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This is an uneven yet inspired parenting book in the spirit of Pearce's "Magical Child," and while it incorporates an embarrassment of riches in terms of practical information on nutrition, vaccination, fluoride, sun exposure, etc., there is a way in which the book jacket is disingenuous; if you are looking for a concise, clear manual on babycare, you should know that the book's strengths lie elsewhere: the book is a gem as a discourse on the profoundly spiritual nature of parenting, and as such, it is messy, rich, and emotional.
What amazed me is that Nagel rounded up the exact same group of idiosyncratic (yet logical) sources that I've taken to heart (though pragmatically I've rejected some) in my 6 years as a parent, including Price's "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration," Liedloff's "Continuum Concept," Pearce on the idea of mother as matrix, unschooling, (unattended) homebirth, and natural infant hygiene. I thought I was the only one! When my second child was a newborn, I remember seeing a flyer around town for a meeting of the "wholistic moms club" that read, "Come and find your tribe," and I thought to myself, "Yeah, right, I've found my tribe, and it's a tribe of 1." The women in that group seemed to me to be the "attachment parenting" types who feel free to ignore their kids (we are NOT child-centric!) because they co-sleep and breastfeed on demand, and hey, isn't that enough?, and whose kids have plump, rosy cheeks from breastmilk and dental caries from a vegetarian diet of hummus and organic pretzels. You know the type?
I began to think of my parenting style as "evolutionary parenting" and have since refined it to "empathetic" parenting. In particular, I thought Nagel excelled in his riff on the continuum of infant experience, necessary because anthropologist/therapist Liedloff never became a mother; I've seen her work conveniently interpreted by the "attachment" folks to mean that a lack of maternal interaction is OK as long as you use a sling. I've begun to feel like the last parent on earth who plays-plays-plays with her kids, and the feeling is creepily reinforced every day after I drop my 6-year-old off at school, then watch the neighborhood turn into a ghost town.
My toddler and I go across the street to the playground and play imaginative games for an hour or so before walking home through more deserted neighborhoods, in which the only sound is that of the leaf-blowers and neurotic, lonely dogs pent up in backyards. Actually, there's a small clump of moms with toddlers, and they stay and chat with each other for about twenty minutes, but they never come to the playground, and for some reason that evades me, they always stand (whatever the weather) in the middle of the driveway where the school lunch truck backs up, narrowly avoiding the toddlers. I finished reading Nagel's book with a feeling of being blessed and confirmed, and perhaps most importantly, I felt a rush of compassion for my 6-year-old, her first tooth just loosening, from whom I often expect too much in terms of that cultural mandate to early independence, and I took her in my arms and just held her like a baby for a second or two, `til she struggled to get away.
But folks, there are problems. "Healing Our Children" has that kind of loose, naïve, from-the-hip writing style I associate with hippies like Ina May Gaskin, and from time to time, Nagel's wife Michelle pipes in with her 2-cents, with all the aplomb of a wife reminding her husband to pick up bread at the market. The book starts with a retelling of Weston A. Price's research but fuzzes it up, in my opinion, with frequent invocations of the divine mother and father and a sort of collective walking-the-stations-of-the-cross to grieve the plague of "white" culture. I've often wondered why Price's brilliant research has been neglected, and the conclusion I came to was that it was too painful. Sure enough, it's no fun to look in the mirror and say, wow, I bear the deformities of my cultural inheritance, the astigmatism and narrow palate. But, my point is, I'd already made my peace and thus felt annoyed by Nagel's promptings.
In my favorite, awful part of the book, Nagel writes, "Just to warn you, as there are good energies and good spirits, so there are also bad ones...This book, by the way, also has a deva spirit. If you want to understand the book several times faster than you would normally, think of and communicate with its spirit, or with my writer deva spirit while you are reading." Thanks for the invite! I began to wonder if all books and periodicals have deva spirits, including the crumpled, sticky French Spider Man comic on the floor of my car; I began to think, wow, deva spirits...who needs the Internet? Mostly, I began to think, Weston A. Price, who was a rigorous man of science, would be horrified. A small matter of phrasing could help here; just saying, "I believe in" instead of "there are" could pacify people like me who get squeamish about deva spirits. Then there was this little wonder: "Most of the time while in the womb the baby's spirit is not in its body. The spirit may pay brief visits and its physiology may be imprinted." Say what?? I'll share one more: Though I thought Nagel's section on vaccination provided excellent info, I was uncomfortable with his statement that germs do not cause disease. I'm pretty sure germs do cause disease, as for example when healthy, indigenous North American populations came into contact with European settlers and were decimated by plague. Nagel boldly declares that there is no such thing as a virus, but I'm pretty sure, for example, that the ebola virus would lay anyone low.
The section on prevention of childhood diseases toward the end of the book seems rushed; the discussion of colic, for example as an easy fix with a bit of infant probiotics, largely avoidable through proper prenatal nutrition, lacks the sort of complexity and precision I generally admire. I'm prompted to think of Nagel's book, as personal and idiosyncratic as it is, as bearing the imprint of the estimable yet sometimes brittle Weston A. Price Foundation. I love the WAPF for the intelligent, hard-to-find, counter-cultural info they provide, and I'm grateful to the WAPF for their prenatal dietary guidelines, as I followed them during my second pregnancy and must say that my second daughter has a notably wide palate, etc. and both of my daughters are vibrantly healthy; yet, at its worst, the WAPF can sometimes (understandably) become strident. For all the astounding research they conduct, creating a homemade infant formula with a lipid specialist, for example, or unveiling Price's "Activator X" as Vitamin K-2, they sometimes adopt a tone that goes like this: feed your kids a WAPF diet, and they will sleep through the night, be calm and cheerful, period, end of story.
When I began the book, I thought to myself, do I want to share this with my little sister, the Ivy League graduate, pregnant with her first child? No way, I thought, she'll think I'm a complete wacko, and Weston A. Price's research (which I'm always pressing on my vegetarian sister, who now drinks real milk instead of soymilk) will lose credibility. By the end of the book, I'd changed my mind; now I don't want to part with it, because, however wacky, I've found my tribe.
I almost forgot to mention my favorite part of the book, which treats the assumption of individual and parental responsibiity (especially within the continuum of care) vs. social pressures to abdicate such responsibility. The pressures to leave a baby or toddler with a stranger, to allow strangers moral authority over a child, etc. are enormous, even for a mature adult, and I've never come across a book that so beautifully emphasizes the importance of the parental role in protecting a child. This alone is worth the price of admission!