Kendall and Justine met Laura on their very first trip to León. Laura picked them up from the airport and acted as a shoe broker and translator to help them find Poppy Barley's first factory. Since then, Laura has led all our Poppy Barley operations in Mexico, and, naturally, we’ve gotten to know her well; through her, we have a window into Mexican culture. For the second volume of our Magazine, with its focus on pregnancy, we asked Laura to tell us what it’s like to be a mom in Mexico.
It is hard to try to represent 50 million Mexican women - you see, there are many Mexicos. We have many realities that live unbelievably close to each other. You can see really wealthy people, with chauffeurs and the fanciest clothes, and two meters away, the poorest of all persons. I will do my best for you all!
Marriage and a Baby
Ernesto and I got married when I was 21 and planned to not have babies for 3 or 4 years, but we still didn’t know Maria (who is well determined and stubborn), so we were pregnant 7 months after our wedding. She has been the best-unexpected gift.
It was not seen as strange to get pregnant so soon. Women in México think of maternity as their ultimate purpose in life. So most of them get pregnant very soon after the wedding, if not before.
We still live in a society that points out single mothers and getting pregnant before marriage is a cause of embarrassment and finger pointing for most families. Of course my traditional, old fashioned, super catholic family would have killed me if I had dared.
Choosing to Have Kids in Mexico
All women are expected to have babies in México. I don’t think that many of us really think whether we want to have babies or not, we just do. It is taken as the next step in a woman’s life and we just go ahead and take it without much thought.
There is not much for a woman who decides not to marry or not to have kids. I assume we do have a few of those women, but they are always thought of as selfish and unnatural by most people in México. I don’t know of any couple who has decided not to have babies, I know several that have been unable to, but it was not their decision.
Being Pregnant in Mexico
A pregnant woman represents virtue and life, and is seen as delicate and fragile. They are also seen as every woman’s daughter. Every woman she runs into during her pregnancy will tell her what to do, what to eat, things to avoid... a million pieces of advice that have been given by our grandmothers for centuries. I guess the intention is nice, but the information frequently contradicts each other, so it is hard to know what to do.
When a baby is born, they say that the mother "se alivió", (she alleviated) as if she had been sick because she was pregnant!
Mexican women tend to get really big when pregnant, it is easy for us to gain 15 to 20 kilos during our pregnancy.
I think most Mexican woman have the best time ever when pregnant, or at least I did. I was spoiled by my husband, parents-in-law, family and friends. I indulged myself with everything I wanted to eat, all our amazing Mexican cuisine was available to me... guilt free!! What I remember eating the most was jicamas with powdered chili and mole.
During pregnancy, Méxicans have a lot of funny ideas:
- One that I really love is the idea that people who have newborn babies bring a huge present with them when they are born. It is usually thought of as a new job for his/her parents, great economic improvement, a new car, a new business, etc. This is so hope giving for parents, they feel like they are soon to be blessed, not only by the baby that is about to come, but also "the blessing" they are getting as the baby is born.
- If the mom has a lot of heartburn during pregnancy, it is believed that it is because the baby has a lot of hair. I know this sounds a bit crazy (or a lot!), but even some doctors can tell you this is true and that the amount of hair on a baby´s head is proportional to the frequency and intensity of heartburn suffered during pregnancy.
- If moms have a sudden whim for a certain kind of food, and it is not immediately satisfied, the baby can be born with a mole.
On the official side, our government does not give a lot of benefits to pregnant working women. Our maternity leave with salaries paid covers 40 days before birth and 40 days after. Fathers for these babies do not get a day off work to help with the newborn, a symptom of our macho culture. Fathers are not expected to offer any kind of help during the first days of the baby or after really. Babies are 100% taken care of by mothers.
The First Two Months
For the Mexican middle class, during the first few months after the baby is born, one of two things happens:
- Mexican grandmothers move to the new mother’s house to help her with the baby. They become like the mothers, because they are expected to help day and night!! I am not sure how I will feel about pausing my life to help my daughter with hers.
- The new mother moves to her mother’s house. The advantage here is that the father has an easier time with these first hard months. Mom and grandmother are happy sharing the new baby and the father is having great sleeps at home.
The privileged part of Mexico hires nannies and nurses for the first six months and the nannies usually stay around until the "baby" becomes 15 or so. They are frequently closer to kids than mothers are, they are part of the family and travel everywhere the family goes; this kind of kids are often seen with their nannies and chauffeurs at schools, movies, concerts, beaches and airports. When the kid is seen as old enough to not have a nanny anymore, nannies leave homes, which is heart breaking for the kids and the nannies.
