People who need people

A rare piece on Stuff.co.nz explicitly drew links between the high rates of abuse of Māori children and colonisation. From that article:

… I think that model of the nuclear family, the domestic unit, is actually an unhealthy model for a culture of people who are used to having a collective relationship.

The little dude stayed at my parents’ on Friday and Saturday. They’re really close, which is lovely for all of us. I adored my Nana when I was little, and there’s a sense of things coming full circle when we pack him off to stay the night with his Nana and he’s happy as can be.

I would go to my Nana’s on a Friday night and we’d walk to the shops, get a video out, and buy a chocolate bar. She would make me fish fingers with lots of lemon, and carrots cooked until soft, and peas, and for afters there would be lime jelly and stewed apple. She would brush my hair and plait it before bed so it’d be wavy in the morning, and we’d watch the video and listen to her Beatles tapes. When it was bedtime, she’d tuck me in on the floor next to her bed, and I’d always ask if I could come in her bed for a cuddle first, and she’d always say yes, and she would sing to me as long as I wanted. I would sometimes wake up to find I’d fallen asleep in her bed.

It never occurred to me that some parents might feel threatened by another attachment figure. I saw it mentioned on online forums when googling tips for making sure toddlers feel like they’re getting enough attention when the new baby arrives and thought “eh?”. It doesn’t compute for me, possessiveness about the parental relationship – I can understand it only with a lot of effort, and it has no emotional resonance. I feel certain that childrearing is best done by a whole lot of people, that there is no such thing as too many attentive adults caring for a child. I remember camping as a teenager with my friend’s family, her mum talking with me about what we were reading, her dad showing me how to make harissa; and though my mum loved books and my dad loved cooking, it was a joy to do this with someone else’s parents as well. To see that the world was made up of all these good people, who all had a bit of space for me in their lives.

My mother-in-law came down for a week when bub was tiny, and she took the little dude on the train to Petone, and he still talks about it. Sometimes when he won’t settle for sleep, I lie down with him and we play the game of listing all the people who love him. It makes me happy that the list is long.

Children need more than what their parents can give. I believe this unwaveringly. It’s one of the reasons I feel good about sending the little dude to creche. It opens him to the possibility that how mum does things isn’t the only way to do things. The rough patches in what the parents can offer get smoothed out by exposure to other adults with different strengths. He saw a book at the library and said “me know dat one!”, and I thought, it’s lovely that he has these experiences which he can then tell me about.

————-

CYFS is being rebranded, and the proposed name is “Ministry for Vulnerable Children”.

The new Commissioner for Children, Andrew Becroft, has said it stigmatises and labels.

Vulnerable children? Wait, aren’t all children fairly vulnerable? They all need people to meet their needs, they’re incapable of looking after themselves. The difference is the adults in their lives.

Monday night the baby wouldn’t settle, he had a cough and a stuffy nose and he just wouldn’t sleep, I felt like I was up rocking him and holding him most of the night. It’s hardest when they need you most. He’d drift off when I held him, then I’d put him down and he’d wake; I’d sit up with him for ages, then shift position to get comfortable, and he’d wake. He’d cry, distressed. I imagined him saying “please mama, hold me, please help me sleep”. I held him to my chest and bounced on the edge of the bed. I vented to twitter. I threw a pillow at the cat in a flash of rage when the cat mewed and bub had only just dropped off. I mused that the word “succumb” so perfectly describes the way unsettled babies enter sleep. I had one of those pangs of deep sadness for the parents who shake their unsettled babies when I felt the frustration rise as bub woke for the millionth time. I absentmindedly held him as he writhed and cried while I chose some music on spotify: call the sun in the dead of the night and the sun gonna rise in the sky. At 6.15am, I took bub through to my husband (on the couch) and said something unintelligible, burning with sleep-deprived fuzziness. As he surfaced into wakefulness he muttered “whaa?”. I snapped at him, thrust the baby into his arms and stormed back to bed. He put bub in the buggy with a thick blanket and walked round and round the block for an hour.

