How I learned to stop worrying and love tri-cultural parenting

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches    Welcome to the inaugural four-way guest posting of NorthSouthEastWest! We are four expat bloggers who have joined together to rotate our monthly guest posts from the four corners of the world on each other’s blogs: Linda at Adventures In Expatland (North), Russell at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary (South), Erica at Expatria Baby (East) and me (West).

Sometimes we’ll have a theme (July’s is Where We Are Right Now), and some months we’ll just write about whatever strikes our fancy. I hope you’ll check out my NSEW guest post on repatriation over at Adventures in Expatland. Better yet, why not check out all four?

In the meantime, I’m delighted to introduce Erica, the woman whose musings on Expatria Baby about expat life, parenting, and the finer points of toddler chic never fail to crack me up: 

How I learned to stop worrying and love tri-cultural parenting

How I learned to stop worrying and love tri-cultural parenting

The playground as great cultural equalizer.

Twice a week I drop off my 13-month-old daughter at daycare. We climb the stairs and she clings to me. We walk through the door, wave to her friend and Stella’s face brightens. Then, it immediately crumples as the daycare teachers reach for her.

Were I to enroll Stella in a Canadian daycare, I would be permitted stay and help her settle in. But in Japan, policy dictates no parents in the playroom. Babies are expected to buck up, wave good-bye and have fun. Suck it up and don’t be such a baby, baby.

~

My Swiss husband and I moved to Japan almost two years ago and became parents exactly nine months later.

Expat parenting is by no means a cakewalk. Even under the best conditions a rookie parent is, for the most part, stumbling around half blind. When you add to the mix three distinct parenting cultures, a shaky support network, and the dislocation that comes with living outside your home culture, that niggling doubt that you’re doing it wrong is amplified.

Or at least that was my experience for the first eight or ten months of my daughter’s life.

Expat parenting has its trials, but I see now that it’s also been a boon to my parenting acumen. It has liberated me from the tyranny of dogmatic mono-cultural North American parenting mores. I credit my expat parenting experience with helping me see that, while parenting bibles (and grandmothers) would have you believe that there is ONE RIGHT WAY to raise a child, in truth, there are as many ways to parent a baby as there are babies to be parented.

~

When sent home with a fresh infant, new parents are desperate for guidance. Terrified of doing it wrong, they cling to their instinctual parenting beliefs in hopes of avoiding what they think might be that one slight misstep that could ultimately result in their child growing up to live under a bridge in a cardboard box.

Cues from our home culture and latent memories from our own childhoods are bundled together and suffuse our parental instincts, which in turn, inform our normative child rearing practices. Then, as diligent, striving parents, we read all the baby betterment books we can get our hands on; books that tout one doctrinal way of raising babies to the exclusion of all others—and if you don’t do it right, your baby will be broken. Typically, these books are written within the same culture in which we were raised, and so they end up reinforcing our long-held parenting beliefs in one airtight parental feedback loop.

Stepping outside of this loop allows us to recognize our long-held parenting beliefs for what they are. And that is, basically, old wives tales, urban legends, and superstitions.

You can begin to see this feedback loop happening in pregnancy. In Japan, women are actively encouraged to eat fish—and even sushi—while pregnant. They can take hot baths and even drink a little wine now and then. They are counselled to wear a hara-obi (maternity belt) to prevent the foetus from becoming chilled, and are discouraged to gain too much weight (around 8 kg is considered ideal).  Contrast this to the dictates of North American pregnancy guidelines (no raw meat, limited fish intake, no alcohol, no hot baths, but lots of weight gain) and one starts to wonder: who is right?

These differences persist and magnify as the child grows. Sleep (a subject that is of particular interest to me) is fairly illustrative of these variances. North American wisdom holds that a baby must be put to bed early, sleep through the night by four months old, never be nursed or rocked to sleep, and above all, must sleep in her own crib, lest she develop poor sleep associations and never, ever learn to fall asleep on her own. Japanese babies, by contrast, sleep when they sleep, often staying up as late as 9 or 10 at night. They are nursed on demand throughout the night, and sleep with their mothers on a futon until they are roughly three years old. (And, for the record, I am seriously doubtful that Japan is a nation of chronic insomniacs.)

