Eight more weeks to go. Papa-to-be is painting the baby room a creamy, lemony yellow. A pile of baby things, used and new, fill the crammed space under the stairwell. According to Dutch tradition, we’re weeks behind schedule. This was confirmed by the raised eyebrows and gasps we received last week at my father-in-law’s birthday party. All the women of grandmothering age were up in arms, because the baby could have apparently come a month ago, when the room was “supposed” to be ready.
You get that a lot here. “Supposed to be,” “how it’s done,” or “have to do it like this.” You also get their recalcitrant, unsolicited siblings, “If I were you, I wouldn’t,” or “That doesn’t seem right to me,” and “That’s not what we do (here).”
First time parents like us do our precious best with lists compiled from lists extracted from other lists in baby books, magazines, and handouts from the midwife and prenatal instructor. We drown in lists. When we have the heart to, we sit down to put all or most of the recommended items onto one super-cala-fraja list that, clutching in hand, we take to the baby store. Wide-eyed and green-eared, we move through the merchandise, not at all helped by my husband’s native Dutch. Even in a mother tongue, one still has to ask oneself what a crib mattress underlay is and – more confusing – if it’s really necessary.
So it’s a bit nerve wracking when, surrounded by our pile of dutifully premature purchases (which we bought just in time for the baby that wasn’t born four weeks ago), I hear later on by means of the phrases mentioned above that we still got it wrong. Piles of things in bags should attest to our earnest attempts to be as prepared as possible, to cautiously provide too much rather than too little. Yet they attract criticism from people with experience having babies. Of all folks and groups, the Dutch tend to be utterly convinced that their way of doing things – baby shopping, included – is good enough for everyone else. If you are so bold to act differently, or worse, utter dissent, those Dutch people in question tend to get really irate, because you obviously think their way is simply not good enough for you.
I run into this attitude with the General Practitioner, when cooking rice, or debating the difference between immigrant integration and assimilation. It’s a prevailing Dutch air probably rooted in a tradition of rarely questioning, always conforming, and keeping the waters calm. It works in a country the size of Southern California, where people are munching on the same happy hour snacks in households from Groningen to Maastricht on Saturday nights at nine o’clock.
But it doesn’t work for Pioneer Mama. The rugged American individualist in me, with her hybrid Californian roots, likes to decide for herself how “things are going to be done.” She’s going to get her pap smear annually, not wait five years like the rest of the Dutch female population. She’s going to cook her rice in the roasting pan, even if it’s not “meant” for rice. She’s also going to insist on the right to do things her way without having to be subject to criticism, and hopefully, by default, teach a few Dutch minds about the myriad of new things to be learned from foreigners like her who integrate, not assimilate, into Dutch culture. When it comes to that which she has yet to learn, Pioneer Mama would rather look it up in a book while balancing her baby on the other arm, before submit to someone else’s busybody, patronizing tone.
My soul sister, a.k.a. Niña, an American who moved here twenty-five years ago, has raised two kids and been around the Dutch block. When we call, mail, or share tea so many hours each week, I never have to hear about how she did it all right and how I need to drop everything to take heed. She’s never insisted on what kind of diapers I should buy, where I should give birth, or what I should be eating during my pregnancy. Instead, we talk about life – writing, loving, believing – and as she glows at my burgeoning belly, she might spill a funny story or two about the first time she breastfed after eating spicy Indian food, or how her second labor took less than a hour. “So don’t worry,” she winks.
“What about disciplining?” I say. “I have no idea…”
Then, because I asked, she tells me the sweet story of how she taught her kids the kinder meaning of “no.”
I’m dreaming about the baby nightly now. Last week I was at Target, looking at different baby seats that were all labeled in Dutch, despite the sad fact that Target is a purely North American phenomenon. I dreamt about labor, too, working out my subconscious fears after deciding to birth at home without meds. Last night’s dream was by far the most entertaining.
I was carrying around this giggly, rosy, little angel in my childhood home in La Puente, California. My mom, who passed away in April, was conspicuously absent. My dad was in and out of the house, mostly hanging out with my Persian uncle Mehrdad as they sat on motorcycles in the front yard.
So it was just me and my bundle of joy. But I kept doing everything wrong. I didn’t prepare the proper supplies before changing the diapers, putting the baby down on cutting boards instead of mattresses. She pooped, as a result, all over my beauty case and the sheet on my childhood bed. I let her sleep through the night without waking her up to feed, which made me worried she was hungry or that my breast had produced less milk.
I looked at my thoroughly bemused baby, leaned in to her short range of visibility, and said, “It’s time to eat.” As I cradled her in my arms, trying to remember what our prenatal instructor had said about holding the head, a sudden jolt of insecurity shot through me. “Oh, no, what if she doesn’t latch right?” But the baby’s mouth went on, and she began to suck.
I walked around like that, out the door, into the city, my boob in full view of men with five o’clock shadows wearing lumberjack shirts standing around on the street. At home again and in the room of my youth, the baby latched off and looked up at me. “Isn’t there supposed to be milk coming out?” she said in perfect, adult English. Instead of marveling at her speech, I tried, unsuccessfully, to express some milk, and the baby lost interest altogether.
I woke up and told my husband, and we had a good laugh. Pioneer Mama has enough insecurities of her own, the fears and years of her Dutch predecessors notwithstanding. In order to survive the coming phase of new motherhood, she now has to master a way to tune out the static of other voices. As Niña and hubby have both said, she needs to practice the subtle technique of cocking head to one side and politely retorting, “Hmmm.” Let them advise and rattle away. Try not to explode. Should they notice their lack of effect, then try to interfere and snap her out of her happy place, she will step back and say, “You know what? I’ve got it under control.”
Pioneer Mama made it this far, from California to the Hague, without their two cents. She will get through the next bit, and then the next.
Copyright © 2007 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.