Parenting, then and now
Ignorance is bliss
After Jill and I married, our first home together was a flat on one of Johannesburg’s busiest thoroughfares, Louis Botha Avenue, named after the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa, after it gained self-rule in 1910. This very noisy major traffic artery, led to and from one of the large African townships on the periphery of the city. Green buses carrying their black passengers passed under our window from about 5.00 a.m. until very late at night and started the cycle again the next morning.
Soon after we moved into the flat, in 1973, our son David was born. We gave him the room furthest from the noise. In those days we thought it necessary, from day one, for all the children to have their own rooms. Today a baby sleeps in the same room with its parents for at least the first month.
There was another young Jewish couple in the building with whom we became friendly. It is too many years ago to remember all the details, but as they also had an infant, the obvious topic for discussion was babies. This couple’s child was some months older than David, so we considered them ‘experienced’. One particular doctor, not a pediatrician, was at that time regarded as a guru of infant nutrition. Our neighbors took his word as gospel and when their baby reached the age of three months, they fed her sardines and even eggs, at this doctor’s recommendation. Jill however, did not follow the same advice.
Today, I am a grandfather and the rules of baby nutrition and parenting have changed completely. I’m sure that if our daughter Andrea asked the nurse at the baby clinic about feeding Abigail, our six-month old granddaughter, either of the above mentioned foods, the social services would be called and the baby ripped from her mother’s arms as an abused infant. Similarly for honey, which we used lavishly on our children’s dummies (pacifiers – for the American readers) when trying to calm them and put them to sleep. Today milk products, such as cottage cheese and yoghurt are verboten until the age of one year.
As new parents we rushed out to buy Dr Spock’s ‘Baby and Child Care’. On more than one occasion the good sense and humor with which it was written, brought us to our senses as we realized, that if it was in the book, we weren’t the only parents in the world to have that particular problem. I think the reason for the book’s success – it was only second to the Bible as a bestseller – is that it reassured mommy and daddy, and gave them self-confidence.
Nowadays books abound and of course the ubiquitous Internet has no shortage of information. As English speakers our natural tendency is to read English language sites, which can be problematic. When inquiring about introducing solids, the American sites often recommend cereals, mainly rice, as a first food. This is indeed what we used ourselves only twenty three years ago when Alison, our Sabarit, was a baby. As she cried continually, I suggested that Jill add a small amount of cereal to the formula – it worked wonders.
The Israeli health system frowns on the use of starches. Our instructions for Abigail are: first introduce vegetables, very finely mushed of course, one at a time, to ensure the baby has no adverse effects. The next step is fruit, also given singly, cooked without sugar. Jill and I surmised this would be unpalatable, but when we taste-tested it, to our surprise it was actually quite delicious, so much so, that when I next make myself stewed fruit, I will leave out the sugar. It seems that we can learn something new every day, even from such mundane, but pleasurable activities as feeding our grandchildren.
Dr. Spock, the man who was listened to by millions of parents from the time his book was first published in 1946, coincidentally the year I was born; although I doubt I was a ‘Spock’ baby myself; insisted that babies sleep on their tummies. His reasoning was that, if a baby should regurgitate its food it would spit it out and not choke. This appeared to be sage advice. However, research into cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – SIDS) showed in fact that if a baby sleeps on its back SIDS is reduced by more than fifty percent. This has been the practice in America since 1994.
I was raised in the days of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. Although I remember my father hitting me only once, and then only on the backside with his slipper; my sister having told on me for doing something really stupid and dangerous, climbing with my little friends on a neighbor’s roof. I admit to giving David one or two smacks, but regretted it immediately and soon desisted. Today, in some countries, mainly in Europe, corporal punishment by parents is illegal.
David was delivered by Caesarean section. It was then a more complicated procedure requiring a fairly large incision. Abigail was also too big to be born naturally, but a much smaller scar resulted.
When David was a baby we did not have television in South Africa. But by 1977 when Andrea could sit in a baby seat at about six months, we regularly put her to sit in front of ‘the box’ to watch anything from badminton to cricket on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon when we wanted some rest. Andrea and her husband, Sivan, have asked us, or rather told us, that Abigail must not watch TV until she is three years old. We agree with and support their decision. Fortunately she goes home at about 5 o’clock every day, leaving Jill and me, free to become couch potatoes. This year with Wimbledon, and the Olympics we have missed some broadcasts, but Abigail is obviously more important.
