'Cairo Mommies' Offers Support For Natural Parenting



Thu, 17 Mar 2016 - 10:52 GMT


Thu, 17 Mar 2016 - 10:52 GMT

Online community support group Cairo Mommies for Natural Parenting offers moms a platform to share and discuss their experiences raising kids with a natural approach.

by Noha Mohammed

When Abigail Dax Toner moved to Egypt a few years ago and decided to start her own family, she was set on a “natural” approach to birthing and childrearing. “In my first days of being a mom, like many, I had difficulties knowing what was ‘right and wrong’ and friends of mine referred me to a Facebook group based in the US. The group has a more natural/breastfeeding support stance, which suits my value system, and it was an invaluable part of my first few months of being a new mother, especially in a foreign country,” says Dax Toner, who went on to found Cairo Mommies for Natural Parenting to help other moms facing similar challenges. Today the group has over 7,000 members who share and discuss valuable first-hand information and experiences about being a natural mom. We talk to Dax Toner about her experience managing the group and the valuable work she’s doing to encourage moms to adopt a natural approach when it comes to childrearing, education and healthcare.

What was it like deciding to start a family here in Egypt?

I am a person who reads and researches. So before I had my son, up until now, I read, double-check and confirm. I did often feel alone early on as people saw my approach as different. I think though that I did not get a lot of pressure to change because I’m not from here — they could shrug it off as I was a foreigner and may do strange things.

Prior to being pregnant, I went to a doctor a friend recommended and who I’ve since recommended to countless mothers including my own sister-inlaw. I knew he’d be in line with my views and opinions, and he was great – informed the nurses at the hospital about what I did and didn’t want. He even ended up giving me a discount when I had my emergency c-section, as he knew how badly I’d wanted to birth naturally!

My husband is supportive of how I approach raising our son as he knows I spend time seeing what approaches I feel are best. I’m also very lucky to have an amazing mother-in-law who helped me when I finally realized and admitted I couldn’t handle everything on my own (which is a very American but very destructive mindset – not needing help). She was with us for a long time at home and was my main source of care when I started work.

How did you get Cairo Mommies for Natural Parenting off the ground?

Cairo Mommies happened organically. I recall hearing odd and sometimes incorrect recommendations given to women by gynecologists and pediatricians. In fact, my own first pediatrician misdiagnosed my son’s milk protein allergy. He initially laughed at my suggestion for my son’s endless discomfort, but I ultimately ended up being correct. I thought, maybe mothers here would find a group like this useful. So one night, I created the FB group, added my friends here who were mothers, and the rest is history.

It must be very fulfilling to see insights being shared and mommies truly making use of all the much-needed advice. How do you feel watching this project take off and where do you think this can take you in the future?

It’s really been amazing. My main goal has always been to help the community of moms and babies. It seems to be doing just that. Women often reach out to me directly for assistance. Knowing they trust me and my insights, and knowing that we also have this community of mothers who are also experts in areas who are willing to help for no monetary return, are the indicators of success.

It must be a pretty daunting and time-consuming task to moderate the 7,000+ users in the group. How do you do it? And how do you find time?

That’s a good question. It’s even more daunting when you’re someone like me who cares about factual information being shared and not just anything passing back and forth. I’ve been lucky enough to add three dedicated core admins who help me out — Alia, Nora and Amina. I also have about 10 admins who help me screen members as we are selective as to how we add people to ensure a safe environment without trolling.

I admittedly check the group throughout the day to make sure things are on track. I’m a multitasker and have found a way to make that work between my workload (and honestly, the group keeps me motivated through tough times). But, I also let my admins know when I’ll be unavailable, or when I need a brain break. We have an admin WhatsApp group to keep each other informed.

As a mom living in Egypt yourself, how would you assess the attitude toward natural parenting here?

I don’t see the country as having a natural approach for a few reasons. There is, at any age, a quick jump to medicate. There are also major issues regarding diabetes and heart disease due to eating habits and smoking. Add to that pesticides and pollution and heavy marketing for junk foods, and people are not living healthily or naturally on the whole. Same with parenting and education, I hear a lot of “shoulds” being told to moms by family or educators that are against going with the flow of childhood. Add onto that the push for c-sections as well as people being quick to tell a mother she failed nursing and to use formula, and it’s quite a mix. … I do believe that some of it is due to the developing status of the nation. Medicine and affording procedures are seen as progressive, while natural is seen as old-fashioned. Let me give you an example. I was talking about birthing positions with my gynecologist. The best position is actually squatting, as the women do in the countryside. He agreed with me that it’s best but hospitals aren’t equipped to allow that most natural position. When I told people of that preference, they laughed that I would want to birth someone the same way people do in the fields.

