Saturday, July 24, 2010

Virtue stands in the middle - Est modus in rebus

Baby super swaddledWilliam under cosy blanket

Virtue stands in the middle. I must have tried to explain this simple concept to at least 10 surprised people in the last 2 weeks! Is this such a difficult concept for Americans to grasp? Or perhaps it is my reaction to the moms I bump into in Massachusetts (the so called Massachusetts parenting groups) but I end up talking about this with almost everyone I meet these days: friends, neighbor, tourists visiting, even the pediatrician!! It has become my favourite topic of conversation: In medio stats virtus, said Aristotele. Or, as the Latins counterparts (and my father) used to say, est modus in rebus. But how can I explain this to a Massachusetts mom?

Being a mom in Massachusetts: ever feel alone in how you perceive this role? I swear I feel like I’m surrounded by women who are still trying to be smart and interesting but who have helplessly become zombies who can only talk about what special yogurt coated kids food their baby will take and what wooden toy or baby class will get their child to Harvard!

I am a stay at home mom with dreams for a career I temporarily abandoned when I decided to have a child, don’t feel I am super smart or more interesting than others, just a mom with Italian background, trying to be a no-frills mom in the States. I don’t talk about organic snacks in pomegranate flavor (I wouldn't even eat that myself!) - my baby boy happily eats the food that I eat (e.g pasta al sugo), but just feel too tired to hear joy joy no fun educated moms acting as scientists, while, at the same time, basing their decisions on extremes, always looking for the perfect choice.

The first example that comes to my mind is sleep, the parents' sleep discussion. Some sort of philosophical symposium on how to get a baby to sleep. Every mom who lives in the Boston area, sooner or later will have to hear and contribute to this. It was especially bad in the beginning, when I would constantly hear a mom saying, "Oh, so-and-so sleeps for twelve hours and naps for three," and I’d think, "Oh, shit, I screwed up the sleep training!".

To give you an idea of what I mean, here is the conversation between two moms: the American one and the Italian one. They meet at a coffee shop. Here is how it goes.

First, they talk about sleep.

American mom:
"She was crying a lot. We swaddled her, super swaddled her, but she would still fight sleep. So we came up with a sleep plan, a modified version of the Ferber one. You should try. I have been doing this for 3 months and it does work. At 7 pm, I put her to bed, with the exact same routine (i.e rubbing of feet, gentle massage, PJs and story time). I use the same book and tell her the same story, every evening. I started by letting her cry for 5 minutes, then for 15 minutes instead of 20, then for 30 minutes instead of 45, then for 45. For the first three days, I stayed in the same room with her to make sure she felt safe and that she felt it was ok to fall asleep. Now she will occasionally wake up but that's ok"

Italian mom:
"Is there anyone out there still swaddling babies? That is what the Romans used to do! My daughter did have trouble falling asleep early on but not for long. Grandma, grandpa, my brother and I were all cuddling her, singing and rocking her. She now goes to sleep at around 11 pm and she sleeps through the night until 7. Occasionally she wakes up during the night - but I give her chamomile and she goes back to sleep. Otherwise, she sleeps so well on her tummy!"

Then the conversation goes on food.

American mom:
She is feeding her baby cheerios and slices of onions from her sandwich. She hears another baby crying and she goes "what's wrong with him? Does he need a snack??" (hard judgmental look)

Italian mom:
"No thanks, I don't give kiddie snacks to my baby. They are not very healthy and would ruin the lunch that I prepared for him this morning" (annoyed look)

American mom:
"Naaa, these days, it seems if we parents feed our children anything but whole grain bread, brown rice and veggies from our backyard gardens we're in danger of hearing from child welfare authorities! Now they are even banning the mac donald toys. What are they gonna ban next?? "

Italian mom:
"Well, I am Italian. I wasn't brought up here. I am someone who eats everything, I have no problems of digestion, not even with spicy food, but" - God, will I offend her if I say this? No, go on, say it! - "if I go to mac donald, the flavor of the hamburger comes back to me for one or two days. It is pretty disgusting. But what can you expect when the food is fried in the same oil, used and reused many times on the same day?" - Oh good, she won't be offended after saying this - "and don't you find mac donald expensive? I calculated that if I buy the ingredients, all fresh, and do it myself, it costs me half the amount!"

