Here at the Pop Culture laboratories, a tiny, dry-wally space between the dry-erase board and the Keurig machine at Parenting headquarters, we get a lot of books. Like a lot a lot. Children’s books, how-to’s, self-published memoirs, home birth manuals, pregnancy journals, self-published home birth pregnancy how-to journals. On some days, I use them as plates during lunch. (I received seven books today. Book about lonely cow, meet turkey sandwich and Baked Lays.)
Because of the sheer volume, it takes a little something something to inspire a second look. What doesn’t inspire a second look are books about confessions. (i.e. Confessions of a _________ Mom). More often than not, the confession is “I give my toddler M&Ms” or “I don’t recycle the Enfamil containers.” A more appropriate title would be Ambien: The Paperback Edition.
A recent arrival that inspired me to immediately crack it open was How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm. In this new book, author Mei-Ling Hopgood delves into an assortment of idiosyncratic parenting practices from around the world, and employs herself and daughter Sofia to test them out. Chapter titles include “How Kenyans Live Without Strollers” and “How the Japanese Let Their Children Fight.”
Of course, the one that stuck out to me was “How Aka Pygmies Are the Best Fathers.” The Aka Pygmies live in central Africa, near the border of the Congo. There are approximately 30,000 of them (picture a sold-out show at an outdoor amphitheater). They are pre-modern in many ways: They hunt with spears, gather fruit and nuts and visit the nganga (traditional healer) to treat everything from malaria to lovesickness.
However, they are decidedly post-modern in their approach to fatherhood. “Aka children spend as much time with their fathers as their mothers, during times of work and play,” Hopgood writes. “Aka dads harness their babies to infant slings and take them on hunts, babysit when moms need to set up camp, and bring them along when they let off steam with the guys at the palm wine happy hour.” She adds that it’s the Aka’s level of unabashed parental flexibility that makes them truly unique. Here’s just one example: While huddled around an evening fire, an Aka father won’t think twice about presenting his breastfed baby his own nipple as a pacifier. (That’s right, guys: You have two binkies on your chest.) What’s equally amazing is the fireside onlookers don’t bat an eyelash.
How can these seemingly primitive pops be so parentally advanced, and touch-screening, smart-carring, Bluetooth-ing American dads be so far behind? Aka moms and dads are hands-on, and split the childcare duties right down the middle. The Fatherhood Institute named the Aka "the greatest fathers in the world." Conversely, 24 million children in America—one out of three—live in biological father-absent homes, according to the U.S. Census. What gives? It may have something to do with “cooperative breeding.”
“To survive, human babies needed not only their mothers but also a tribe of support that included the father, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and other relatives and friends,” Hopgood writes. “With all that backup, the role of the father could vary.” Aka parents are expected to handle it all themselves (you don’t wear a Baby Bjorn on an elephant hunt if your neighborhood babysitter is available). When an American parent wants to get away, his mom is Plan A, the mother-in-law is Plan B, the nanny is Plan C, the flaky twenty-something sibling is Plan D, the work friend with children is Plan E. When you have options, being absent is an option.
“What sets the Aka apart is constant, consistent time spent with their children,” Hopgood writes.
The Aka way of life may be too far-fetched for us, but certainly there’s something to be learned from parenting practices in other cultures. My guess is most of you are already acting like Argentineans. The title of Chapter One is “How Buenos Aires Children Go To Bed Late.”