Outside a gilded, eight-hundred year old pagoda in a part of Burma that is rapidly developing but still holds the charm of the country’s ox cart-driven, cloistered recent history, I walked through rows of women selling souvenirs with my one-year-old strapped to my chest. I passed a woman holding a baby in her arms, too. Both she and the boy had thanaka, a powdery yellow sunscreen/bug repellent/makeup smeared on their cheeks. “How old?” she asked, pointing to my boy snoozing on my chest. I told her it was nearly his first birthday, and she explained her son was just a few months older than mine. “Will he eat lots of food? Mine will only take my boob!” I nodded in commiseration and pointed to my son, because he, too, is stubbornly attached to me more than I’d like him to be.
A few weeks earlier in Northern Thailand, we’d visited an elephant sanctuary where the animals roam freely through the misted forest. We heard trumpeted calls echo from downriver, and I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if a velociraptor suddenly emerged from the horizon. But it was another (human) mother that caught my attention. She cooed at my kid in Thai while he was still strapped to my chest. She wanted to know his age; she had a son born just a week after mine. “Can I show you some photos?” Of course. She whipped out her camera and showed me her comical overabundance of photographic evidence of her kid laughing, drinking a bottle, and flashing his first toothy smiles. My camera, like perhaps the cameras of mothers everywhere in the world, is similarly filled with over-documentation of my kid. It was her first day back at work, she explained, and she was struggling with leaving her son at daycare for the first time. Find me a mom who hasn’t held some anxiety the first time she left her baby for the day.
I would’ve guessed even before my travels with my son that mothers the world over struggle with getting their kids to eat, sleep, and remain happy in ways that work for the rest of the family, too. But my time in Southeast Asia made me wonder why I had to travel twenty hours by plane to have these conversations openly with other moms. The moms in the markets, on sidewalks, and selling souvenirs in these places lead lives that barely intersect with my own, yet we found ourselves hopping cultural and language barriers to commiserate and connect.
At home in Los Angeles, the conversations don’t flow as freely. I’ve spotted weary new parents with familiar heavy eyelids passing me on the sidewalk, and all I want is to ask if their kid still wakes up every two hours at night, too. I want to fistbump the mom who figured out how to gracefully nurse in public, and I want to hear how daycare is going for the mom standing behind me in line for coffee on her way to work.
Instead of fostering new friendships or providing a framework for support, though, my interactions with other parents in LA don’t feel nearly as open as they were in Asia. The moms I met in Thailand and Burma shared their experiences with bottle feeding or breasts, going back to work or even bringing the kid along for the ride. That I might not have fed, clothed, or cared for my own kid in different ways remained mostly irrelevant.
The simple fact that I was also a mom served as impetus enough for a friendly interaction. Back at home, it’s harder to talk about these supposedly ubiquitous parenting dilemmas while I’m also doing my best not to offend or judge, or to be judged in return. Even among friends, I pause before sharing that I let my kid eat cheeseburgers or that he sleeps in my bed sometimes, or that I traveled with him to a region of the world without familiar food/customs/babyproofing.
Perhaps the endless array of choices that oversaturate modern parenthood in America is what makes all the minute parenting choices so divisive. Or maybe it’s that we’ve largely lost the idea that child-raising is a community effort, so even fellow moms don’t expect to give or receive support from others outside their trusted inner circle of nuclear family and a few friends.
Whatever the reason it’s difficult to positively connect with other parents when I’m home, my time in Southeast Asia gave me the dose of perspective to realize that I much prefer meeting moms in places where we can be on the same team, even if one of us makes parenting choices the other wouldn’t.
How do I make this happen at home? I don’t know. I’m open to pretending I’m in Burma and stopping stroller-wielding moms on the sidewalks of my neighborhood to talk about boobs, enthusiastically and judgment-free. Maybe that’s a start.