Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wet Nurses and other Alternatives to Bonding (and Free-range Children)

Only in our Western Society has anyone ever asked, ‘what will I feed my baby?’ and ‘where should my baby sleep?’ No other mammals dress their little mammals after birth, nor has another mammal ever looked for an alternative to breast milk (or decided that breasts were for sex and not milk.) We are so very smart that we have thought up all these wonderful anti-bonding behaviors, probably while seeking our own convenience (or pleasure, or both) apart from our babies. This goes back in our history to at least the Middle Ages.
            I also wonder about the whole mindset behind employing wet nurses when it first became fashionable. Were the gentry too ‘dignified’ to nurse their babies? Did only animals do that, meaning breastfeeding?  During the 16th to 18th centuries, well-to-do mothers in Europe and the Colonies rarely nursed their own babies. The infants were given to wet nurses and returned home only when they were weaned, if they lived. Most fashionable women of the period wore corsets made of leather with stays of bone. The corsets not only broke ribs but often damaged breast tissue and nipples, making breastfeeding impossible. Employing wet nurses was also a sign of a family's elevated status in society. (A History of Wet Nursing, LLL International, March 2007)         
Did wet nurses bond with their charges, and vice versa? And then were these babies weaned and abruptly separated once again, for the second time, from the one person they thought they could rely upon? I can understand employing a wet nurse in an emergency, for example if a mother died in childbirth. But to choose not to or refuse to nurse one's own baby intentionally and give him to a peasant, who, back in the Middle Ages hardly lived up to the same standards of hygiene and cleanliness as that of her mistress. Besides, the wet nurse would often abandon her own newborn in favor of this new, more economically advantageous arrangement: she would be housed, well fed, and paid for her 24-hour-a-day services, though the wet nurse would often have no child of her own in the end when all was said and done.

            About the same time, during the Middle Ages, the first pacifiers were invented. A rag soaked in chamomile tea would sedate a crying infant, replacing the much needed calories in mother’s breast milk. In Holland, I read in one book, the rag was knotted and dipped in whiskey. The infant mortality rate was known to be high during this era and I don’t doubt that practices like these contributed significantly.

            The cradle was employed during this era. A mother could multi-task finally: get another child to rock the baby to sleep so she could cook or clean. She could rock the cradle herself with her foot while spinning or weaving, another convenience. When the cradle went out of style it was the (un)doing of one doctor in particular whose thesis was that infants were being trained to be rocked to sleep, would never learn to sleep on their own, were smart enough to manipulate their mothers (sounds familiar?) and that the cradle was producing spoiled children, though adult size cradles were not being produced to accompany young adults to college that I know of. But I wonder again why cradles were replacing the important skin-to-skin contact babies needed. Another little piece of non-bonding trivia: In the 1700s, “…cabinetmaker Sheraton, in his Cabinet Dictionary, designed a cradle which included a spring mechanism designed to keep the cradle rocking for an hour and a half-- a function now accomplished by electric motors in this age of preoccupied childcare providers”. (Graham Blackburn, furniture maker, author, and illustrator, and publisher of Blackburn Books, Bearsville, N.Y.)

            Exactly! Preoccupied childcare providers. Why do we value our non-bonding time and space above the needs of our children? I believe we honestly think we are not harming them, otherwise how could we have been so oblivious for so long? To our small minds do we think we must be able to tangibly see abuse or harm before addressing it? The long-term effects of behaviors don’t cross our minds in most circumstances. I have written about it already, but I come back repeatedly to my observations of the researchers in Minnesota turning over every single minute pebble in their search for the hidden cause(s) of autism. Everywhere except the broken bond we have created ourselves, perhaps because it is invisible, versus vaccines, for example, whose levels of mercury we can quantitatively measure, though I don’t think we can ignore their side effects any longer, either.

            While we employ nannies, baby sitters, and daycare we not only raise the expenditures in our budgets, we also create more non-bonding time for ourselves. Convenience? We have more time to create more ‘important’ (and costly) things to do. No wonder our standard of living in the U.S. in particular and the Western World in general is so high. We think we must have a two-income household to survive, but in reality, we often create that level of need ourselves.


Making the decision to have a baby – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ~Elizabeth Stone


            When we were having our children, we lived below the poverty line intentionally, not because we knew about the importance of bonding, but because we didn’t want to pay taxes that would be funneled into the military and the (then) Vietnam War. We homeschooled, gardened, eating locally and seasonally, canned a good portion of our food using a pressure canner on our woodstove, raised a pig named ‘Bacon’, made our own clothes or shopped second hand, and created our own ‘organic’ entertainment. I didn’t work outside the home (a log cabin at the time). Our children were amazingly independent very early, which surprised us. We did not realize that by having one or both of us present all the time – they didn’t have a baby sitter once during those years – they felt completely secure and chose their own time to branch out into other levels of relationship. We called them our ‘free-range’ children. I didn’t feel like some camp activities director, either. I was too busy. If I was kneading bread, they each got a little lump to destroy on their own. Theirs fell on the floor, gaining a few cat hairs along the way, got over-kneaded, tasted and licked, and poked, and then went into the oven along with my loaves. They ate theirs for lunch, slathered with homemade jam. If I was cleaning one of the cabins with a baby tied on my back, (we maintained a retreat on 70 acres of virgin oak forest in Wisconsin back then, receiving an average of 600 guests a year) they all came along, inspecting bugs along the paths through the woods, eating wild black berries, having mock weddings in which they threw acorns in lieu of rice at the conclusion, the boys having peeing contests, seeing who could hit the farthest tree. Ruth tried but never scored.

            They met people from all over the world: a pianist who played for them on our old upright (that I had bartered for a handmade quilt), a cleric from England whom they introduced to Dr. Seuss and employed him to read to them every night during his month-long stay; artists, priests, nuns, writers, storytellers, monks, hermits, travellers – they all came for shorter or longer stays in the cabins. Our children observed all of them and gravitated toward the more well-adjusted folks among them; believe me, we got all kinds. This was the world our fifth child, Hannah was born into.

            The year was 1987. She was born just under 3 years after Rachel who was born 2 years short of 5 weeks after our twins, Isaac and Ruth who were born on the Farm* with Ina May Gaskin and the Farm midwives in 1982. The twins were born 2 years minus four days after our eldest, Abraham. I had breastfed all of them well into their second year, using breastfeeding alone to space our babies. (See Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing: How Ecological Breastfeeding Spaces Babies, by Sheila Kippley.) They identified with Laura and Mary as we read every single Little House on the Prairie book to them, stopping to make Almanzo’s pancakes, or Pa’s button lamp, or dolly quilts from scraps like Mary’s. (Yes, Abe and Isaac also learned to sew by hand.) 
            Hannah was the easiest baby yet as all her siblings adored her and entertained her constantly. I did not realize then the level of bonding that was happening between them as siblings but it has remained with them to this day. 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 and looking back we see things we could and should have done differently, but we are proud of each one and who they have become.

           
Note: By the way, like her sister Rachel before her, the $25. Hannah cost us bought 1 box of maternity sanitary pads, 1 box of Chux for the bed afterwards, and Slippery Elm tea which I used to prevent bleeding after her precipitous birth. The others had all come very quickly which can cause hemorrhage sometimes, so I wanted to be prepared. The receipts are in her baby book. There isn't much else there, though. It never became an item on my list of priorities.


*see 2nd edition Spiritual Midwifery, by Ina May Gaskin, p. 130 or A Natural Delivery of Vertex Twin Birth DVD, c2005 Birth Gazette Video.

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,© or Call The Doula! ~ a diary©, both pending by Stephanie Sorensen   

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