Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mind Your Own Boobs....Er, Business

Here's the thing. Tarana is 16 months old and I am still breastfeeding her up to 4 times a day. And I have no immediate plans to wean her  - in fact, I plan to let her decide when she wants to stop. Now, for some reason, this seems to really bother a lot of people - friends and family - and has since Tarana turned a year old.

It's not as if I am going out of my way to announce this to the world (not unless you count this post). Unless I want to lie, it's the explanation I have to give for limiting myself to one glass of wine (which is unusual enough to attract comment) or get home in time for Tarana's feed or excuse myself to nurse her when we are over at someone's house.

Here are a sampler of the reactions I have got over the last few months:

'You're still nursing? Why?'
'Don't you think it's about time you weaned her off?'

'Aren't you bored?'

'What if she asks for 'it' in public? Won't it be embarrassing?

'What if she gets too used to it?'

'She will get spoiled.'

'I know the WHO favours breastfeeding up to the age of 2, but that guideline is basically for poor people whose kids don't have access to good quality nutrition.'

And this is my favourite:
'I know women in rural areas feed their babies till much later but I just find it a bit weird' *accompanied by a shudder*

When I was nursing Ayaan, I had no intention of continuing past the age of one. I bought into the argument that it was unnatural and unnecessary for  kids to breastfeed after their first birthday. Besides, that was also my deadline for return to full-time work (with some travel thrown in), so it would have been logistically impossible. So I followed a very strict schedule of weaning. From five months of age, I added one solid meal and dropped one feed every month till we were down to a single feed at Month Eleven. At that point, Ayaan took the matter out of my hands and self-weaned (he was never a big fan of breastfeeding in the first place).

Everything about Tarana's infancy has been less planned - from sleep training to her diet - and nursing has been no different. When she was born, I was committed to breastfeed her for a year and after that, it would have depended on my work situation. But once going back to work was off the table, I saw no reason to stop.

What I did not expect was the almost universal disapproval - mild and outspoken - of my choice to continue nursing beyond the age of one. The benefits of extended breastfeeding are well-documented but it's possible that most people, like my first-time mom self, are not aware of them and just follow the popular motto: 'If they are old enough to ask for it, they are too old'. But even then, I don't understand why it attracts this kind of negative attention. I am not even, like mothers in many Western countries, asking for the right to bare all and breastfeed in public. Most of Tarana's nursing sessions happen in the privacy of my bedroom and the occasional in-transit ones behind the modest nursing apron that goes with us everywhere.

I think the problem lies in the way that we have sexualised breasts. Prop them up with push-up bras, enhance them with surgery or bare them on the Playboy centrefold and most people are unlikely to so much as bat an eyelid. But, God forbid, that you use them for their intended purpose and actually nurse a 2-year old, you'd better be ready to be an eye-popping spectacle!

The other problem is that breastfeeding has become such a touchy issue. We all feel judged, no matter what our choices. Those who stop early feel that the ones who carry on into toddlerhood make them look bad, who in turn feel that the former look upon them as weirdos. In other words, just another front in the Mommy Wars!

I think the decision to breastfeed is a personal one. There is no universal right answer. Just one right answer for every mother and baby pair, depending on their needs and circumstances. In my case, I am at home, Tarana still seems to need it and I can't think of a single good reason to stop.

