Our Babies, Ourselves (Review and Giveaway)

Be sure and check out our GIVEAWAY while you're here.

I am a huge book nerd. Therefore, as anyone who loves to read and suddenly finds themselves pregnant would do, I read a lot of books to help "prepare" me for motherhood. I read books that were solely on nutrition, others which were full of women's birth stories, midwives' struggles, breastfeeding issues, vaccination choices or even infant potty training. (For more information please see my list of recommended reading for new mothers.)

Yet, of all the books I read before Athena was born I can tell you hands down the book that has most influenced my choices as a parent, thus far, is Meredith F. Small's Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent
See it here.
This book has given me a greater understanding and respect for parents (and whole cultures!) who choose to parent differently than I. It has given me a set of lenses I use to help me examine my own culture, and my own personal parenting choices, to see what those choices reflect about what I value and why.

Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University and as such the perspective she takes in her work differs  from most books on raising children. She examines parenting through the lenses of "ethnopediatrics" which strives to understand the practice of raising children as it is around the world and as it has been throughout time. The essential premise of the book is that while there may be variance among individuals in a culture, generally speaking the way a culture raises their children directly reflects the life values and priorities of that culture. The book examines a vast array of cultures from the !Kung San of the Kalahari to the average American family and a great variety of cultures in-between.

In the beginning...

The first two sections of Small's book ('The Evolution of Babies' and 'The Anthropology of Parenting') are an examination of the relationship between parent and child that exists due to the complete and utter dependence newborn humans have on their parents. Our relationship to our young is very different from all other primates. All over the world infants are in need of complete care for every detail of their existence. All across the world parents respond differently to these needs. She states, "we treat our babies as we treat ourselves, and so our ideas about parenting and infant care are as culturally constructed as what we wear, what we eat, or how we dance. "(41)

Their are myriad ways to parent, the goal of ethnopediatriacs (and Small's book) is to examine these different "caretaking styles" to see how they affect the "health, well-being and survival of the infant" (Xi).  Our Babies, Ourselves strives to look at the different parenting choices and see how they truly affect children, to gauge what choices yield what results. 

Other parents, Other ways

In the third chapter of her work, 'Other parents, Other ways', Small examines different cultures and a few of the choices they make in parenting. She examines an incredibly vast array, including the !Kung San of the Kalahari, the Ache of Paraguay, the Gussi of East Africa, the Japanese and even parents in the United States. 

This section of her work is by far my favorite. In my opinion, it is incredibly fascinating to learn about other cultures in any context, but examining the choices made as parents reveals so much so quickly about a culture's values and general psyche. I won't go into details about each culture here because that is the whole fun of reading the book. But, if you are at all interested in anthropology or ethnopediatrics I cannot recommend it highly enough. Truly, every parent could benefit from reading about other parents' choices because it helps one to examine one's own decisions. The better you are at examining your own culture the better you are at understanding it and therefore understanding yourself.

The Triumvirate of Infancy

The next three sections of Our Babies, Ourselves examine what Small describes at the "triumvirate of infancy": sleep, cry, eat. Small's section on sleep discusses what set up for sleeping is best for baby: including the how and the where. The chapter on crying challenges the notion that there even is such a thing as colic, claiming that it might in fact be merely the need for being held that triggers so much crying in Western children. Whether or not you agree with this hypothesis, it raises an interesting point. In the section on feeding, Small take examines issues surrounding breastfeeding, acknowledging the difficulty many women face and states, "... there is a difference between milk making and milk giving, and milk giving is especially influenced by outside forces and the mother's state of mind. Thus anxiety about breast-feeding can be self-fulfilling prophecy when the let-down reflex is inhibited by this anxiety". She then goes on to talk about the myriad wonders of breast milk and gives a fascinating history of the invention of commercial formula. She also claims that the belief that a mother can have "insufficient milk" is a myth. Again, even if you don't agree with her hypothesis, it makes for some very insightful and thought-provoking reading.