However, not all has changed. When David and Andrea were too little to sit up, I lay on the floor with them for hours. With Alison the need for me to do this was much less, as David who was sixteen and Andrea, who was twelve delighted in entertaining their baby sister. I often lie next to Abigail on the open sleeping bags we have laid out for her, but it was physically very much easier thirty-nine years ago, when David was an infant.
A major difference in rearing babies between then and now, is that we no longer use cloth nappies (diapers). In South Africa they were made of good quality toweling, not the almost gossamer thin material which substitutes for the real thing here in Israel. But no matter what the quality of the material, the drudgery and smell of disposing of soiled nappies is the same. Johannesburg had ‘Stork Napkin Service’ which gave us a delivery of eighty nappies per week. They also supplied us with a large bucket in which to soak the soiled items. It was mandatory to return rinsed nappies. Fortunately we had two bathrooms in our house – South African, not American terminology – where we could keep the odor confined. It was not of course unhelpful for Jill, in particular, to have a maid to assist her.
We continued using cloth nappies until Andrea was two and a half and we were about to make aliyah. Disposable diapers – I will now use the American word to differentiate, even though the first disposables were patented in the U.K. as early as 1948 – were fairly new in South Africa and as old habits die hard we did not switch from cloth until the situation demanded it. Coming to Israel and on the ‘absorption center’ we continued to buy disposable diapers until Andrea was able to give up using them – which itself is an interesting story.
My cousin, originally from London, had married to an Israeli, and lived in Israel for some years. Her daughter is twelve days older than Andrea. We visited them fairly often, as they were very supportive. Andrea about three then, realized that her cousin did not sleep in diapers and started to refuse to wear them as well, thereby training herself.
Technology has improved the quality of baby car seats. When we were parents of a toddler, the baby seats simply hooked over the back of the top of the car seat. It had no straps or other safety features. Today all baby car seats have a safety standard ensured by various authorities. Car seats for babies surround the child completely with protection and must be anchored by the seat belts. As the baby grows, a new larger seat is needed, demanding considerable expense.
To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler for the arm to suffer
The jabs and pains of needles and prevent whooping cough,
Or to risk some other deadly disease,
I paraphrase the soliloquy from Hamlet, to emphasize what I think is a ridiculous storm in a teacup about whether or not to give vaccinations. Since Edward Jenner discovered a simple but very effective method of preventing smallpox the argument has never raged so strong. Many sceptics, some well-meaning, but others charlatans, have tried to show the cause and effect between vaccines and autism. It has been debunked, but still the debate continues. My son-in-law’s mother contends that her then eight year old daughter, who was ill for many years and died, was the victim of vaccination gone wrong. If he had his way, Abigail would not be protected. We understand and sympathize with his concern, so Andrea sought advice from her more experienced friends, some of whom work in the medical field. After extensive inquiries they attended a lecture given by a doctor who is cautious, but not crazy. This resulted in a compromise to give the more important vaccines, like polio. In our day we gave all the vaccinations mandated by the Health Ministry, without question. There is always a risk with any medicine, but mostly the serious adverse reactions affects only a minimal number of patients, and safety is constantly improving. Nothing, not even food is one hundred percent safe. We live in an uncertain environment.
Both Jill and I are pharmacists. When our children were vaccinated, it was recommended to give a dose of paracetamol (acetominophen – in America) syrup immediately afterwards to allay pain and fever. Subsequent research has found that if an antipyretic is given, a reduced antigen blood count results, possibly preventing the vaccine from being totally effective.
Parenting is physically demanding when children are young, requires patience with teenagers, and encouragement to young adults not always sure of the direction that they want to take. Grand-parenting has responsibilities which require the wisdom of age and a sympathetic ear. But if we both do our parts with love, we will derive infinite pleasure and our children will flourish. There is one final hope I have for my grandchildren, this being, that when they finish school, it will no longer be compulsory for either boys or girls to do military service. Israel and the Jewish people will finally be blessed with peace.