It's early days yet (I am just 4 months past the one-year mark) but I am happy with my decision. Sure, it cramps my style a bit - I can't go on a trip without Tarana or indulge in a boozing session - but I have found that the benefits far outweigh the inconveniences. Here's what has worked for me:
  • When Tarana was still an infant, I came across the concept of Baby-Led Weaning. They had me at hello. So Tarana has never had a mashed or pureed meal and her first taste of solid food was a slice of apple at five and a half months that she sat and gummed for twenty minutes. I will do a detailed post on this at some point but it has been great and she has been able to explore and take her time with food since there was no pressure to wean or stress about how much nutrition she was getting from her non-milk diet.
  • Travel is so easy. We went to Mauritus when she was just over a year and I did not carry a single thing for her to eat or any feeding equipment from home. There was always something that she would find interesting enough to eat at the restaurants we ate at and even when she was fussy about the food, the breastfeeding was a backup and I did not have to worry about whether she was getting enough.
  • I have actually seen the immunity thing in action. It's not that she falls ill less. Thanks to her brother's susceptibility to respiratory infections, she has had more than her fair share of coughs and colds. But what is different is their intensity and duration. She usually kicks the bugs off faster than Ayaan does and usually without any help from medication. In fact, she has needed antibiotics just once (when she caught the virulent bug that caused Ayaan's pneumonia). 
  • Even when she is ill and goes off her food for a bit, she continues to nurse so I don't have to agonise about her not getting enough to eat.
However, while I have not been actively weaning her, I definitely don't want her to get dependent on breastmilk. So I have been nudging her along in small ways. As part of her sleep training, I have been slowly pushing the time for her night feed. She now has it at 5 a.m. and then sleeps for another 45-60 minutes. When she gets up, I give her a cup of cow's milk. She doesn't have much but she's gradually increasing the quantity. I am doing this now when she is less rigid about her tastes because I worry that she might reject it altogether if I wait longer.

After she turned six months, I also cut out her comfort feeds and stopped feeding on demand. Unless she is sick or her ears are blocked on a flight, she only gets a feed after waking up and just before bedtime (that's four feeds a day currently). This way, breastfeeding is not likely to become an emotional crutch for her, another thing the experts warn against. And it also means that it is rare for her to ask me for an unscheduled feed in public (hence ruling out the embarrassment factor, which would have been high given that her word for it, rather inappropriately, is 'booboo')

So anyway, that's what it is. How do you feel about it? Go ahead, speak your mind in the comments. If you dislike the idea of extended breastfeeding, I'd really like to know why.

(Image courtesy http://alliancebreastfeeding.com)

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Adding to the Chua Chatter

 Like almost every one who hasn't been living under a rock (or without Internet access), I read the WSJ article on Amy Chua's book titled 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother'. The article pretty much went viral and every one from journalists to bloggers to the twitter republic was weighing in, mostly against the 'Chinese parenting' way that Chua followed with her kids.

Being a mommyblogger and all, I really wanted to add my two cents to the debate but I decided to read the book first. Mostly because Chua herself reacted to the WSJ article saying that they had just picked the most provocative bits from her book and therefore misrepresented it. And also because I didn't want to play Aditya Thackeray to her Rohinton Mistry. So her book had the honour of being the first paid book to grace my Kindle.

It was a quick read - I was done with it in two days, which has to be the fastest I have read any book since Tarana was born - and I have to say I found it quite interesting and even agreed with parts of it.

The excerpts featured in WSJ are all there but what is perhaps different is the tone of the whole book. In the author's defence, the book is not a how-to manual on parenting and at no point does she set herself up as an expert on the subject. It was more of a memoir of her years as a mother to her two daughters and her style of raising them. Sure, she has strong opinions and takes potshots at what she calls Western parenting methods and thinks her way is better, but aren't most of us, mommybloggers in particular, equally certain and opinionated about our parenting choices?

In fact, she openly states upfront in the preface of her book: This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter class of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.

In parts, I actually admired her foresight and determination. Her kids clearly had musical talent. If she has done as most of us do, they would have learnt to play the instruments as a hobby at best. To get to their level of excellence in fields like music and sports is not easy. You need to start young and put in hours and years of practice. And no, no kid will willingly put in that kind of effort in their childhood. Of course, parents have to be sensible about identifying talents and working within the boundaries imposed by the child's temperament - something Chua herself went totally wrong with in her second daughter's case - and be willing to accept it gracefully if the kid they think is the smartest fellow on the block is not quite the prodigy in the making. But if you do see potential, wouldn't it be a criminal waste to not do your best to help it flower in the pursuit of that chimera - a happy childhood.

