Thoughts on Mothering in a Foreign Culture

Happy Valentine’s Day! The Hallmark holiday is not celebrated here in Colombia as you can imagine but Jade made valentines for the kids in her class anyway. It was sweet! She is very happy these days. She has two good friends in school – they are a trio of sorts and do everything together. One of the girls is almost eleven years old which I think just adds to the allure.

Meanwhile, just as I was starting to wonder about the efficacy of my parenting (read this as all the comments from school about how my kids should be more independent have started to get to me and make me wonder if maybe I am over protective), I got the best feedback that a mother could get. I was told that my kids are great!

First I was told this by my friend Eva. But maybe she is biased because she is my friend. And she is from my culture. So it was especially meaningful when Jade’s ceramics teacher said she wanted to tell me what she observed in Jade without me there (Jade started taking a ceramics class with other kids. I was prepared to be told that Jade is a leader (the strength based approach) or that she is bossy with the other kids (the other way of looking at leadership qualities), but I was not prepared to hear how kind and generous Jade is, how openly and easily she shares, how uncompetitive she is, how relaxed and concentrated on her own work. The teacher told me that she has not been able to stop talking to her family about Jade ever since the class. She called her a “pure soul” and asked me if all gringoes parent like I do or if it’s just me.

Well, it’s just me, of course. I am joking as you know but I would be lying if I didn’t say that it felt great to hear all this! As a mom, it’s often hard to know if I am doing the right thing and how things will turn out. Living in a foreign culture just takes the uncertainty to a whole new level. All of the sudden, my kids are poorly mannered and too dependent on me. And while I do take some of that feedback – my kids could use some better manners and we are working on it – it was great to have validation of my parenting. Especially because it came with my ceramics teacher criticizing Colombian parenting styles as being too hands-off and obsessed with working to obtain more material goods at the expense of spending time with their children. She felt that as a Colombian woman she had spent her entire life defending her choice to work part-time so she could spend more time and energy raising her kids. I have actually heard this same thing from other Colombian moms who have chosen to devote their time to mothering. A friend who wanted to stay home a little longer with her three month old baby was pressured by her wealthy family to return to work. “Is this what you want to do with your life, change diapers?” they asked her.

I actually don’t really get it. This country is all about family on the one hand and on the other, parents really don’t seem to spend much time parenting. It’s normal to leave the house by 6 am and be home by 7 or 8 pm and not to even provide for adequate childcare. Kids are often left with the TV as a babysitter or maybe an empleyada (a maid) who is really much more focused on cleaning the house. And I am not talking about people who don’t have a choice because they need to work to survive. I am talking about people who have options.

I know this might sound very negative or judgmental but I don’t know of any way to gain perspective about a foreign culture without judging it based on my own values. I feel judged here all of the time, by the school director, by teachers, even by neighbors and friends. And part of sorting out for myself which implied criticisms I take in (my kids could use better manners) and which I don’t take in (my kids are too dependent and I spend too much time with them) is to try to put them into a cultural context. Meaning, do I agree with the values of the culture around me? If not, why do I care what they think? And why is it so easy to get sucked into other people’s judgments? I guess this is one of the gifts of living in a foreign culture – the opportunity to become very clear about my own values and how I parent my children regardless of what those around me think or say. It’s also an opportunity to come face to face with my own judgments and prejudices. I am definitely a work in progress…

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