~

While I could go on comparing and contrasting baby rearing practices ad nauseum, my point is simply this: beliefs that we in the West hold to be written in scientific parenting stone tend, in actuality, not to be. Instead, I have learned to think of them as cultural constructs, propagated over hundreds of years as parenting wisdom, and then reinforced by culturally based “scientific” literature.

As an expat parent my eyes have been opened. I have the privilege of witnessing so many different ways of raising babies; methods which, according to conventional North American wisdom, would be considered ineffective, ultimately leading to baby demise. And yet despite all these disagreements and contradictions, the one common denominator seems to be that no matter what culture they are raised in, most babies grow up to become healthy, well adjusted children who gleefully tear around the park.

This means that I will continue to (begrudgingly) drop my child off at daycare without staying to settle her, because those are the rules. This is how it is done in Japan. This is what is expected of babies and their mothers. And I am confident that, although this is not “The Western Way,” Stella will be just fine. And this, in so many ways, is liberating.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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17 Responses to How I learned to stop worrying and love tri-cultural parenting

  1. Beautiful! I love the phrase ‘airtight parental feedback loop’ because it nails it. More than one ‘right’ way, more than one concerned culture. Kudos Erica!

    • expatriababy says:

      Thanks, Linda! I even think that the idea of more than one “right” way can be extended to a mono-cultural context. Parenting is so fraught with dogma, and it needn’t be. What works best is often the right way (says she who is the mother of one 13 month old baby and clearly a rookie and still wondering haft the time if she’s doing it wrong.)

  2. Russell says:

    Really insightful post, Erica. Great job! It still amazes me (but it shouldn’t do after all this time away) how much living an expat existence opens up your eyes to other ways of living, and generally in a positive way. When you return to the ‘motherland’, it’s only then, when you see your peers (who haven’t left the country) stuck in their ways, that you truly appreciate what an expat existence has given you. Overseas parenting, here I come! 🙂

    • expatriababy says:

      Thanks Russell! While I am still a bit ambivalent about expat parenting, I am coming around to the idea that the benefits outweigh the costs. And ceasing to worry (as much) about doing it “the right way” has been a major benefit!
      Oh, and “overseas parenting, here I come”…is this something imminent?

  3. Hi Erica,
    Great post! And, so true. Although I am not a parent, I did teach preschool (and studied Early Childhood Education) years ago. Although I don’t agree with a “ban” on parents in the classroom I do remember thinking that the separation anxiety was always much worse for the parents than the kids. Once mom is out of sight, the child usually settles in just fine. The longer mom hangs around, the more the anxiety is transferred to the child and the more the child feels that he/she should be feeling the same anxiety. During the time I was teaching, there was only one child (I’ll never forget Molly) who was inconsolable for weeks and I actually suggested to her mom that she wasn’t quite ready yet. Once mom told her she didn’t have to stay if she didn’t want to, Molly wiped her eyes, heaved a sigh of relief and went to play in the sand table. The challenge is, every child (and parent) is unique and different and there’s never a perfect solution that works for all.

    • Maria says:

      That’s exactly what happened with my youngest daughter, Anne. Once she was given permission to leave, it was like turning off a faucet — she was happy from that day forward. It’s sometimes hard to know what’s best for our kids, but I admire those parents (like Erica!) who are willing to look beyond “but it’s always been this way” to find solutions.

    • expatriababy says:

      Hi Anne, thanks for that…it is nice to hear that my girl isn’t the only baby who is so dramatic about being left at daycare ;), now I’ll just wait until she gets verbal enough to understand that she has permission to leave if she really wants! And I’m SURE that my own anxiety makes it all worse.

  4. wordgeyser says:

    Wonderful idea you guys came up with!
    Love this post – it’s true we all follow the patterns of our cultures when it comes to parenting – if we try to deviate we feel as if there’s something wrong with us, even if our instinct to do something different feels right.
    I wish I’d been as laid back with my first as I have been with my globally raised second and third.These days I realise I should have regarded all cultural/parental/social advice on childrearing as guidelines rather than absolutes. I’m sure me and my kids would have been happier!
    Good luck with the project!

