Comparative Parenting, or, Freezing My Babies in Mexico
“Señora, his feet!” The woman rushing at me over the cobblestones, well-dressed in a beige pantsuit, all but gasped in horror.
I stopped pushing my son’s flimsy stroller, but before I could defuse the situation, she had my toddler’s bare feet in her hands.
“For shame,” she scolded. “They’re frozen!”
November evenings in highland Mexico are admittedly cool. And my son’s pale feet looked both sweet and vulnerable. It wasn’t the first time I’d been called out for subjecting my son to the elements in Mexico, but I was still confident in my parenting choices, and I stood by my choice.
“Of course his feet are cold,” I snapped back in my sloppy Spanish, waving a little leather shoe at her. “But he’s eating his shoes!”
I knew we were at an impasse, one of the innumerable borders between U.S. and Mexico that have nothing to do with the Rio Grande: a good Mexican mother keeps her kids warm; a good American mother keeps her kids from consuming unthinkable germs.
My confidence did not hold out for long.
When my second son was born a few weeks later, I kept him home for a few days and then, because I couldn’t stop parenting his big brother (and neither my toddler nor I can stand much confinement), I wrapped the baby in yards and yards of brown Moby firmly against my chest, and I ventured back into the world.
I already knew that the wrap might draw comments. While the image of a Latin American woman with a baby slung on her back in a colorful sarape is pretty ingrained in Americans’ imaginations, the reality in modern-day Morelia, the relatively sophisticated city where I live, is that people—mothers, fathers, grandparents, whatever—transport their babies cradled in both arms and completely covered with thick blankets. I had counted on learning how to use the sarape, but I wasn’t feeling as when-in-Rome about not having my hands free when I went out in public, particularly with a toddler to chase. Besides, I’m a big fan of breathing, particularly when it comes to my children continuing to do so.
Of course, judgy-ness runs two ways and I immediately met with resistance to my methods.
“Isn’t he cold?” a man asked me in the park, genuine worry on his face.
“Where is his blanket?” the secretary who worked next door suggested so much as asked. (Later she would grow more vehement and actually send me home for one.)
I tried to think up little jokes to counter the criticism. The best I came up with was Here in the south everyone is afraid of the baby getting cold, but in the north everyone is afraid of the baby getting hot… It fell flat. The problem, I realized, was that Mexicans don’t grant Americans much credence in the parenting department. (Maybe given the rates at which Americans turn their parenting over to Mexican nannies, they’re on to something.)
I make fun, but I shouldn’t. There’s no question that Mexicans parent well; the evidence is all around me in the form of happy, well-behaved children. Even what I interpret as criticism of my parenting style is as much a manifestation of the “it takes a village” philosophy as anything else. And everyone is involved, even men—a fact I have enjoyed a few times when my toddler has come unglued in public (i.e. starts hitting me) and a strange man steps in and lets him know, gently, usually with humor, and always to great effect, that he should stop. Meanwhile I come from a culture that doesn’t even have a word for comadre.
In spite of my admiration, I’m a little resistant to change. So on the eve of Three Kings Day, when my newborn was two weeks old (though still a week shy of his due date), we went to the parade to see the girls dressed as belly dancers, the floats bearing life-sized elephants crafted out of Spanish moss, and the kings themselves as they filed past the children with their balloons ready for release (their carefully prepared wish-notes to the kings dangling from colored ribbons).
I was glad I had come: my toddler was ecstatic, his eyes as round as his giant purple balloon as he shook hands with stilts walkers from his perch on his father’s shoulders, and my newborn snored softly against my chest.
But I began to blanch as I realized I was upstaging the fire throwers.
“Look—a guero baby,” I heard people whispering to one another.
Then a crowd of tween girls came over for a closer look, their digital cameras zooming in on the corner of his face that the Moby left (scandalously!) uncovered. They oohed and aahed. He was so small—tan chiquito.
I stayed to watch the children release their balloons and fielded a few dozen questions: How old was he? Wasn’t he too little to be out? Wasn’t he cold without a blanket? And, the only question I could answer to anyone’s satisfaction, was he born here in Mexico?
Over the next few weeks, if only for appearances, I began to adapt. I carried blankets that I could tuck over the Moby if anyone got distressed about my baby’s exposure, or preemptively if I started to notice worry lines on the faces around me. And until the “winter” weather broke, I never took him outside without a wool hat on his head. But I couldn’t appease most Mexicans with little gestures.