There are a lot of ideas Small express in this "Triumvarate of Infancy" that are highly controversial for many parents in our culture's generation. She challenges many common parenting practices, arguing that they might not be best for baby. She argues that how we treat our children when they are babies directly impacts the adults they will become, and thus we need to make our choices wisely.

Unpacking the Caretaking Package

In the last and final section of the book, 'Unpacking the Caretaking Package', Small takes a step back from all the cultural examination in order to help her reader understand how to "navigate through the information". She states:

Parenting is a veritable circus of interacting egos and needs, biological constraints and evolutionary expectations. As in all things in life, parenting, too, is a series of trade-offs; there is no perfect way, only a series of options, a bundle of possible pathways, that pilot adults through the hazardous job of bringing up babies.... If we as parents accept this fundamental truth- that having a baby and bringing it into adulthood is a major constraint on life, on resources, on our physical and emotional selves, and a big job not for the squeamish- we are then essentially in line with and accepting of our evolutionary heritage. (228)

Rather than leaving her reader overwhelmed with information or choices, Small leaves them feeling empowered to make choices using the information and knowledge she lays forth. All of parenthood involves making choices on a day by day, week by week, minute by minute basis. As she states, parenthood is a "slow and dedicated voyage". It is one not for the faint of heart, but for those willing to learn and grow. 

Buy it here
Buy it here.

This book has made such a positive impact on my day to day decisions as a parent. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  If you would like a copy for yourself or for someone you know and love you can get one here through Amazon

(Note: Small has also written a book on parenting children past the infant stage titled "Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way we Raise Young Children." As of yet I have not read it, but I am fully planning on doing so when I have the time.)

If you don't feel like purchasing a copy at this time and you are feeling lucky, why not enter the giveaway below? (A big thank you to Small herself for giving away a copy of her book to one lucky reader!)

If this book sounded interesting to you, be sure and visit Meredith F. Small's blog (http://www.ourbabiesourselves.com) where she shares fascinating articles and stories along the same vein as what she discusses in her book.  

What one book (or person, or film...) that has most influenced you as a parent thus far? And why?

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  1. Einstein in the Crib is a wonderful book as it explains how babies learn. I also love The Female Brain, as it details gender difference and how males and females are wired differently right from the start!

    1. Hey Nancy! I will have to check out those books. Haven't heard of either of them. Thanks! <3

  2. I put this book on my Amazon list when I was pregnant with my first and never got to it, so it would be great to get another chance. If you really want to geek out in this vein, try Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives - though wait, that's not so much a parenting thing as a being a woman thing. How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm is a non-academic take on the theme. I guess Goodwyn and Accredolo have been the authors I reference the most, if that's how we're gauging effect: Baby Signs and Baby Hearts. And Cate Shanahan's Deep Nutrition was a touchstone for changes in how I ate before and during my second pregnancy. And Katie Bowman's blog (does that count? It's now been edited into a book) has been HUGE in changing how I sit and move and how I parent, in the sense that I make room for monkey bars in the kids's room and pay extra for less shoe.

    1. Sounds like we have the exact same taste in books! I love Shanahan and Goodwyn! There books are WONDERFUL. <3

  3. I read this book and loved it as well! Unfortunately, I couldn't afford to purchase it and had to check it out from the library (SO GLAD they had a copy). Now, I'd like my own copy for every birth after this one and for my Doula Library, I think every mama should read this!

    1. Hey Jacqueline! I also borrowed my copy from the library! Such a wonderful book. Definitely an awesome addition to a doula library. :)

  4. I would love this book! My friend has told me about this book so many times, and swears by it. My husband and I are starting our journey into parenthood and this book would be a perfect read :)

    1. Congratulations! How wonderful. Such an exciting time! Wishing you and your husband the best as you begin the best journey! <3 <3

  5. I am pregnant as well and would LOVE to read this book! This is my favorite way to prepare as well:) I love exploring new ways to be ready.

  6. Little one born 7 days ago. Just requested
    this book from our library based on your review but would love to own it. New to parenthood and dont have many resources that I even like except sally fallons new book. Thanks

  7. I'd love to give it as a baby shower gift!


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