It’s a well known adage that parenthood is an opportunity for everyone else in your life (or randoms who see you at the supermarket) to let loose about how you should be parenting. Even if it’s commentary rather than condemnation, there’s a fair bit of opinion. It’s not hard to feel like every mistake is being scrutinised and every decision is going to be a mistake in someone’s eyes. There are the mums who swear they don’t care about the criticism, but they are stronger women than I am.
This sort of thing happens cross-culturally too, but it’s just heaps more intense. In Australia, you might consider yourself a Babywise mum, an attachment parenting mum, a feminist mum, a slow parenting mum – or you might just be trying to figure things out on your own! But chances are, you’ve got a tribe (or at least one other person who gets where you’re coming from!) and even if you don’t, controversial things like feeding and sleeping aside, there’s some common ground. It’s still isolating at times, even most of the time, but it’s not isolating all the time.
When you do it cross-culturally, though, there is no respite. Here’s one example.
Several weeks ago we were waiting at the post office for a parcel to get through customs. I took Elliot outside because he was getting restless and he went for a little crawl on the verandah. I had a conversation with six different people and this is how every single one of them went:
Other person: Lovely child. What is its name?
Other person: Eric? Is it a boy or a girl?
Me: Boy. Actually, his name is Elliot which is a boy’s name in Australia but it’s a girl’s name here so we say Elly in Tanzania to avoid confusion.
Other person: *laughs* How old is he?
Me: He’s one year old.
Other person: One year old! He’s so big!
Me: Yes, he likes to eat.
Other person: Do you breastfeed him?
Other person: Does he walk yet?
Me: No – he tries but he can’t. He crawls though.
Other person: Why is he on the ground?
Me: He likes to crawl.
Other person: He’ll get cold on the floor.
Me: Oh, he’s OK.
Other person: No he’s not. He’s not wearing enough clothes. Where are his trousers and his coat?
Me: It’s not that cold today. He’ll be OK.
Other person: No, it’s very cold today.
Me: Well, he’s wearing socks.
Other person: That’s not enough.
Me: Well, he’s pretty active. He gets hot.
Other person: No, babies get colder than adults.
Me: Here, you can feel his skin – see, he’s warm!
Other person: He will get diarrhoea if you let him crawl on the floor.
Me: He’s OK. He prefers to do things himself rather than be held.
Other person: *clucks tongue in surprise and perhaps disapproval; picks Elliot up for a cuddle and then hands him to me*
Now, perhaps you would handle this situation differently. Perhaps you know that in Tanzanian culture, everyone has a say about kids without it being interfering. But the point is, it feels like the whole world is telling me I’m doing things the wrong way. Actually, because in this culture everyone agrees on this particular thing – I am doing it the wrong way! But sometimes, doing things the Tanzanian way just doesn’t work for the kid that we have. So I have this conversation over and over, with a smile, not because I think they or I will change, but just to be polite.
Some days I try to circumvent the whole thing and just say, ‘Yes I know, I forgot his trousers’ or ‘Yes, he should wear trousers.’ However, this normally just results in being berated for him not wearing trousers, accompanied by a list of reasons why babies should wear trousers and a coat (see above.)
Constantly second-guessing yourself is part of parenthood. It’s also part of living cross-culturally. So parenting cross-culturally is like fourth-or-fifth-guessing yourself!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.