When we went through customs in Dar es Salaam on our way to Australia, Elliot ran ahead of me while I spoke to the customs agent and he did his thing with our passport. The customs officer poked his head out of his cubicle, smiled at Elliot and commented on how energetic he was.
When we arrived in Perth, he did the same thing at the passport desk. This stressed out the lady no end. “He must NOT pass this point!’ she told me sternly. ‘You must go get him and hold his hand!’ This was then repeated to me by another official: ‘Why aren’t you holding his hand?’ As we went through to declare our goods, Elliot asked to sit on the counter. He was immediately told that wasn’t allowed. Then we were told off at baggage as well because he was within 2 feet of the moving conveyor belt – it was dangerous!
My first reaction was, there are so many rules in Australia! After all, in Tanzania, if I say he’s fine or that he knows what he’s doing, that’s basically accepted even if people think it’s weird (stupid wazungu!), but in Australia my opinion is irrelevant: he’s breaking the rules! The unnerving thing for me is that I don’t even see the ‘dangers’ these rules are meant to protect kids from. I feel like I will have to lie awake at night dreaming up things to be worried about! But just as we have spent almost 3 years in Tanzania choosing to look deeper and think flexibly, I must now employ the same skills in our home culture.
As I thought more about it, I realised that Tanzanians are always concerned about Elliot as well – when he runs off at the markets, or climbs something, or gets to close the boiling cauldron of oil. It’s not like it’s simply a free-for-all for him there either. They bring him back, or get him down, or shoo him back. One difference in Australia was that no one touched Elliot or told him what to do. Instead, they told ME what I should be doing with him! I think they’re doing that because people do not want to parent others’ children, so they tell the parent to pull their child into line. I experience this as ‘parenting the parent‘, whereas in Tanzania, I think everyone just parents the child.
I remember when I first lived in Tanzania feeling embarrassed because people would parent my child and I felt that this must be a reflection on me, that I had somehow failed in my parental duty, so they had to make up for my neglect. Over time however, I realised that they had no expectation that I would be the only one parenting him, because parenting is a much more corporate thing, so I relaxed. Not only did I not feel guilty, I also stopped watching him in public so much, because there were plenty of other people to look out for him.
It turns out, without realising it, I’ve become quite Tanzanian in my expectations of parenting in public with Elliot. So much so, that when someone asks me, ‘Why are you not watching your child?’, I almost want to ask back, ‘Why aren’t you watching him?’! When you think about it, the Tanzanian-ness of my parenting is not surprising. Since we arrived in Tanzania with a 6 month old, I’ve really only been a mum in Tanzania, and that context has shaped me.
Just like my little TCK, I am moving between worlds, a third-culture mum. Like he’s discovering life in Australia for the first time, I’m discovering parenting in Australia for the first time. We’re both re-orienting. For me, I guess that will involve unlearning corporate parenting for the moment, so I can be more personally vigilant over Elliot. Once again, I’ll also be working on handling the shaming that comes from being out of kilter with what everyone else sees as ‘common sense’ and completely normal.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.