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Being a Mother Abroad

Being a Mother Abroad

Culture, Expat Parenting, Life Abroad

Living abroad has its pitfalls, language, culture, and traditions are maybe subtly or even completely different.  Having a family brings that into an even higher dimension of “strange.”  When you intermarry into another culture you assimilate their traditions or they assimilate yours.  The perfect situation is when you can agree to disagree or come to terms on ideas.  Having a baby has forced me to face many cultural norms and differences that I would never have encountered otherwise.

Ok so it’s probably not as bad as the guy in the video makes it.

1. Birthing

Outside of indigenous and alternative circles the generally accepted mode of having babies in Colombia is in the hospital.  Home births while only a generation removed from many of the poorer strata’s and a couple generations removed from the richer, are not very common.  Even finding a doctor who will perform one is fairly complicated.  I managed to find a doctor who would have me sign a “disclaimer” saying I do not hold him responsible for anything that would happen.  However my plans for a home birth were dashed by my water breaking a month early.  In hospitals it is a lot like the 1960’s both in the beliefs (husbands are not allowed to assist or be present for births in public hospitals) and the customs (doctor has virtually no regard for the wishes of the mother at time of birth).  For more about my experience read my previous article about this.

2. Baby Care and Traditions

In Colombia children are cherished and loved.  This is almost an extreme which seems to almost be an unconscious (or conscious) compensation for the horrific killing and mutilation of children during La Violencia only one to two generations ago.  As a result the laws and general policy towards children are without compromise.  If I hadn’t permitted the doctors to vaccinate my baby they would have held him captive for 2 months and I would have been denied my application for a residency visa as a parent of a Colombian national.

Some of the stranger baby care ideas come from folk traditions, especially among the poorer classes.  Many Colombian parents will start feeding bean broth and soup broth to babies at very young ages.  Women are advised to drink lot’s of soup and vegetable concoctions to help give good milk.  If a baby hiccups they believe he is cold.  Some of these ideas are definitely legitimate.  I definitely feel more “milky” after having soup with lunch.  While I was initially super skeptical that “hiccupping” is a cold response, covering Daniel up seems to help make them go away.

Rich people.  It shocks me how many women here actually reject breastfeeding and natural birth for fear of ruining their so-called beautiful bodies.  I have actually met wealthy women who had either had unnecessary C-sections or talk about having a C-section when their baby is born to avoid the pain.  Even in the hospital there were women who gave up on laboring and demanded a Cesarean.  Is it that different in modern day America?  Probably not, any thoughts on this?  Another sad issue in Colombia is Ninera’s or Nanny’s.  Many rich families will hire a nanny to all but raise their child.  I heard many sad stories of middle to upper class children being stuck with a nanny every day while their mother is at the gym taking care of her figure or out at the beauty salon, on a weekly basis.  I even taught children who were picked up and cared for by a nanny more than they were actually cared for by their own parents.  One of my students came from a cartel family and (as it was told to me by one of his teachers) had someone who dressed him and waited on his every need (like a little prince) all the way up until middle school.  Crazy!

3. Religion in Parenting

My poor mother-in-law was appalled that we didn’t christen Daniel in the Catholic church and appoint god-parents.  I simply don’t share her beliefs so when this happens I just grit my teeth and smile sweetly.  Remember, Colombians (and most Catholics) can be quite superstitious, but they have also lived hard lives.

4. Education

Don’t even get me started on this one.  Definitely a topic for a different post.


Being a first-time mother is wonderful due to its newness even as it is terrifying due to just not knowing.  I was up late at night on many occasions Google-ing question after question about being a mother to a preemie.  Even now I question a rash, a reaction or just a feeling I have and go running to my computer.  The grace of parenting is that we are given cues and hints from our babies that allow us to react to their needs.  I love living in Colombia and I love the family that has adopted me due to my life partner Jaime.  Cultural conflicts will happen.  There will be those times where I am either pulling my hair out, shaking my head, or just laughing at the language barriers and culture differences.  Part of the adventure of living abroad is learning how to navigate the “family” waters with grace and diplomacy.  I have so much to learn about being a mother and I know Daniel will teach me in his own way through his baby cues and responses.  And in another month when he starts eating solid foods I will be navigating the slew of advice and ideas about how.  The best I can do is listen with an open mind, be flexible and know when to put my foot down and listen to my own intuition.

I really like what Robin Pascoe says about Third Culture Kids in this video:

About the author

English Teacher, Freelancer, Chocolate Entrepreneur and Traveler!!

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