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The Culture behind Motherhood

Like most people, I have many opinions about motherhood – three kids’ worth, in fact – though that doesn’t mean I didn’t have thoughts on motherhood before kids. Regardless of the fact that there is nothing at all that can prepare you for the reality of it, there is one opinion that keeps on popping up in my mind like the flame of a trick candle on a birthday cake, and that is that kids should come with a nanny.

Not that a nanny would change the roller coaster of emotions that surprise you like a fly that smacks against your uvula on a summer evening run. New feelings bring you to places you never even knew were there, and give new dimensions to the vocabulary of emotions you might have had in the past: fear for the fragility of this tiny being, fear that you’ll do everything wrong. The love that surges from places hitherto unknown, released by just a baby’s gurgle, followed by the pure dread at the sound of those hunger cries that force you out of bed during all hours of the night. A nanny can’t take care of that, but she could help with the sense of freedom lost. Going to the toilet or making a phone call, which had until then been a simple everyday course of action, became a task, stressful for both my baby and myself. Motherhood to me seemed like it changed every single aspect of what I had, until that point, known and lived. And when I say changed, I mean completely. I had to rethink and re-evaluate everything about how I had lived, including my relationships with people and time and everything around me.

Sadly, I had a bout of postnatal depression, mainly from exhaustion, because my first baby was born five weeks premature. He was tiny and needed so much help drinking. With the doctrine about the high value of Muttermilch (mother’s milk) ingrained in me, in my mind, I had no choice: I insisted on pumping my milk and warming it up to give it to him in a bottle, as he was too weak to nurse. The two-hour intervals followed by all the sterilizing didn’t leave a lot of time for rest. I would lie down, exhale an exhausted sigh, and before I could take another breath his cry would ring in the living room and he’d need to be fed all over again. Needless to say, it was too much. The moments when he chuckled and gurgled and I’d draw the curtains on his cot to be greeted by the most beautiful sunshiny smile, were a godsend – and they did keep me going – but a professional nanny at my side could have advised me and supported me during that impossible start.

In many parts of the world, having aid seems a natural and common phenomenon. When a woman has a baby, she inevitably needs help. Often a mother, grandmother and sometimes even female relatives or entire villages will be there for her. However, in many countries it is also understood as essential that a hired nanny will be around to take care of the new baby. In fact, when we lived in Lima, Peruvian friends of ours were horrified when we told them that back in Europe most people, including middle-class families, cannot afford a nanny, and that mothers were expected to handle the household along with babies alone most of the time.

That was many years ago and I was far from having my own kids. Now, living in Switzerland, I feel I have survived what I always referred to as my “donkey years,” what with all the nappies, bottles, snacks, wet-wipes, toys, and of course the books, to ensure an all-round happy and entertained baby (how differently I did things by the time I had my third child), times two. And that was just when I didn’t have to carry one of the children because they didn’t feel like walking back home or had hurt themselves. Lugging all of that up to the third floor after hiding the pram out of the neighbours’ way…and did I mention the shopping? Well who wouldn’t feel like a donkey? Indeed, I often remembered my Peruvian friends’ words and wished that things were different here.

But they’re not. Here, in  Switzerland, I learned that it is highly valued to look after your own children and clean your own house, which I’m learning to understand (though I will never agree with it entirely). I still think it is equally valuable to aim for a balance between your own personal goals and fulfilling the family’s/children’s needs. My Swiss aunt once said to me that she believes it is important for women to experience this complete Aufopferung (self-sacrifice) in order to develop a healthy compassion. I’m not sure I will ever be able to agree with her. I’ve often wondered if that then makes me an egoist. Then I remember the advice given to me during my postnatal depression days, that “A happy mother is a good mother…not necessarily one that nurses at all costs, because she is told that it is healthiest – if it’s too much for her, well, that’s what baby formula is there for.” Once I finally understood this I actually slept a few hours at a time and could indeed start enjoying being with my baby.

It is this constant weighing up of expectations versus personal needs (wisdom and experience don’t really come into the equation until the “donkey years” are far behind) that I personally have found the most difficult, especially if these expectations go against your innate beliefs. These beliefs are of course also determined by cultural aspects, as are the expectations. The amount of advice that I received (mainly on the tram) as to how to dress my baby appropriately, as well as being “tut-tutted” for not having my four-year-old under control during a tantrum, often made me feel utterly inadequate. Equally frustrating were trips to the playground where sandpit bullies were left to run around, freely grabbing other kids’ buckets and spades without an adult intervening. When I joined an English-speaking Kindermusik (children’s music)  group I finally came to realise that it wasn’t just me, the issue was a cultural one. Swiss mothers leave their children to fight things out. This is not necessarily the case for British or American parents. I had spent most of my formative years in an Anglo-Saxon environment and therefore had assumed a similar behavioural pattern. Again I realised that there is so much more to speaking a language. There is a cultural understanding that, growing up as an expat, I missed out on even though my parents are Swiss.

Having studied social anthropology, I find this very interesting. I would never have truly understood the innate value of culture if I hadn’t experienced it firsthand and as a mother. And it is at this point that I would like to mention that, to me, the most valuable experience of motherhood is precisely this change that it incorporates: change in its purest and most complete form. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is indeed the most difficult thing I have ever gone through (and probably will continue to do so, as I look at my friends’ teenage kids, with beads of sweat appearing on my forehead), but to me, it is also an opportunity for continuous self-reflection and self-determination. Be that as it may, I still think a healthy amount of self-realisation is a necessary part of the deal. And here a bit of childcare help would simplify matters substantially, in whatever country we may live or whichever culture we have grown up in.

October 1, 2014

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The Culture Behind Motherhood

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