Less privileged families do not have this who’s-moving-to-who’s-house-issue. Young couples live with their parents for many years before they are able to move out to their own place, so are already living with their parents when the baby comes.
None of those options were true for our family. I just went back to our own place by myself (to endless sleepless nights) and my mom stayed at hers, but my our decision didn’t make her happy at all.
I remember the first two months of both of my kids as the worse ever, I was depleted, tired, sleepless, and breastfeeding was a really hard experience.
The most common suggestion in México says that breastfeeding 6 months is the best start in life you can give your child, but our breastfeeding rate is unbelievably low: only 14% of women breastfeed their babies for 6 months.
Breastfeeding in México has its own pack of traditions and "rules" to follow, the one I find more charming is the one that says that mothers who are breastfeeding must have their backs and feet covered at all times, with as many sweaters as possible, socks, rebozos, etc. this is to avoid the wind hitting her back or feet, since it might cause the mother´s milk to vanish. We live in a city that easily reaches 40 C in summer, but new mothers still follow this tradition, a bit because they believe it and a bit because their own mothers push them permanently to do so.
On Naming Babies
I was surprised when I found out that parents in Canada don’t name their kids after them... everyone in México does. Parents always name their first newborn babies after them, or the grandparents. So, we have families in which there are 6 generations of Alfonso Gutiérrez, and the next generation will have its own Alfonso Gutiérrez too. It makes people really proud to be named as his father who was named after his, etc.
I was able to resist the temptation and didn’t name my firstborn after me, even though she was a girl. But when our first boy was born, my husband couldn’t resist, so we have two Ernestos at home.
Being a Mom in Mexico
I think the best place in the world to be a mother is México, don´t get me wrong, not to live, but to become a mother - let me explain.
Mothers have a cherished place in México. There is such a cult following with mothers. Mothers are always seen as perfect, loving, sweet and beautiful. You can mess with everything, except with people’s mothers.
We receive all kinds of hugs and love and kisses from our kiddies, not only when they are little, but throughout their lives, and that is the perfect nourishment for any mother.
In previous generations, it was common to find families of 9, 12, 14 siblings. My grandmother had 9 babies, my mother had two and I have two, too. It seems that every generation is really limiting their family size to be able to give better life standards to their family.
The diminishing birth rate is not only economically driven, but is also related to more access to information and birth control. I think it is also related to our not-so-close relationship with the Catholic Church anymore.
Boys are encouraged to have as many girlfriends as possible. It is common to listen to proud parents announcing the 10 girls dating their son... this year! And so on, expectations on boys and girls are widely different. While boys are allowed to gather all the possible experience as soon as they can, girls must not have any sexual experiences before they marry, and of course not leave their parents house a day before "Mr. Right" comes pick her up from her house, all dressed in white, as a sign that they have never been polluted with any other sexual experience before marriage.
This kind of difference continues until we are grown ups; boys are raised to support their families and provide for them, while girls are encouraged to stay home and lovingly raise their kids. This is slowly changing, but still, most women don´t work and they don´t want to. Many men would feel offended if their wives wanted to work, it would mean that they are unable to provide their families all that they need.
It is frequent that girls attend college for the first semesters and then quit as soon as they find an appropriate "sponsor" for their lives. Others do graduate, to not work a day in their lives.
I am not an average woman in México. I started working while attending college, and have never stopped. My husband is not only OK with it, but he is absolutely supportive of my decision. I feel that being independent allows women to make choices in their lives; it allows me to feel capable, free and respected. That is what I have taught my daughter. Maria wants to be a surgeon and all I am hoping is that she is tough enough to pursue her dream. Medicine is an insanely expensive major to study in México. We will have to make several sacrifices to be able to support her in this.
Private schools are available, but we can’t afford them. Excellent public schools are also available, but there are 5,000 applicants every semester, and out of those, 20 are accepted in. Hard, isn’t it? As a mother, I wish I could help her with this too, but I guess this is the first time she will have to do it all by herself.
In México, college is considered to be the last big thing parents give their kids, after this one, no more paying for other things for them. It is like the ultimate tool to open every door in their lives.
I can´t believe how big and incredible my kiddies are now, I was quite scared by other parents references to their monster teens and was secretly dreading the day when I had my own. Luckily, raising teenagers has been delightful; both of our kids are great, gentle kids and we have not had any major issues.
The possibility to talk to them as grown ups and really have the chance to see what is inside, how they feel, what they think, sharing their projects and dreams.