Trying (and failing) for our tribe

I recently had an “aha!” moment while reading Sebastien Junger’s 2016 book Tribe. It’s all about how modern society has shifted away from our tribal roots—duh—and how moments of collective trauma, like war, reconnect people to their primal, tribe-centric selves. He writes a lot about being embedded in war zones like Iraq or Sarajevo, and the unexpected connection he felt to both his brothers-in-arms and to the experience of living life so close to the edge. Annihilation lurked around every corner, but sleeping ten to a bunker, military piss-tubes at the ready, was a bonding experience unmatched in today’s society.

Tribe is a deeply bro-y book, since Junger’s range of tribal experience is mostly focused through a male lens: what it means to be a warrior, a soldier, a billionaire, a rampage shooter (nearly all of which are categories populated pretty much exclusively by men). However, he still finds time to toss off popular science about baby/caregiver bonding. He casually hypothesizes that forcing our children to sleep alone in their own rooms is responsible for both their intense bond to stuffed animals (apparently an anomaly in world cultures) as well as the rise of mental illness in adults. Sorry, kiddo! I guess sleeping in your crib means a lifetime of misery. If your genetic legacy of addictions doesn’t get you, you can always blame the STOKKE.

I’ll admit that I was pissed when Junger (not a parent, by the way) wrote that. But it also forced me to step back and examine why. Why did this bother me so much? Why do I feel so defensive when primal parenting modes get brought up? NS seems to be happy and thriving regardless of where he sleeps or if I carried him 90% of the time (also apparently normal among primates), and his recent foray into shyness reveals a baby who seeks me out for comfort and accepts it when I offer it, the definition of secure attachment. And yet I constantly feel like the system is rigged against me: no matter how I parent, I will somehow be fucking him up.

Babies are pure id. They’re upset, they cry; they’re bored, they cry; they want you, they cry. There’s no thought process, just a pure expulsion of need. They’re among the most primal creatures we encounter in our society. Responding to babies on their terms—respectful of where they are, developmentally—requires a consideration of what it means to be stuck out of time, evolutionarily speaking. After all, all the smart phones and wearable tech in the world still can’t deduce why, exactly, the baby is crying now. Only living through the learning (this cry means she’s hungry; that cry means “pick me up”) will unlock the mysteries.

Spending this kind of time with a baby has made me crave my own tribe; Junger is absolutely right about that. And what I realized, as I read on, was that our world is no longer set up for that to happen. It’s a losing game. In our Western/capitalist society, we don’t live communally. We don’t equate “work” with making food, childcare, or maintaining our living spaces (often women’s work, now, it should be said). We don’t live multigenerationally. We live in service to a system that says buying a house and living in it with your micro-tribe (immediate family) and outsourcing much of the work of kinship and childrearing to nannies, daycares, and, eventually, schools, is the “best way.” It’s modern, and we’ve been taught that modernity is good.

(And in many cases, I don’t dispute this! I like modern things, like medical care and clean water and clothes made of weather-proofed materials. But babies are not modern people. They’re relics of the old, trying to fit into a system that is barely designed for adult humans, let alone the newest ones.)

Naturally, I got mad. (I’m always getting mad.) The reason I got mad this time was because, like, duh: I have this intense need to be supported while I learn how to become a mother. In another age, another place, this would have been baked right in to my first years as a parent; today, there are no communal piss-tubes for new moms. We go it alone. And it’s lonely! It’s hard! And identifying that lack of tribe—not an ideological online tribe, but an actual, share-your-space, eat-my-food tribe—was edifying. And, you know, depressing.

Culturally, we’re just awful at transitions. Junger writes a lot about vets returning to America, about civilians transitioning back into peacetime, and about how the camaraderie and connection they felt during times of trauma is something they miss intensely (albeit with zero nostalgia for, you know, the war itself, which complicates things quite a lot). And I get that.

Because you know what? Birth is trauma. Birth is beautiful and orgasmic (I guess, Ina May, you beautiful weirdo) and transformative, but it’s also intense. Personally, it was the most pain I had ever endured. It was in the top-three biggest emotional experiences of my life. And there was nothing culturally in place for me to process that, or even really verbalize that. When I spoke to a doula about the negative feelings I had around my labour and birth with NS, she asked me what I had been afraid of. “I thought I was dying,” I told her, and burst into tears. She told me the story of Innana’s descent, a Sumerian tradition that says that during labour, women must go into the underworld to collect the souls of their children. And when she told me that, I felt something click.

I felt something click reading Junger, too. There is just no way for me to parent in an “authentically tribal” way. I don’t live in that system. I can’t create a facsimile of it in my two-parent home, with my parents three hours away, while working a day job. I just…can’t. I love that there are techniques that I can still use, like breastfeeding or babywearing, that will make my day easier and foster a connection between me and my child. And I’m gradually becoming more aware of my need for real, authentic, frayed-edges community, as well as meaningful rituals to honour my transition into this new identity. But if we want to foster real, meaningful connections with other mothers, other families, our babies, ourselves, the current system is broken. Junger doesn’t do enough to condemn this broken system; it’s so embedded in how we are as a culture that I don’t even know if he can see it.

I have a fair amount of id myself, as it turns out. And anger. And maybe even hope for a better way.

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Kaitlyn Kochany
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Kaitlyn Kochany is a Toronto-area freelance writer and editor. She had her son, NS, in January 2016, and has been trying to sleep and write since then.

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