One baby, four countries

by Shirani

It may have been blindingly obvious to my husband, but it took me a little while longer to realise that there wasn’t one right way to raise a child. Being an avid reader, I had accumulated a shelf full of pregnancy and baby books even before our daughter was born. Despite my determination to only have the necessary What to Expect and Gina Ford bibles, well-meaning gifts and second hand donations soon added to the stocks – and to our confusion.

As we stared at our shelf in Hamburg, Germany where we were about to have our daughter, my husband made his astute observation, “If there was one right way to raise a baby, honey, there would be just one book!” My response was to very nearly throw one of those many books at him. How unappreciative he was of all this effort I had made to acquire this knowledge! In retrospect (once the baby was born and hormones had settled a little), I realised that he was, of course, right. There isn’t a ‘right’ way to raise a child and I, of all people, should have known this given our own mixed backgrounds.

My husband is a Kiwi and was raised on a farm on the West Coast of the South Island before going to boarding school in Christchurch. I am from Singapore, but grew up in international schools around the world. From the very rural to the very urban, our childhoods, education and life experiences couldn’t have been more different. Now, here we were getting ready to welcome our daughter in Germany, a ‘third culture’ new to both of us. And here was I, desperately trying to fill my head with book knowledge on how to raise her.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now know I should have had faith that our own experiences didn’t necessarily dictate the way our baby should be brought up, but that we would find our own unique formula. With the experience of parenting cross-culturally from Europe to New Zealand behind me, I have also learned that despite truckloads of well-meaning advice, parental instinct means a lot, as does setting your own values and priorities as a new family. These may be very different to the ones you were raised with. I have also learnt that culture, whilst having some influence on how a child is raised, only matters a little, because at the end of the day we are more alike than we realise. The key is to take the best from each culture and learn as much as we can.

In Germany, where our daughter was born, things were highly regulated and controlled (and people are accused of being the same). The generous public health system provided us with a midwife as soon as I was pregnant and I chose Maria because she was young and not stuck (I thought) in German old-wives’ philosophies. Her English was also quite good and she was able to give us private birth classes in the comfort of our own home.

Maria made it clear from early on that she was horrified at my shelf of English books that advocated baby routines. She said these did not respect the baby’s needs, were selfish on the mother’s behalf, and if baby was hungry/tired/sleepy/wet/dirty, it would let me know. Feed on demand, and everything else too, she told me at 2am, 4am and at 4.30am, if necessary. Attachment and co-sleeping was the order of the day and anything else would deprive my baby emotionally and lead to future psychological problems. Just look at how the English have turned out she said, circling her finger in the ‘crazy’ sign at the side of her head. They are all lonely and require counselling when they are adults. Hmm. Rather grim advice from a 26-year-old, I thought.

Still, I glanced at my Babywise and Baby Whisperer books staring tauntingly at me from the shelves and wondered if she was right. Maria’s philosophies were completely within the context and thinking of the general populace and the German medical system, which advocated doing everything as naturally as possible. Natural births (without drugs) were advocated from a feminist angle (“Women are strong and built for this”) and were also recommended and supported by the medical system. I could see the benefits, but thought the advocates went a bit too far when you were made to feel sub-human if you were not so inclined. Fortunately, I was so inclined and keen to try, but unfortunately ended up having a C-section, much to Maria’s disappointment. Our daughter was two weeks late, so there really wasn’t much choice by then!

Once she was born, cultural context kicked in. Under Maria’s watchful baby regime, breastfeeding was mandatory and I wasn’t given a choice. She even forbade me from keeping formula in the house which my ‘bad’ English books advised as a back-up. Through the tears of healing scars, bleeding nipples and infections, I am ashamed to admit that I regularly called Maria names behind her back as she militantly forced me to soldier on and feed. However, as hormones and pain settled and I got used to a rhythm of feeding (Gina Ford was thrown out the window), we fell into our own routine that benefitted both our baby and us. I learned from Maria that sometimes the baby really does know what it needs. Routines set in stone (a la Gina Ford) might suit some families, but not babies who travel from two months onwards. I also learned I had to trust my own instincts and not what was written in a book. Breastfeeding actually turned out to be a very convenient asset when we travelled because I didn’t have to worry about carrying formula or bottles around.

