A Path Traveled Better Together (Cooperative Mamahood)

A Path Traveled Better Together (Cooperative Mamahood)
Freedom Together. It's not just for mothers in relation to their babies, and vice versa. I think Freedom Together is a way of seeing the world, a way of moving through life that embraces connection and joy. It's a notion removed from our highly "independent" society where separation seems to equate mobility and success. I think this translates just as easily to how we live together as mothers, indeed as humans in general - moms, dads, singles, etc. - as much as how we mothers live together with our children. I'm pretty sure I read this in the book Vital Touch, but I've loaned that to a dear pregnant friend and can't double check right now (so forgive the almost-reference, won't you?) and maybe I've heard it echoed in some Michel Odent literature, but regardless, it goes something like this: mothers were meant to be with their babies, closely connected, yes... but not alone in the houses with them 24/7. This is speaking to the need for mother-baby bonding while referencing the very recent phenomena of isolated stay-at-home mothering as we see it in our modern era, and goes on to talk about the problematic nature of such isolation (overwhelm, loneliness, prolonged post-partum depression, low-quality interaction with baby, and more). The idea, based on history, is that we need other mothers in our proximity, to bond with, to share with, to work with, our children growing up with theirs as well. In generations gone by, we have lived closer to family, indeed with a lot of extended family, and often stayed in our hometowns and grown up having children with our childhood friends. The industrial revolution did a lot to shift this as families moved to cities and eventually single-family homes became the norm (as well as children moving out of the house at 18 for college), etc. Reading this really struck a chord with me as I've often longed for sharing mutually beneficial lean-on-each-other womanly time in the midst of staying true to the way I was brought up, inside my family and inside this technologically advanced world; to be independent, to be self-sufficient, to be alone rather than indebted. Now, I see this drive to be self-sufficient as a bit of a curse requiring a loving remedy. As I've traveled in the world, one thing that always sticks out to me are the ways in which I see women sharing chores, living everyday life closely, raising children together. I remember being on the roof of a home in Morocco and looking down on a few women sitting together cleaning grains in the brick alleyway while their children collectively scallywagged about, hollered at from time to time by the women or other neighbors. I've witnessed chore cooperation of lots of kinds in Nepal and India, too. I've seen it less here in Chile, and much less in the states where we learn "to each her own". We seem to not want to be bothered by others requests for support, but even more, we seem to not want to ask, to not want to be indebted to others. We prize our independence, and base much pride on self-sufficiency, and usually expect others to do the same. I've gone out on limbs in recent years and asked for help packing and moving, and mailing things, and a few extra needs while sick, but that's about it. I think I can do better to stretch my comfort zone in the name of sisterhood (and be fully available to others for the same). In Full Moon Feast, a book I've mentioned recently here for other reasons, the author talks a bit about the difference between a gift culture and a culture of commerce. The gift culture (found in native cultures) is one where the things we receive from life, be it from nature or other people, etc., are gifts that indebt us to the giver such that we honor that giver and are careful with the gifts we receive. Within the alternative, a culture of commerce (that of the modern U.S. and beyond), we buy what we need and in paying a price, we are free from debt of the giver and are free to do as we please with our possessions. The former, with it's "indebtedness", brings people up inside a web of connection and gratitude. The later, with it's independence, brings us up with independence prized above much else. While there are certainly plenty of areas of life where we experience some of that sense of a gift culture, I think for the most part we are more than a little bit trapped in our reverence of independence, our fear of indebtedness. As mothers, and in my experience, I think it could very well behoove us to put a little physical and emotional elbow grease into getting a bit more dirty and gifty. Now that I'm a mother (of a 14-month-old), I am struck full-on by how much work there is to do, and by how much joy there is in sharing motherhood while letting our babies play together, I have an even stronger desire to work cooperatively with other mothers. Sadly, I live a little remotely (in Chile) and certainly far from my long-time friends who now have children (in the U.S.). More and more, perhaps in light of the extremety of my living situation, I long to live in a close community of women, at least a few of whom have children my daughter's age. More and more, too, I realize that this wish is not simply a location-based option outside my reach. It is also a goal that, with a little more energy and perseverance, a little more vulnerability, a little less pride and fear of indebtedness, can be at least approximated right where I live (my poor Spanish and all). Writing in that very direction, I'll share with you a few ideas that I'm exploring to take a more cooperative approach to being a traditionally-minded mother in a modern world...

Garden Share Though I've never very grown much on my own, I love gardens and I love even more eating my own stuff. I remember helping out a friend of mine from time to time with her community garden plot and loving sharing time with her weeding a bit and watering when she was out of town. I loved eating the greens from that plot, grown by my friend in a shared environment. Now, I've the good fortune of having a new neighbor who is actually a gardening teacher! She is cursed with a very shaded yard, so we're discussing sharing a very sunny spot in my yard for a garden. How nice is that? If I were back in Boulder, I think I'd look for a similar situation, or find another mom to share a community garden plot. Those community gardens seem like great places to meet other people willing to share all sorts of things (seeds, watering duties, cups of iced tea).

Play Dates and Mama Groups This is an organized modern version of what seems (I wasn't there, right?) to have happened in the olden days when our grandmothers were young and living close to friends and relatives (and probably with those relatives). The kids all played (cousins and neighbors) while moms sat around and talked (though I bet more chores were involved than the modern coffee-sipping version, ha ha). I've been slowly getting more and more connected with moms in my area (though my area here means within an hour's drive), and carving out time to get ourselves and our babes together. It is lovely when it happens, and breaks up my work-a-day routine (and it's great for my daughter, too). We're not really cooperating in doing much more than soak up some mama vibe, reduce our own isolation, and give our babes social time with their "friends", but that is enough, for sure!

