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
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.