    • Maria says:

      Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? 🙂 One of the things I like best about being an expat is that the exposure to multiple cultures gives us more options. Instead of blindly following the parenting norms from our own culture, we can pick and choose those elements that make sense to us.

    • expatriababy says:

      Thanks for the post love, Wordgeyser. It sure is reassuring to hear from someone who has been in the overseas parenting trenches and come back to report a successful outcome!

  5. Rachel says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself, Erica! You write like you know me personally — tri-culture parenting IS hard but it really does have its rewards. My 8 month old prefers spicy Chinese cabbage or Kimchi to tasteless baby food, and so far, has no fear of strangers. However on the sleeping, I’m guessing in Japan, it’s similar to China where the family or someone with a ‘nanny’ type role lives in or close by, right? I haven’t figured out what to do with that as my child would gladly work into the Chinese ‘sleep only when sleepy and with parent’ model, it was driving me to insane insomnia because I didn’t have someone to take him during the day so I could sleep. So we’re finally (at 8 months) attempting a ‘sleep schedule’. Every night, myself, my husband and my baby are screaming bloody murder. So none of us are happy either way. 😦 I do however, feel that expat parenting has allowed me to be more laid back about everything because obviously there is no one right way — really whatever works, works!

    • expatriababy says:

      Oh, man, Rachel don’t get me started on sleep issues. My girl is a TERRIBLE sleeper. I mean, at 8 months, she was waking every 20 min until 11:30 pm, then hourly from there. If you want to email me re. sleep issues, please do, because I know what it’s like and maybe I can share some of what worked for us.
      But, on the tri-cultural parenting front, it is wonderful that this experience is helping you raise a happy, outgoing and adventurous kiddo! Mmm mmm kimchi!

  6. It’s so true! I always wondered why babies aren’t allowed to sleep in the parents’ bed here in the U.S. Then the burping. For some reason, my mom did what she’s “not” supposed to do and I turned out alright.

    • expatriababy says:

      It is funny, isn’t it Marilag, that what is so natural elsewhere is such a taboo in North America / Europe. But the more that I talk about bed-sharing, more and more people come out of the woodwork and admit that they did it too. Even people in my parents’ generation who raised children in a time when these granola-mama practices such as bed-sharing and extended breastfeeding were really frowned upon.
      Anyway, a long-winded way of saying that doing what works and what feels right is usually the best way when it comes to kids.

  7. Nay Diaz says:

    Hi Erica!

    Great Post! I’m mexican (married to a mexican guy) and living in France since February 2010. My baby was born in France, she is 14 m old. So, i’m an expat mom and it’s great “to meet” other expats moms 🙂

    I love to know Japanese babies are nursed on demand throughout the nite because that’s what we do (not because of Dr or anybody else’s advice but because that’s what I feel is right) and all my mexican friends (who are moms) think I’m doing wrong and N will grow with sleep problems!!

    Also my baby is rocked to sleep every night and both of us really enjoy that last part of our days.

    So I’m thinking, in another life I would probably have been Japanese LOL

  8. expatriababy says:

    Thanks, Nay! I also love meeting other expat mums online – sounds like our babies are really close in age!

    Hey, don’t feel bad about rocking your baby to sleep or nursing on demand. I hear you – “everyone” would have you believe that this will cause sleep problems in the future, but, if you ask me, this idea is total nonsense. (Although in moments of self-doubt, I’ve been known to believe “everyone.”) Actually, I was just talking about this with my auntie toady; her eldest daughter didn’t sleep through the night until she was five. Her parents rocked her, comforted her, let her sleep in bed with them if need be; anything to help her get to sleep. And now, as an adult, she sleeps JUST FINE. So, the lesson here is do what works, what feels right!
    {@Maria, bet you never thought that your blog would become a parenting advice forum 😉 }

    • Maria says:

      Unexpected, but very cool! These are issues I have no firsthand knowledge of, so I’m happy you came along to get the discussion rolling. I’m learning lots!

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