Friday, May 21, 2010

Stranger in a stange land

It's been two years since my last visit to the US, and four years since I've lived here. They say reverse culture-shock is the worst kind. I don't if it's the worst, but it's certainly very disconcerting to feel adrift in a place that you used to call home. I've experienced this strange feeling both when I lived in Mexico and now in France. I was feeling relieved and excited to visit the US after a long, grey, damp Parisian winter. Finally a place where I understand why people act the way they do, where I don't need to think about what I am going to say before I say it, and where the supermarket is open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. But on arriving, I find that while it's great to see my family and introduce Santi to familiar sights, it just isn't the same. Or, it's probably more accurate to say, I'm not the same anymore.

I'm sure one of the biggest reasons is that I really am not the same. Not only am I two years older, done with school, and living in a(nother) foreign country now, but I'm a parent now. And that's a big adjustment in and of itself, let alone adding in the cultural differences that have shaped that process for me. In France I'm always mentally thinking that "this (whatever) would be SO much easier if we just lived in the US". But now that I'm here, I realize everything is much more complicated than that. I guess it's just expat momma neurosis.

I find myself trying to adjust to all the different attitudes about the right way to raise a child. When Santi was born, even though I hadn't set foot in the US during the entire pregnancy, I was reading parenting books by American pediatricians and religiously following American parenting forums online. I found that while there is a good bit of overlap, parenting styles between "Anglo-Saxon" and Latin American culture can also have very important differences. For example, in Mexico, people are very tolerant of children and caring for them is a group sport. Complete strangers may offer to hold and soothe your crying baby, something that I know would horrify many of the moms who posted on the forums I read. However, as a first-time mom far from family, it was actually a godsend for me to have other helping hands. Other things I didn't find so wonderful. Such as the Latin American obsession with keeping babies bundled up, even when it's hot degrees.Our housekeeper nagged me daily that dressing Santi in a onesie and wrapping him in a blanket while napped in our sunny apartment was going to give him pneumonia. She finally brought me her grandson (three weeks older than Santi) dressed in footed pajamas, a fleece cap, mittens, swaddled in a blanket, and then wrapped in another bulky fleece blanket to show me the proper technique (it was about 80 degrees that day). I've even see other mothers bundle their babies the same way, and then drape an additional blanket directly over the child's face. In literally 90 degree weather. I don't understand how those kids don't suffocate!

After moving to France, the rules changed once again. Gone was the Latin American tolerance and patience with babies. I was pressured to "cry it out", stop breast feeding at 3 months because it was "inconvenient" for others, and my mother-in-law was utterly horrified that we swaddled Santi to help him sleep. However, I was really pleased that we were lucky enough to get selected for the incredibly inexpensive and excellent quality municipal daycare center and that doctors are reluctant to medicate children if it's not necessary, particularly with antibiotics. I also found that food in France is just as good for babies as it is for adults. If I don't have time to whip up a home-cooked meal, there is a really wide range of healthy, prepared foods for toddlers that I haven't seen in either Mexico or the US. You can get dishes prepared with beef, veal, lamb, chicken, duck, turkey, salmon, trout, couscous, pasta, and just about every kind of vegetable under the sun.

My two week sojourn in the US has thrown yet another curve ball to my momma skills. In a lot of ways, I've come full-circle. All of the advice on food

How does a first-time mom not get overwhelmed by her insecurities when everyone has a different opinion and is absolutely convinced he or she (mostly she) is right?

The biggest advantage to parenting in France, in my opinion, is (as you might have guessed already) the food. I always thought the moms on the US-based parenting forums were going overboard when they discussed all of the organic foods and supplements they searched out for their children. I do buy some products and produce in organic form in France, but not many and I don't sweat it if only the conventional version is available. I've noticed some really uncharacteristic, hyperactive behavior in Santi that started a few days a few days after arriving in California and that has gotten progressively worse. While it might be just normal toddler wiggles or the asthma meds he's had to start taking, I also wonder if it's not the additives in the food.  Food is pretty heavily regulated in Europe and I really don't see many additives or preservatives on the labels, particularly for baby food. In addition,  And that comes in very handy for a working mom who doesn't always have time to cook. In Mexico, there were only two kinds of beef dishes, two kinds of chicken, and one turkey. And I got lots of disapproving looks for feeding him those jarred foods. Even the crazy pediatrician chided me for not preparing him fresh, from scratch dishes. I would have loved to, but the crazy schedule we were on and the lack of a kitchen in our lodgings made that impossible. Here in the US there are lots of variation on chicken and beef for toddlers, but unfortunately Santi doesn't seem to like any of them. Some times he'll eat a couple of bites, sometimes he'll just eat the vegetables that come with them. The only things that he seems to like are adult canned soups that are really high in sodium. So I'm always searching for something he'll eat and also doing as much scratch cooking for him as possible.

Despite these complaints, there is a lot to like in the land of parenting milk and honey. For better or for worse, the US is a consumer's paradise and there is a great niche that has been prepared for parents who may be busy but still want to do everything to give their children the very best.

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