I know I have a lot to learn about parenting. While I do find many aspects of motherhood to be fairly intuitive, like when to change a poo-poo diaper, it’s always helpful to hear tricks of the trade.
This is why I regularly read Kveller and happily listen to advice from my mom, mother-in-law, husband, former nanny, friends who are moms, friends who are dads, the guy who used to sell me a banana every day on the corner of 36th and 5th Ave in Midtown, our daycare teachers, people without kids–give me advice on parenting! I’ll take it or leave it; either way I like to hear it. And I like to give it.
For the 18 years before I had a baby, I had the privilege and pleasure of traveling around the world. Two years of living in Israel, three months teaching English in Turkey, six months interning with a women’s rights organization in India, graduate school in England, vacations to Cuba, Russia, Greece, and France, and then a dream job that required me to travel to developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America several times a year. I needed additional pages put into my passport, multiple vaccinations, and traveled to over 20 different countries before I got pregnant. The time I spent in the developing world definitely shaped the person I am today and had a profound impact on my perspectives on parenting.
Here are some key takeaways about parenthood I learned from my travels in the developing world:
Uganda: Nurse wherever you want. To set up program partnerships, I met with Ugandan non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to support sustainable development through micro-credit lending to women. During our visits, I met with several women’s groups. Each time we sat to start our meeting with a prayer, I would look around at the dozens of women who had come to see the American ladies to share about their lives. Many of them would have children by their side or a baby happily nursing as we talked about farming cooperatives and the importance of kitchen gardens and early childhood education. These women didn’t use “hooter hiders” or show any signs of embarrassment at nursing in public, in the middle of a community meeting. It was as if it was the most normal and natural thing in the world, because, it is. Thank you, for showing me that I can nurse whenever and wherever. I do.
India: Let others hold your baby. While I was in India, I traveled solo around much of the country–from Rajasthan to Amritsar, down to Varanasi, and up to Darjeeling. I went way down south to Chennai and over to Cochin to see the Dutch-Portuguese synagogue built in 1586 located on Jew Street. I took a 33 hour train back to Mumbai from Calcutta, traveling 3rd class with no air conditioning. To get to Udaipur in Rajasthan, I took a long winding bus from the Jain Temples near Ahmedabad. I remember on this particular bus ride, there was a couple with a young baby sitting in the row next to me. The little girl was probably around 6-months-old, naked aside from a red string around her waist and kohl lined eyes to ward away the evil eye. In a country with high infant mortality, amulets and make-up are too often the alternative to proper medical care. This little girl was adorable. I smiled and made funny faces at her and she giggled with delight. After about a half hour of this, her mom handed her to me. Mom leaned up against the window and closed her eyes for a quick nap, happy to have a break from her squiggling baby. The first time I flew cross-country by myself with my 3-month-old daughter, I thought back to this moment. Instead of trying to figure out how to pee while wearing her in the Ergo in the tiny airplane bathroom, I passed her to my seatmate.
Nicaragua: Rice and beans–it’s what’s for dinner, and lunch, and probably breakfast. In much of Central America, people eat a lot of rice and beans; maybe an egg in the morning, a little chicken once a week, a few vegetables, and lots of fruit. From what I saw, kids tend not to be as picky eaters in places where there is just enough to eat. And children eat what everyone else is eating for dinner, not chick’n nuggets or plain pasta with butter. The baby food industrial complex is a beast in the USA. Yes, those squeezies and granola bars are convenient and variety is the spice of life, but honestly, it is a luxury to eat the way we eat here in the global north. I want my daughter to have a well-balanced diet and try new things, but I also try not to get too hung up on the fact that I don’t make her a fresh organic soy smoothie every morning. She eats a lot of eggs and goldfish crackers. Thanks to seeing what global poverty really looks like, I am overly sensitive about wasting food. I eat a lot of Charlotte’s half eaten gummed up cheese toast.
Ghana: You do not need a $800 stroller. You know you are in the developing world when despite the relative stability of the country, the sidewalks are war-torn. Outside of the big cities, you’ll be lucky to find a sidewalk anywhere in Ghana. You may never see a stroller. Moms carry their babies on their backs, usually tied in a blanket. You don’t need a $1000 crib; you don’t need a $900 ergonomic high chair. You may WANT these things and fantastic if you buy them and can contribute to the growing economy in this way, but you do not NEED them. Borrow a vibrating infant chair or co-sleeper from your friends who’ve just gently used such items. It shouldn’t cost you a lot of money to make you feel like you are a good mom. The same goes with buying toys–you’ve probably already realized that your kid has the most fun with things that aren’t intended to be toys, right? A big empty box or banging a wooden spoon on a pot is fun. It seems to me that the fewer buttons, lights, and noises a toy makes, the more it encourages creativity. Obviously in countries where parents are only making dollars a day, children don’t have a lot of “toys,” and yet, they still find ways to play.
Finally, and most importantly, count your blessings every day. Appreciate the clean drinking water running from your taps, your access to education and health care, and rights as a woman.