Why do we assume that kids who are pushed to maximise their potential are unhappy? We Indians are no strangers to this kind of parenting. Many of us grew up in homes where our parents weren't that far away from the Chua school of raising kids. And most of us would testify to having had a happy childhood.

Forget about child prodigies, regular kids need to be pushed too. Kids are no judge of their potential. Especially in the early, formative years, they need their parents to nudge them in the right direction and to put the requisite amount of effort. Like I heard Chua say in an interview, 'if you give a 5-year old free choice, he will spend 5 hours a day playing video games'.

I have had a few trying experiences with Ayaan lately. He went off his swimming and skating classes, in both cases at the exact same time that the difficulty level was upped. (They took away the floats and moved him to faster skates respectively). He didn't want to go anymore, he would cry before each swimming class and whine and drag his feet for the skating class. But I stood firm and now he's back to going for the classes willingly. I didn't give in because I had seen him enjoying both classes till the going got tough. If I had let him quit, I would have been sending him the message that it is okay to walk away from challenges and obstacles instead of persisting. Like Chua says, "As a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up". I totally agree.

I think children grow and learn when you push them out of their comfort zones. Otherwise don't be surprised if they grow into adults with a huge sense of entitlement, and the expectation that life will hand them everything on a silver platter, which we know it rarely does.

Back to Ms. Chua then. While there are definitely some points to ponder, overall I have to agree with popular opinion that she is totally over the top. I think in China (or India) she might have been the model parent, but trying to raise an American kid that way in today's world is totally crazy. I think she deprived her kids of some happy childhood experiences - sleepovers, playdates, fun - that are as important in a child's development as training him or her for future success. I think her obsession with getting her kids to practice even when they were sick or on holiday was nothing short of cruel. And her methods - shaming and punishing - questionable at best.

There were also bits where she said things that were clearly attention-seeking in their provocativeness. They left me with the feeling that maybe the whole book was an attempt to be controversial and sell more copies (it worked!). Some of the stuff she says makes her appear positively bigoted. Some examples:
"I wanted her to be well-rounded and to have hobbies and activities. Not just any activity, like "crafts", which can lead nowhere - or even worse, playing the drums, which leads to drugs"
"In the West, obedience is associated with dogs and the caste system"
"Tennis was very respectable. It wasn't like bowling"
And on sleepovers: "Sophia didn't need to be exposed to the worst of Western society"

Honestly, it was statements like these that put me off her. I am all for having a strong point of view about the way you do things - but that's really no cause to put down other people's choices. And it's not as if she is railing against huge problems like permissiveness or alcoholism - her judgement seems to be reserved for parents who allow their kids to indulge in harmless pursuits like sleepovers, drums and bowling!!!

The other bit where she came across more as a caricature than a living breathing woman was the chapter about the family getting their first dog.  She says her 'first instinct was to apply Chinese parenting' to the dog. And then goes to say some contrived stuff like "There's one difference between a dog and a daughter. A dog can do something every dog can do - dog paddle, for example - and we applaud with pride and joy. Imagine how much easier it would be if we could do the same with our daughters! But we can't; that would be negligence." Oh, come on!

Anyway, I am glad I read the book. I don't think it will change my parenting approach in any way. I know there are times when I will have to get down into the trenches with my children and make their lives somewhat miserable for their own good. But I also hope to balance that out with loads of fun, leisure and good memories.

For those of you haven't already read it, check out The Mad Momma's take on the Tiger Mom debate. Like she says, most of us holding forth on this have the luxury of choice. For those on the economic fringes, the success of their kids has the potential to change their lives and circumstances. I doubt they have sleepless nights about pushing their kids too hard or damaging their self-esteem.

