When I took on social anthropology as my second major in college, I had fantasies of hiking through jungles and savannas to meet and take notes on little-known peoples, or perhaps be assigned to some social setting to essentially people watch. Or perhaps I would be asked to assist an archaeologist on deciphering a forgotten language, learning about a lost civilization, a la Stargate: SG-1, though probably minus the stargate and, unfortunately, characters like Jonas Quinn and Daniel Jackson. The point was the mystery and solving a puzzle whose pieces continuously morphed and changed.
Never, not in a million years, did I think I’d be using four years’ worth of lectures, ethnography scouring and research papers on my own kid. I’m a little embarrassed to say that the majority of my time outside of feeding the baby and changing her diapers consists of one thing: me staring at her. We could be playing “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” or practicing our counting but my focus is always on my daughter, watching for her reactions and level of interest and the absorption of information.
I didn’t notice it in the beginning, but I have become an anthropologist mother.
Day One: The Study Begins
I am a reactionary person. When my daughter was born, I thought my lack of initiative was just from post-labor shell shock. When the nurse pointed out that the diapers we used from the hospital had a nifty indicator that changed colors when wet or soiled, I had something concrete to base my actions upon. The line turned blue: time to change the diaper. The baby starts crying after two hours or so after her last feeding: time to feed her again. What a relief! I could wrap my head around a nice, formulaic baby with such a systematic way of life.
But any parent knows that children are anything but systematic beyond a basic, rudimentary level. Diapers won’t always have a color-changing indicator to tell you when to change it and a crying baby isn’t always an “I’m hungry!” signal. Babies have access to a whole range of humanness to them including, but not limited to, fatigue, loneliness, boredom and overstimulation. Unfortunately, babies do not have access to a wide range of communication tools short of crying and, later on, gesturing.
That was when I started hunkering down and observing.
In the Field
Civilizations and babies alike do not come with instruction manuals. They don’t even come with so much as a diagram. In order to cope, I took mental notes of everything and anything. I watched how she turned toward my voice or detect light and move her face toward it like a flower. I listened to her breathing, what it sounded like when she was happily nursing from a bottle and the sounds of her play with the nurser if she’s full. I had the parental pleasure of learning what her poops would smell like depending on what she eats and how long it’s been since her last movement. I took note of how she reacts to foods she likes, foods she doesn’t particularly care for, or if she’s just testing limits. I now know better than to give her something new when she’s tired.
All of this note-taking has been compiled, sorted and stored like any good anthropologist’s notes. I now know how, and when, to approach my daughter with something new. I know how to react when she throws something on the floor for the nth time. Most importantly, I know how to teach her the difference between right and wrong, just based on how I think she will be most receptive to the lessons. It’s taken a while but my daughter now knows when I say things in a stern but calm voice, I will take action if she doesn’t heed my warnings to, for example, stop running her hands along the air vent grate.
Babies are very much like that ancient artifact found amidst ruins and rubble: You have no idea what it’s used for, how it functions, what it does or what makes it tick. It’s up to us parents to decipher the proper code to our children. And it often feels like our children are puzzles that constantly change. What works for them one minute may not work in the next. That’s why the study is ongoing, why the observations never stop. I like to think that I know my daughter inside and out but I’m still asking questions every day, still mapping out my actions one step at a time, giving the baby time to react and myself the time to watch her reactions.
The thought of being “anthropologist mom” struck me when I realized that babies have little to no concept of what’s what, and will imitate and emulate their parents to learn. Teaching my daughter was a little like Tarzan and Jane. I’d point to her and say her name, then I’d point to myself and say, “Mama,” and point to my husband with, “Dada.” Or I’d pick up a bunch of bananas at the store and enunciate, “Bah-nah-n-ah.” After she began tossing her sippy cup onto the floor to indicate “doneness,” I spent every feeding session for almost two months placing the sippy cup on her tray or on the table, moving her hands with the cup to places where it belonged, or just simply patting the table with, “This is where the sippy cup goes,” while nodding. To reinforce the point, I’d shake my head and say, “No, the sippy cup does not go that way,” if she was poised with her cup over the edge of her tray.
I looked at my daughter and imagined her as the representative of a completely new, alien group of people and it was up to me to learn how to communicate with her and teach her the ways of this world. Remember that scene from E.T. where the little alien touches the boy’s finger and says, “Ouuuuuch…”? That’s how I figure the next year or so will go. I only have one chance at this, which means I have to do it right– and is also why I’m so stressed out about it.
There will come a day when my daughter will be able to tell me precisely what she wants. But until then, I’ll have to rely on my eyes and ears to observe and take notes on the mercurial behavior of my ever-changing baby.