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Birthing a multicultural baby

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Living in the Czech Republic, I often feel as if I’m walking a delicate tightrope trying to incorporate multiple cultural heritages in my childrearing approach. At times it seems as if there is only one correct (i.e. Czech) way of birthing and raising children, built on long-held superstitions and time-tested wisdom passed down from generations of babičky (grandmothers). Whenever I breach Czech tradition, either by accident, or intentionally, such as not serving my babies black tea when they’ve got an upset stomach or forgetting the obligatory infant bonnet on a mild spring day, I always feel suspect, even if I know that my attitudes and actions would be considered perfectly normal back in the US.

Czech pregnancy and childcare tradition are born of prudence and caution, likely with good reason as the Czech Republic has an infant morality rate of less than one-half that in the US. High quality, inexpensive medical care that is available to all pregnant women contributes to the Czech Republic’s low infant mortality statistics. A tradition that encourages rest comes through official channels, such as a state law which declares that pregnant women must go on “maternity leave” at least six weeks prior to their due date. Unofficial channels, in the case of wives’ tales, such as not raising arms above the head while pregnant (i.e. no cleaning top shelves or windows) and resting for šestinedělí (six weeks post-delivery) with babička taking on house care and cooking responsibilities, are also generally respected.

When I first discovered I was pregnant with our second child Oliver while living in Prague, I was initially nervous. Talking with other non-Czech mothers who’d already given birth in the Czech Republic helped ease my fears about Czech hospitals, which despite their shabby external appearance, provide high-quality labor and delivery care. Amid the flutter over which hospital to chose (registration is necessary at or before 15 weeks of pregnancy), I also learned that most Czech women don’t have a private OBGYN and that babies are delivered by the OBGYN on duty. Submitting a name for the unborn baby prior to delivery was another regulation that was different from US custom, but there didn’t seem to be another option, so we managed to decide for the baby sight-unseen.

Several of my girlfriends with daughters remarked on the pressure they received after delivery from their mothers-in-law to follow Czech custom and pierce their infant daughters’ ears. Ear piercing here is standard at three-months or younger. The procedure is done at the pediatrician’s office with a needle, and it is generally believed to be easier the younger the child as the earlobe skin is so thin and soft. I’ve seen many mothers hand the doctor their child and wait outside the door so as not to hear their child’s cries. Afterward, the babies’ ears are wrapped in gauze and covered with a snuggly fitting hat.

I wasn’t interested in piercing Anna’s ears before she could request pierced ears herself; however, I had a more difficult time explaining that to my mother-in-law than I’d anticipated. Other friends agreed, saying that their mothers-in-law were disappointed that they couldn’t give the traditional gift of a first pair of earrings to their vnučka (granddaughter). Some grandmothers had resolved the issue themselves by buying an infant necklace instead. Others, like my daughter’s, just continue to press the issue every now and then to see if they’ll get their way. Now that Anna’s nearly five, we’ve talked about letting her pierce her ears, but I haven’t dared mention it to babička, knowing that she’s likely to take the discussion as permission granted.

Another tradition I hadn’t anticipated and didn’t particularly appreciate (although I tried to keep my sense of humor) is the Czech custom for a new father to celebrate his child’s birth with a raucous party immediately after delivery. Several of my friends married to Czechs also complained about their husbands leaving them in the hospital shortly after delivery while they went off to drink toasts to the new baby’s health in a nearby pub.

When Oliver was born, I didn’t mind that Radek wanted to celebrate with his friends. However, when he arrived at the hospital by cab the following morning, smelling of a smoky bar and unable to do anything except sleep in the hospital bed beside mine the following day, I wasn’t impressed. As tradition goes, the greater the revelry, the healthier the child, and Radek did his part to ensure Oliver’s health, but I wasn’t won over. One of my friends told me that she actually considered leaving the hospital to join her husband and his friends, since she didn’t want to miss the celebration, although in the end, she postponed her celebration for after her hospital release.

On the other hand, I’ve been witness to occasions when a non-Czech tradition has been celebrated with gusto here. One of my favorite baby-related traditions is the common North American custom of celebrating the mother-to-be and her soon-to-be-born baby with a “baby shower,” a party with food, games and gifts for the baby.

When I was pregnant with Oliver one of my good friends in Prague, also an American, offered to host a baby shower for me. Delighted and honored, I set about writing a guest list; however, when I got to the names of my Czech girlfriends, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Although I knew that Czechs typically wait until after the baby is born before bringing a gift, I went ahead and invited my Czech friends anyway, hoping that they’d get pleasure from witnessing a different cultural custom. On the day of the party, my Czech friends arrived laden with gifts, but not for the baby. Instead, they brought gifts for me: mommy vitamins, stomach cream, and hand-picked raspberry leaf tea, believed by many Czechs to bring on labor.

As more of my non-Czech friends have had babies, the tradition of throwing a small baby shower has continued among my friends. Although I’ve seen a few Czechs break with tradition and bring gifts of clothes or supplies for the unborn baby, most stick to their cultural roots and wait for the birth. According to Czech wives’ tales, other supplies, such as a baby carriage or a baby crib, are also typically stored away from the home of the mother-to-be, at an aunt’s or a grandmother’s.

At each baby shower, invariably conversation turns to cultural differences in pregnancy and childbirth, and I’ve spent many evenings engaged in lively debates with friends from different cultures and upbringings. Sharing the experience of pregnancy and childbirth with friends who face similar challenges incorporating different cultural standards into their new lives as parents has helped make my own “half n half” family life even richer.

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