Keep Calm! How Raising My Infant in Namibia Forced Me to Relax
As a first time American expectant mother any sense of calm is often quickly replaced with borderline Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Toy store commercials. Baby shower registries. Birthing plans. Parenting blogs. Pregnancy apps. Nursery designs... the business of making people is a big deal in the States. And while everyone has the right to celebrate and prepare for their child in whatever way they deem fit, I've realized that there's just so much thrown in the direction of American parents about what you should be doing and what you supposedly need to have that one can easily get swept up into a whirlwind of anxiety and materialism, as I just about did.
Although I live with my husband in his home country of Namibia, we made the decision that it would be best for me to give birth in the U.S. At the height of some pretty intense all-day-all-night nausea and vomiting, his job had him scheduled for quite a bit of traveling. I'd also learned that the hospital in the Namibian town we live in didn't offer epidurals. (Nope.) The capital didn't provide much in that arena either. So we flew to New York where I spent the latter half of my pregnancy.
In June of 2015, I gave birth to my son, and the three of us returned to Namibia when he was 8 weeks old. While my husband was excited to have his baby boy touching Namibian soil, I arrived in Namibia a ball of new mother nerves and anxiety. How would my son's young immune system react to Namibia? What about all the things from my registry list that we didn't receive? How would we survive without them?
Despite my fears, beautiful Namibia has showered me with a new sense of calm, and given me no choice but to relax into motherhood on the African continent.
I stopped obsessing over germs.
Returning to Namibia with my 8 week old son truly tested all of my germ paranoia. Why? Well, people here are extremely baby friendly and it’s very normal for complete strangers to reach out and touch your child in admiration.
It started to feel like every time I went out there was at least one person who touched my son while admiring his cuteness. I started getting extremely protective and tense whenever it was time to go out. I can remember a time when I told my husband that from now on he should hold my son when we went out because people were less likely to touch the baby if he was holding him versus me. My husband, ever the gentleman, lovingly entertained all my worries, but part of me quietly wondered if he thought I needed to calm down a bit.
How could I? There was the neighbor who upon seeing my son for the first time kissed him onthe lips when he was about 3 months old. I was furious but didn't object because of that ever-nagging fear of you the foreigner potentially offending the national.
Then there was the cashier who had been handling money and food all day who just up and reached out and rubbed my son’s face. Or the guy in the bank who gently grabbed my son’s hand and greeted him. I mean, in my mind no one should be touching my child unless they’d at least washed their hands.
Well, my son is currently a few days away from turning 9 months old and would you believe he still hasn’t had his first cold yet? And yes, I know it’s coming sooner or later. However looking back I realize that all my worries were definitely unnecessary.
And, as a Kenyan friend once told me, strangers interacting with children they find cute can be a great way to connect with someone as well. And that’s how I look at it now. Whenever we go out and someone stops to say hello to my son we stop and I welcome it with open arms. I’ve even made a few new friends in the town we live in this way.
I learned to shoulder responsibility.
My immediate in-laws mostly live in a village in rural northern Namibia. We first brought my son to meet them when my son was about 4 months old. As soon as we arrived at the home my mother-in-law whisked my son away and proceeded to pass him around to various relatives.
The next time we visited Lance was about 6 months old and throughout the entire holiday my nerves were tested. This was because from the time we arrived aunts, great-grandparents, cousins, children, family friends, house guests, people who hadn’t seen me since the wedding, old students of mine, just seemingly any and everyone was always grabbing my child away from me to hold him. They didn’t ask - they just took him from my arms and continued to gush over him and often passed him along to someone else - not even back to me! In my mind it would've been nice for someone to at least ask first. Rather than object to it all, I remained calm and gave in.
I quickly realized that baby-carrying was a huge part of their culture. Which is why children grow up with many more "mothers" than just their biological parent per say. It’s not uncommon for an aunt to be carrying her nephew around on her back while cooking a meal, even though the mother is home. This allows for the biological mother to have a break! The responsibility is shared.
My son wasn’t exactly used to all the picking up either and often times ended up crying so I ended up being the main one holding him anyway. But it did force me to scale back a bit and learn to allow other people to step in sometimes. My husband and I didn’t have to be the only ones looking after my son all the time.
I learned to get by without so many things!
Every time I make a visit home to the U.S. I’m blown away by just how much stuff we have to choose from. The amount of inventory in bodegas and drug stores alone is just overwhelming. And don’t mention supermarkets - for my first few days back home they’re almost dizzying! It always takes time for me to reprogram my brain to all the options.
