Miami, FL

How To Raise A Child as a Foreigner in a Latin American World?

Modern Parent

Jeniffer Araújo

I sometimes yearn for the days I was single and childless in Europe and free to lay in bed all day if I wanted. What mum doesn’t, I think?

Nothing about having my daughter I regret, she is everything to me, and in fact, the pandemic has been less horrible due to her joyful, energetic, and demanding presence in my life.

Still, I married a Cuban, born in the 60s into a culture of machismo, where women did all the childcare.

This was not how I expected to raise a child. In the years before marriage, I traveled the world for a living, went dancing whenever I wanted, swam or hit the gym various times a week, and lay in bed reading magazines and croissants on Sundays.

I remember when I was due to give birth and wanted to socialize and go for walks as much as possible, my husband told me how, as a mother, my life would change, and I would be much more home-bound from now on.

My reaction was, excuse me? What do you mean? I can pop baby in a sling, go out for walks, have coffees in the park while she sleeps, etc. That was the case for the first two months after I gave birth to her in London, but then we went to Cuba.

In Cuba, mothers are STILL responsible for the majority of work at home. He knew this, of course, because he was already a father twice, his girls are now grown up. His ex-wives did most of the work, together with their mothers, sisters, and aunties, who formed their network of support.

I must point out that the Revolution of 1959 brought huge benefits for women in terms of equality. While the focus of the Revolution was class equality, women indirectly benefited, and today most women work outside the home, with free childcare provided from the age of one.

Later, the 1974 Family Code gave men and women equal rights and responsibilities for housework, childrearing, and education. Still, as in much of Latin America, machismo is commonplace, and not all men got the memo.

In addition, I should note that Cuban women themselves are strong and capable, and I know of men who wanted to be more involved in childcare and were shut out by the army of women taking charge. My husband has often told me how he ‘can’t’ do a certain thing, like bathe my daughter or pick out her clothes. I honestly think he believes that. He never had to do it before.

When we go as a family to stay with my sister-in-law, I am amazed at how any request I publicly make to my husband for help with our daughter is immediately fielded by a female member of the family. He meanwhile doesn’t even hear me because he is now in the world of males sitting together discussing the world while the women are in the kitchen gossiping. I feel like I have returned to the 1950s.

A young Cuban female friend of mine explains how the division of gender roles actually works well for many women. Cuban women are the queens of their households and enjoy that responsibility. Some feel more relaxed staying at home and letting the men go out and ‘hustle’ for the things needed in daily Cuban life, fixing things, keeping the car on the road.

Once my baby girl was born, Cuban doctors and other health care professionals started calling me Mama, I ceased to have a name, and my life changed completely, while that of my husband did not. In Cuba, the women help out new mums, and the men do men-things.

As a foreigner living here, with no family close by, and no female friends with kids, I was pretty isolated.

In those days in Cuba, there was no home internet, no data roaming on cellphones, and my only way to connect with the world was the expensive, not-always-working internet in the local hotel lobby. This involved leaving the house and trying to time it when the baby would sleep, not an easy mission.

Many a time, I sat in that lobby, tried desperately to log in on that bad connection with my newly purchased internet scratch card, and by the time the drink I had ordered had arrived, the baby was awake and screaming, and I had to make a quick exit. Sigh.

Finally, when bubba was 4 months old, I traveled 6 hours in a taxi across Cuba to stay with my sister-in-law and mother-in-law. Suddenly, I had a network of women fussing over me.

The only thing I had to do was eat, sleep, rest, breastfeed and repeat.

I completely relaxed, and my daughter’s weight jumped up a percentile. She was and still is in the 90th percentile for height and weight. I still thank my wonderful Cuban family for that.

My husband had been thrown a little into the deep end for the birth in the UK, helping me cope with a newborn, which he not done before. We were alone in a small London apartment in the middle of winter, with help coming just once a week. It was intense. He did well. It was also the first time he saw his child born (in Cuba, only doctors can attend the birth), and the first time his presence was essential post-birth.

Then, back in Cuba, our baby became a toddler, and she started at nursery, I started work, and life became easier. And then, COVID-19. Now she is at home all the time, but finally, she is 3, she can play independently, I can have some more freedom to do things…in the house.

In the end, my husband was right. I would be more house-bound as a mum, but not for the reasons I thought.

What have I learnt finally about being a Mum in this macho world?

  1. The support in society is greater than I first thought. Children are revered here, and even though male/female roles are more clearly defined, there is high respect for motherhood, the family, the task of raising children.
  2. Family is everything. That phrase could apply anywhere, I guess, but here my Cuban family is huge and extends to my step-daughters and their mothers and new husbands, and their mothers too. All are family, all muck in to help if they can. Four generations living nearby is not unusual here.
  3. This is the safest environment in the world I can imagine raising a child. Criminality is low, violence is rare, pedophilia is almost unheard of. As a woman, I have never felt threatened, as a mother, I feel almost untouchable. As a wife, I feel respected and strong.
  4. The only negative is that I’ll have to teach my daughter one day that she will have to be careful around strangers in countries that are not Cuba. We live in a kind of socialist bubble, where people help each other out, community support is strong, and the moral code counts for something.
  5. Raising a child is hard work, no matter where you do it. My husband supports me here in the way he knows how, and I’ve learned to appreciate the values of this society and how my child and I benefit from them.

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