I've just caught my breath long enough to sit down by the fire and get this post together. It's been a busy, fulfilling week with work and home life, so I'm really glad and honoured to be able to share this interview with you.
In thinking about this series of posts on 'Parenthood Unplugged' I wanted to explore the lengths and breadths that life as a parent can take us on. Like I said in my introductory post - this isn't a parenting advice blog - jeepers, that's a minefield and not one I feel qualified or even think is neccessary - we are all on our own journeys of learning to love our kids well. What I hope is that this series will become a place of insight - a glimpse into how others are doing things in various settings. I love sharing the voices and experiences of others through this medium and it's an honour to start the series off hearing from my friend Sheena.
Sheena and her husband Dave moved to a remote area of East Africa several years ago. They are both incredibly intelligent and compassionate people and together, with their small children - Hannah and Luke, they are living life (teaching in local Colleges) in a culture far from home (home is here in Northern Ireland). Their first child, Hannah was born in the UK but little Luke was born at home in Africa just last year with the support of an incredible midwife/friend from home who came over especially to deliver Luke (I could weep when I think about the beauty of this). You will understand that when I consider grumbling about the school run, the endless packed lunches and having to face soft play areas, I often think of my brave friends Sheena and Dave, raising their kids with grace in one of the most difficult, misunderstood parts of the world and I swiftly give myself a mental telling off.
So here's a taste of how they are doing things.
Sheena - give us a brief run down of how on earth you ended up moving to East Africa!
It is hard to write a brief answer to what is essentially a life journey but I guess a big part of how my husband (Dave) and I initially clicked was through conversations about adventures abroad and our experiences of exploring life and faith in different cultures and contexts. We were married for about 18 months and were looking for opportunities to go somewhere a little out of the ordinary and one came up here which we were both excited about. Both of us share an interest in places broken by conflict and have a passion to protest the negative stereotypes we often build up of the 'other' - and so we decided that we should get to know one of the most negatively-stereotyped people groups in the world today for ourselves. The last 5.5 years has been a journey in learning to love our neighbours (and it hasn't been easy but it has been good!).
You became pregnant not long after moving away - a big change of life, even in a familiar country. What have you seen of motherhood & parenting in the region that you live in - how does it look - what have you learned from the locals?
I think motherhood here is as diverse a concept in some ways as it is in the West and is constantly changing. Where we are is a hard place in general and especially hard for mothers. Traditionally, women marry young and have 8-15 children and the maternal mortality rates and infant mortality rates are some of the highest in the world. Women deal with the consequences of FGM, really poor healthcare for themselves and their children and often live in poverty relying on remittances from family abroad or on the clan system to support them. Many men are either completely absent (working abroad/divorced etc), or unemployed and addicted to the mild narcotic Qat, perhaps also having more than one wife. Generally, women here don't expect much from their men compared to what I am grateful to receive from my husband in terms of supporting my role as a mother. However, more positively, many children have more than one mother as it is kind of the typical African setting where a whole village raises the child(ren). Every adult is usually addressed as 'aunt' or uncle and the clan is responsible for each member so you are never isolated unless you have deviated from the traditional religious or cultural norms. It is a strange dynamic sometimes as it is a patriarchal society on paper and mostly in practice but mothers here do have a strong role and voice here. I guess that is probably the biggest thing I have learnt and admired in mothers here...they face enormous challenges and stresses but they just keep going - rising above circumstances that are unimaginably difficult. My emotional strength and persistence seems really frail in comparison.
I beg to differ! I think it's incredible. In contrast, what have you seen of motherhood that has been similar to what you have been used to? Does any aspect of parenting transfer, has anything surprised you?
