All new mothers are going to encounter unsolicited advice about how to care for their baby. While sometimes this can be welcome advice from people with more experience, often times it is less than welcome. As if we don’t feel vulnerable enough, suddenly having this tiny little person completely dependent on us, but now everyone in your life and people you pass on the street have ideas about how to do it better. “My baby never cried this much, why don’t you swaddle her?” “You aren’t supposed to sleep with her in the same bed, she’ll die of SIDS.” “Don’t let your baby sleep on her stomach.” “Don’t vaccinate your baby, she’ll be autistic” “You have to vaccinate your baby” This can be disconcerting coming from your neighbor, a random woman in the supermarket or your mother-in-law, but when you’re traveling it’s ten times worse.
There’s a couple reasons why it feels more overwhelming. First, it’s not just one person giving you advice, it’s an army of them. It’s a whole culture that does things differently than you. People in the Dominican Republic were upset that I carried my baby in a baby carrier, and that I exclusively nursed her for longer than six months. Then in Guatemala they think all that is perfectly reasonable, but then couldn’t understand why I didn’t let her sleep on her stomach. One person telling me that she puts her baby to sleep on her stomach is one thing, a whole country of mothers that put their baby to sleep on their stomach is another. I heard about the cultural differences in child raising from mothers on the street, I observed it in how they took care of their babies, I saw it in the local media. That’s a lot of advice coming in.
Secondly, I might have done my research about co-sleeping, for example, and felt comfortable with my decision, but I wasn’t expecting to be given advice on my infant’s diet (like everyone could understand why I don’t want to give my six-month-old a bottle of Coca-Cola, right?). Things that I wouldn’t have thought were controversial, suddenly are now other areas for people to give me advice.
Third, maybe it’s the language barrier, but suddenly helpful advice didn’t feel like helpful advice, but more like forceful commands. In Latin America, I found people much more vocal about their opinions than in the US. Not just vocal, but physical. A few times I actually had to snatch my baby out of the reach of strangers as they tried to pour coffee down my eight-month-old’s throat without asking first. Many cultures are more communal that the U.S. and people are more accustomed to taking care of each other’s babies. While it seemed a little presumptious when a woman came up to me on the street and blew my child’s nose, it is a common gesture in Latino streets.
Fourth, tactics that I might have used in my hometown to respond to this advice do not always translate culturally. This left me even more unsure about how to respond. If a passerby in my hometown made a comment about the brand of diapers I was buying, I might have tried changing the subject. But if I tried that in the Dominican Republic, she would just think I misundertood her and tell me again.
Finally, there aren’t that many traveling babies. Petra was the first baby from the US my new neighbors in El Salvador had gotten to know; and so they used her as an example for our whole culture. In my neighbors’ eyes, my child raising was the standard or norm for the whole US. Just a nice helping of extra pressure, for ya.
[adsense]I admit, when faced with unsolicited advice it is my first instinct to get a little defensive. It is easy to feel a little insecure as well. I learned to just smile and acknowledge it politely. When someone would suggest I feed Petra baby food instead of fruits, I would smile and say “You think so?” It’s important to remember that most of it comes from good intentions. People love babies. It is just as important to remind myself that I am a good mother. I mother with the best of intentions too. Of course my response depended on my relationship with the person offering advice and the nature of the advice.
It wasn’t all negative. Sometimes I found myself appreciating the fact that people were offering advice. As if babies bring out the collective tendencies in all of us, we all want to help raise this child. While I stayed connected to my family through email, sometimes it was nice having other mothers offer suggestions right in the moment about how to make my baby go to sleep at night. It was interesting insight into a foreign culture to learn about their child raising methods.
Traveling into another culture helps you clarify what it is that you really believe in. Faced with another set of beliefs and way of doing things, you reflect on the values you were raised with and probably didn’t question. When spending an extended time in a foreign country with a baby, be ready to listen to other ways of child raising and to stand strong in the child raising beliefs you are not willing to compromise.