A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Adventures of a Free-Range Baby

Containment... one parenting strategy at work

     It has been a little over a year now that the birth of our daughter sent our homesteading life into a new direction with a new pace. There is no denying that our plans have slowed down to a turtle crawl from their former rabbit-like turbo speed. We are in the slow lane, chipping away at what we can each day, and thus, we have reluctantly adjusted our expectations. In the early months, I learned to be pleased if I got one boringly domestic task accomplished each day: “I got the diapers washed! Cross the dishes off the list!” We could slowly eek out a project during assorted nap times. We were two people reduced to the capacity of a half person. We learned that what we suddenly had lots of availability for were social things that didn’t require arm capacity or punctuality. We could sit around and visit and take walks and such. We could travel. We could even sit in meetings if Caris wasn’t too fussy, taking turns bouncing her up and down and retrieving her pacifier. Somewhere in the course of the last year, my internal clock has shifted. I have chilled out and adjusted to the new erratic, spontaneous flow of our life. Goals are loosely held to generously set deadlines. Unexpectedly, little windows of time open in the day for things to get done, but they can never really be counted on in advance.

Porch roof underway...
And finished!

Caris "helping" on the worksite
      It never really occurred to me that anything else than this slow-lane-with-baby adjustment was possible, especially out here living simply on the land, but I felt thoroughly schooled the other morning when I stopped by my Amish neighbor’s farm to buy some strawberries. Something has been eating every one of our meager patch’s berries before we can get to them, but Lena and Ira have buckets brimming with them. And hundreds of little vegetable seedlings for sale from their greenhouse business to replace all of the ones I have managed to stunt or kill from neglect at our homestead. They also have plenty of milk for sale from their sizable goat herd. And then there are the rest of the animals on their farm. And did I mention they have seven kids under the age of 10? And Ira works construction jobs quite often too. He happened to be home and very congenially asked me, “so what has been keeping you busy?” After hemming and hawing a bit while I went through my mental list of what had previously seemed to be quite the juggling act: a single baby, a small garden, random house construction projects, community meetings, chores and art-making in the margins… hmm. I finally settled on an evasive, “oh you know, this and that!” Considering that they cheerfully manage seven times what we do, I can’t complain. It gave me a new perspective though, an awareness that we are novices learning how to live off the land compared to our neighbors who have had a lifelong education and the wisdom of generations in living-off-the-land skills.

      Mike and I didn’t embark on parenthood with any child-rearing philosophy in mind. But the active, determined nature of our daughter has set the direction of our parenting style toward “free range” more than anything, plus pieces of gleaned advice from various friends and neighbors. We give our daughter more freedom to follow her free will than probably most kids her age have. She probably has more access to dirt too. We take her to the garden with us and set her up with some tools, a bucket of water, and some cups and let her experiment with different combinations of elements—straw and dirt in bucket; water and dirt poured on woodchips; water poured on shirt; dirt, wood chips and straw in mouth, etc. This sort of thing occupies her for a few minutes and then she is off, non-stop walking everywhere with great determination. There is no fighting it… so we let her free-range outside with us, using a zone-defense approach: I track her when she is in my zone until she wanders closer to Mike, and then she is his to track. We tag out constantly and manage to both get light work done with this arrangement, with only a few panicked moments leaping to our feet to avert her path from the giant poison ivy patch. At other times we plan out blocks of time that one or the other of us is fully on-duty to free up the other partner for more focused work. It helps too that there are always other friends with kids at home over yonder hill, and sometimes we join forces or swap child-watching times with other parents. This is one of the perks of living in community—especially when all together, there are many eyes and hands to watch and help parent children, what anthropologists call alloparenting. Just another way of saying the truism, “it takes a village to raise a child”.

So those warning are on the bucket for a reason!
      Despite the parenting leg up that community provides, and having more or less two stay-at-home parents, I sometimes wonder whether our rustic lifestyle tips the scales in the other direction. Right back to the arduous slog that parenting sometimes is. Here is an example of something I can’t imagine happening in most people’s homes: I was taking a bucket bath in our tub, balanced precariously between the leg of prosciutto overhead (which is its own saga..) and a bag of dirty diapers behind me. Not exactly glamorous to start with, but such is life in a small house. Enter adorable toddling daughter who is both eager to get into everything, and to not let me out of sight. “Please don’t freak out and need me to pick you up right now,” I remember thinking as I poured hot water over my head, eyes shut, and what a relief, she didn’t! She quietly occupied herself while I washed soap out of my eyes. I am still learning that a child “quietly occupying” themselves usually doesn’t yield anything good. When a few minutes (perhaps seconds?) later I recovered sight and looked around, I was dismayed to discover the room covered in piles of sawdust that she had carefully relocated from the sawdust bucket (for the composting toilet). Worst yet, I was covered in sawdust flakes that she had been softly flinging at me in the tub. And I was out of clean rinse water in my bucket! To laugh, or cry, or scoop your little rascally daughter into your soggy-sawdust covered arms and hug her? Just saying… I can’t imagine this scenario happening outside a very rustic homestead, and it is pretty on par for us.

     So the trials and tribulations of parenting on a homestead? Is it worth it? Despite the frustrating moments sandwiched between dirty diapers and prosciutto leg, I think so. There are plenty of magical moments that make it worth it. This afternoon I gave up on doing anything productive and joined Caris for a romp in the sandy creek bed on our land. Slow flowing water meandered around us in little pools, dappled sunlight streaked through the giant trees up on the banks, birds and butterflies darted through: for an hour I forgot that life was anything short of paradise. I am glad that she will grow up knowing what monarchs and swallowtails look like in person. And knowing the names and calls of dozens of bird species, and which plants are poisonous (even if she learns it the hard way) and which are medicine. Yes, all in all, I am glad we are raising her here, in this way.