Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Mother's Milk: My Turn.

I should probably make clear as early as possible that the title of this post is not meant to imply that I would be taking a turn breastfeeding Rachel anytime soon. (And how disturbing is that link?) It's just that I pretty regularly read a number of other Dad-blogs (and parent-blogs)[fn1] and it seems almost obligatory to do a post about breastfeeding. I'm not going to go and find all the different relevant spot-links, you can Google this (or this) if you must. As is not unusual, BenMac over at TTU has done the definitive post, and I'd probably be wisest just to point you there and be done. (Also worth checking out: Milk Week.)
[Fn1]: I know, I know; I have to really work on my margin. I've already mentioned it's high on the project list, with a bullet. For now, a few of the regular stops on my blog local: The Trixie Update; Celebrating Colum; Laid-Off Dad; DaddyZine; DaddyTypes; DadTalk; Dooce (a girl); Leelo and His Potty Mouthed Mom (another non-boy. Warning – she is potty mouthed as advertised.) (Actually, so is Dooce.)
Everyone's had a go at this milk business; I'm just taking my turn. Someday soon I'll post about poop, too, and then I'll be a full-fledged member of this blogging fathers club.

In any event, over the past few weeks, I've noticed Rachel being much more active in her learning. She's always, B'H, been pretty much right in the middle of the curve w/r/t most of the standard developmental milestones, with a little deviation here and there, but recently I've noticed that she's moving into a new phase, where she generalizes from one lesson to another. So that learning to put the round block into the round hole is no longer just about that one toy (and why can't I find a picture of the one we actually have?) but has become a larger proposition, where Rachel now generalizes the concept and has started putting things in and on each other in ways that not only has she never been able to before but, more importantly, that she's never seen anyone else do before; she'll look at the soda can, then at the roll of packing tape, and try (with moderate success) to put the can inside the roll of tape. Not because she’s seen me do the same thing, but because she herself has done a similar thing in another context, and is generalizing to this context.

This change is a quantum developmental leap in Rachel's learning, and it's got a lot of implications for G and me. It's got me thinking about chinuch (Jewish education), which in turn got me thinking about breastmilk.

I know that seems like a big jump, but stay with me here. I'm not sure I'll be able to pull it together, but I've got something in mind, at least as I write these words.

We'll start with a schtickle (little bit of) Torah. Let me quickly summarize a lot of the necessary background: After receiving the Torah, the Jews in the desert spent some time (about 40 years) traveling. During that time, every time they moved they would have to disassemble, move, and reassemble the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Some of the items to be moved were built with rings attached, for the insertion of poles or staves to facilitate moving them. One such item was the Aron -- the Ark of the Covenant. Yeah, that one.

If you look again at the image of the Ark itself on that page (or here), you'll see the rings and the poles. There's some beautiful Torah about the details of those poles, especially with respect to the Ark and who's carrying what (or vice-versa), but that's not where I want to focus.

For all the other items that were moved in that manner, when it was time to set up the Tabernacle again, the staves would be removed (and presumably stored). For the Ark, the poles stayed in. A curtain (the "Parochet") was hung around the Ark, such that the curtain would hang down over the staves, but the staves would rest against the Parochet, causing two protrusions in the curtain.

They look like breasts. I wouldn't say this if I didn't have legitimate rabbinical authority backing me up. They're supposed to look like breasts.

The idea is a beautiful one. We are humans, and live in a physical, limited world. But we yearn for (and are obligated to pursue) connection to Hashem, which are transcendent, unlimited, super-physical things. The universe as conceived of by Hashem is too much for us; if we tried to interact with it directly it would destroy us.

So Hashem gave us the Torah, which serves as a sort of interface between us and Him. The Torah (represented by the Ark, which contains the Tablets) interacts with the "true" universe, and then frames it and gives us a construct through which we can deal with it.

That's why the breasts. It's to explain that the Torah is serving the same function at one level that a mother's breasts serve at another.

The world is a beautiful place, full of wonderful things to eat and from which we can derive sustenance. But an infant can't handle it, and if they tried it would destroy them. No matter how much G or I might enjoy a big fat steak with fried onions and garlic, Rachel couldn't have handled that when she first got here, and even now with teeth and hands and everything, that's probably not the best way to go about feeding her.

So this is what a mother does: She interacts with the world. She takes it in, and processes it, and takes out of it only what will be perfectly useful to her child, what won't destroy the child, and gives only that over to her child.

Something that gets missed very often in the discussion of nursing is that breastmilk is, in many ways, a perfect food. It's not unusual for a child to go days without pooping when they're breastfeeding exclusively, and it's not unhealthy. The food is giving the child everything they need, as well as nothing they don't need. Even the part that eventually does get pooped out is really only there to teach the baby's body how to poop, how to process the unnecessary bits.

This idea is even reflected in halacha (Jewish law). Normally, a person can't pray or study Torah when in the presence of feces. It's not so much a question of distastefulness or even respect, but rather a function of feces "separating" a person from the most elevated image of themselves. But one is allowed to do those things in the presence of the excrement of an infant who is only breastfeeding. Even though essentially waste is waste, the halacha recognizes that the waste from breastmilk isn't really waste at all; it's just the satisfaction of a different kind of need.

(I managed to mention poop in this post after all.)

Thought of in those terms, it makes somewhat clearer the role of a parent in general, and particularly with respect to Rachel's education. I don't mean the standard Readin' Ritin' Rithmatic education, though that's certainly included. I mean the education she gets from dealing with the world on a daily basis. Everything from the Physics experiments that are hidden in the way she throws her pacifier out of the crib to the Sociology experiments hidden in my repeated but increasingly frustrated retrieval of said pacifier to the Peer Group Management lessons involved in times G and I decide to let Rachel play with someone, or be held by someone, and so on.

Rachel's growing up. Fast. She's interacting with the world that's expanded beyond me and G and maybe her
. And she's learning from it.

The lesson of mother's milk is that as her parent, it's my job to interact with what's going to be too much for her, break it down into chunks she can handle, and then let her handle them. And as importantly, just like eventually the babies get weaned and eventually Rachel will be (hopefully) tuckin' into Steak and Onions right next to me, I also have to make sure not to stand too much in her way. The things I break down for her now, so she can handle them in small chunks, those are the same things that eventually, after having handled enough small chunks, she'll be able to deal with directly.

I also have to make sure that I remember to teach her not only how to deal with the useful, the psychologically and spiritually and emotionally nutritious parts of the world, but also the detritus, the husks. I can't give her such a perfect food that she never learns how to poop. I have to remember that in that way sometimes the husk is as much food as the food part is.

There's much that amazes me about mother's milk, but not least this idea, new to me at least, that it carries a lesson in raising and educating my child.


PS: See, I told you I could pull it together.

PPS: Bonus Links!


          . . . only by theKohanim. . . .

          . . . a recasting of the "protect the baby" idea I've mentioned before . . .

          biting gold coins to test them.

PPPS: See, I told you. I got a post up by Wednesday. I still need to doodle with the formatting, though.

PPPPS: How lame is the multiple-P-S format?

PPPPPS: Very Lame.

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At Jul 10, 2004 10:53:00 AM, Dianne said...

Glad to see a new post! I really like the analogy. I'm not into pregnancy and breastfeeding, but you use the breastfeeding idea well to get the point across about the role of parents in teaching children how to relate to and in the world.

At Nov 4, 2005 5:17:00 AM, Anonymous said...

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