Babes in arms

Living 'n Loving Magazine
November, 2003
by Karena du Plessis

What do babies who won't sleep, elephants, projectile vomiting, bonding and wild dogs have to do with each other? More than you think says Mandy Young, a Cape Town psychologist, who believes parents can learn a lot from animals and nature.

Psychologist Mandy Young is no stranger to peoples' pain. Each day she witnesses families in distress and people - both young and old - grappling with who they are. Her hands are full, but says Mandy, that is hardly surprising because we are a society in crisis. You only have to look at the escalating divorce rate to know that something has gone haywire.

"Divorce has become a social epidemic," says Mandy without hesitation. "In South Africa three in five first marriages fail, while 75 per cent of all second marriages don't succeed. Can you imagine how confusing it is for children to make sense of the world when their families are so fragmented and conflicted?"

A lot of our problems can be traced back to the poor mothering we experienced when we were still babes in arms. And - that's exactly where the problem lies. Most of us weren't "in arms" at all, but rather were transported in prams, car seats and carry cots instead of being on our mothers' hips or backs.

Mandy elaborates, "Mothering is the most important job any woman can undertake but, as we've become more Westernised and affluent, we've lost track of how to mother naturally and instinctively. As a result we see children who can't sleep, who won't eat, who suffer terrible colic or who projectile vomit after each meal. You only have to look at the range of problems parents complain about to realise that something isn't right. Parenting shouldn't be this difficult.

"One of the most powerful books I've ever read is The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff, a medical doctor," Mandy continues. "By chance the author ended up in the Amazon jungle living among South American Indians. What struck her was how happy, well-behaved and integrated the children were, and how in that community becoming a mother wasn't seen as an incredibly demanding or stressful event, but rather effortless and joyful.

"This is in such stark contrast to how we perceive child rearing that, what was supposed to be a quick adventure for Liedloff, evolved into an extended stay as she lived with the Yequana Indians for over two years - and then wrote about her observations. She believes the South American Indian babies are so well adjusted because they aren't separated from their mothers for long stretches of time and are "in arms" until they are ready to assert their independence and move away. The babies spend their days in a sling, which allows skin contact and provides them with all the rhythms and changes of tempo they were used to while they were in the womb. What's more, babies and toddlers are never left to lie passively by themselves or made to sleep alone in a quiet place. Instead they participate in everything their mother does - fetching water, gathering food, cooking, chatting with friends, dancing and sleeping. Children are not the focus of attention, they are just a part of every day life - and seem significantly happier for it."

It was this book, and the time that Mandy spent observing wild dogs and elephants which shaped her thinking and provided the catalyst for the Wisdom of Elephant eco-therapy programme she has developed.

"I was at a real cross roads in my life," continues Mandy, who is divorced with two teenage children, "and I went to spend time with a friend who is a game ranger. I needed time out and a quiet place to think and nature has always provided me with this. I began by observing wild dogs and was struck by how tightly knit the groups are.

"Take for example when a wild dog leaves the pack for a couple of hours and then returns, the rest of the dogs go through an elaborate greeting ritual which serves to reaffirm kinship bonds and cement the group. The human family today is under enormous amount of pressure, yet we do very little to strengthen the bonds that keep us together. When a parent walks through the door in the evening after being at work for the whole day, what happens? Chances are no one looks up from what they're doing and the person walking into the family is completely unacknowledged. The kids will carry on watching TV or talking on the phone, while the other adult is frantically throwing supper together in the kitchen. As a mother of two teenagers I completely understand that homework needs to be done and dinner cooked, but we are forgetting to nurture those bonds which keep us together - and this must be contributing to the conflict families find themselves in today."

After observing wild dogs for a number of years, and being asked to write an Imax movie script about her observations, Mandy got the phonecall she had been dreaming of.

"While researching wild dog behaviour, I also started observing elephants and was struck by how well the herd takes care of its young. I also began to notice distinct differences in the mothering styles of those elephants that had either been orphaned or separated from their family group during relocation; and those elephants that came from intact groups. When an elephant expert called me to say that two cows - one orphaned and one not - had calved within a couple of weeks of each other I jumped at the opportunity to observe their different "mothering" styles. The owners of White Elephant Safari Lodge in Pongola where the elephants were located were extremely welcoming and I've had free access to their elephants and it's here that I have decided to run my eco-therapy course."

Simply, what Mandy has observed, is that orphaned cows and those that have experienced poor "mothering" make for less adequate mothers themselves. Through no fault of their own, they just don't have the ability to respond appropriately because they've never been on the receiving end of healthy nurturing. According to Mandy's observations, they're either less affectionately involved with their calves. Constance, an orphan mother who gave birth to a stillborn calf, like most anxious mothers who have experienced such a deep loss - is over-involved and over-protective of the little calf born to her sister.

The cows that came from intact herds, however, present a very different picture. The calf's natural rhythms are appropriately responded to by the whole breeding herd. They move when he is ready to move, stop when he's tired, give him time to rest and generally he's always within very close range so if they're confronted by danger, the older elephants could very quickly surround the younger, more vulnerable members of the group.

"These elephants reminded me of the mothers in the Yequana tribe," says Mandy picking up the story. "Liedloff was deeply impressed by the harmony within the tribe and she noticed that the Yequana children grow up with a very strong sense of themselves and, as they mature, this makes for well-adjusted adults."

But what do Yequana Indians and elephants have to do with us?

"Based on my experience as a therapist, I think we all have unmet childhood needs," explains Mandy. "There is no point in blaming our parents but, if you are wanting to break this pattern, you need to spend time working out who you are, how you want to parent and what you want for your children. This is one of the things I'm hoping the Wisdom of Elephants eco-therapy course will help people achieve. The course isn't just aimed at parents, but because becoming a parent is such a life-changing event it can be very helpful to spend time thinking about these issues."

Because every woman wants to be good mother and have children who grow up secure and happy, what can we do?

"I'm not suggesting you rush off and join an Indian tribe," says Mandy, "but you can adopt some of their principles."

Mandy's suggestions include:

"I see the consequences of inadequate mothering every day," says Mandy, summing up. "At 18 or 20 so many youngster are still living at home because they aren't confident enough to move out. It's as though they are hoping to make up for the nurturing they missed out on when they were babies. And, marriages fail because we are looking to be mothered by our partners who are obviously unable to fill the void we feel. So we move from one person to another hoping that they will heal the wounds we carry."

But, for all the talk about mothers, where do dads feature?

Fathers' bonding with their children, even from the moment they are born, is very important. But they play a different role somehow - they are more protective and financially providing, which frees mothers to be more nurturing. They are also so much more playful, children love that!