As parents, no matter where we live in the world, we share the same goal: to raise good kids. But different cultures have come up with lots of ways to go about it, as many parents have been surprised to discover while living in a foreign country.
Lisa Ferland, an American epidemiologist, first found that out while expecting her first child, in Ecuador. She and her family now live just outside Stockholm. Comparing her experiences—some good, some not-so-good, and many just plain different—with other ex-pats’ led her to compile her new book, Knocked Up Abroad: Stories of Pregnancy, Birth, and Raising a Family in a Foreign Country.
(Ferland’s adventures in playground culture clash were part of our story on mommy correctness on playgrounds.)
Just being foreign doesn’t make a practice better, of course. But from among the 24 different countries Ferland and her co-authors lived in, Ferland told me about a few practices that can help all of us:
In Korea: Celebrate Baek-il, your baby’s 100th day on earth, with family and friends.
The idea: A special ceremony to celebrate your baby’s first 100 days. During Baek-il, the family prays for both the baby and mother. Red bean rice cakes—symbolic of protection, good fortune, and happiness—are shared with 100 fellow community members. (Yes, 100!)
“Everyone who partakes in eating the rice cakes is connected with this thread of well-being and protection,” says Ferland. “I really like the idea of the community celebrating a child and having a role in his or her life. It acknowledges how our lives are all interconnected and reminds us that our neighbors’ good fortune is also our own.”
How to borrow it: Many cultures have similar events for young babies, like christenings, naming ceremonies, and baptisms. Even if these traditions don’t resonate with you, it’s worth remembering how your extended families and friends may view them: as a special chance to be included in your child’s community as important members and share in his or her life in the coming years.
Ferland notes that traditions like Baek-il are also carry-overs from days of high infant mortality—“a reminder that every day that we have with our children is precious.”
In the Netherlands: Meet the kraamzorgster, here to check your new baby—and maybe do your laundry.
The idea: As part of the healthcare system, Olga Mecking discovered, a woman comes to your house to weigh, measure, and check on the baby, answer any questions you have, and provide breastfeeding support. But her job description is flexible enough to expand to almost whatever is needed (including household chores) if you need extra help—say, because you have lots of kids or someone is down with the flu. “The idea of someone else doing laundry or loading the dishwasher when our entire family was completely sleep deprived is like a fantasy come true,” Ferland says.
How to borrow it: Clearly, kraamzorgsters don’t exist in the U.S. as part of our healthcare system. But even if you can’t afford a postpartum doula, you can help yourself by accepting any help that’s offered, Ferland says. If a friend, your mom, or your MIL volunteers to bring over dinner or help clean your house, let them.
“Don’t feel bad about it for one second. It’s helpful to know that in other countries, women are pampered for weeks after delivery and it isn’t a bad thing to ask for (and accept) help,” Ferland says. “Your body just went through an incredible event. Give it time to heal and let someone else worry about the dishes for a few days.”
In China: Forget squeezing right back into your jeans. Take a “moon month” instead.
The idea: “Sitting out the month” means neither the new mom nor the baby leave the house for a full moon cycle after the birth. Not a single trip to Target! The total focus: Recovery and fostering your bond with your newborn. “It was a no-brainer,” says Ember Swift, a Canadian who gave birth in China.
How to borrow it: Resist the urge to resume yoga, show off your baby to the world, or tackle your to-do lists. Just…rest awhile. Your “moon month” only comes a few times, if that, in most women’s lives. “In the U.S., there’s almost an expectation to strive for Super Mom status and to squeeze back into your pre-pregnancy jeans as quickly as possible,” Ferland told me. “Instead, I wish new mothers would allow themselves the time they need to heal and allow themselves the freedom to be whatever shape they are for a while. There’s no rush.”
In Sweden: Find friends at the öppna förskola (open preschools) that have a surprisingly helpful rule.
The idea: At these preschools, parents are expected not only to bring their children (from birth to age 5) but to stay, play, and socialize with one another. “It’s a great opportunity to establish a peer group with other parents who have children of the same age and for everyone, children included, to make new friends,” Ferland says.
A golden rule of the öppna förskola: No cell phones are allowed in the play space. “This indirectly creates a sense of community and openness among the adults to random chit chat that you don’t usually see at daycare or the playground,” Ferland says.
How to borrow it: Realize that building a network of like-minded parents is an invaluable source of support and sanity. Check out the parent culture when you evaluate preschools—each place tends to have its own vibe, and some do a better job than others of bringing parents together. Make room in your life for socializing as the parent of a preschooler—“crucial for parental sanity, even if it’s only on a playdate,” Ferland says.
In every country: Make it up as you go along! (Really!)
The idea: What all the ex-pats trying to navigate parenting in other lands have discovered is that a few traits are especially helpful no matter where you are. Flexibility, for one. “Be prepared for nothing to go as you planned, adjust constantly, and keep your sense of humor,” Ferland says. “Parenting is one big improvisation, and we’re all constantly making things up as we go along.”
How to borrow it: No matter what your cultural background or geographic present, it helps to worry less about the “right” thing and more about what works best for your family.
When Australian Penelope Stanley found herself giving birth in a rigid, unfamiliar hospital in Cologne, France, she was guided by the remembered words of the midwife she’d had in New Zealand: “Regardless of what system you’re in, you are still the mother giving birth to your baby. You’ll do great,” she had told her. “Your baby needs its whanau [family], and you can give it that.”
Says Ferland: “I found that story absolutely inspiring.”