Lunch Shares Here in Chile, lunch is generally the biggest meal of the day and though this has shifted a bit with the young hip restaurant-goers in the city, in our family and in most of our friends' families, our biggest meal is around 2 pm. So, I've been thinking that it is just silly for all of the neighbor couples or families or whatever to make a big lunch every day and eat it alone in our houses. While we all share the occasional lunch invitation, I've been thinking about getting a little more organized with our closest neighbors and sharing lunch duties a couple times a week. This would boost the social vibe a bit while lowering the work a time or two a week (if I make lunch for 3 or for 6, it's not a whole lot different because the same steps are involved). This regular sharing would certainly up our feeling of connection and interdependence. We'll see if I take the plunge on this one. It sort of sounds easier than it looks, I think.

Chore Shares While I don't think I'll ever want to organize a group of friends and neighbors who want to get together regularly to, oh gee, do laundry per se, but the idea of pitching in with the everyday work load is really attractive to me. Ever notice how doing someone else's dishes is a bit easier than doing our own? I have! Also, I really like sitting around folding laundry with other people. That there is easy chat-tastic type work. So, I'm going to start insisting a bit on helping others when I'm visiting. In turn, I'm going to start trying to assume my visiting friends might want to enjoy a bit of laundry folding with me in my home, too! (Wish me luck, because this is where I get a bit queasy about the whole gift culture thing - in my head, I'm there, but in my rigid, independently-minded way, I barely let a guest in my house help clear the table!). Heck, I may even start saying things like, "Okay, now let's get after these dishes, huh?" Pigs may fly, my friends, pigs may fly.

Special Projects Somewhere at a cross-section between lunch shares and chore shares, but with the fun level elevated generously, there's the opportunity to enjoy special projects together. I recently invited my sister-in-law over with her three children as they were visiting near by (my partner's parents have a vacation home in the community where we live, and we get frequent family visitors because of this), and proposed we spend our evening making decorations for the then upcoming first birthday of my daughter. We all had so much fun, and it ticked a little bit of the work of my list, too. I've been meaning to do a similar cookie-making night with the family, and have also been keen on making little parties out of all sorts of cullinary work. For example, we have two beautiful quince trees in our front yard (membrillo in Spanish) and there is a popular confection here called dulce de membrillo which is a kind of thick gelatin-like spread that is made from quince and sugar. It takes a lot of slow work to make, but is very yummy. I think next year, when my trees are full of beautifully ripe fruit, I'll invite over some mothers to peel, cut and cook a big batch and send us all home with some beautiful homemade dulce de membrillo. At Christmas time this year, I think I'll have everyone over to make some more decorations, too. There's always summer tomato sauce and pesto to be made, as well, and I've got my heart set on a big batch of pickles once my (fingers crossed) baby cukes come in this summer (I say "this" summer because Chile is in the opposite season as the north, so we're heading into spring now). The culinary projects that could be beautifully divided and conquered are sort of endless, and how wonderful to raise my daughter in the company of other mothers enjoying the work of making slow food.

Hosting Families Here's one that's not too far off the beaten track, I think, but worth the mention. My family is friends with another family here that has asked us to think about joining them for a vacation in the south of Chile in a few months. What better way to guarantee some cooperative mama time than to basically live together? I hope we can make it happen. In the meantime, and since we have a guest room in our home at the beach, I'd like to start inviting small families to come stay with us from time to time. Sure, having another family overlapping with ours will require adjusting, negotiating routines, and even a bit of discomfort, but so what? The kick-backs of being connected, finding our ways together and letting our kids find their own ways cooperatively while living on top of each other a bit all seems worth it. I think I'll start small here, but start nonetheless. Who's first? Come on down!

Staying Connected Simply All these big ideas about cooperative projects and "new" ways, gives me pause a moment, too. In my hurried days, there are a few basic things that are already tough to get done in the service of staying connected. For instance, I pretty much have no idea when my friends' children's birthdays are (nor most of the friends', ahhh!). Sometimes, if there's a party coming up or a special conversation about the upcoming birthday, I get hip and get into action to help honor the special date. Same, too with anniversaries. There are weddings I've been IN in recent years, and I still can't remember the anniversaries. These special times, they are special to the mamas we know. So, too, are graduations and recitals, first teeth and first dates, lost pets and lost family members. This seems so obvious, but if any of you are like me, something strange is happening to my brain on the drug of Facebook, and it ain't pretty. I have one or two friends who seem to be great at remembering and honoring special dates and milestones, but that's it. Everyone else, much like me, takes notice to wall posts and leaves comments there, when they see them. When it's really important, sometimes we pick up the phone. Of course, it's better, easier, when we live very close to our dear mama friends and are sharing more, but I know I'm not alone, expat or not, when I say it is hard going to stay well connected. So, I'm making yet another resolution to get hip to the important dates in my dear ones' calendars, which by their very nature are dear to me, memory issues or not. That resolution also includes reaching out in as human a way as possible - because quick FB comments just don't cut it. Cooperation isn't really just about making things easier after all, it's about making things better. For me, a "better" life is one that is more connected, more loved-up, more ready to get messy together for joy's sake. I have to effort to make it better.

Here's wishing all the mamas in my life and yours the gift of a little extra connection this week, and then some. If there are some special ways that you share this mama path with other mothers, I hope you'll take a moment to share that with us all below in the comments. Cheers! ~ Heather