Midsummer Camp East Circle sharing food

I went to a great talk by Kate Evans recently – she’s the author of Food of Love: Your Formula for Successful Breastfeeding which was published in 2008. Her talk touched on much more than breastfeeding, though: she talked about what a baby ‘expects’, on a biological level, when it comes into this world, and what we as parents also biologically ‘expect’: and how modern nuclear society fails to fulfil this.

Basically, for millennia of our existence as human beings, a baby wouldn’t survive unless it stayed close to its parents day and night. Crying when separated from its parents is not, as Gina Ford would have us believe, a manipulative device to make our lives difficult, but an adaptive mechanism to alert the parent so that it does not get eaten by a tiger! I remember coming across the idea that ‘We keep on giving birth to Stone Age babies’ despite all our modern innovations.

The high contact needs of babies was not a heavy burden on parents, though, because people lived in tribes or extended families where they received support and co-parenting from the other members. Many people could carry the baby around – not just one exhausted mother as in today’s scenario – and as soon as a child could walk, he was off exploring with and learning from the older children.

Kate Evans, in her characteristically frank, humorous style, pointed out the contrast with the scenario we have today of a parent (usually mother) or childcare provider having to, largely in isolation, provide all of that child’s ‘stimulation’ and learning experiences. At the same time the mother has to severely restrict the freedom of exploration that child has, to keep him safe in today’s urban world.

Kate made the point that today’s cots and separate sleeping are very much a recent phenomenon which doesn’t necessarily work with what babies really need to feel safe. Yet we are often encouraged to ignore the cries of a baby or young child at night in order to ‘train’ them to sleep through the night. Yes, I’m aware that for many parents this seems the only way to save their sanity and survive in a world where the full load of parenting and managing of day to day life falls on their heads.

Kate’s comments echoed the sentiments of a list I saw only a week before, at the Midsummer Camp in Norfolk: an excerpt from a book whose title, unfortunately, I can’t remember. It was a list of what we, as human beings, expect on an evolutionary level: living in groups of 20-30 people; co-parenting or shared parenting among the members of this tribe; working 5-10 hours per week; and living in connection with the land and its cycles and seasons. This is the way we lived for thousands of years and what is most adaptive for us, what allows us to thrive, feel safe and connected.

This was followed by a list of what, in reality, we get in modern Western society: living in isolated nuclear families; parenting mostly done by one or two people; working 40 hours plus per week; living in disconnection from the land and its cycles.The suggestion was that the imbalance, stress and mental health problems that are rife in our society are due to the breakdown of our supportive structures, overwork, and our relationship with the land that sustains us.

As I touched on in my first post on this blog, my week at Midsummer Camp was a concrete experience of our ‘original’ way of living, and it felt so deeply fulfilling on many levels. For a week we lived in groups of 20-30 within a larger camp of 90 people, and in those groups grew surprisingly close. It’s not an exaggeration to say we felt like family. We shared cooking and chores and everyone did what they were best at – rather than having to cook every night although you hate it, for example. For those who like their privacy, there was space to be alone and no pressure to interact with others all the time. People shared their skills for the benefit of everyone: chopping wood, making wooden structures, massage, teaching yoga.

My son had the opportunity to interact with people he wouldn’t usually: to form bonds with seven year old girls for example, who, reciprocally, could ‘practice’ their mothering skills for the future (while most new urban Western mothers have never taken care of or sometimes even held a baby or small child – causing bewilderment and overwhelm when new parenthood hits); and he gifted people with his presence who usually lack these opportunities: childless older men and women, for instance.  It worked very smoothly on the whole.

And of course, we were living right on the land and being outdoors most of the time. Yes, it was a holiday, and you might say utopian – but I’m not suggesting this way of living is a solution to everything, just that it’s perhaps far closer to what our bodies and minds need to feel refreshed and avoid burnout.

Reading this list, and attending Kate’s talk, affirmed for me that there isn’t something ‘wrong’ with me because I don’t want to, and can’t, fulfil all my son’s needs 24/7 while living alone. That I’m not ‘weird’ or a bad parent because my needs as a human being aren’t completely fulfilled as a single full-time parent. I can go to the park of a morning with my son, surrounded by other parents and children of my neighbourhood, and still feel totally isolated. And this is in a relatively ‘community minded’ city and neighbourhood. To meet my needs for mental stimulation and adult companionship often requires both a lot of organisation and time away from my child, which is often difficult to accomplish.

I’ve been playing with the idea of living in community for a long time. I’ve tried living in communal house shares, but for me this is too confined a space with too little room for personal space – and still living in the city with all its attendant problems. What I dream of is living in a dwelling with others on the land, where we each have our own space and can come together for meals, shared childcare and conversation. We as humans have the capacity to look after each other and share love and support in ways that are obscured by our isolated lifestyles in the Western city, and my sadness at this is balanced by my inspiration and excitement to co-create something different. So I’ve got my eye on this…until then, and while I exist in this gap, I’ve been very grateful this week for the help of friendly, kindly neighbours when I a) locked myself out of my house; and b) was mobile phone less for an extended period. I have to add though that I am quite good friends with this neighbour already 😉