by Peggy O’Mara
Issue 120, Mothering Magazine
My children are all grown up. My youngest just turned 21 and my oldest is nearly 30. Reaching the “twos” with your children is a lot like teaching them to swim. When my four were toddlers, I was eager for the day when they all knew how to swim because I worried about them when they were around water. With adult children, it’s not the water that you worry about so much; it’s the whole world. Toddlers are learning how to navigate in the world; adult children are that world. Parenting adults feels like starting over again, as you learn how to talk to your children as emotional equals. It helps if you’ve been doing so all along.
My adult children are still part of my world, and we all get together frequently. Three of them have lived at home on and off during their 20s. We have a big house and the job market has been challenging. In addition to the economic justification, however, I simply like the fact that my children still live at home at times. It’s been the kind of slow and gentle weaning for me as a mom that I gave to them as infants and toddlers. I was reassured when I heard that in Europe young adults are expected to take until their 30s to find themselves. I understand that in Latin America it is common for adult children to live at home until they are married. And, of course, I remember John Boy and The Waltons.
But still sometimes I worry, because we do things differently. I don’t have nice, easy, linear stories about my children to tell other adults my age who brag to me about theirs. The directions my adult children’s lives have taken, like their educations, have been nonconformist. They are individuals. During the days that we homeschooled, the motto of our school was “Every experience carries its lesson,” from Dune. Why am I now surprised when their education as adults mirrors the successful self-teaching of their younger years?
And why am I surprised that we should have such a gradual weaning, if a weaning it is at all? Raising my children in an atmosphere of cooperation rather than coercion has preserved our bond of attachment into adulthood. We really like one another. And how odd it is that we must ask ourselves if it is OK to be so close.
In so many families, the 18th year is a rigidly enforced rite of passage out of the home and into the world. It is often enforced with no gradations, as a once-and-for-all kind of thing. I know parents who move to a smaller house or remodel their child’s bedroom as soon as the child is 18, as if he or she will never come back again. No wonder so many don’t. That has not been my experience, however. Like the teens who crowded our house during those years, I have come to believe that it is perfectly natural for our home to be a flexible refuge during the early years of adulthood as well.
Still, we sit on my bed in the morning and sometimes talk about how unusual it is that we all get along so well. Or is it? On vacation recently, we were sitting on the porch of a rental house and noticed that three of us were sitting in exactly the same relation to one another as we do on my bed in the mornings. We have this habit of intimacy.
Later during the vacation, I went out to dinner with Lee, Cyndee, Andei, and Ocean. We are women who have known one another for 10 to 20 years and have raised our children pretty much the same way, in a spirit of trust and cooperation. We did our best to follow our children’s lead and to trust the natural way of less intervention and more interaction.
After dinner, my friends and I went to drop off Lee at her house and ended up sitting on her bed talking. I wondered, as the children gathered and joined the four of us women on the bed, what was going on. Cyndee’s and Lee’s preteen sons joined us on the bed, nuzzling and cuddling just like little puppies, as Cyndee called them. They were acting like animals, after all. One young boy caught my eye as if to ask if this was all OK with me, too, this nuzzling and rolling and frolicking about. It was. It was just like our house. Soon after the interlude on Lee’s bed, I attended the La Leche League International (LLLI) conference in San Francisco, where Marian Tompson, a LLLI founder, showed me a photo of her great-grandchild. She proudly showed me the young parents and commented that it had been a natural birth. Four generations of natural births, four generations of homebirths.
The conversations with my children on my bed, the sweet evening on Lee’s bed, the pictures of Marian’s great-grandchild-help me to remember that something very profound is happening. At the same time we are discouraged that social change in support of healthy families is taking so long, we are already there. We are weaving with an evolutionary thread that goes back in time to traditional societies.
Fifty years ago, La Leche League took up this thread, inspired by physicians such as Grantly Dick-Read and Gregory White, who trusted the natural way and knew that it was fear, not childbirth or breastfeeding, that was the problem. While it seems that we’ve been advocating for childbirth reform and parents’ rights forever, in fact, most social movements take 100 years to become established. The Civil Rights movement, the movement for jails instead of lynching, and the movement for public schools all took about 100 years to accomplish their goals. After 50 years, natural birth and parenting are considered legitimate choices; now it is time for assimilation.
Why is this so important? Isn’t it arrogant to talk of people assimilating the natural way? Isn’t the natural way just another lifestyle choice? No, it’s not. That’s the point, really. While many people think of natural choices, particularly about birth and parenting, as just another lifestyle choice, they are, in fact, health choices. They are health choices because current scientific evidence supports the safety and superiority of the natural way.
