Making Peace & Raising Babies Out of Culture

Making our way out of the house, there are a few things you should know: it is June 27 and while coolish now, temps will continue to climb. I have with me in the stroller, my little girl, almost three-weeks-old. In Japan, it is obligatory for newborn babes to stay in the house a solid month—recovering moms, too, as they are both doted on by her mother. (This supposes that the grandmother/mother of the postpartum woman is alive and available and that the woman does not live abroad).

My baby and I receive stares. We are out and it hasn’t been one month.

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I am not new to the culture here; it is my third baby in Tokyo and because of that, I now have thicker skin. In the beginning, with my first, I was fragile. My second, too. We moms and those of us living in a foreign territory are vulnerable to jabs, even from well-meaning ladies who ask, “Isn’t your baby cold?” with sometimes piercing eyes and stern tones. A perceived judgment from a doctor any neighbor seemed to wield every power to make me cry and shrink into my skin. It used to, anyway.

On our walkabout this morning, my neighbor raises her eyes in alarm when she sees me with baby. “Ehhhh? Is it okay to have her out?” with an implied “already??” I know how to reassure her now with the Japanese for “It’s okay; it’s a very short walk, just around the neighborhood.” The stress is on “short, little, brief”, as in “Don’t worry–I know the rules and feel my own concern.”

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At the nearby market, the fawning cashier asks how old the baby is and upon my reply, she shuts down, just after giving me a double-take, mouth in a grimace. Three weeks is not the correct answer.

It’s cool–I’m secure. I walk with shoulders back, smiling at anyone who gives me eye contact. I’m proud of getting out. I’m proud of her.

In the old days of living here, abroad, and raising babies? I would not have felt this cool peace. I would have shrunken back from the sun, afraid of others’ opinions or I would have felt real anger. I’ve leveled out. I’ve found my voice and my rhythm, no mattter what.

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See, mothering can feel so foreign already, so mothering abroad can at times, feel overwhelming. A new mom can feel quite weepy, anxious, or a mix of forty different feelings inside.

Add the dynamic of being outside of one’s home culture? Eesh. Whatever we thought we were good at before may not even be relevant anymore in a different setting. Without language, too, we can feel like dopes. Or maybe we look reckless.

I’ve shocked, surprised, concerned the entire area with the fact that I bicycled while pregnant. I have been told on and talked about. I’ve defensively lifted my chin a bit too much sometimes, wanting to show that despite my lack of fitting in, despite my lack of language, I have my education and my own mother’s advice. Mommying in another culture can shift more than your body. It’s a journey, truly, of the emotions and the mind. Sometimes all of that gets mangled and tangled as we try to find our place and the things we’re good at in this new role.

To have a voice and lift the unspoken words onto a page has been, for me, some of the best medicine. To use my voice in a culture where I am limited has been the best.

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So I talk and I sing and I compromise, too. I make room to incorporate the bevy of wise advice and wonderful treats found here (longer stays in hospitals and birth houses here; granting more independence to children; introducing different first foods to babies on a different schedule) thanking and appreciating others for their input; assuming first that they come with love instead of judgment, etc. I encourage new moms, too.

I have a bigger toolkit now, a broader palette—one that incorporates and understands two worlds, two languages, and so many more people. Sure there may be tough moments, but I’m grateful for the confidence that generally beams where insecurity used to slump. The questioning, negative comments, and glances I more easily shrug off.

I know I’m a good mom now more than ever, perhaps. My voice, my choices and the cultural decisions I weave into our life bring about confidence. I stand on the firm rocks of who we are as a family, who I am as a mom and woman, the confidence of two cultures who will catch me and gird me up. Maybe they’re also two worlds which laugh as I try to figure it all out.

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**Attention!!: For many mothers and women raising children abroad, finding our voice is that much more paramount. I’m using my voice, along with 25 other women in 24 other counties. We share our unique stories of change, belonging, joy, and loss in the book, Knocked Up Abroad Again. 

This self-published wonder of a book is LIVE on Kickstarter! Come see, support, and spread the word! Help us use our voice. Without full financial support, this book will not be. 

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And, heya–did you catch my post on Roasted’s Traveling With Toddlers series?

Here it is! There’s also Kenya, Colombia, Bali, China,…great for any of us who wonder about life around the globe as a curious traveler or expat.

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For Nine Months I Counted

A baby is born and women want to know how the birth unfolded. We make time to tell the sacred and crazy event that allowed us to be called “Mother”. How magical, how little pain? How beautiful and how did you focus on the greatest thing? How did you maneuver between what might have been expected of you and that which you realized you needed? Food? Ice? Music? Maybe there was a tub for a water birth. Maybe the story features an epidural that never came.

