Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Different kinds of parents

In my culture, you can expand your family by marrying or sexually reproducing. Cocos Malays also use other ways.

Different forms of parenting

Aside from 'biological' parents, Cocos Malays recognise three other common 'relatives' who look after children: breastfeeding parents (that is a wet nurse and her husband); adopted parents; and grandparents. Nenek's personal experiences of child-rearing incorporate all three. As she related to Monika, she has six biological children (3 shared with other mothers) and one 'milk son':
  • The milk son. Nenek said she had breastfed (i.e. wet nursed) another woman's biological son. The boy's mother requested because she did not produce enough milk, her "body was infertile" (tubuh tidak subur). The boy's grandparent and Nenek 's father are siblings. Nenek explained that the boy "is my son and I'm his mak susu" (wet nurse, milk mother). This sense of "son" and "mother" has a literal dimension. The boy could not marry any of Nenek's biological daughters because the daughters were, effectively, the boy's siblings. Anthropologists would say that the daughters are the boy's 'milk siblings'.
  • The adopted daughter. A local Cocos couple who had one son and no daughter asked if they could adopt one of Nenek's daughters. Nenek consented. This daughter would spend most of her time at her adopted parent's house but would go home to her biological parents house to sleep at night. The adopted parents had hoped by having Nenek's daughter as an adopted child they would be blessed with another child. 8 years later they had their own biological daughter.  The adopted parents still play a role in Nenek's daughter's life as an adult and they remain close. 
  • Another adopted daughter. Nenek has another daughter. She was adopted by Nenek's niece. The niece had been married for a long time but didn't have a child, so the niece adopted Nenek's daughter.  Now this daughter has two sons and a daughter; Nenek's niece is considered their grandmother and take oldest son's name (see my blog on teknonyms). When we arrived in 2016, the two mothers (biological and adopting) were waving goodbye to their daughter and grand-daughter who were heading to the mainland for a short trip. 
  • Adoption brings the two grandmothers together. The niece is working full-time. So the grandmothers divide up the labour of looking after the grandkids. The niece looks after the older two boys. Nenek looks after the granddaughter. Nenek explained that this granddaughter is important to her because she looked after this granddaughter since she was very young. On Tuesday when Moni was supposed to meet Nenek, Nenek cancelled because she had to help her granddaughter with her introduction day to kindergarten.
  • The breastfeeding mother. When she had her youngest daughter, Nenek had the opportunity to go on the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca). She left her daughter with her family in Cocos. While Nenek was on the Haj, her grandmother gave her daughter to another woman to be breastfed for six months (as the grandmother thought the child was still quite young). It hadn't been organised before she left; Nenek only found out when she got back.
  • To summarise, Nenek has 6 biological children. 3 of them are 'shared': a daughter, who was adopted by another local couple; a daughter who was adopted by her niece; and a daughter who was breastfed by another woman while she was on the Haj. Nenek also breastfed another boy; becoming his 'milk mother'.
  • As she explained it; she didn't plan it this way; it was up to Allah; it's not really up to us humans. 
  • In most societies families are made through marrying people and having children. Many societies have yet other ways of making family. For the Cocos Malays, the kinds of parenting--adoption, milk parenting (wet nursing), adoption and milk grandparenting--are all common ways of caring for children and making family bonds.
In subsequent blogs, I will analyse these different kinds of parenthood in more detail.

Grandmas with their grandchildren. This is an end-of-year party for government school program. Called "Better Beginning" it is designed to prepare pre-school children for school

Anthropological Analysis


The first thing to say is that this blog is concerned with what anthropologists call kinship. If in English we say that "my cousin Jan is related to me through my father's side"; what we mean by "related" is the object of kinship studies. Or if you say, "family is everything"; what you mean by "family" is what we study in kinship. Kinship is, in basic terms, the anthropological study of what counts as 'family' or who counts as a 'relative' different cultures. As this definition implies; every culture has a slightly different understanding of who relatives are and what family consists in. I have already discussed an aspect of kinship in another blog. In that blog, I described some of the words--teknonyms--that Cocos Malays use to explain situate a person in terms of his or her family. As this indicates, the kinship of a society can have a variety of facets. Analysing these requires putting yourself in 'their' shoes.

Putting yourself in their shoes isn't easy...

Anthropologists try to 'put themselves in other people's shoes'. We try to understand the world from another culture's point of view; we try to see the world from the perspective of people who are different from us. Doing this is daunting; even for experienced anthropologists. This is especially the case when we try to understand customs which, when viewed from within our own culture's standards, seem strange or even offensive. For example, an Indonesian anthropologist might struggle to understand the culture of 'parties'  (replete with drinking alcohol, fornication, and violence) in Australia; or putting old people in homes. Conversely an Australian anthropologist might struggle to understand 'adoption' practices in Indonesia. Both anthropologists have to get beyond their own 'natural' assumptions if they want to understand what is going on.

...so we use strategies.

If you are new to studying anthropology, it sometimes seems like your lecturers and professors took up the anthropological perspective easily. It may seem they were born thinking and the way they do. But what anthropology teaches us runs against the grain even for lecturers and professor; things we assumed to be natural turn out to be, to a large degree cultural. This notion can be intellectually and emotionally challenging. So to help deal with the challenge, anthropologists (Australian, Indonesian, or from wherever) tend to employ several strategies, in particular; reflexivity, methodological relativism, and holism.
Dusk on Home Island


So here's how I would approach Cocos Malay kinship using reflexivity: I grew up in a culture where the bond between biological mother and child is thought of as natural. For instance, when I raised the topic of Cocos Malay adoption with an Anglo Australian mother, she said "if someone wanted my baby, I would be like, 'just try to get him off me'". This implies that she would do everything in her power to stop her biological baby being separated from her. Given my cultural background, this really resonated with me, so I think the attitude is common enough. Even though we talk about new families, and extended families, unconventional families etc. these seem to measured against a very clear norm. When we are not thinking like anthropologists, we assume it is 'natural' for animals, especially mothers, to protect their offspring. So adoption has many negative connotations for Westerners; the common idea is that biological family is solid, indissoluble unit--a shelter from the storm of modern society. The widespread practice of adoption and milk parents slightly breaches this Western ideal. But then, we do give our children to day care 9-5; then send them to to school. We entrust our children to teachers; sometimes to nannies and au paires. We formalise and depersonalise this through contracts and pay. The Cocos Malay have informal relationships based on lifelong care and connection, on a sense of personal obligation, gift-giving, and responsibility. When I think about it using the principle reflexivity, the kinship practices I'm describing in this an subsequent blogs, start to make more sense. Anyway, this is only one step. Principles like methodological relativism and holism will also be useful to putting oneself in the another's shoes. And though the goal of empathetic understanding remains most likely unattainable, we anthropologists hope that applying these principles will provide a solid basis from which the real business of anthropology--the analysis of cultural and social aspects of human life--can proceed.

Anyway, more about Cocos Malay kinship and anthropology in subsequent blogs.

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