Natural choices help protect the integrity of pregnancy and birth, the first environment. Arguments for natural pregnancy and birth are often framed in free-choice rhetoric and give women the impression that doing things naturally is some kind of self-sacrifice. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It is because the natural way is, in fact, so self-generating that we recommend it to one another in the first place.
During natural birth, for example, an intricate chemistry of hormones provides pain relief, moves the baby through the uterus, and prepares the mother to welcome the baby. This intricate chemistry also unlocks in the birthing woman a dormant instinctual intelligence that informs her as a new mother. Chemical agents, such as the drugs given to most women during childbirth in this country, disrupt this intricate chemistry of natural birth and instead set the birthing woman’s body into a fight-or-flight response. Thus, most women in the US give birth under stress when it doesn’t have to be that way.
While women believe they are making free choices about birth, no one tells them that taking drugs during labor might adversely affect their bonding with and affection for their babies. No one tells them that the drugs might put their babies at risk for later drug addiction. No one tells them that there are non-drug alternatives for pain relief, or that the simple presence of another woman during birth will dramatically reduce their desire for pain medication. We talk about free choice, but little choice is actually available in the monopoly that is technological and pharmaceutical hospital birth. While scientific evidence shows that birth is safe in any setting, only one percent of births in the US take place outside of a hospital. What birthing women in the US consider free choice is actually a constructed reality offering little actual choice.
This same monopoly turns women’s pregnancies into medical events, with routine prenatal tests that were once reserved for special circumstances and that parents acquiesce to all too casually. No one tells mothers that these tests are not recommended for routine use and that scientific evidence does not support their routine use. No one tells them that the jury is still out on ultrasound. We know now that ultrasound changes the cells of the baby, but we don’t know what this means. Because of the high-risk treatment afforded normal pregnancies, a woman prepares for her child in nervous anticipation rather than the ecstatic joy that is her birthright, and that is just what her baby needs to grow the best. Studies show that mothers who are stressed during early pregnancy give birth to more aggressive children.
If I appear to screech about the natural way, it’s not because I want to form a cult or a club, or to feel good because we’re all doing things the same way. It’s simply because I know that women are being sold a bill of goods, a limited sense of their own capacities, a distorted view of birth. And the tragedy is that their choices are not just simple lifestyle choices, but choices that will affect the health of their babies and themselves for decades to come. Women should be encouraged to trust in the innate integrity of the process of birth and in its transformative nature. By surrendering to it, they come out renewed. As the birth and the moments following it set the tone for the interaction with the baby and therefore the future health of the baby, women deserve and need to be undisturbed during pregnancy and birth, so that the dyad of mother and baby will operate optimally.
I realized on Lee’s bed that this way of natural, undisturbed birth is the precursor for our entire parenting adventure. Birth is perhaps the first moment that we try out the trust we will need to mother our babies. We trust that a baby knows how to be born, that our bodies know what to do. We cooperate with our bodies and our babies. We take our babies into our arms and carry them around with us everywhere. We sleep with them and nurse them until they stop. And when they have temper tantrums, lie, and climb out of windows, we trust that they are basically good. Trust and love create a stronger bond than fear and control. We learn early on that children, like everyone else, have good reasons for their behavior and that simply spending more time with them usually cures most ills. And we practice putting family first and putting people before things. We trust our inner authority, and we recognize that our children have one as well.
Years ago, when I read Liberated Parents, Liberated Children by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, I was terrified because the way I wanted to parent was going to require me to stop trying to control my children. I was not always going to be able to have my way. I was going to have to cooperate. It was hard to do this. It was like learning a new language, this language of trust and cooperation. But, slowly, it began to have its own rewards, and I became more satisfied with the cooperation of intimate family life than I had been with the solitary role of authoritarian leader.
Many others have discovered these same truths, threads that wend their way back to traditional societies and to truths about human nature that are not new but only rediscovered and renamed for modern times. We now have second, third, and fourth generations of parents in the US who have learned to trust themselves and their children and the natural process of life. There are enough of us now to report back that the kids turn out just fine. And that the added and perhaps unanticipated joy is that the bonding and attachment of the early years provide a rich foundation for a lifetime of love. It’s hard to imagine, when your child is an infant, that your loving respect is creating the grounds for a real friendship with your adult child, but it is. It really is.
Peggy O’Mara is the mother of four grown children. She has gained international celebrity as publisher, editor and owner of Mothering Magazine. She is also the author of four books: Having a Baby Naturally: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting, The Way Back Home: Essays on Life and Family, and A Quiet Place: Essays on Life and Family, all of which can be purchased in the Mothering Shop. A dynamic speaker, she has lectured and conducted workshops in conjunction with organizations such as the Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche International, and Bioneers. She has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and has been featured in national publications including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Mother Earth News, and Utne Reader.
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