Raising a child in the U.S. you are by default inundated with so many different things that you can purchase for yourself or your child. The business of babies is so extensive in the U.S.
Yet living in Namibia you just don’t have as many choices in comparison. Granted, a pint-sized version of Babies"R"Us recently opened in Namibia’s capital, but even that has significantly less stock that its American counterparts.
My husband and I don’t live in the capital and so we have even fewer options to choose from when it comes to things for baby. I can’t just run out and buy that popular baby swing that everyone else seemingly has for their child. Clothing options aren’t exactly plentiful in our town either - but there are just enough and at the rate my son grows I’m glad I haven’t been able to do any large-scale shopping.
This limited amount of resources has not only taught me how to live with less but that I actually didn’t need as much in the first place. Whether it’s his wardrobe or what he is entertained with, I've learned to make do with what is available.
I became way more comfortable breastfeeding in public.
During my son’s first 8 weeks of life in Manhattan I was totally self-conscious about breastfeeding in public. My husband and I would try to wait until my son was asleep to take him out on errands. Of course, my son would wake up screaming at the top of his lungs as we walked through mid-town Manhattan or while we were in the middle of the supermarket. I would fumble to get the nursing cover on while simultaneously freaking out about having to breastfeed in public. I always felt like the entire world was staring at me. And sometimes they were. There was an evening that my husband and I stood outside my father’s building to watch July 4th fireworks and I was nursing my son under his cover and a hippy looking White girl basically looked at me in disgust. This added to my breastfeeding insecurities.
Fast forward to today and I am a new person. I breastfeed my son wherever we are, in peace. This confidence comes from being in Namibia where I’ve never once been shamed or gawked at for breastfeeding in public - by women or men. When we visit my in-laws in the village I don't use a nursing cover or blanket at all. I saw a woman the other day walking with a man and breastfeeding her baby at the same time - breast fully exposed - no blanket, shawl or anything - as she walked down the street. And no one (except me) blinked an eye. This woman had no idea how her simple act was empowering me. This is the norm here.
I gave into more relaxed approaches to infant health care.
As I mentioned above, coming from the U.S. you can be really OCD about things like germs and healthcare. And while they are definitely important, I’ve learned balance is key.
For example, there’s an activity American doctors swear by called “tummy time”. It entails giving your infant time each day to lie on his stomach and strengthen his neck muscles. This is also said to prevent the young baby from developing a flat spot on the back of his head. One New York doctor told me, “You don’t want him to get a flat spot on his head so make sure he gets his tummy time in.”
So here I was in Namibia obsessing over making sure my son got at least five to ten minutes of tummy time each day, of which he hated and ended up screaming in defiance against after one or two minutes. Meanwhile, I was quietly paranoid that his neck wasn't developing properly. And was that a flat spot I saw forming on the back of his head?
When the time came for my son’s first doctor’s appointment in Namibia I asked the South African doctor about tummy time. He promptly told me he’d never heard of it. He went on to say that he never did it with any of his three children and that they have all developed fine. While it was difficult to calm my anxieties, I decided to ease up on the tummy time obsession.
Nine months into life, my son's neck and head muscles are fine and he is a ball of energy.. sitting, standing, tumbling on his own. I can't keep up with him. I realized that everything American doctors say isn’t the gospel and that’s it’s more than okay to divert from their instructions.
I relaxed about my son's diet.
That second time my husband and I took my son to the village? Since he was only about six months old he was still pretty much exclusively breastfeeding. We had barely just begun introducing him to solid food. The most he’d had was a pureed banana or two.
Well, that visit to the village changed the game!
I once came back from my room to find my son sucking on a beef bone. One of my husband’s aunt’s had given it to him when he was crying. Despite my calm exterior, I was freaking out inside about whether or not his stomach could handle it.No one asked me, they just gave it to him.
And he loved it.
There was another time my mother-in-law gave my son porridge and sauce. From the look of satisfaction on my son’s face, I soon realized he was definitely more than ready for solids and that I didn’t really need to wait any longer.
With parenting so far away from "home" came stronger instinct, calm, and a newfound independence.
Living in Namibia, I obviously have no blood relatives (aside from my son) here. My closest friends are back in the U.S. or living in another Namibian town that’s a few hours away. There are often periods of time in which my husband’s job requires him to travel. My closest family and friends are oceans away and my mother-in-law lives in a village 5 hours north. So there is no dropping the baby off at the grandparents and there are many times when it’s just me and baby. The time independent of much help has taught me that on my own I am doing my best and that my own instincts are pretty good.
All in all, Namibia has left me with less time obsessing over my son's well-being and my parenting style and more trusting in my own abilities as a mother.