I think the 'mum wars' exist to a certain degree over here too- I guess as mothers we are all affected by our insecurities in our attempts to do our best for our kids. People enjoy making their kids look good with cute clothes and all the time I am asked if I am breastfeeding! Personal presentation is important here and if your kids aren't turned out well it will be gossiped about. One thing that is surprising is there's often a spiritual dimension to everything here and people believe that if someone looks at your child with jealousy or evil intent (the 'evil eye')that your child may get sick...so children are often wrapped up from head to toe in an effort to avoid those who, in their 'poverty of spirit', would potentially harm your kid by looking at them. For Irish kids living in African climates this has been tough! It is also a very direct culture where it is totally okay to tell people your opinion in a commanding tone so I have had to get used to everybody telling me what to do and everybody's advice conflicting - maybe this is another similarity with home although it is more disguised in our indirect culture?!
Ah yes, the passive aggressive opinions of parenting - those are a delight!
Obviously, living in another country, away from the comfort of family and friends is difficult, but particularly for new parents - what has helped/made things easier?
Well, for the first 15 months of parenthood we were pretty much on our own here which was hard in some ways but good in other ways as it forced me to rely on and look for local relationships for support. I also had some good supportive friends working with some of the INGOs in the city, although they have all left now. Now, we have other (Western) families living nearby with similar-aged kids and we do a informal playschool which has been a sanity-saver for me. I also really appreciate two girls locally who I have become very close to as they go through the highs and lows of parenting as well. One friendship I really value developed through supporting each other in some of the darker days - She lost her firstborn and then I had a miscarriage at 11weeks- so I guess it is the same as anywhere, you form bonds with people who walk the journey with you even if you come from different backgrounds and react and process things in very different ways. Motherhood is definitely a place of common ground across every culture and it has been a privilege to experience that.
So beautiful and true.
So - having been back to Northern Ireland a couple of times for visits, what aspect of parenting and African culture do you wish you could bring here or reversely, what do miss about parenting at home?
This is a hard one. I actually have had to stop making comparisons because I found myself becoming judgey about one or the other and the only way I have been able to deal with the transition between places is by just accepting that things are different, rather than one being better than the other. I have a tendency to be someone who thinks the grass is greener somewhere else or life would be easier if only... But I think a big lesson for me has been to try and stop those thought processes and just live where I am at with what I have got in front of me. Although this is the ideal, it's not always my inner reality. As I reflect on my choices, in this context I have ended up doing extended breastfeeding, baby led weaning, hypnobirthing/water birth etc but I don't know if I could have made those choices in the NI context because lifestyle demands are just different and context shapes our decisions so much - and that's ok. In NI, we have loads of options to entertain our kids which I do crave when I am here but then when I have been in NI I always come back to Africa thankful for a more restful lifestyle with loads of time just in the home together where we are forced to be more creative. Again I just feel like it has been a privilege to have experience of both and to introduce my kids early on to the diversity (& complexity) of our world.
On that, although it is mostly all they have known, do you think there has been much adjustment for your little ones to the culture there?
Well, my son was born here in our home thanks to the wonderful support of A NI midwife and my parents (who are medical professionals) and he made his first trip to the homeland this Christmas, so I think he is still at the 'oblivious to it all' stage or maybe it is more I am oblivious to how it impacts him - I'm not sure. With my daughter there have been challenges. One example: we stayed here from when she was three months until she was nearly two and then we took a break back in NI. She had made local friends, formed attachments with neighbours & spoke the language in baby-talk standards. After our break she really struggled to settle back and her English had taken off and she refused to speak Somali again. She shied away from the locals and it became quite hard for me to even use my language/interact with people as she got frustrated at not understanding what was going on. This lasted a good year which was hard. My language and integration suffered, as did hers. She is doing better now but I think because communication is so important to her it really bothers her when she can't understand or be understood. She is at the stage now where she asks why all her extended family live in Ireland and why we don't - so yeah I think every time we dip in and out of this culture or another, she is processing the changes. I guess we just try and frame it as positively as possible and give her loads of time to process.
Although hard, that sounds natural and like you have handled it really well. On reflection, and to finish - what is the biggest lesson you are learning/have learned as you parent in another culture?
The need for Grace...for yourself, your partner, your kids and others. But I reckon that's probably the same in parenting anywhere as it is not an easy job!