We have an incredibly small carbon footprint here. Our power comes from the dam and goes out all the time anyway. We don’t drive and rarely get in a car more than once every two weeks. The sun powers our wussy shower. I make bread every day, use freshly picked banana leaves to roll sticky rice, and hand pick my eggs. I know which plants to use if the kids get a cut in the forest. The kids use nature as their playground. When they want to climb we find exotic trees, for a slide they use the hills, and for water play they collect rainwater. They play with snails, rubber, geckos, farm dogs, and flowers. They are covered with mud and filth at all times. We live what might be called a simple life.
So, in short, I’ve become an au natural holistic unschooling earth mother in just six weeks….. And yes it’s fun, exciting, challenging, rewarding, frustrating and maddening. But here’s the thing, I’m still convinced that the whole idea of the earth mother in the West is about privilege.
I’ve never trusted the earth mother ideal. I’ll try to avoid the soapbox here, but when my twins were babies I felt hostile to that widely touted notion; merely the mention of the virtues of pregnancy without intervention, the joys of midwives and corresponding evils of Ob-Gyns, and the absolute necessity of exclusive breast-feeding could send me on a tirade. My kids would be dead without ultrasounds, a great high-risk Ob-Gyn, radio-active imaging, formula, etc. Attachment parenting doesn’t work well with two—hard to keep two attached at all times; I tried it!. When you do kangaroo care in the NICU, you still return your kid to an incubator with tubes. I’ve wondered sometimes if it’s defensiveness about my own choices; with two jobs, three kids, two of whom were pretty high maintenance preemies, and one driver in the family we take every convenience we can.
Here we’ve embraced what I hear is called “unschooling,” allowing children to learn through their own life experiences. For example Rebecca and her friend Surya wanted to do a repurposing t-shirts project. This involves mooching fabric scraps from the Dai seamstresses in town, purchasing very cheap shirts, cutting them up and sewing new stuff on them. I said I’d enable the project but nothing more than that. We rode our bikes all the way town (1.5 miles each way must give a PE class a run for its money) They wanted to remake nine shirts, which I said could not cost more than the equivalent of $1.50. This means they had to convert the money (6 Yuen to the dollar). And when it looked like it would cost too much I made them bargain in Chinese. They are tough girls. Little did I know that the hardest part of this project would be group dynamics but that’s another story. The garmets are completely hideous but the girls are proud and creative.
All children have different learning styles and Jonathan has no interest in this, but he’s a wiz with bug and plant identification, has memorized everything he’s read about ancient china, and practicing the violin seems to calm him down. He gets to read for hours and hours enhancing his malapropism repertoire. He wanted to be “reinstated” for snacks he shared (reimbursed) And he informed us that athletic t-shifts are good for those who “assert themselves” by which he meant exert. And through all of this I am very glad that fabulous teachers taught them to read, write, and do basic arithmetic.
As for the simple holistic aspects of our life here, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s one thing to be holistic because you must, and another because you want to and have the cash to support it. In Charlottesville you can have organic produce delivered to your door, a huge fridge to keep your tofu made on the commune or the organic cow you bought, you can go out to dinner in your car when you get tired, and you can send your kids to a leftie crunchy preschool. Here we go to the market on a no speed bike every two days and it’s rarely cooler than 90 even at 8 in the morning. The homegrown tofu often turns out to be rancid. I love the market; I get a kick out of speaking my 40 words of market Chinese, the challenge of experimenting with new produce, and the solo bike ride. But if we don’t go we don’t have anything to eat. We eat no convenience or prepackaged foods. We cook everything on two burners and we cook three home cooked all natural meals a day.
We wash everything by hand and hang our laundry. And consequently all of the women here, and a few of the men (including me and Manuel) have pathological dish pan hands. That means our hands are peppered with infected cuts and rashes. That’s the no potable water problem. Despite the abundance of rubber trees, the actual rubber gloves do just as much damage. And we have it good by local standards. We don’t have many toys, so the kids make play structures out of exotic branches, and they make dye out of flowers. As lovely as all of this seems, it is physically draining and depends on a vigorous mom. I can run a sub-seven-minute mile, but daily life exhausts me and makes me sore. I sleep more than usual. I grew up running cross-country in Virginia. I’m good in heat and don’t sweat much. But I am drenched always drenched here and I sometimes huff and puff as I inch along on my “rashperry thunder.” (The name the kids gave my bike)
We make all of our own medical choices. We live in a town full of unvaccinated kids. Those with any vaccines certainly do not adhere to conventional western vaccination schedule. But those who can afford it get on a plane to make sure their kids get vaccines that affluent folks in the States reject. And I might add kids here regularly die from things we vaccinate for. The privilege of not vaccinating your kids depends on diseases having been eradicated and having enough other people doing so. When I walk by the outdoor clinic and see malnourished kids receiving treatment in very unsterile environments, I am extremely thankful for vaccines.
No medical intervention means we diagnose ourselves and medicate conservatively. One reason we can do this is our education. We learned a lot about medical problems when our twins were sick all the time. We can read a scientific study and see its strengths and flaws. We use a combo of ethnographic research (asking other parents), high-powered web searches, and Manuel’s experiences with self-diagnosing in other tropical climes to solve our problems. We take the mystery cream from the Indonesian neighbor and use our CVS antibiotics and we try really hard not to panic no matter what oozes out.
The success of the holistic earth mother project here depends on basically healthy kids, educated parents, and escape routes. If the kids were behind in school I doubt I’d yank them from it. If Jonathan still had serious developmental delays and sensory issues, I wouldn’t do it for this amount of time; I’d want to make sure he got every bit of high tech support he needed, and the change in routine would have been unbearable for all of us. Medically, there is no way in hell we would have come to a place like this when our twins were small and still immune compromised. And I’m perfectly happy to treat a cut with a plant if we’re in the forest, to lance a boil with sterilized sewing needs, and to give Rebecca amoxicillin for a red throat when we decide it’s necessary. But if we sensed a serious problem we grab the first flight out, and if we had to we would beg money from all the grandparents, uncles etc.. and spend every penny we needed to get out quickly and get the absolute best money could buy until we could leave including bribes etc… So it is a privilege to live this holistic life. And in many ways we are all relishing it. At it’s best it’s a fascinating and fun adventure. But we will happily and shamelessly return to public school, regular visits to the pediatrician, craft supplies from Michaels, frozen waffles, pizza delivery, and a spa treatment for my hands and feet.