One of the difficult features about the early years is that it’s not reasonable to expect much appreciation from small children. A baby doesn’t say “hey thanks for sitting up with me all night when I was sick”. A 2 year old doesn’t say “thanks for washing the covers of the couch cushions after I wet my pants.” Nor should they. They have every right to expect their needs to be met, and at that young age they shouldn’t be noticing what it costs the parents. They might not think about it until they’re adults, with children of their own – I didn’t. But it’s hard for the parents when no-one acknowledges it, and you start to feel like the kids’ needs are never-ending and your capacity to meet them is very limited. Last week I was at a cafe with the two kids after a bad night, and the little dude knocked over my coffee, and the proprietor gave me another one for free and said “it’s tough wrangling two, eh? You’re doing a great job”, and I almost cried with gratitude. Thank you for seeing me.

In a nuclear family model, finding an accommodation of all the needs is challenging. I think that’s partly why there’s such a tension between the “force baby to fit in with you” style of advice (cry it out, especially), and “do whatever the baby wants” style of advice. Most parents try and take bits and bobs from all sources, figuring out how best to align the different interests through trial and error. The insurmountable problem in a nuclear family model is that the children’s needs hinge mostly on the parents’ capacity to give, and that’s not a good way of supporting caregivers or children.

I’ll be breastfeeding bub and the little dude will come up to me and say “where Daddy?” or “Nana come wisit soon?”, and I’ll try and entertain him by telling him a story, inviting him to sit with us, suggesting an activity – but he’ll trail off a bit glum, to resurface moments later and reiterate “Daddy on da bus coming home yet?” Or, even more pitifully “me want me Daddy. Is good when Daddy here.”

I’ll be having a bath with the little dude at the end of the day, giving him some mum time, and my husband will come in and say “hey, sorry, bub is scratchy and wants a feed and is ready for sleep”, and the little dude will say “no Mummy stay here widt me, is SO MUCH FUN!”. My heart breaks at how much they both want me, and how I can only be fully attentive to one at a time. The more extra adults around, the better.

The Ministry for Vulnerable Children.

I think of the whakatauki about the harakeke, that most famous proverb. The heart of the harakeke symbolises the child, surrounded by the outer leaves, sheltered and protected by whanau, ensconced, centred, secure. He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

Children are people too.

Thinking of an individualised model of caregiving, I picture harakeke plants that have had the outer leaves ripped away, broken in half, trampled on, and the tender heart is exposed – raw to the elements.

Framing the discussion around vulnerable children entrenches the ideology that the problem is dysfunctional nuclear families, families that need to be fixed. It puts blinkers up to the bigger issue that our whole model of sole-charge caregiving is badly unsuited to the needs of babies and children. Best case scenario, you get a mother who learns how to cope on broken sleep and how to find satisfaction in meeting the needs of the kids, knowing that some day they’ll get older and less demanding. Someone whose unmet needs sometimes bubble to the surface and come out as yelling or crying the morning after a bad night, but who pulls herself together and trucks on. Worst case scenario, babies are shaken, babies die. Parents become overwhelmed at the magnitude of the task – and really, we often fail to acknowledge how much is involved in raising a child to independence. Parents who are under a lot of stress, parents who were abused as children themselves, they might end up taking it out on the kids. Especially if there’s no-one to give them a rest, no money for childcare, no family to keep an eye out and step in if needed.

I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate child abuse while we see children as more or less the possession and liability of their parents. If we look at the societies where children flourish, they have a much more collective model. When the model is “congratulations parents, you get to do pretty much all the stuff for the first three years, k, bye, don’t fuck up the baby!” there are some big cracks for people to fall through. And it’s a hard landing if you do fall. As far as I can see, the CYFS review is about trying to make the landing softer. Even if that’s successful, it’s nowhere near enough.

 

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