Entering into motherhood for the first time can sometimes feel like landing in a foreign country. You don’t understand the language, the food or the daily routine. I had the unique opportunity of being a new mother and literally moving to a foreign land at the same time. My son lived in four countries before the age of 4. He was born in America, and then we moved to Amsterdam, Netherlands; Aarhus, Denmark; and Luxembourg, Luxembourg. I quickly realized that the best way to assimilate was by observing the locals, particularly the moms. I observed them in all sorts of everyday situations — playgroups, schools, grocery stores, parks, restaurants and in their own homes. After seeing firsthand the different ways people parent in other countries, one thing is for sure: There is no “right” way to parent. No one seems to have an owner’s manual or secret formula for bringing up baby. We are all — all over the globe — doing the best we can as parents, given our circumstances. However, I did have some ah-ha moments, as well as culture shock and a few times of just plain confusion, during my years overseas. Here are some of the more interesting things I learned.
First Stop: Holland
We arrived in Holland about the time I was feeding my son his first solids, so I quickly had to scope out the local baby food scene. And wow was it different from what I was used to in America! For starters, the best selection of baby food was found at the drugstore, not the grocery store, and that selection was small. There were only two brands. As an American, I found this disappointing. But I quickly learned from a local that too much selection came across as confusing to the Dutch; they like to keep things simple. The flavors of Dutch baby food amazed me. There was salmon-broccoli-potato, white fish-rice-cheese, apple-brown beans, chicken-zucchini- basil and pasta Bolognese, just to name a few. There was also an abundance of yogurt. It was not the sweet, fruity yogurt of America, however, but the thick, plain, sour yogurt of Greece. What the Dutch do not have are many baby snack items. There were no Gerber Puffs, graham crackers or Goldfish crackers.
At first I panicked, thinking my son would never eat such strange flavors or survive without snacks. But then I realized that the Dutch babies eat this way and do just fine. So why not give it a try for my baby? I felt even more comfortable when I saw that the ingredients in the baby food were all natural, with no extra sugar, salt or additives. So began my son’s early exposure to “unusual” and “healthy” foods. And he ate like a champ. He never missed all the salt in Goldfish crackers the high fructose corn syrup in graham crackers or the empty calories in Gerber Puffs. Instead he snacked on bananas, cucumber slices, carrot sticks, fresh bread rolls and cheese slices. And to this day the boy loves a good salmon, broccoli and potato dinner.
Another eye-opener for me in Amsterdam was the freedom with which women publicly breastfeed their babies. There was no blanket draped over mom and baby, no “I have to excuse myself to breast- feed” and no awkward shifting to hide a breast. Breast-feeding a baby in public was as natural to a Dutch mom as, well, breast-feeding a baby. I was in awe of the comfort level and sheer grace that allowed these moms to latch on a baby at an outdoor café while sipping coffee and never missing a beat in the conversation. And this sense of normalcy appeared to be shared by those around mother and baby. There were no awkward stares, muffled comments or sideways glances. Seeing a mom and baby breast-feeding was a regular part of life.
Second stop: Denmark
Just as I had figured out how to feed my son in Amsterdam, we moved to Denmark. Because my son was close to 2 years old, part of my relocation package included a tour of all local day care centers in my neighborhood. After an exhausting day, my relocation consultant asked me to rank the schools and fill out the government documents to enroll my son (free day care for all who live in Denmark!). I thanked her but said there was no need for me to place my son into daycare as I didn’t work and would stay at home with him. This baffled her. She insisted that my son would be much happier playing with children his own age all day and that I would surely be happier having time to care for my home and myself. I insisted that I could do all those things at the same time. She then told me this story:
“In an emergency on an airplane, the flight crew instructs mothers to place the oxygen masks over their faces first. It’s only after the mother can breathe that she assists the children. Do you know why? Because if the mother doesn’t get a chance to breathe, the children cannot breathe, either. Do you understand me?”
This hit me like a boulder. Was she actually giving me permission to put my son in full-time daycare so that I could have time to myself? As an American mother, I had only two choices: work or stay at home with the kids. I was completely uncomfortable with the thought of having “help” raising my child. So I declined to enroll my son full time, but I did seek a different day care center that offered a morning-only program (which was very hard to find). This was a tough lesson for me to learn but one that I try to remember every day: I must breathe so that my child can breathe, too.
The Danish people are tough. And proud of it. They begin learning this toughness at a very early age. Kids are encouraged to explore, run and climb and to be independent and adventurous. Every day they do things that would send most American moms running after their children yelling, “Be careful!” For example, the playgrounds in Denmark are literally built to be “dangerous.” They are filled with hills, ravines and trees so that children learn to maneuver through them. “It builds their dexterity”, one local informed me. One playground was actually built on high ground but fenced in farther down, so it included a slope. It also had bikes for the children to ride. When I asked a local mom if she was afraid that her child would roll down the hill and into the fence she replied, “Well that would teach him not to do it again, wouldn’t it?” This idea intrigued me — actually allowing kids to experience something without being told the outcome. Clever.
Another dangerous thing was the fire pit found at most Danish preschools. Yes, you read that correctly — a fire pit. On a regular basis the teachers would light a huge bonfire on the playground so the kids could roast bread (not sugary marshmallows but thick chunks of rye bread!) to eat. Fire is a regular part of life in Denmark, and children are taught not to fear it but to respect it. At my son’s preschool, there were lit candles in the window sills during winter months. I mentioned my concern to the teachers the first time I saw this, pointing out that the children could reach the candles. The response: “Why would they touch fire? That would cause a burn.” Once again, the Danes were encouraging learning by trial and error. They might be on to something over there.
Third stop: Luxembourg
As soon as I had adapted to the Danish way of raising children, we moved to Luxembourg. Because my son had just turned 3, I was debating what kind of preschool to choose for him but quickly learned that my options were limited. It’s Luxembourg law that all children attend school beginning at age 3. This also means they must be fully potty-trained and fully independent on the toilet. I’m talking wiping, zipping, buttoning — all of it! Once again I panicked, thinking my son wouldn’t be ready for full-time school and full independence on the potty. But once again, I was pleasantly surprised. My son rose to the occasion and attended school just like all the other children in Luxembourg. The level of independence I saw in those children astonished me! They weren’t just playing at school; there was a curriculum, which included learning second and third languages. They were also walking to and from the lunchroom by themselves and eating three-course meals. I saw that children will do as much as you expect them to do. Raise the bar, and they will strive to meet it.
I am now living in America again with my husband and two children. (My daughter was born in Denmark, but that’s another story entirely!) I’m happy to be back. America is a wonderful place to raise a child, and there truly is no place like home. But I am grateful for the opportunity I had to see how other cultures live day to day. The lessons have stuck with me and made me the parent I am today. The experiences made me a more rounded, more grounded and — dare I say it — more relaxed parent.