But there are those looking to go as natural as possible?

There is a movement to natural and organic. We see it with the smaller aquaponics farms, organic foods, farm-to-table restaurants. But that’s really only happening in the upper-class levels from a trend perspective. Very few people take the process to heart. A group like Cairo Mommies plays two roles in getting things back to natural or science-based approaches. It gives women who share that value system and philosophy support from which they are empowered to implement their approaches. It gives women who are willing to listen and learn a new perspective that they may appreciate and apply.

Note above I mention “natural and science-based.” We not only focus on what children require naturally, which research is showing is often preferable giving our evolution and needs, but what our current society requires such as better aligned education systems at age appropriate levels as well as safety-related items such as car seats.

What do you think needs to be done to promote natural parenting in Egypt?

I believe we first need to change the mindset of the parent-child relationship. People get married and are pressured by society to have kids … but then they aren’t given the meaningful support to parent but to conform. The push to make kids sleep, the push to be social at late hours and not change your routine, the push to get kids into nursery and then into a school system to which kids must conform and not the other way around.

So, while groups like Cairo Mommies and other organizations can help, it will not matter until the core idea of being a parent changes. We need to see parenting as developing human beings with love and care, not pushing babies to be independent creatures. We need to tell parents that it’s hard and takes a lot of work. Having that mindset makes the ups and downs more manageable and makes people willing to try the more energy draining, but more beneficial, approaches.

Therefore, just like any culture change, I believe it’s the power of your circle. “Acting locally while thinking globally.” If groups like ours change a few minds, and other people witness those changes, a few other people change and so on. Also, I believe that we can make changes to education, safety, and laws if we understand that mothers have a voice and have power. We don’t need to conform to the system if it’s not benefitting us; we can help change it for the better.

Traditionally, new mothers here were schooled by their own moms or mothers in law to help them bring up their kids. With increased levels of education and awareness, women began to rely more on doctors and clinics. Today, in this tech-savvy age, women are watching TV shows, researching online or following social media for health advice. While many appreciate the wealth of information available online, others feel that self prognoses and medication cannot fill in for scientific/expert opinion. What’s your take on this?

This is a sensitive topic in the group. Mostly because we have women who are doctors in the group and they end up bearing the brunt of moms’ frustrations with the level of overall doctor expertise. One too many moms have been given outdated or dangerous advice from doctors. For example, the continuous prescription of antihistamines for basic cold symptoms in young babies. The FDA in the US has been warning parents of the dangers of these meds in children under 5 for years, yet they are still prescribed here. Or prescription of antibiotics ASAP without consideration of an illness being a virus — such over-prescription and self-medication has led to strong, antibiotic-resistant bacteria here. In addition, doctors have pressured women out of nursing, told them to give milupain place of night feeds which has zero nutrition or to have moms do cry-it-out.

All of the facts above lead me to believe that we need to do three things: 1) go to doctors for emergency care and checkups — never rely on a mothers group to diagnose or prescribe, 2) ALWAYS do your own research before visiting a doctor, and 3) feel free to question “why” when something doesn’t feel right.

One cannot count on the fact that because a doctor is considered the “best” (which is sometimes defined by his/her unavailability, waiting lines or fees) that they are actually the most competent. This is advice I give here for child medical care and I’d also give it to any adult here or abroad. Also, just because someone is not a doctor does not mean they cannot collect their own data and make their own informed decisions.

How big of a role do you feel social media plays in natural parenting today?

Social media plays a huge role. Parents are busy and tired. Social media makes it easy to connect to other like-minded people going through the same situation. It’s also a place outside your social circle, where you can really be you and feel vulnerable. This is one of the reasons we started the Anonymommy posts — it adds another layer of anonymity as the group now has so many groups of friends and families present.

Even though there are “rules” to your group, ones that are clearly set out in the pinned post, oftentimes squabbles do unfold as issues are discussed by users. Do you ever take sides when it’s an issue that you yourself feel strongly about? Or do you believe that you should always step back?