“Where is his blanket, Señora?”
Then, when the baby was one month old, we left the city to see the famous monarch butterflies who winter here in Michoacán. We chose the Sierra Chincua preserve because Lonely Planet described the hike as the least taxing, a couple gentle kilometers down hill (and then up again). It would be good for both kids to get some fresh air for a couple of hours, and it was high time I got to work losing my baby weight and got back to work on a new article pitch.
Fortunately, my husband can’t help being the first to arrive, so we got an early start. In the empty parking lot, while he loaded up snacks and slathered our toddler with sunscreen, I nursed the baby discreetly in the car. I know most Mexican mothers breastfeed, but I have only seen one woman do so, publically. Then we hired a guide, Pedro, and hit the trail.
As we set off, men tried to rent us horses.
“I would like to ride,” I said, smiling to let them down gently. “But the babies are too little.”
Everyone nodded. Yes, they were.
And so we walked.
When it seemed we should already be arriving, Pedro told us that this year the butterflies had settled in much lower down the mountain than usual.
No matter, we shrugged. The baby slept against my chest. The toddler rode on his father’s back. When, a couple hours in, the baby howled, I plopped down on a fallen tree and nursed him. He went back to sleep.
At last we arrived—having descended steeply—at the butterflies’ winter home in the Mexican forest. Monarchs gusted through shafts of sunlight like giant, fluttering snowflakes, and the air filled with the whispery sound of beating butterfly wings. It was magical—a word I hate to use but there really is no other way to put it. And well worth the long walk, I told myself.
But was it? Already, still healing from labor and loose-jointed from pregnancy, my body ached. My toddler had held himself together the whole way in, but now he was getting aggressive, trying to hit butterflies with sticks or step on them. A little voice in my head wondered if the Mexicans who thought I should still be home with my baby had a point: what was I thinking bringing two small children on such an exhausting adventure?
“Is that a baby?” asked a gregarious young woman friend of our guide. Like the ladies in Morelia, she gasped, but with more wonder than horror.
I pulled down the Moby a bit so she could see him and when I did her face lit up with awe. She looked at Pedro, who nodded, and she looked back at me. Then she got up from the stump where she sat amidst the monarchs and came for a closer look.
Judging by the look on her face, she was more impressed by the magic of my baby than I was by seeing a million monarchs rise simultaneously into blue Mexican sky.
Where were my priorities?
The walk out was beautiful and awful. My hips felt like they might shatter by the time we reached the ridgeline. But at least the babies were both asleep for most of it. Then we reached the end at last, stepping out of the forest into a long sweep of pasture. Through the trees on the other side we could see Sierra Chincua’s brand new visitors’ center, its fresh pine walls glowing in late afternoon sunlight.
At precisely this moment, the baby woke and wailed and I bee-lined for a nice sunny stump while the others wandered down a little farther to look at some grazing horses and wait.
I had just gotten comfortable, the nursing baby tented under a cotton drape, when an old woman came out of the woods above me. She wore her gray hair braided and wrapped on her head, and a she stooped under the weight of a single fat log that she carried on her back wrapped in a turquoise shawl. When she saw me sitting in the field, she drifted off the path towards me. As she realized what I was doing she came over directly and set down her heavy log. She wanted to see the baby. More than that, I think she wanted to see the baby nursing. There was nothing for me to do but lift the drape and let her.
To my surprise, the old campesina woman nodded in approval.
“I have fifteen children,” she told me. “Ocho hombres, siete mujeres.”
As I nursed the baby, she talked. Her youngest was twelve. She had given birth to all fifteen at home, with only her husband present, not even a partera, or midwife.
“We just cut the cord and that was that,” she told me with a hint of pride. “Now everyone has to go to doctors. There are all these complications.”
I nodded, relieved. Here was a Mexican woman who saw nothing wrong with giving birth, slinging on the baby, and getting on with life. Where I ought to have more in common with urban Mexican women, I realized that, without the nagging doubt that everyone’s worry had instilled with me, my parenting instincts put me closer in league with this woman who may have only left her butterfly mountain a handful of times in her whole life.
I suppose those urban Mexican women--and no doubt many, many American women too--would scoff at me for putting so much stock in the words of a backwoods abuelita, but I felt validated and relieved. My diminished confidence inflated like a balloon.
At least somebody in Mexico believed I was doing right by my children.