Let’s get some perspective. I am 24-years-old, single, and a firm believer in family planning. I’ve had serious and not-so-serious relationships. At times I’ve even contemplated how many children I wanted, when I’d have them, and what socio-economic status I’d reach before I deemed it appropriate to reproduce.
I haven’t found that special someone and I haven’t been fortunate or unfortunate enough to make a life out of unplanned circumstance.
That said, observations on parenting here have sparked a ghastly division between first-world and third-world normalcy. For starters, big families here are a status symbol and, thanks to horrifying disease, malnutrition, food insecurity, and suffering, a large family is insurance that at least some of your children will make it past 8. The average family size in my catchment is around 8…two parents and six kids. There are extremes…12-14 if you get a double-up on twins but 8 is the average. Now, I bet your thinking, damn, is that even possible? Well, let’s say first pregnancy is between 14-16 years. Then it’s like a race. How many children can a woman produce before complications and exhaustion kill her. Between 16 and 35-40ish that’s about 20 years. Given a constant chain of pregnancies maybe 18 months apart (+ or – due to lactational pause), you could squeeze 12 kids into a natural cycle.
Death, plague, stress, hard labor, and third-world country life aside, mothers have to deal with constant pregnancy as well. Women have a hard go of it. They’re expected to raise the children, keep the home, help in the field, do piece-work on the side, and do chores. Let alone socialize and keep up on community responsibilities.
Here’s a picture for you. A pregnant woman, maybe in her third trimester, walking down the road, 20-litre Jerry can on her head, baby wrapped in a sling across her back, new born in front breast-feeding, toddler stumbling after, and a 10-15kg sack of maize for the mill in her off-hand. That’s one hell of a woman.
But this isn’t a post about women and development. This is a post about parenting and that image was just background. Migrant labor is still a big thing. Men travel long distances and so do women to find work. In some areas sex is a currency which buys families enough food. Gender roles here are well and biblically established. Men are the head of the household. They make the decisions about money, resources, sex and family planning. The concept of marital rape doesn’t apply. It’s a man’s world and often times men aren’t involved in the child rearing, birth or any other aspect of pregnancy and early childhood other than providing income.
I work in health. Part of our program includes forcing men to attend and be involved; to hear about ante-natal and under five child monitoring; to attend through threats, bribes, incentives or orders from traditional leaders.
It’s in these moments that I’ve learned what little I know about Zambian parenting. Couples run the gamut from doting loving fathers who tote their babies around the community to non-existent etherial figures. There seem to be some constants though. Zambians and Zambian children LOVE babies. The whole family is involved. I think Zambians receive the most touch, intimacy, love and care when they are infants. They might receive something similar when married, or at night, when everyone piles into the sleeping space and forms a puddle of humanity but I doubt it could ever compare to the wildly unabashed attention, contact, and psycho-analytical strokes of infancy.
However, as soon as a child can walk, they’re on their own. No more touch and very little doting. They’re expected to work and contribute to the needs of the family. A two-year-old stumbling around with minimal supervision; a four-year-old helping mom gather water or trying to weed. By six they hoe and work in the family field. One hell of a childhood.
Another interesting trend is the community’s involvement. Young children have almost free reign. Too young to be put to work in the field, no access to school, too old to be carried, they become community responsibility because there is no day care. Mom and dad are in the fields, or miles and miles away trying to find work. Older children become the mothers and fathers. Now thanks to HIV/AIDS child-headed households aren’t uncommon. Community members who are successful become foster homes. Those families that have a little extra pick up a relative’s or community orphan.
Death is common, early childhood development is stunted, and life is hard. Let’s say on average a community member finishes grade 7, equivalent to grade 3-4 in the US. Without money, sponsorship, or resources, that’s all they’re gonna get. Now couple that with widespread developmental disorders due to malnutrition in early childhood. Vitamin and protein deficiencies, mental deficiencies due to the above, and all you’ve really got left are those supremely basic, instinctual, care mechanisms and the community to guide your parenting.
Death is a daily companion. A common visitor that’s all too familiar here. Children die and although times are getting better, it’s expected that some of your children won’t make it. That fuels the disconnect between the young and the parents.
Now. That’s a whole lot of hurt but, its not all sad and depressing. I teach mothers and fathers (when I can get ’em) about safe motherhood, nutrition, and proper child development. Mothers are hungry for knowledge. They love and are fiercely protective of their children. That instinctual drive is spectacular but, they are lost in a sea of ignorance with very little hope of finding shore. An example – they’ll wait 5-6 hours in queue just to have their babies weighed or immunized. It’s beautiful and heart-wrenching. Especially when you have to explain that their child is starving or has a protein deficiency that they can fix with better cooking and food diversity. Sometimes babies come in with scars and fresh cuts, razor blade cuts from traditional healers bleeding the children to heal them.
Parenting with limited access to information and low educational levels isn’t so much difficult as nearly impossible. Yet, these communities and people manage to raise functional, surviving, socially-adapted, friendly and out going adults. I’d say about 80%-90% of that is community…communal parenting and a strong focus on respecting the elderly. Elders carry a huge amount of power and respect here and age yields wisdom. With an expectation of community involvement and communal discipline, the shortcomings of a single family’s parenting style can be easily mitigated by intervention. They’re not just your kids, they represent the future of the community. They’re everyone’s responsibility. Now that’s huge! What a difference it makes.
Parenting needs to be a mixture of control, discussion, discipline, exposure, love, and hard work. It takes a partnership and it takes knowledge and dedication. But most of all, it takes the community. An inflow of stimuli from elders, villagers, home and community.
Postscript one week later:
I wrote to y’all last week on a pretty heavy note. The painful difficulties of parenting in the third-world. I touched on the horrifying and sad effects of malnutrition on young children and it’s long term effects on the entire community/society.
Let’s be frank, that post needed some uplifting moments in it that weren’t there. Today my friend Pascoe introduced me to his wife and their beautiful baby. A young, thankfully healthy, gorgeous baby. He was so excited that she wasn’t afraid of the muzungu. (Swahili or Bemba bastardization of foreigner/white man).
He’s a sweet man, kind, and a hard hard worker. He loves his family, works long hours, volunteers on top of it, doesn’t drink, and plays with and nurtures his children. He’s an example of those great fathers in the developing world whose family means more to him than anything else in the world and who would sacrifice everything for them.
He’s the proper model of parenting: Nurturing, involved, communicative, hard-working but participatory in his children’s future and development. He’s an inspiration.
Cheers to you, sir.