The conversation goes then onto computers and high-tech baby stuff

American mom:
"Well, if it was up to me, I would ban all the TVs, computers and webcams from our house! I have heard that the toys with batteries are dangerous. Children can swallow the batteries and die! Have you heard of that child who died? We only have a couple of toys with batteries at home, right Nora? These are the talking dog Whurf and the drum Bang Bang. I wonder if I should take them away from her..." (terrorized expression in her face)

Italian mom:
She is giving her daughter a little laptop to play with. Then she goes "Only because something happened to a child in an accident whose circumstances are not clear, that doesn't mean that it will happen to my child. I wonder how that child could have swallowed the battery. Where was the mother? To be honest, in our house we probably have more toys with batteries than any others. We live in a world which is more and more high-tech and computer driven every day. Our children need to get used to this stuff. I put that laptop in Serena's crib every day and her grandmother from Italy wakes her up in the morning. She is so happy when she sees her!"

So, what do you think? Am I the Italian mom above? Not really but I am not the other moms either. I see many exaggerations in the way most moms I come across deal with their children: for example, they give their babies a snack on every freaking toy they are using; they take the babies to up to 6 organized play activities per week; they proudly advertise the fact that they own 20 different types of wooden puzzles coming from Europe; the list continues. I freely admit that I am not neutral when it comes to resisting the attraction of doing the right thing for my child or purchasing the cutest baby hat with special UV protection and anti-bacterial properties. At the same time, once I take something like that home, I cannot help realizing that, once again, I have added one more thing to my collection of useless "Extra Cautious Super Safe Massachusetts Moms and Baby Vanity" accessories!

A less pressured and contradictory culture that values good rather than perfect kids, and that treat the kids like adults and not like a special race, would certainly make all of these moms (myself included) happier. I am thinking of my parents, who never read a single book on sleep training, yet they remember that after days of normal baby crying, at some point, I learned to sleep. I am also thinking of my husband's parents who told us to make sure that the child will base his life on our life and not the other way round. When I watch American moms dealing with their children (the other day I came across a mom who was giving chocolate milk to her boy because she said he doesn't take plain milk!), I feel that the exact opposite is happening to the moms around me. It sometimes look as if the children have become the bosses and their mothers the employees taking orders!

As a matter of fact, in the old days (my grandparents' generation), children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they helped you to maintain its upkeep. If you had a family business, the kids helped in the store and later on would take over the store. But all of this dramatically changed. The kids of wealthy people nowadays are more and more viewed as a protected, privileged race with aspirations, talents and wishes to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed and groomed (as sociologist Viviana Zelizer puts it: “economically worthless but emotionally priceless”).

Here in Massachusetts, I often see moms making a big effort to go to great details to explain books that the children in front of them are not even looking. I also notice the incredible efforts these moms make to talk to their children, answering questions with questions (e.g mom asking toddler in coffee shop which picture was the tallest and which one was the largest), and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution to the world. I sometimes find it fascinating how much effort they put into everything they do or say to their children. I know moms who spend all their time trying to arrange the most refined activities, playmates and meeting places for their babies (e.g. if I bring my boy to the Brookline library bookclub, there he will mix with the right kiddie crowd!). It seems as if these parents constantly feel that if they don't do this and that, they put their child at risk by not giving him every advantage.

There are better and worse ways to discipline a child. But I feel it is a mistake to compare yourself to others and to constantly conclude that you’re doing the wrong thing. Yet that’s precisely what all these extremist and conformist moms do!

I know it is much easier to exaggerate on one side or on the other than to make the more reasonable choice in the middle but, if there is one thing I would like my American boy to learn one day, this is it:

I can now take William to enjoy Sprouts, his only weekly organized activity. For now. ;-)

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