I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of a closet geek. Throughout high school and college I spent much of my free time reading webcomics. Lately, I’ve been checking out graphic novels from my local library (my local library is probably hands down my favorite place anywhere I live) and was thrilled to find the second book in a series about Aya, a young woman growing up in the Ivory Coast in the late 1970s.
In the appendix of this particular book, I found this absolute gem, talking about how new families are cared for in the immediate postpartum period and how, if you play your cards right, children are cared for on an extended basis by the entire community. It makes me think about life in the US and how many of my new families aren’t so lucky to have close friends or family close by to care for them postpartum and how incredibly important it is to have or build community in every time of your life.
In our country, we have a famous proverb that goes like this:
“When a baby is in they belly, it belongs to its mother. When it’s born, it belongs to everyone.”
The “it belongs to everyone” part is really great, believe me. And here’s why:
First, when you give birth, you only stay in the maternity ward for a day, unless you have a caesarian, in which case you go home the day after (not enough room and it’s expensive). But that doesn’t matter because as soon as you get home, you are welcomed like a “queen” by everyone. (Your family will take care of you and your baby for awhile, and that’s great, because you won’t have time to get those famous postpartum blues.) The baby and you are promptly looked after. Your mother heats some water and massages your whole body, especially the belly. Next she slathers you in shea butter and you go shower. Then she slathers you in shea butter again and wraps your belly (if you haven’t had a caesarian of course). Afterward, she dresses you and does your hair (you couldn’t get better treatment at a spa).
During this time, a team made up of your grandmother (if you still have one) and great-aunts takes care of your baby. They massage its head with a warm washcloth (so that its head becomes nice and round) and then its whole body (to make it nice and firm). When that’s done, the baby is washed, slathered in lotino and dusted with “Bébé d’Or” talcum powder or other things, then dressed in pretty clothes.
Meanwhile, another team made up of female cousins, sisters-in-law and tanties* makes a delicious meal, and then it’s time to sit down to eat! You come out of your room beautiful and glowing (thanks to the shea butter) and you enjoy the special meal (that you requested) under the happy gaze of your whole family.
When you have finished your meal, your beautiful baby is returned to you so you can nurse it (yup, that’s right, you’ve got to work just a little bit). After it burps, you put it down to sleep, and you can take a well-deserved nap and rest easy because your baby is being watched over by dozens of people. …
You’re helped in this way for some time. A few days before the aunts, female cousins, and sisters-in-law leave (your mother and grandmother can stay much longer), you introduce your baby to all the people in your neighborhood (even though they’ve all come by your house already to see you). This ritual is very important because you bring them your baby as a sign of respect and consideration. That’s how you get everyone to adopt your baby.
That’s how children grow up in this community. When your children are old enough to play outside, they’ll always be watched by someone and they’ll get scolded by a tantie* or tonton* the minute they’re up to some mischief.
Your children will invite other neighbor kids to come eat at your house because your children have had meals at theirs. They’ll learn about sharing and life as part of a community. You’re probably wondering about the “mother-father-child” bond. Don’t worry, because the others will never get in the way of that bond. Just because you give your children to others for a short time, doesn’t mean they’ll love you any less.
In any event, in our country, we don’t have to deal with those kinds of questions, because we don’t even think about them, and everything goes really well.
After all, we all want our children to be happy.
*tantie = auntie or older woman, tonton = uncle or older man