5 Things I’ve learned from mothering abroad.

Alice and kids

  • There are many ways to give birth. Given our basic anatomical inflexibility, obviously, there are only a couple of actual egresses, but wow, the variations in birth culture. “Just don’t go overdue!” warned a fellow ex-pat mother in Japan, “They stuck seaweed up my you-know-what!” Apparently, there is a chemical in the seaweed that dilates you for birth (either that or the Japanese really can’t get enough of sea-food). I didn’t get kelped, but I did try to punch my obstetrician when she “manually opened my cervix”. It is not a procedure I recommend. Japanese women are expected to give birth very demurely, with no cussing or screaming, and no pain relief. I managed to do without pain relief (the other two, not so much). My Japanese friends put this down to it being the year of the dog. I put it down to me being a super-woman-birthing-goddess-rock-star (with post-labour endorphins).

 

  • Forget what you know about kids when you leave your cultural bubble: When it comes to child-rearing, we can’t see past the ends of our ethnocentric noses. The terrible twos? Not a thing, in Japan. In Ethiopia, where we lived when mine were pre-schoolers, pushing my toddler in a pushchair was met with so much hilarity that I only did it once (street-boys tried to commandeer her and take her for joy rides). Women there carry their babies on their backs. Even quite little ones are slung on the back, sometimes even on their four-year-old sibling’s back. It made me want to shout out “Support the head! Support the head!” as they bibble-bobbled about. They seemed fine though. Here in Uzbekistan, where we now live, a Russian friend recently told me that to cure my eldest daughter of all ills, I should forget doctors; all I needed to do was change her name. Who knew?
  • Motherhood should definitely not be a solitary activity: In Ethiopia I learned the value of the saying “it takes a village (of aunties, grannies, neighbours, cousins, dads, shopkeepers, security guards, large tame dogs) to raise a child.” I thought back to the days I spent trapped in my Tokyo apartment, looking out over the skyrises with no place to take my toddling baby. In Japan, it’s not common to visit other people’s houses with your kids until they are ‘house-trained’, which means knowing how not to wear the toilet slippers on the tatami mat, something they only get the hang of when they are about four. Japanese mothers go a wee bit stir crazy. I remembered the abject bleakness of having missed the one stay-and-play session in my London borough for that day, with 10 hours of me, a manic two year old and a bored baby to look forward to. Thank the Lord for Moon-Sand ™ and C-Beebies. We Westerners, so keen on our independence and individuality, pay the price when it comes to child rearing. Yes, babies need secure attachment to a few close people, but after the first few months (Ethiopian women have a 40 day seclusion period after birth) mothers and babies need the stimulation of company. We’re social animals, Dammit! In Ethiopia, mums who need a bit of me-time don’t need to give up the baby to expensive strangers because there is a wealth of people, both younger ones and the older generation around to jiggle it and cuddle it and take it for little walks. However, on the flip side….
  • Never underestimate Grannies. The world over, women struggle to extricate themselves from the ways their mother did it. Sometimes this means pacifying, contradicting, conflicting with, even hiding from their elders. Pretty hard when in Ethiopia and Uzbekistan you’re under your in-laws roof. In the UK, even if noses can sometimes be put out of joint, the hierarchy of mother/daughter is pretty flat compared to many countries, and even though UK grannies did things differently, there’s enough information out there for everyone to realise (mostly) that there are different ways to mother. In Ethiopia, and in Uzbekistan, advice comes at you from all directions, and cherished but outdated traditions are still alive and strong. Some ideas and customs are so at odds with the views of the modern generation that conflicts are painfully inevitable. In today’s Addis Ababa, most educated women resist the female genital mutilation their mothers were subjected to. On a milder note, in Uzbekistan, there’s a traditional cot called a beshik. It’s a complicated contraption; the heavily swaddled baby has to pee through a tube and though grannies say it helps babies to sleep, it’s restrictive and leaves them with a flat head. When my Uzbek friend refused to use it, it was years before the matriarchs of the family let her hear the end of it.

Despite all this, far away from my own mum, I’ve often longed for the comfort of her experience and wisdom. Contrary, aren’t we?

  • When you live abroad, you can’t look to your own childhood to provide answers for your kids. Perhaps this is true for mothers who stay in one place too, but my cosy childhood in a Devon village gave me no strategies for helping my daughters country-hop every few years. My primary school friends are still my confidantes and besties, but my daughters have to cope yearly with the pain of losing yet another batch of friends as we, or their parents, change post and move on. On the plus side, they are so much more adaptable than me. Their trust in the general goodness of humanity is amazing and heartening and they are incredibly adept at making friends. Also, unlike me at that age, they are completely ‘colour-blind’. Yes, language and education can be barriers to them making friends, but skin-colour absolutely isn’t. I comfort myself that what they lack in rootedness, they make up for in variety, and that despite having missed out on a lot of familiarity and closeness with our extended relatives, as a nuclear family, we are bonded by some very special shared memories.
  • Whatever gets you through, gets you through: Living abroad is like suddenly having access to thousands of parenting books, all giving you completely contradictory advice. When I was pregnant in Japan, I was instructed to wear a belly band in 35 degree heat to keep my baby warm, soak in steaming onsens and eat lots of raw fish. In Ethiopia, women must eat big bowls of buttery porridge with chilli-spices in order to stand any chance of making milk. Here in Uzbekistan, putting your faith in the evil-eye still figures big with some, while others prefer to follow the prescriptive Soviet medical system. A woman could go crazy.

Fortunately, confusing as it is, there is a common thread, a fundamental which has helped me feel the kindred spirit of motherhood with women over the world. It’s made me feel welcomed among groups of mothers on four continents. Women love their babies. They do their best for them in whatever ways their culture suggest, often times contrary to what their cultures suggest, following their instincts, making it up as they go along and enjoying the ride. I can get with that.

(Also blogged with Mumfidential)

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