemed, or laid down on a straw mat on the floor when sleeping. They nursed whenever they were hungry and quickly grew fat and sturdy; we called them ‘juicy’ babies, or the kind you like to pat and pinch. Our time with our Hmong friends all during the 1970s and into the 80s made us seriously rethink our American way of raising babies. They certainly didn’t have all the stuff other Americans had and their babies were beautiful, and were growing into confident, happy little people. Maybe they really didn’t need what the TV was telling us we couldn’t live without. (Maybe we didn’t even need a TV. We did eventually get rid of that, too.) Maybe there really was a better way. What did the parents in Africa, China, the Eskimos, or parents in South America, have? We Americans tend to think we are so intelligent, informed, and educated. Well, sometimes that kind of thinking becomes so arrogant that it blinds us to common sense and distorts our view of reality, I believe.
Ultimately, I felt that the trend in the U.S. to buy all these things was a great distraction on another level, a very important one, a spiritual one. By refocusing on what is actually happening to us as a couple, that we were becoming a new family, we were able to reflect on a deeper level and tune in to this new being. He already had a consciousness. He was aware. Did he know how much he was wanted? Did he know how much he was already loved? Could we talk to him and tell him these things before he was born? Would he hear us? Did he recognize our voices already? Would he enjoy hearing lullabies already? By bonding with an unborn baby you are beginning a relationship that will last the rest of your lifetime. You need not wait until labor and delivery with all the emotions that flood in surrounding the event of birth. Instead you can and should be preparing for his arrival in far more important ways than materially.
So, as we wondered how much we could actually do without, and how little we could get by with, we discovered some very interesting things. First, we discovered that we weren’t the only people questioning the status quo, or the way things are generally done. We found lots of other people who thought how we did, and didn’t care what other people thought of them, either. We were still a minority, these daring, radical parents, but there really was an underground-type  movement in American that we realized was gaining strength during those years. In spite of negative comments from friends and relatives, we breastfed our babies. Not only did we breastfeed, but we continued until our babies told us they were ready to be weaned, well into their 2nd year sometimes. I knew they would soon be talking and asking to nurse, so we only talked about nursing in Hmong, also called Dao or Meo, (a Mongolian-Chinese language, one of 24 distinct Chinese languages, each with own multitude of dialects). That way Grandma, or any of the other relatives, wouldn’t have a clue that we were still nursing, and I wouldn’t have to repeatedly battle the negativity. Abe would ask, “Goo yoo-ah naw-me” – I want some breast milk. I could answer, “pay loo-jay”, when we get to our house. Only rarely would he fuss: “Goo yoo-ah yoo-ah yoo-ah!” I want want want now! And I would put my foot down and insist, “Chee-yaw kaw-naw”, not here just now. “Pay mo loo-loo-fy ee plee-ah”, we’re going to the car soon.
We didn’t buy baby foods either in all those years. At all. We waited way beyond the recommended 4 or 5 month start-them-on-solids-and-cereal stage that was popular at the time, and only when we saw baby teeth did we begin offering solids. Then they were ready for soft finger foods like bananas, cubes of avocados, cheese, tofu or potato. When we breastfed we didn’t first look at the clock to see if was time, but when our babies were hungry, they ate. And they grew. And grew. When I ran into problems or questions I would find a grandmother who had nursed her babies and would always find the support I needed.

There is a Jewish proverb that says: Two Jewish grandmas are better than one pediatrician.

            They slept with us*, too, and I never had to get out of bed at night to nurse them. As long as I rested when my kids napped, ate well and took care of myself, I had plenty of milk. We shared baby clothes with relatives and friends, offering them to other new moms when our kids out-grew them. I made all of our diapers out of cotton from a bolt of diaper fabric** and never used disposables, which have become a huge environmental problem in our country.  
As they became older, and they still seemed to be thriving and happy, we began to question the educational system in our state, and after meeting with other families who felt the same way, began homeschooling our children. We discovered that we were part of a very large network in America, and of over 20 families in our district that chose to homeschool. The school district in our town even recognized the benefits and opportunities the families could offer each other within our network and supported us with supplies and equipment from their schools.
Three years after Rachel was born Hannah arrived, our biggest baby, weighing over 10 pounds. She was the easiest baby yet as all her siblings adored her and entertained her constantly. They are all grown up now and we are grandparents. The time really does fly by. We did not always find the right way with each child as this or that one tried to find their own independence. Some were more rebellious than others, and looking back we see things we could have done differently, but we are proud of each one and who they have become. And I am sure we didn't spend anywhere near $124,800.00 to raise one or even all five of them. P.S. And, by the way, I spent the $25. before Rachel's birth on a package of Chux to protect our bed during the birth (which I didn't use since I decided to squat on the floor at the last minute) and the rest on maternity size sanitary pads for the time after the birth. There are actually cloth ones now that you can make or buy and eliminate disposable waste concerns all together. 

A Quaker friend once posed this question to me: why is breast milk so good? 
Answer: Because it is always warm, it’s always ready, and it’s up high where the cats can’t get it!

The Family Bed: An age old concept in child rearing, by Tine Thevenin, 1983, Minnesota
also see: “Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-sleeping”, by Dr. James McKenna, Notre Dame University 2007, Platypus Media, Washington, D.C.
**cotton diaper fabric and rubberized flannel to protect mattresses can be ordered from Gohn Brothers. Write for a free catalog or call: Gohn Brothers, P.O. Box 1110 Middlebury IN, 46540 Phone: 574-825-2400 Call Toll Free: 1-800-595-0031 (Website or e-mail not available.)

STAY TUNED... This and other stories will be appearing in the book, Stone Age Babies in a Space Age World: Babies and Bonding in the 21st Century,© pending by Stephanie Sorensen  


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