This is part 2 of an earlier post.
Remember that Sting song from the 80s, with the chorus about “if the Russians love their children, too.” He made the point that in certain elemental ways, people are the same across the globe. In one of the many classes we took on cross-cultural training, preparatory to moving our family from green forested Oregon to the wind-blown sands of the Sahara, they told us that “everyone is like everyone else; everyone is like someone else; everyone is like no-one else.” In other words, everyone has the same basic needs—food, water, shelter—and many of the same desires—marriage, children, success, although what these things look like varies around the world. Everyone is like some other people; those from similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds, from the same tribe, religion, etc. And, of course, everyone is unique, with their own story, experiences, and preferences.
All this is a long introduction to the topic of mother-fear; protecting our children. Or not, as the case may be.
Part I talked about how maybe SOME modern American moms are going a teensy-bit overboard, what with not letting their kids drink tap water and did I actually see that booster seats are now REQUIRED till the kid is 12 or a certain height? (What’s next? Booster seats for adults under 5’4”? How about if we just don’t leave the house?) Ironically, this hyper-sensitivity to potential dangers has developed in a time of unprecedented safety, at least in the West. Infant mortality is so low that babies born 15 weeks premature can survive and even thrive. Vaccinations guarantee safety from those childhood killers of the past—diphtheria, polio, smallpox, etc. Access to safe drinking water and vitamin-enriched flour and cereal are so basic that they are taken for granted.
Then, there’s Nouakchott. The first few months we lived in this house, Donn and I lived a nightmare every time we backed our car out of our garage. A sweet, chubby two-year-old, who lived in the barak (wooden shack) just opposite, LOVED to run behind our big four-wheel-drive. You can’t see a sweet, chubby two-year-old behind your big 4WD—he’s just too small. We would look carefully before we backed up, making sure he wasn’t heading our way. Sometimes he would run quickly out of the barak alongside us. We were petrified that he would trip and fall in front of our wheels. We tried to talk to the parents about it, but they just smiled and nodded and nothing changed, until finally a neighbour saw one of our near-accidents and yelled at the parents at the top of his lungs. After that, they assigned his five-year-old sister to keep him out of the way. Apparently that was our mistake—we didn’t come across as angry enough.
And car seats? Don’t really exist—certainly not required. You can buy them here now, drastically over-priced in the trendy Westernish shops. Ironically, this is a place where you really should wear seat-belts (and we do! Honest! Some of the time…) and have car-seats. Instead, babies sit on their mothers’ laps, cars are crammed full with two layers of people and animals tied on top, and enormous trucks without brakes barrel through intersections without slowing down.
Perhaps the difference is that where safety can’t be taken for granted, fatalism takes over. In this Muslim country, religion also plays a role: Islam teaches that even the tiniest of events is the “will of Allah,” excluding personal responsibility to the extent that if your toddler is run over, you will grieve, yes, but you will also shrug your shoulders at the inevitability of life in all its tragedy and joy. Westerners, frustrated, say that yes it may very well be the will of Allah, but a little intervention on the part of the parents wouldn’t hurt either.
There are so many factors at play here. Several years ago, my friend Beth went to the national hospital here with her friend Couru, who was giving birth. During the time she was there, 5 babies were born. 3 didn’t go home with their mothers; they were buried in the children’s cemetery that backs the hospital, and is included in the same wall surrounding the hospital complex. Mad wisely pointed out in her comment on my first part that part of our increased sense of uncertainty and mother-fear is that, whereas our grandparents were likely to have 9 kids and expected they would lose a couple, we are likely to have 1 to 3 and not expect to lose any. Here, parents may still expect to lose a couple—to untreated malaria or cholera, to diarrhea. Death can sometimes be prevented by something as simple as a bottle of clean water (like American tap water, for instance) with a pinch of salt and a handful of sugar added. Car accidents take many lives.
As is typical, the divide is between rich (and educated) and poor; my friend Aicha will have 2 or 3 children and all will no doubt survive to adulthood; the family in the barak will have a child every year—they will be, as Elliot, in his innocence of economic and educational factors, put it, “Poor in stuff but rich in children.” They’re up to about 6 or 7 now, although it’s hard to tell because there are about 3 or 4 girls all within a year of each other, and I get them mixed up. The children play in the street. They still sometimes chase our car.
Of course my children don’t play in the dirt (much) and I make them wear shoes (most of the time). For us, life here really isn’t more dangerous than in the US; we live in a Western-style house with running water and electricity that works most of the time. The whole family’s gotten intestinal parasites on village trips but it’s no big deal; you just take some pills, drink Sprite, spend a day or two on the couch watching TV. On the other hand, in this dry, hot climate, we rarely get colds or flu. I read your blogs—you get sick more often than we do, in damp climates, with lice infestations.
In many ways, my children are much safer here; for example, they can run unsupervised to the corner boutique seven times a day if I keep forgetting things I need like butter, milk, laundry soap, or matches. No one will hurt them. (Funny aside: once Ilsa had a friend over and I sent the two of them to the boutique, with promises they could spend the change on candy. There’s a mosque right across the street from us, and the call to prayer was just beginning. “Bon jour les filles” announced the muezzin over the loudspeaker, before beginning the “Allah akbar.”)
Once in a while, I answer the doorbell to someone with an official-looking folder from WHO, wanting to know if I have any children in the house. Yes, I assure them, and they’ve already been vaccinated against polio. I don’t have to produce any proof—my white skin is enough; so they scrawl a symbol on my whitewashed wall in blue chalk and move on to my neighbour’s. A physical therapist spent 2 years here and told me that everyday she saw things that in the US are only textbook cases now, basically eradicated.
We go to the beach every week and the current here is often quite strong; we keep a close eye on the kids but unless it’s really bad, we let them battle it. They want to; they go out with their friends, armed with faded and aging boogie-boards against the choppy waves. All three are strong swimmers, learning to make wise choices based on factors other than timidity. The sharks are small here, too.
When I’m back in the US, I notice my “mom-radar” is much more relaxed than my friends’. I don’t keep my kids constantly in sight. I am relaxed at playgrounds and public parks; I don’t panic at malls if they are a couple of clothes racks away. I let them drink from the water fountains. (How can that be worse than drinking tea with the barak family, who sometimes buy water from a donkey cart?) I even let them share drinks with their friends. Yep, I like to live dangerously all right.
I don’t really have any brilliant conclusions here. Life is uncertain no matter where you live and always has been. We are not in control as much as we pretend we are. But exaggerating our sense of danger isn’t ultimately doing our kids any favors.