My stories all take place in Japan. I am an American living in a national health care system, in a land which cares for their pregnant women in ways that may be different than my upbringing. I birthed my babies in the same blessed birth house and write about my experience, rather the wondering how I could ever have babies in a place so foreign. But I did. And not all at once. There are those average nine months of preparing, of shopping and daydreaming. We need all that time to wrap our head around the fact that a small, beautiful human will be holding onto our finger in less than a year’s time.

Pregnancy and birth require lots of waiting. Here’s an account of some of that time:

A moment before the ultrasound: I waited, hinged on the swiveling seat that holds me up to the light. Light that is steady, light that reflects from the pool in my belly. In my womb where she lays, sways, moves to the heartbeat of hiccups and every rhythm called the collective “us”.

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Walking, Waddling, and Wondering How Far You Can Go: For nine months I wondered on calculators, figured on fingers and made plans on the assumption she’d arrive early. It was a lot like knowing I’d have to pick up a relative or best friend from the airport on some nebulous, far-off day, but not having enough information. Sure I’d have enough gas; I’d have the house clean enough and an extra bottle of water poised in the cupholder, but the wondering was enough to stir up concern. Who can live this way?

Nine months of steady waiting and holding my tummy up to the light of ultrasound wands. When to stop working and when to return. When to pack a bag and when it was enough with the bike, already. One last month of pants barely fitting, of laying down after chugging streams of water, cupfuls of deep inhales and peaceful exhales. Of heartburn and steady contractions that kicked the wind out of my sails. A pregnancy of trying to explain, trying to connect with what little language I had, of making it work with two kids and baby in utero work. Oh, yeah, and no Tums for that heartburn in Japan.

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Forty-five minutes went the average cab ride. This is a city. You don’t need a car, and you’re usually better off without it. But maybe hailing that cab and getting there take too long. My other two came so fast. This time, I needed time. Next week and the next and even the doc was a bit nervous. “Just get here when you feel anything different. We’re always waiting for you.”

Planning How to Use Our Breath and Bring Relief: And then. And then, after all of the figuring. After dreams involving math and SATS. After fearful dreams of oceans and trying to reach, trying to even see my kids, and waking, lost in the grief from three AM dreams, forty-weeks was upon us. I got good at expanding breath, of stretching out deep exhales to the slow count of eight. Pain relief would be found in the inner places, in the deep stretch of my mind and breath.

When Will the Baby Come Out?: After all that figuring and waiting and wrestling in the deep, our daughter came on the very due date she was assigned. Out of all those calendar days. All those Sundays and Wednesday mornings and days my husband was in Korea. She came and I knew just when to say, “We better get the cab” and “Holy oh my goodness, this is real.” Then a string of curses.

A thirty-five-minute cab ride. Five minutes-apart-contractions that squeezed my husband’s hand and made me absolutely consider naming our girl after the cabbie when he ran a yellow light. Just twelve minutes from getting out of the cab, my voice laced with expletives—twelve minutes divided by how hard it took to walk those steps and get to the room to give birth. That’s all it took. But pain and faith are not measured in minutes. More like centimeters and breaths. More cuss words and prayers. Eyes of faith and knees that shake.

And I couldn’t stand anymore, thought I would faint. And it was so fast, so fast and intense. Twelve minutes from reeling outside of the cab to you. You in my arms as if timed and paced and fully realized. You in my arms. You on my chest. Done. Here. All of it real. As real as any math. As solid as a beam of light reflected off of water and blinking like a beacon, a message in the night.

Believe in goodness. Believe in the timing that is right. In the grandness of design that I say, God, Himself, has birthed. Creation is just so gorgeous, so unique! There are flashes of grand design and oh, the timing that is life. I didn’t want to sleep, but simply bask in looking at you. In every bolt of magic in holding our child’s sweet, soft hand. Especially for those first hundred times.

IMG_3052IMG_3113IMG_2817IMG_2702Maybe it’s also okay to wait. Maybe it’s good to stay on your toes and prepare to remember all that you do not know but hope to remember. And all you really can cling to, all that has grown up in your very bones.

Twelve minutes. Forty weeks. The short and the fast. Every bit of it worth the wait.

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I’ve featured pics from my experience in Japan. Those little shirts are tiny kimono-style robes! Want to know more about birth abroad? Maybe you’d love to get Knocked Up Abroad Again, a gorgeous book featuring 26 writers in 25 countries! Support our project on Kickstarter so that the book itself may be born! We need your support to bring these encouraging, authentic stories to light.

We need your support to bring these encouraging, authentic stories to light. A gazillion women, untold numbers of families all lean forward to hear how these little children came to be, born on foreign soil, wed to new smells and glorious traditions. They, like the stories, come right at the perfect time.

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We are spread out, we are all over, but we also see that the world is small. We are but a story away from connecting with our hearts.

“Merci”, “Arigato gozaimasu”, “gracias”, and “thank you” in dozens of other languages!