The greatest difference between being a new mom in Ankara and a new mom in Bishkek is that here people just don’t care. In Ankara everyone coos over your newfound bundle of joy. Here the only people to make a fuss are the Turkish expats – big burly men (my husband has a co-worker who weighs 108 kilo and has a Charlie Chaplin moustache to match) and sharp-suited department heads sit down to see the baby and have a cup of tea (and bring the customary gift of money, as nobody buys gold Turkish coins here). Before the first cup of tea is half gone they’re agooing over the baby and making kissing noises until she smiles. Babies are wonderful creatures in Turkish culture. And yes, as I’ve touched upon before, everyone has advice on everything from holding the baby to not eating beans – some of it logical and helpful, some of it…well, scientifically unproven. But there is this aura around babyhood and special emphasis placed on keeping the baby as perfectly safe and comfortable as possible.
In Kyrgyzstan (or, rather, from experience I can only say “in Bishkek”) it’s rather different. People here don’t make a fuss. It’s still age that matters – a woman with a baby or small kids, or even a woman heavily pregnant is often expected to give up her seat to a matron on the bus. At least she can never ask for a seat, as it is age that confers authority and a young (relatively or in appearance) mother is still a younger person, somewhat below her social seniors. Babies too – eh – not so impressed by them. Coming from Ankara, where our daughter could draw smiles from miles, I was like What?!? This isn’t the most amazing sleeping cherub you’ve ever seen? Her screams don’t capture your heart and turn your hard manner to mush? No, apparently not. Some people do open doors. That’s about it.
And then there’s the handling of kids (and babies). We live kiddy-corner to the national center for children and maternal health, so I’ve had plenty of chances to observe. Last summer I saw a woman handling her baby like she was scrubbing pots. Most women carry around babies in their arms, slung across their bodies, heads flopping back (never mind baby safety – the possibility of dropping them or straining their necks or bumping their heads on things – isn’t that terribly painful for the mother’s back?), nary a carrier to be seen. And then there are some things done to one end, but in a way that completely flies in the face of another. Like how last week a woman walking near our house was carrying her infant in the manner described above, but with a handtowel folded over its face to shade her baby from the hot Kyrgyz sun. My immediate -terrified – reaction was to think that mus be a suffocation hazard. And lets not talk about the toddlers barely able to talk set free to ride their three wheel trikes and run around the playground and parking lot sausage stuffed with super-sized SUVs completely unsupervised in our apartment complex. Half of them can’t even press the buttons on the elevator to get home.
But then again there’s a lot here that all the Western parenting guides admonish new parents against – and despite that the kids still live and thrive. Or not. I don’t know – I’m not a health expert. I haven’t looked at health records for children across the country (and I don’t believe comprehensive records exist, given the difficulty of finding cohesive and comprehensive records for socio-economic statistics). Perhaps this handling of children does cause widespread malaise. Or perhaps in the west we’re all a little too worried and it’s really rather unlikely our babies are going to snap in half.
(I should note that there’s another side I’ve seen to parenting in Bishkek – the luxury-for-baby model. But that’s another set of observations and another post)