This is not to say it is for everyone, but it worked for us and was almost enjoyable in a European environment where breastfeeding was not only tolerated in public, but almost revered. Hurrah, we had just survived the first three months! However, nobody told me that my next worry was weaning, and that this also had a cross-cultural context! With breastfeeding sorted, I thought I could switch to autopilot until six months, which is when German paediatricians recommend you wean on organic carrots. (Yes, really).

When my daughter was about four months old we were between jobs in Europe and New Zealand and set up camp in a little village in Tuscany. There weren’t many English speakers, but our hosts spoke enough for us to get by. It so happened that (to put it politely) our daughter hadn’t had a dirty nappy by day 10 of our stay. I had read that due to a growth spurt, sometimes babies can go 14 days without having one, so I left it till day 13. Still nothing. Then started our minor panic. Whilst the baby didn’t seem the least bothered by her situation, we realised we were in an Italian village with little access to any doctors, let alone English-speaking ones, and something could be very wrong.

Fortunately, our hosts directed us to a larger village which had a paediatrician. Thanks to sign language and the doctor’s limited English, I managed to explain the problem. During the process of some rather unpleasant probing and sample-taking, she learned that our daughter was just over four months. Immediately her face changed and she let loose a flurry of Italian words and gestures that left me feeling quite certain I was a bad mother. Through the flurry of outrage all I could catch was ‘Fame! Fame!’ (My Italian phrase book told me that meant ‘hungry’.) I tentatively asked, “So you’re saying my baby is hungry? But she seems fine?” She dragged me to her reception window and pointed through to the next door grocery where baby cereal packets were displayed. “Fame!” she shouted at me again. It finally clicked – she was telling me to wean.

Thankfully, a kind English-speaking passerby, who witnessed the shouting from the doctor and me about to burst into tears, came to the rescue. “Yes”, he stated calmly, “You need to wean your baby. She is not pooing because she is hungry and you need to feed her some cereal. In Italy we do this when the baby is four months old.” Really? I thanked the kind stranger, wandered into the grocery and indeed the packet of baby cereal stated it was appropriate from four months onwards. And so, contrary to German wisdom, our daughter weaned at four months in a Tuscan village. The very next day, on Day 14, her nappy told us that in her case, the Italians were right.

Singapore is where we transited during our move from Europe to New Zealand. Given it is my home country, we stayed a while. But even so, my first culture shock came when I requested a seat at the back of a restaurant so I could breastfeed. I had thought I was being discreet in asking for a back seat given that breastfeeding was not common. I was denied entry, ”Because of the other customers,” and told to go to the (yucky) public toilet instead. Uncharacteristically (such is the desperation of a mother with a crying, hungry baby in a crowded mall), I flounced into the establishment, ordered wontons to justify my presence, produced a large handkerchief-like cover to protect my modesty and proceeded to feed. The restaurant wasn’t even half-full so I didn’t know what the fuss was about. The staff whispered and stared.

I wasn’t on some militant breastfeeding campaign, but my baby was hungry and I simply had no other (hygienic) choice at the time. I learned that breastfeeding at all was still uncommon, let alone in public. It was a matter of efficiency as most mothers bottlefed to return to the workforce after three months of maternity leave. What about mothers who didn’t work I asked? Were you supposed to leave your breasts at home when you took your baby out? No, my Singapore friends told me. You were supposed to leave the baby at home with a bottle when you went out. Ah.

That culture explained the lack of child-friendly facilities in Singapore. Baby rooms in malls were scarce at the time and public transport did not allow for prams. There could have been a lack of development at the time (it is different now with most malls providing breastfeeding and changing facilities) or, given the abundance of household help and hands-on grandparental assistance, mothers had the freedom of leaving their children at home instead of lugging them about on errands. As a temporary resident, I discovered all the ‘in-house’ help gave me the headspace to really enjoy parenting without being exhausted. I understood the different kind of freedom that mothers in Singapore enjoyed. Perhaps we could not breastfeed in public, but we could certainly go back to work with peace of mind or focus our energies solely on parenting. It made me wonder whether the ideal model of parenting meant that it really did ‘take a village to raise a child’.

The concept, though African in origin, appears to have been transported successfully in time and space to Singapore. Mothers are able to go back to work once their babies are three to four months old as grandparents play a major role in childcare and there is affordable live-in domestic help. This happens in Malay, Chinese and Indian families so the concept is transferable to modern day urbanity, regardless of culture. This also reflects Asian values. In the absence of any meaningful social welfare system (unlike Germany), there is a reliance on family values to take care of each other. In the grand circle of life, aged parents are cared for by their children in their homes, many generations living together and grandparents helping with the grandchildren.

The Singapore model of parenting taught me that children and parents benefit from support systems to survive the daunting task of child raising. This is not to say it was the only way, but there were certainly benefits. There are also balances to be struck – as with all things. For instance, one might have to temper the villagers’ advice, given one’s own experiences. Some members of my Singaporean village were shocked that our daughter’s diet was bread, cheese, organic fruit and vegetables. It was a typical German diet, but in Singapore children eat porridge (watered down rice with some vegetables and meat) and our daughter wasn’t having a bar of that. Given my family’s Sri Lankan origin, I was also advised to try diluted curry to get her used to the taste. Wailing, spitting, and mild diarrhoea followed, indicating that clearly, our baby had a German tummy. We stuck to organics.

Then came our move to New Zealand. Because uprooting lives across the world with a six-month-old wasn’t challenging enough, we also chose to buy a house and move in. The first thing I learned was that our daughter was of average height and weight. In Germany and Singapore, she had been on the larger side of the spectrum. I had been worried that there was too much of the German diet of organic cheese and potato going on. The Plunket nurse assured me however that the Australian and New Zealand charts were scaled to reflect the ‘larger’ populace. I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing, but I was certainly relieved.

The second thing I learned was that dummies were frowned upon in New Zealand. Up until then, I was constantly worried it might got lost in our travels as she (I) needed it to sleep! In Germany, kids of three and four run around playgrounds with dummies clipped to their jumpers and overalls. If it fell out, they simply popped it back in. Plunket didn’t fall for this and after a lecture on what it does to a child’s teeth, I was advised to stop at age one.

Another difference was the frequency and amount of feeding that went on. How was there time to get anything else done? Breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, then dinner. Kids were constantly eating. This meant the kitchen was where people spent most of their day. This explained why most houses had open plan living which wasn’t the case in Singapore or Germany.

Last but not least, I couldn’t help but notice the freedom that New Zealand children had to explore, climb, ride bikes, scooters and enjoy the outdoors with less restraint than I had seen anywhere else. I didn’t know if this was cultural, or simply because there was just so much of the outdoors that was safe! Once she achieved independent mobility, our daughter quickly discovered and enjoyed these benefits – which initially included the taste of freshly cut grass.

We have certainly enjoyed the past four years in New Zealand and our daughter will have many great memories. We’ve almost come full circle and I am concluding this story from Singapore. Our next family adventure will see us spend a year here, before heading to Shanghai for my husband’s work. China will be another experience in parenting cross-culturally. But we now have confidence that the challenges can be overcome by taking the good from the sum of the cultures we have been lucky enough to experience, and applying them to suit our family. Overall we have learned not to be judgemental as no one culture or tradition is right. No matter how or where we raise our children we all have so much to learn from one another!