I am preparing for my first baby (overseas, in the middle of a pandemic) with my husband who is not from my home country. It would be a grave error in my opinion to not discuss the very different ways in which we each grew up. Sooo, these last few months have been full of interesting conversations. (Thank you, quarantine, for giving us ample time to reflect and discuss – we are currently on day 118 of lockdown here in Honduras) We each have differing expectations when it comes to birth and parenting. I mean, when my husband was born here in Honduras he came home from the hospital in the back of a pickup truck over rocky dirt roads. Ladies, imagine traveling like this a couple days postpartum! My mother in law is a rock star.
I didn’t imagine having to actually make the statement that my newborn would be transported home in a car seat. This is just an example of what, for many homogeneous couples might be “no-brainer” decisions, for us have to be unpacked and explicitly discussed. After almost 8 years of being in a relationship together although we know each other well, I think parenting will be a new level of learning about each other.
Since anything I personally might be able to contribute to the topic of cross-cultural parenting is pure theory and not yet practice, I asked 19 bicultural couples with children to complete a survey on the subject. These are the cultural combinations of the couples who participated in the survey:
- U.S.-Dominican Republic
These couples vary in where they are raising their bicultural children: some in mom’s culture, some in dad’s culture, and some in a third culture. Two things stood out in several of the responses and would serve as a good preface. 1. Several mentioned the importance of esteeming a biblical culture over either of the parents’ individual cultures, and 2. remembering that individual personalities and upbringings can be as much or more of a factor in parenting style as the individual’s general culture. I thought these were both great points.
For reference, here is an illustration defining culture and how it affects all of us. (No one on planet earth is exempt.)
Since marrying Natán over three years ago, I often find myself wondering in moments of differing opinions, “Is this a personal/gender difference or is this a cultural difference?”
I didn’t start recognizing or analyzing my own culture until I was exposed to others, specifically in my travels to Latin America. In Sarah Lanier’s brief book, Foreign to Familiar, she does a wonderful job of guiding the reader through what she calls hot- and cold- climate cultures. As I read, I found myself thinking specifically about where I grew up, where I’m in ministry now, and the context in which my husband grew up.
One particular part of her book stood out to me as I thought of a clear example of my upbringing vs. that of my husband. She explains that cold-climate cultures (the U.S.) tend to be more individualistic and that affects how we accumulate and care for personal possessions, whereas a more hot-climate culture (Honduras) values sharing and collective ownership more. In a family setting I see this illustrated as follows:
I grew up with my own room and my own “stuff.” Siblings taking my things without permission was the highest offense and family members giving us “communal Christmas gifts” like a game or movie to share was at the least an unspoken disappointment. My husband grew up sharing the most basic things like a bed and underwear (!!!) with his siblings until about high school. Yes, this comes down to a difference in economics but it is also such a big part of the culture. Here in Honduras you will hear much more plural possessive adjectives like “our” instead of singular like “my.”
I do hope that my children learn to share better than I did.
Other decisions that bicultural parents have to make are which traditions to implement with their children. As evident by the survey answers, this will depend on the dominant culture in which the family is living and just how important certain customs or traditions were to each parent during his or her upbringing. Some admitted that they didn’t really strictly adhere to keeping traditions and that from year to year they might change. Some customs can be seen as old wives tales but some might be esteemed as extremely important, and the pressure to follow them often comes from extended family. According to several who gave wise advice in the surveys: you and your husband ultimately decide what is best for your family, not the grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins.
Susana, who raised her son in a third culture, said, “The best practice is to do what is in the child’s best interest, regardless of culture or traditions. What worked for the parent while growing up might not be the best or relevant in raising a child in their time.” Great advice for any parent!
Some specific traditions/customs that came up in discussions among couples: (and some that Natán and I have often discussed)
- Christmas: church service, fireworks at midnight, tamales, waking up early, Santa, gifts?
- Losing a tooth: does the tooth fairy come or do you throw your tooth on the roof for the mouse?
- Halloween: innocent fun or devil’s holiday?
- Newborn baby & child care: will you spoil them by holding too much? Tape a marble to their belly button? Rub spit on the child to cure hiccups? Should they always be wearing socks, shoes, hat? How involved should dad be?
- Postpartum care: will eating green veggies or egg during the first few weeks cause infection?
- Etc (what else would you add?)
The survey responses were very interesting and fun to read through! It is obvious that one of the best “tools” to keep handy while parenting with someone from another culture is an open mind. Hannah said, “Sometimes it means compromising and learning a new way to do things that you never would have considered before marrying a person from a different culture.” I would be lying if I didn’t also mention how frequent I read things like, “it’s definitely a challenge” and “it takes a lot of patience and a lot of work.” As many included that parenting in itself can be difficult, I think most would agree that the cross-cultural aspect is an extra challenge.*
Despite the challenge, I do not feel discouraged. As Megan concluded in her survey, “We believe that the blending of cultures is a huge advantage for our kids and not an obstacle. Hold on for the ride! It’s the greatest adventure but not for the faint of heart.”
*I am an advocate for professional counseling/therapy. I think it should be a more normal part of life for all families. I’m curious if there exist therapists that specialize or have a background in helping cross-cultural families. I think it’s needed! Do you know of any? If not, what other resources are available for cross-cultural families & parenting?
Read Part 1 here: Preparing for Baby Overseas During a Pandemic