One can never prevent disagreements, of course. Overall, group members know where I stand when it comes to certain conversations as the group philosophy is based on my value system. I don’t take sides per se. I ensure that accurate data and information is included in the mix. I also have a zero-tolerance policy if it’s a subject such as car seat use — when a child’s safety is at risk, I’m very firm about it. Otherwise, I’m diplomatic about gray areas.

You’ll often see me step back and wait to see where something goes. Debate is healthy and many things don’t have a right and wrong but a gray area in-between. Critical thinking and supporting one’s approach is important to me, so these squabbles are a natural outcome of facilitating that process.

What are the most common flare-ups usually about? And what action do you or the admins take when things look like they’re getting out of hand?

We have a few different common flare-ups. Some are just based on general language. We have a mix of expats and Egyptians (here and abroad), so how each culture delivers a message is sometimes taken in a wrong way. I’ve had to learn to be less blunt as people thought it was aggressive, as a matter of fact.

Other topic areas are breastfeeding vs. formula (we support nursing but don’t shun formula) as some people feel our push for breastfeeding is anti-formula. Which it’s not — we are for supporting women and giving them facts about breastfeeding to help nurture that. But if a mother needs to formula feed for various reason, who are we to critique that? We are critiquing society’s lack of support and misinformation, not a mother’s choice.

When things get out of hand, I make it clear (and have thus done so in the pinned post) that people need to choose their words carefully and bear responsibility for what they say. I don’t delete as I believe we are adults and take risks when we decide to say something online. If they get really nasty, I shut a post down. This group is open to Egyptians and expats living in Cairo — what do you feel are the biggest cultural issues that might arise out of having possibly divergent viewpoints?

The group is a huge melting pot, which I love. There are not only crosscultural issues between expat and Egyptian but also internal Egyptian culture clashes. In fact, we have women in the group from all over the world and all levels of society.

The biggest may come down to things like circumcision or the role of nannies. One is a hot topic as it’s based in religious practices and then culture based on what’s affordable here vs abroad. Also, sometimes a frustrated expat may voice something negative about Egypt. We try to ensure sensitivity in what we say because of the mixed crowd.

Being a mother has so many aspects, some of which are unique between you and your child and other things that we know to be bad or good. We need to get to a place where a mom sharing an opinion different from yours or giving you advice out of concern, stops being labeled as “judging.” That’s not to say that people don’t judge, they do. But if we put everything into the judging category, we don’t listen, we don’t hear that sometimes there may be a better way to do things.

I established the group as a place to inform and be informed. That takes openness to different opinions and a trust in facts and science. The more women are open to this process and to each other, the more we grow as mothers and the better our children and society will be in the future.

What’s your favorite thing about the group?

My favorite thing about the group is the overall impact such a simple approach has made. We are only sharing information and viewpoints, and giving people a space to feel okay about their decisions regarding parenting.

The funny side is seeing the “theme” for each day or week. We joke as admins that one week is the “flare-up” week, and then the next is the week about supporting each other, or the week about nurseries. It’s been interesting to see the cycle and how these moods and topics ebb and flow. It’s like a living organism sometimes.

The most moving moment was when we had a rebellion of sorts last year, in early 2015. People felt I and another admin were being too aggressive. It came down to our passion and how we were delivering the message. I decided to openly apologize and tell people that I would change my approach based on their feedback. It gained the commitment of many members and solidified in their minds our desire to help and adapt, not push and preach.

Another moving moment has been the support moms are willing to give to those undergoing post-partum depression or other down times. Moms reach out to each other, check in with those moms who seem down. It’s nice to see such a web of support with an issue that is so critical to many new mothers.

What’s the next step?

For the future, I have a few plans, some I’m not sure where to start. But, in the immediate future, I’m using it as a platform from which I coach women. I’m finalizing my international coaching certificate, supported by my 15-year professional career and my desire to help women in Egypt. My goal is for women to feel their own personal power — not just identify as their role as mother or wife or employee, but to feel their independent power as an individual. I would like to devote 100% of my time to this area as well as use Cairo Mommies as a platform for needed social change around education, health and safety. There are enough willing volunteers to assist with those activities, I believe. We have a few courses in first aid over the next few weeks — and that’s a start.



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