Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Never the Same

Depression in New Mothers: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment AlternativesPostpartum depression affects 12 to 25% of mothers, reports Kathleen Kendall-Tackett in the second edition of her book, Depression in New Mothers: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment Alternatives. I have been one of those mothers.

For a book addressed primarily to medical practicioners, there are several wonderful gems in this book for the lay and professional reader alike. I found it to be empowering, especially in dispelling myths. For example, we learn that PPD is NOT caused by hormonal changes or imbalances, does not go away with time, and can be as efficaciously treated with exercise and other alternative treatments as it can with drugs.

The most powerful part of the book, in my opinion, is the section describing the rituals surrounding birth and the transition to motherhood in cultures where researchers have found a surprising absence of PPD. I found these descriptions beautiful, moving, and illuminating, especially in the context of the voluminous research summaries that make up the bulk of the book.

Kendall-Tackett describes the social structures that protect new mothers including a distinct postpartum period, social seclusion and mandated rest, household and childcare assistance, and social recognition of her new role and status:
In almost all the societies studied [which displayed low instances of PPD], the postpartum period was recognized as a time that is distinct from normal life. Postpartum is a time when mothers are supposed to recuperate, their activities are limited, and they are taken care of by female relatives. This was also common practice in colonial America, and was referred to as the "lying in" period (Wertz and Wertz, 1989). [. . .]

In cultures where there is a low incidence of the blues or depression, there is a great deal of personal attention given to the mother. This has been described as "mothering the mother." In these various cultures, the new status of the mother is recognized through social rituals and gifts. For example, in Punjabi culture, there is the ritual stepping-out ceremony, ritual bathing and hair washing performed by the midwife, and a ceremonial meal prepared by a Brahmin. When she returns to her husband's family, she returns with many gifts she has been given for herself and the baby. Ritual bathing, washing of hair, massage, binding of the abdomen, and other types of personal care are also prominent in the postpartum rituals of rural Gautemala, for Mayan women in the Yucatan, and for Latina women both in the U.S. and Mexico. Here is a description of one of these recognition rituals performed by the Chagga people of Uganda

"Three months after the birth of her child, the Chagga woman's head is shaved and crowned with a bead tiara, she is robed in an ancient skin garment worked with beads, a staff such as the elders carry is put in her hand, and she emerges from her hut for her first public appearance with her baby. Proceeding slowly toward the market, they are greeted with songs such as are sung to warriors returning from battle. She and her baby have survived the weeks of danger. The child is no longer vulnerable, but a baby who has learned what love means, has smiled its first smiles, and is now ready to learn about the bright, loud world outside." (Dunham, 1992: 148)

There is something very wrong about a culture where we expect and are expected to pop out a baby and get right back on the horse acting as if we are the same person we were before we birthed a new life into the world. We are not and will never be the same.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

How to (Not) Waste Kindergarten

When my friend, Cinda, gave me a proverbial slap across the face last spring, it mostly brought me back to my senses.

I had emailed some veteran homeschool mom friends asking for advice on which math curriculum to use for Kindergarten/early-elementary instruction. Cinda wrote back:
I was really surprised by your email. I have attempted to answer it a few times now, but found my answers trite and unhelpful.  So, in short . . . don't buy curriculum! Buy some good books, live at the library and do what you already know to be true, and good, and FUN! Color, cut, paste, cook, run, dig, paint, build, plant, these are the curricula for a kindergarten student. You are probably doing all of these things, but don't stop to fill in a workbook page. Workbooks don't teach, parents do!
Oh, snap! I've always prided myself on being someone who thinks outside the box, and there I found myself—totally in the box when it came to Kindergarten and, especially, math.

I was so grateful for the reality check. I decided to ditch all formal math curriculum along with any other textbooks, worksheets, or formal instruction in science, history, social science, or world languages.

Well, we did do a once-a-week co-op Science class for the fall semester, but that was mostly for fun and to meet people and plug in to our new community.

And, well, I just couldn't give up the reading and writing instruction.

I'd like to say that my daughter brought this on herself. I had hoped to put off writing and penmanship instruction until a later grade, especially given that fine motor skills tend to develop later than mental-visual abilities like reading. But then my four-year-old went and taught herself to write the alphabet. She was printing letters and writing rough notes on her own initiative—with poorly formed letters and poor penmanship (i.e., pencil grasp and posture), not to mention rather inventive spelling. I did not want those habits to become ingrained. As the saying goes, "What they learn first, they learn best."

To top it off, I read essays (like this one) by Wanda Sanseri and became convinced that the best way to learn to read and write is to start with learning phonograms and spelling. So I got Sanseri's program, Spell to Write and Read (a.k.a. SWR) with the corresponding Cursive First package, and I love it. I followed the SWR Kindergarten plan and tend to agree with Sanseri about the pacing: if it's too slow, it's boring and loses momentum and effectiveness.

But it was certainly a lot of seat work for a Kindergartener who turned 5 in November and a mom-teacher who hadn't particularly wanted to do formal desk learning in Kindergarten.

Now, when I say it was a lot of seat work for Kindergarten, I'm comparing that to, well, no seat work. We actually averaged about 1.5 hours a day for 3.5 days per week doing formal homeschooling. That's less than six hours a week. As I would often like to point out to my daughter, that's nothing compared to what most people expect or experience for Kindergarten.

However, we don't want to be "normal" schoolers; that's why we're homeschooling.

Part of me remains conflicted about whether it was the best choice to charge ahead with the penmanship and spelling-reading with a young Kindergartener. (With kids who are NOT already writing, I would probably put off formally starting SWR until first, maybe even second, grade. But the phonograms can be learned in preschool or earlier, as my sponge of a toddler has demonstrated this year.)

On the whole, with perfectionism aside, however, I'd say it's been a great year and my daughter seems to have really flourished.

Mid-way through the fall semester, I realized the Science co-op class, although fun and socially expedient, was mostly a distraction from what I wanted to spend my Kindergarten homeschool time doing. 

So, for this last semester, we've been spending more time on the essentials: We've gone to the zoo and the beach, on walks at the lagoon and hikes in the open nature preserve, to the botanic garden and to many local parks. We've attended over a dozen free "Music at Noon" concerts and listened to classical music at home. We've read lots of Bible stories, Mother Goose nursery rhymes, Aesop's Fables, and library books. I've tried to send the kids outside to play on the hill in the flowers at least once a day, even if only for 10 minutes. We've had lunch al fresco under the trees. And craft time every afternoon after naps. (Yes; my five-year-old still needs her daily nap, and, because we're homeschooling, she still gets it.)

I'd like to be proud that my daughter can now, at the end of Kindergarten, spell at a second grade level and write with beautiful cursive handwriting. But, I know that what's much more important is that she get to be the kid she is and develop her natural, God-given intellectual capacities for observation and intuition, problem-solving and creativity through the developmentally appropriate avenue of unstructured, imaginative play and a wealth of direct experiences with beautiful, living things and ideas.