Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Book Note: How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm and Other Adventures in Parenting

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How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm And Other Adventures in Parenting
By Mei-Ling Hopgood
Algonquin Books, 2012

Reviewed by Christina Marie Speed

Ever feel like you're drowning in parenting advice? A quick scan through the bookstore or Internet reveals guidance on where to get your daughter's first haircut, who's best to mind your child, and to how to feed vegetables to preschoolers. With so much "expert" information, parental anxiety looms over mothers and fathers everywhere. Or does it? Are American parents more anxious than parents around the world?

To explore this and many other parenting questions, author, journalist, and former ex-pat mom Mei-Ling Hopgood serves up How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and Everywhere in Between). She embarks on a global quest to observe parental behavior in a variety of cultural and social settings. Her book is not prescriptive or a list of "best practices," yet each chapter takes readers far from America and sheds light on how parents parent in other lands.

Americans worry about many aspects of parenting, Hopgood says, but sleep is likely at the top of the list. In chapter one, Hopgood brings us to Argentina, where she lived and raised her family at the time of writing, and interviews a friend, Mariana Garcia, about her own son's sleeping patterns. Hopgood writes:

As a toddler, Mateo would often wait until his parents got home [from work] to sleep, [before which] they ate, played, and read together. His parents never forced him straight into bed. Instead, they chose to linger, wanting this to be an intimate time when Mateo "could enjoy his Mama and Papa," Garcia said. She often stayed with him -- cribs in Argentina are often large enough to fit a small adult -- until he fell asleep, usually around 10:00 p.m. or later.

"The truth is that we never had an overly rigorous method to teach him to sleep," Garcia said. She never had hang-ups about his nighttime waking or whether or not Mateo should be falling asleep in her arms. If he wanted to be in their bed, they let him. Their view was that it mattered less where everybody was sleeping, as long as everyone was getting a good night's sleep. That way, the whole family was happier.

Hopgood notes that sleep is an intricate and personal balance for each child in each family, yet wonders if choosing the Argentine way was "better for my social calendar than it was for my daughter's health."

In a later chapter, Hopgood discovers how French parents teach their children to love healthy food. She notes that the French do not rely on processed foods, quick meals, or what their children demand. Instead, there is a common sense that food is for enjoyment; the mealtime sacred. Therefore, the French, in general, spend time gathering fresh, seasonal ingredients to create home-cooked meals for the family to sit down and eat together.

Here in the US, this seems hard to imagine: most of the mothers I know feel too busy to shop, let alone cook a meal from scratch. At the conclusion of the chapter, Hopgood offers useful French-inspired suggestions on how to get more color on the dinner plate and fewer pouches of pureed veggies in the day bag.

In another section of the book, Hopgood shares how Polynesian children often play without parental supervision. In many areas of Polynesia, older children care for younger children in the villages, reports Hopgood, and children under the age of twelve often play in small groups for long stretches, sometimes the whole day. Such parent-free play is unusual in the US, perhaps even cause for prosecution. Hopgood notes good reasons for different norms, proximity of extended family for example, while questioning if "helicopter" American parents might structure playtime far too much. She leaves that conclusion for the reader to decide.

From Tanzania to Polynesia, from Japan to the people of the far north, Mei-Ling Hopgood weaves a tapestry of parenting ideas, and How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm offers a fresh look at multicultural motherhood. While the author takes issue with some practices within the context of her own parenting choices, she concludes that readers should simply consider the bigger picture of parenting. Hopgood's crisp, conversational writing style, and her blend of first-hand experience and thorough research invites readers to feel less anxious about their parenting choices, and to consider - perhaps adopt - parenting practices from various and diverse cultures.

LM Fiction Editor Suzanne Kamata interviewed Mei-Ling last April. Enjoy it here.

Christina Marie Speed writes poetry and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications, including Caper Journal, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune Online, and The View From Here. She lives with her husband and two sons in a sunny fourth-floor walkup in Brooklyn, New York.

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