ETA: Also check out CeeKay's take on debate over at Women's Web.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Pearls of Wisdom from the Resident Five Year Old Grandfather

Day before we leave for a trip - Mama, don't leave all the packing for tomorrow. Do a little now, a little in the evening, a little after I go to sleep and then you won't have lots and lots of things to pack tomorrow.

Out with his dad and it starts to rain - Dadda, you are not a small boy so you should check the season and see if we need to carry an umbrella.

When we are expecting some guests - Mama, you can give your friends an ice cream or two, but only if they don't have a cough.

On raising children - Mama, you have to teach the baby one new thing everyday.

To a friend who dropped by with baked goodies: If you keep eating and eating, you will become fat like Mr. Greedy.

On eating healthy - Mama, chips are healthy because they are made from potatoes and chocolates are healthy because they are made from milk.

On the impending move - Dadda, find a house fast in Hyderabad so that we can come there. Then you can see your children everyday

Thursday, February 03, 2011

To colour or not to colour

There's no getting around it. I am going grey with a vengeance. It's in my genes. Both my parents were well past the salt and pepper stage when they touched forty. And now at 60, my mom's hair is almost completely white so I am under no delusions about the fate that awaits me.

Even if I did choose to delude myself, kind friends and family are ever eager to remedy any lapse on my part. A recent family wedding was a prime example. I don't think there was a single cousin or aunt in the place who omitted to comment, in horrified tones, on the white hair sprouting from my scalp. And then proceeded to gape at me in wide-eyed amazement when I announced my intention to stay away from hair colour!

My hair stylist has tried unsuccessfully to get me to colour my hair and has finally given up. On my last visit, she finally gazed upon me with an expression that scientists usually reserve for a new strain of a wildly infectious disease and pronounced that she was very impressed with my guts to stay grey when everyone around was succumbing to the hair colour trend. She even went on to say that it didn't look bad on me since it didn't seem to bother me and that I was carrying it off with confidence. Hmmmm... I am still wondering if her tongue was firmly ensconced in her cheek!

Let me set the record straight. This is not about rejecting vanity. I am as vain as the next girl, or almost so. I frequent the salons - pedicures, manicures, blow-drys, waxing and facials are all performed on me with varying degrees of regularity. I spend a good proportion of my discretionary income on clothes and am quite a brand whore. And while I am no Imelda Marcos, I do love my shoes. So why not colour my hair?

Well, the big reason is the chemicals. I am just 35 (or will be in less than two months) and if I start colouring now, I'll probably have to keep going till I am 60. And unlike hair straightening (which I have done 3-4 times), this requires a monthly commitment to keep the roots from showing. So, if I am going to colour my hair every month for 25 years, that means I will dumping a shit load of chemicals on to my hair, scalp and possibly into my bloodstream about 300 times! That's about 290 times too many, as far as I am concerned.

There is also another reason for my colour-ban stance. This whole preoccupation with age bothers me. If the average beauty TV advertisement is to be believed, ageing gracefully and looking one's age is no longer an option and the jazzy anti-ageing potions, hair colourants and cosmetic surgery are the must-haves in every sensible woman's arsenal. The alternative - you won't get a man or the one you have will lose interest. Bah! And have you looked at the models in these ads who are worrying about greys and fine lines? None of them look a day over thirty, if that. Is the thirty the new fifty??? In other more disturbing news, a range of anti-ageing beauty products for tweens is just around the corner. What next? Wrinkle cream for toddlers? Diaper rash cream with AHAs

Sometimes, people do make me feel a bit like a freak. Imagine being all dressed up to the nines and you get more comments about your white hair than about your pretty face or lovely outfit... It can get somewhat disconcerting. But most of the time, it really and truly does not bother me. So no, I don't plan on changing status quo any time soon.

What about you? Where do you stand on the colour divide? Or are you one of those lucky souls who will probably get their first grey hair at 60?

ETA: Check out Planethalder's post for some truly inspiring pics of grey-haired women