Thursday, June 24

Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned From the Mennonites

Well not quite everything, but I did learn some important things about taking care of my babies from the Mennonite mums of Thompson Manitoba, things I've been thinking of writing in a blog for a long time. This is a subject, though, that I've been a little wary of, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I have four children. They are all older than 13, so some of the final results of my mothering are out there for all to see. They aren't perfect. Each one of them has their good qualities, and they have their glaring faults. So I certainly can't say I know the method of parenting babies that produces perfect sons and daughters, or even sons and daughters that are better than everyone else's. I think I can say that every single one of them is more than willing to help when help is needed, but whether that particular good result can be tied to how they were cared for as babies, I really can't say. So, while I do think I know something about caring for babies, if someone wants to poke holes in what I write, there are four imperfect products out there for them to use as ammunition.

Then, there's the fact that I haven't read a parenting or child care book in at least 15 years. Before that I read just about everything I could get my hands on, and also took classes on early child development, and human growth and development. Somewhere along the line I realized that The Preach had been right all along--there really is nothing new under the sun. People have been raising children for thousands of years and getting imperfect results for thousands of years. I've stopped caring much about parenting theories, and so I feel a little out of my league commenting on the subject of parenting at all. However, I do care about happy and healthy babies, and harmonious families, so that's where I hope to focus in this piece, and that's where the Mennonite mums come in.

Let me give you a bit of background first. When I was 5 months pregnant with my first child, my husband and I packed everything up into the back of our pickup and travelled way up north of Winnipeg on the Thompson Highway to Thompson, Manitoba, where Keith had landed his first teaching job. Mostly because I wasn't feeling all that well, we didn't start looking for a church to attend until right after our daughter was born.

There were really only two churches in Thompson at that time that could have been called evangelical--a Baptist church, and a Mennonite one. The Baptist church was our first choice, since it was closer to what we were used to, but we quickly learned that it was much too legalistic for us. So we visited the Mennonite church.

That first Sunday, we were welcomed with open arms. It was a tiny church--maybe 12 families or so--but one of the couples happened to have been in our prenatal classes and had a baby who had been born just a couple of weeks before ours, so we felt that at least we knew someone from the start. No one seemed to care in the slightest that we were not really Mennonite; they wanted us to join them in their worship. So we stayed in that church, and felt we were a real part of it, until we left Thompson at the end of the school year.

If you count up the months, you will find that we weren't there very long. Our daughter was only 5 1/2 months old when we left. I was a new mom, inexperienced and far away from my own mother, who would have shown me the ropes if she had been there, but those mums of that church took me under their wings, and had a lasting influence on the way babies were cared for in this family. I don't think they really knew they were doing anything special, but they were. These things were never discussed--they were never pointed to as the way mothers ought to be. This was just the way those mums were, the way they lived their lives with their families. They were just doing what came naturally for them, but their examples were exactly what I needed. I didn't have to flounder in my inexperience, because I had them to show me what to do and how to be with my baby.

Babies and children were included in just about everything they did. As far as I can remember, there was never a church gathering that didn't include children. There was no children's church, maybe just because the church was too small. There were lots of children, though, since every adult in the congregation was married and between 20 and 45, just like almost everyone in the whole town of Thompson was. So there were certainly enough children to have the children separated during the worship service; but they weren't separated, they were included. We got used to listening to the sermon over the rustling and wiggling and occasional fussing from the children.

Once I made a quick trip to the mall across the road from us while the baby stayed home with her dad. When I met one of the ladies from church, she was shocked to see me without my baby. "Where's the baby?" she asked. "Don't you feel empty without her?" I had been feeling strange without a baby in my arms, but I had thought that I was being foolish! And here was a mom more experienced than I was, telling me that what I was feeling was the right and normal way to feel.

So that's the first thing I learned: young babies belong with their mothers. Moms are hard wired to want to be with the wee ones, and babies are hard wired to want to be with their moms. That's a good thing, and there is no need to fight it. That's why God made babies with chubby cheeks that call out for gentle pinching, and those soft heads that fit so nicely into the palm of our hands. Just who they are and how they look draws us to them.

And children, by and large, belong with their parents. Not that we don't need to get away from them sometimes. We need breaks for adult only things now and then, but let's not forget that the best way for children to learn how to be, and how to behave, is by seeing who we are and how we act, and the only way for them to do that is by spending lots of time with us.

The second thing I learned is that the natural way to feed babies is breastfeeding. I was already breastfeeding when we started attending that church, but the open and natural way that they breastfed their young babies, old babies, or toddlers in the middle of a church service, or church barbecue, or coffee with friends, made it seem like the only way it was done. They were modest and discreet, but always very open about what they were doing. Because of their example, I continued breastfeeding my babies long after almost everyone else I knew had stopped. I knew I wasn't really the only one--that at least back up there in Thompson Manitoba, there were other moms doing what I was doing.

The third thing I learned is that babies are to be loved for who they are. Those women (and men, too) loved all babies--fat babies, scrawny babies, crabby babies, cooing babies, freshly bathed babies and smelly babies. They loved each baby for whatever it was that made that baby different from other babies. The baby born a couple of weeks before our daughter was big and contented and a little passive. They loved him for being big and contented and a little passive, because those were the things that made him the little guy that he was. My daughter was smaller, crankier, demanding, and very active. They thought she was great, too. They loved jostling her when she was cranky. They thought petite was cute. They were amazed and delighted that whe was scooting around the floor at four months. No one ever said, "Oh boy! Now you're in trouble! You'll have to watch that one every second of the day." They said, "Isn't that wonderful! She's already curious about things." And so I learned something that anyone with more than one child already knows. We are all born with different personalities. There is no perfect cookie cutter sort of baby we need to mould ours into. The different personality traits are gifts from God--gifts that they will often use wrongly, but gifts that will be their strengths when they use them rightly.

Last, I learned is that it's fine to have a messy house and serve Kraft dinner for supper when you've got wee ones to keep you busy. Those lovely mothers never seemed to be embarassed to invite people over when the house was less than perfect. If there were piles of dirty laundry on the kitchen floor waiting to be washed, then there were piles of laundry. A bucket of ice cream was a perfectly acceptable contribution to a church potluck supper. I tended to be a bit of a neat freak, and this casual attitude toward the condition of the home was a revelation to me--a freeing revelation. I still like my house tidy, but I also know that there are other things more important. Like a home that is mostly peaceful and harmonious, because the needs of the children--for cuddling, or entertaining, or discipline, or whatever--are considered above the needs of the house.

Now that I'm thinking about these things, I wish I could thank them for what they taught me, but I'm pretty sure that they are all long gone from Thompson. Like every one else, they were there to make money in the mine, and move on to settle elsewhere. Wherever they are, this is my thank you to the Mennonite mums I knew in Thompson, Manitoba.