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.

“I love the freedom for kids to play and run around. For space to move,” said Leigh Schulman, an American writer and teacher living in Salta, Argentina. “There are fewer rules here and things are so much more tranquilo. It definitely took time to get used to, but now I wouldn’t go back to the US.”

Shulman and her family settled in Salta—a city of less than 620,000 residents on the northwest edge of Argentina—in early 2009, when her daughter, Lila, was 5. They initially fled New York City in 2007; it was a place where, Shulman felt, “people acted like kids are an imposition on their time and space.” The family sold their Brooklyn apartment and all their possessions to travel the world for two years. Travelling frugally and working online jobs when money got tight, they experienced Europe, the US, Canada, Costa Rica, and spent six months in Panama. 

They considered settling in Montevideo, but ended up in Salta instead through a series of happy accidents: Shulman’s husband attended a biology conference in Salta at the exact moment when Lila started resisting befriending other kids on the road because she knew she’d never see them again.  They traveled in and out of Salta for a year before really putting down roots in 2009. In 2014, their son, Charlie, was born.

The most immediate challenge was finding a community—a common problem for expats living in locales without a robust transient population. “Argentines, and especially Salteños, tend to focus on family and friends they’ve known for a long time,” Shulman explained. “People assume expats will move soon, so what’s the point in getting attached? Things were lonely, and we spent a lot of time just the three of us.” To keep spirits up, they started their own traditions, like a “New York Jewish Christmas”: Chinese food and a movie, which has stuck.

The Shulman's view from their home in Salta. Photo courtesy of Leigh Shulman.

The Shulman family have been in Salta for 10 years and have no plans to leave. Their bilingual kids are entrenched in local schools and activities, but have expat friends as well. Although Shulman and her husband spoke no Spanish when they arrived, they learned quickly out of pure necessity—“we had to find a place to live and food and almost no one spoke English.” Lila learned Spanish in school, and Charlie, who was born in Salta,  learned Spanish and English simultaneously. “When Charlie speaks English, he has a strong Salta accent, which is adorable.” Shulman works with Lila, now 15, on her English writing skills to make sure that going to college in the US remains an option.

But while parenting might look similar, Shulman insists that it feels different, and is free of many of the pressures American moms and dads experience.

Charlie’s school day goes from 9-12:30 p.m.; children as well as many adults come home for a midday siesta. Babysitters, which are extremely affordable and prevalent, and extended family members often take care of kids in the afternoons. Younger children like Charlie can go to afterschool programs but afterschool activities—Lila loves track and field, and practices aerial skills; Charlie plays baseball—are not a big deal or competitive. None of these activities are seen as “real” commitments or considered a vital part of childhood. “There’s no such thing as packing a kid’s schedule,” she said.  Activities are paid per session, rather than as a whole. For instance, Lila’s aerial course costs less than 100 pesos per class (equivalent to $2). The general feeling is, if she goes, great; if she doesn’t, no big deal. 

People are kind and relaxed about children. “A friend of mine from the US who used to live in Mendoza, Argentina once said to me that growing up here must build amazing self-esteem, because from the time you’re born through the first years of your life, everyone is always happy to see you. You’re loved by everyone—family to strangers. Everyone smiles when they see you.”

Enjoying Buenos Aires' Recoleta neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Leigh Shulman.

Soon after moving to Salta, Shulman’s family flew back to the States. A couple sitting behind Shulman epitomized Argentinian kindness, and offered to play with 18-month-old Charlie so she could rest. “They let Charlie pull down the tray table and jump on it. I freaked out because that is literally the exact thing you’re never supposed to do on a flight,” she said. “But it was behind my seat and the only other people affected by it were the couple who let him do it. No one else on the flight seemed to mind because they’re Argentine and thought Charlie was adorable.”

This relaxed approach to life—and singular focus on family—includes lunches at home for everyone, afternoons playing outside, weekend meals with family and friends (usually asados, traditional Argentine BBQ). It also translates to Argentines’ infamous late nights: Kids can be up during the week until at least 9 p.m. and even later on weekends. Children are also included in everything, from late night parties to dinners out and weddings. Dinner can start at 10 p.m.—“now when I go to the US and people want to have dinner at 6 p.m., I wonder what’s wrong with them,” Shulman said.

Charlie at the Dead Sea. Photo courtesy of Leigh Shulman.

Parenting as an American expat isn’t all easy, however. Salta has very strictly defined roles for girls and boys, and these norms are set early. “Charlie learned in his preschool that blue is a boy color and that he’s not supposed to play with dolls,” Schulman said. “He had no issue with it before.” She added that she can’t imagine growing up gay or trans in Salta because gender roles are so rigid. 

Gendered expectations are all over the place; at big gatherings, women are generally in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning, while men are at the grill. But more striking were the conversations at birthday teas and breakfasts that Shulman attended with other women. When she first dropped in, she’d think, Do I not understand the Spanish or is this the most tedious thing where all we talk about are kids, exercise, and diets? Nobody eats anything at these events—they only drink tea or coffee—and the conversation invariably steers into questions like, “Are  your boobs real? Is that your real hair color?” She has since found friends with whom she talks about deeper subjects, but they still do so over monthly (foodless) teas.

Now that the Shulman family has lived in Salta for a decade, their wanderlust has eased a bit. “Over the years, both my husband and I have wanted to leave at certain points,” she said, “but not at the same time. And now we are both happy here.”

STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • Mothers are given 90 days of maternity leave during which they are paid by their employers. Most take 45 days before the birth and 45 days after, but by law they are not allowed to work for the 30 days prior to the birth.
  • If a mother chooses to not return to work, she is awarded severance pay. Alternatively, she can stay home for three to six months (for no pay) without losing her job. This is only possible if she’s been in the position for at least a year.
  • Working mothers are allowed two 30-minute breaks a day to pump or breastfeed. 
  • An organization called Plan Nacer provides free childcare for low- or no-income families.
  • Any baby born in Argentina is awarded Argentine citizenship.

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.