I came to motherhood fairly late.
After 37 years of freedom and leisure, having a baby was a shock and I struggled to find my way. Not long after my son’s birth, he, his father and I flew to Hanoi, Vietnam where we lived for more than two years. For most of that first year, I felt like I was on the verge of drowning. I was wearing two masks – mother and ex-pat – and neither of them felt comfortable.
My blue-eyed, blond boy caused a stir every time we ventured outside into the noisy, bustling streets. My neighbours adored him and loved to touch his pale skin. Strangers asked me how old he was. He hadn’t yet turned three months and this provoked creased brows and stern looks. So young and already outside. And I had him in a papoose, which held him upright; his small bare feet dangling. The women in the streets mimed for me how I should be holding him. At a 45 degree angle. They swished their hands back and forth over their heads, letting me know I should always put his hat on. It was cold and didn’t I know that the cold could kill him?
I became tired and resentful of the attention and the advice. I stayed indoors and watched the action from the windows.
Soon I learned never to leave the house without putting a hat on the baby’s head and socks on his feet. Without covering his arms and legs when it was cool. I hoped this might shift the spotlight from us. But there was always something I was not doing right. Not only was I unravelling the mysteries of motherhood, I was navigating a path through Vietnamese culture without a map.
There is much to like about Hanoi. It is alive with young people scooting about on motorbikes and chatting on shiny mobile phones, while the older people squat on plastic stools and contemplate the new world going by. Everywhere there is food. Vendors dish out steaming bowls of pho bo (beef and noodle soup) to waiting customers; carcasses of chickens and ducks hang in the doorways of shops, and fresh fruit and vegetables can be bought on the street corners from women wearing conical straw hats. There is an array of restaurants to try. Restaurants with cuisines from all parts of Vietnam and all parts of the world.
One night, not long after we arrived, we ventured into the Old Quarter, the heart of Hanoi, to try a seafood place we’d heard about. We dressed the baby carefully, ensuring that no cold could touch his skin, and went in search of the restaurant. It wasn’t hard to find with its walls of bright apple green. Once inside we were welcomed by attentive waiters and the aroma of cooking fish. The waiters fussed over our baby and we answered all the usual questions about him before being shown to our table. We ordered the speciality of the house – fish hot pot – and watched as the waiter lit the small gas-ring sitting on our table and then carried over a large silver pot of fish stock. As the stock bubbled, she made several trips to the kitchen to bring out plates of vegetables, herbs and noodles. The ingredients were added to the pot and when everything was ready, the meal was ladled into our bowls.
One of the waiters smiled at me and asked if she could hold the baby. I raised my eyebrow at my partner and he said, “Go on, it’ll be alright”. I tried to relax as my son was handed from waiter to waiter and then disappeared into the kitchen. From time to time we’d catch glimpses of him as he was passed to a new pair of waiting arms. He seemed happy so I shrugged and kept eating.
Stomachs full, we signalled to the head waiter that we wanted our bill. He nodded and asked another waiter to attend to us while he retrieved our son from the kitchen. The baby reappeared, eyes round and searching for us. The head waiter handed him to us, saying, “Your son is very handsome.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
He then added, “But his fingernails are very dirty.”
I glanced at the baby’s hands. The waiter was right and I hadn’t noticed.
Something new to add to the list.
Eventually, without realising, my masks slipped off. I became a mother, rather than playing at being one. I learned to take the constant advice with good grace and appreciate the Vietnamese love of children. Wherever we went, our son was welcomed. There were no glares or frowns when we took him to restaurant or shops. Only open arms and smiles.
By the time our time in Hanoi was up, we were ready to come home. Just as we’d had to adjust to a new culture, we also had re-adjust to our former lives. Even our son had some adjustments to make. One afternoon, my mum and I took to a café for afternoon tea. He jumped up from his seat and looked around him as if to say, “Well, here I am, come and adore me.” No-one noticed. He was just another blue-eyed blond in a sea of blue-eyed blonds. Welcome home.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem