Every second of every day, babies are born all over the world. Where those babies are birthed and raised has an enormous impact on who they become. Location also has a huge impact on how parents actually parent.  Over the next few months, we will explore what parenting looks like outside of North America with mothers living in Bahrain, Australia, Nairobi, Argentina, India, and Austria. This series will discuss some of the rituals around sleep, food, family, tradition, gender, parenting roles, maternity leave, and childcare in other countries. The mothers profiled will share what surprised and enraged them, what motherhood struggles they endured, what they miss about North America, as well as what wisdom they have gleaned by moving far from home.

“Being a mom in Bahrain was, in many ways, easier than being a working woman without kids,” said Krystall Fierens-Lee, who has lived in the Middle East both with and without children. “The first thing anyone asks is: ‘Do you have kids? Mashallah,’ which means ‘God has willed it.’ And if you don’t: ‘Why not? What’s wrong? I know a doctor!’ Children and family are very important in the Middle East, so once I had a kid, it was a great conversation starter.” 

When Calgary native Fierens-Lee moved with her husband and 10-week-old son, Simon, from Antwerp, Belgium back to Bahrain in 2013, it wasn’t her first time living abroad—she’d also worked in London and New York—but it was her first time in the Middle East as a parent. (A decade earlier, she’d lived in Bahrain for two years with only her husband.) Soon after she gave birth in Belgium, her Belgian husband was offered a job in Bahrain. Barely out of the so-called fourth trimester, Fierens-Lee was not at all ready to move. “Either I could stay and my partner would come back every few weeks” (which, with an infant at home, sounded awful), “or we could all go.”

The adjustment wasn’t easy, but a few factors helped enormously. Bahrain, a liberal Muslim country off the east coast of Saudi Arabia, is extremely child-friendly, which was both good and bad. “Your kid can do anything—and so can everyone else’s, which has its downside!” she said. Babies went “anywhere and everywhere. My kid would crawl through the Ritz Carlton and everyone was just in love with him.” He, in fact, once crawled over to an American Army general, who leaned over sweetly and said, “Hey, baby!”

Although Fierens-Lee had many Bahraini friends from her previous child-free life who “reminded me to go out sometimes and put on lipstick,” there was a strong local-expat divide. Fierens-Lee gravitated mostly to expat mothers from Canada, or Arab moms who had emigrated to Canada and returned home, who shared her values and experiences as a slightly older mother with a career she’d put on hold for her baby. Manama, Bahrain’s capital, is very small and teaming with expats (more than half of its population are foreign), so it was easy to find her peers. “Expats end up in all the same places—hotels, malls, beach clubs. You just bump into people.”

Unlike their local cohorts who had live-in nannies—which cost an average of $500/month in US Dollars—none of the Canadian moms Fierens-Lee met had much domestic help, other than a babysitter or house cleaner who came by for a few hours a week. Most had come as the wives of partners who traveled constantly and worked extremely long hours in oil, engineering, or finance, so the women took care of every last piece of domestic life. They were, by their own admission, “helicoptery” mothers who nursed and made their own baby food. “We’d just kill afternoons letting our kids run around and we’d complain or worry or decry our lives as housewives!” 

For local mothers, however, parenting wasn’t generally as hands-on. Nannies—mostly from the Philippines and Sri Lanka—were common, and children, so revered, could get away with a lot. “You often had to intervene on behalf of your child because the other kid’s parent wasn’t around and the nanny did not discipline.” This was a shocking change for Fierens-Lee.

In Canada, you would never consider touching or disciplining another person’s child. If a kid on the playground is misbehaving, there’s “outrage; everyone wonders, where’s the parent?” she reflected. In Canada, you might tell a child, “We aren’t going to play like that.” In Bahrain, there isn’t a high premium on punishment or discipline, and Fierens-Lee occasionally found herself “disciplining the nannies” who weren’t expected or, in some cases, allowed to discipline. Because kids were given few boundaries, she worried that her son wouldn’t pick up her Canadian politeness.

Motherhood was distinct in other ways, too. If women could afford full-time domestic help, they could “look like runway models, have a date night with their husbands, get to the gym, and maybe even hold down a job while being a mom,” Fierens-Lee explained. “Many women were quite hands-off and relaxed about their parenting, and more focused on their health and well-being.” This is, in large part, a reflection of cultural expectations and affluence. Women of a certain class are expected to look beautiful and put together, even with multiple kids; if they aren’t working and have live-in help, they can spend the time taking care of themselves.  

So why didn’t Fierens-Lee and the other expat mothers take advantage of this cultural norm and pay for whatever assistance they needed, especially since none had family nearby? 

“I think you replicate what you know,” she said. “I was raised in a more middle class way in Canada. I found it weird and self-indulgent to delegate. I was obsessed with being an über mom in the middle of my postpartum period.”

Fierens-Lee’s view of her experience, however, has changed in the afterglow of early motherhood. “It all seemed hard,” she said, reflecting on those first three years (her son is almost seven). “But the hardness was in my own head, it wasn’t out there.” Her family has since moved back to Belgium, where they live with a whole new set of rules and cultural norms.

Now she can see how Bahrain was, in some ways, the ideal place to have a baby: Every bathroom had a nursing station, there were half a dozen play parks, and a beach. Your kid was beloved by everyone—unlike in Canada, where children (or their parents) may get a disapproving look if a kid has a massive meltdown in a restaurant.

Raising a child in a distinctly global village was remarkable. “Simon was hanging out with kids of all colors, Black, Brown, white, yellow—makes no difference. At a certain point he was learning English, Arabic, and Flemish together,” she said. “It was wonderful to have that international fabric.”

STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • Maternity leave laws allow women to take 60 days of paid leave, and an additional 15 unpaid.
  • Women with children under 6 can take six months of unpaid leave to care for a child, up to three times.
  • Annual leave is the most generous of any nation: 49 days a year, which includes 30 for paid vacation days and 19 for paid public holidays.
  • Kids tend to go to bed very late. It’s very common to see little children and babies up at the shopping mall at 11 p.m.
  • Many expats live in compounds so kids can run around and play freely.

Abigail Rasminsky  has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Cut, Epicurious, Longreads, O: The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Writing Program and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.