Peruvians know babies. Peruvians LOVE babies. Peruvians make it known that they love babies and know babies. When Peruvians see Amelia, their faces light up. When they find out she was born in Peru, they are thrilled, often thanking me for having her here. Amelia is a lucky baby to be born and raised in a country that is so embracing of babies and children. However, the cultural differences in child rearing have taken some time for Amelia’s mother to get used to.
Last week, I was in the supermarket with Amelia. She was sitting in the front seat of the grocery cart. I turned around for less than a minute to put five tomatoes in a bag. When I turned back, my baby was gone. The cart was there, without her in it. I panicked and did a quick scan of the area. Fifteen feet away, I saw a smiling Amelia in the arms of a 50-something year-old woman who was playing with her and showing her off to two friends. I stormed over and grabbed Amelia saying that it was rude to take a baby without asking. The three women looked at me like I was a crazy person.
Are you horrified? I was. But when I told Charlie and some other friends, no one seemed that surprised. And they shouldn’t be. It is not uncommon in Peru for strangers to pick up and hold your baby (although usually they ask first). I’ve never been a germ-a-phobe but if I were, I would have a hard time raising a child here. From day one, I had to get used to strangers approaching, touching, and asking (or demanding) to hold my baby saying “What a beautiful baby! Let me hold her.” That said, Amelia is a very healthy little girl who has been strongly embraced by her community.
Differences in child rearing practices between Peru and the United States became apparent to me in the hospital, hours after my sweet little Amelia was born. Each nurse, doctor, or visitor that walked into our hospital room asked why we had not yet pierced her ears. EVERY female baby born in Peru has her ears pierced within hours of her birth so that onlookers know she’s a girl. We chose not to do this but I will most likely pay the consequences for the rest of our time in Peru. Even when Amelia is wearing a pink dress with flowers on it, a giant pink flower in her hair, and sitting in her Pepto Bismol-pink stroller, people will still ask me whether she is a boy or a girl.
In the hospital, I was also asked “why isn’t she wearing anything red?” Gaby’s superstitious mother explained that every baby is at risk for “mal de ojo” or “evil eye”. The belief is that admiring looks from visitors, strangers, or even loved ones can weaken the baby and prevent her from thriving. Onlookers may not be trying to cast this condition upon the baby or even know they’re doing it. Gaby’s mother warned us that mal de ojo can cause illness, bad luck, and even death. The ONLY way to prevent it is by ALWAYS dressing your baby in something red. Gaby bought us red socks, hats and a red sweater and I bought a baby-sized red beaded bracelet to make sure that Amelia was protected from what is considered a dangerous medical condition rather than a superstition in Peru.
After a couple weeks in Lima, I returned with Amelia to my small community in Cajamarca, Peru to raise my daughter. Let me remind you that Peruvians know babies best. Or at least they think they do. I am offered advice and opinions everywhere I go. What is the most common “advice” I receive? Usually it starts with a very sweet “Que lindo tu bebe!” “How sweet your baby is!”
That’s how they begin the conversation. They come closer and begin their inspection, which involves stroking her face, looking at her clothes, asking me if she’s a boy or girl, and then holding her hand. That’s usually when they shriek. “Your baby is freezing! You need to wrap her up or she will get very sick!”
I recently learned that Latin American cultures have higher rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) due to over bundling infants. It doesn’t surprise me. Most babies around Cajamarca are wrapped in so many layers; you can’t see their face. They wear down snowsuits on 60-degree days. When Peruvians see Amelia wearing nothing but a sleeper, sweater and hat, they are horrified. On more than one occasion, I have tried to defend myself by explaining that cold does not cause illness, germs do. It’s pointless. They look at me like I have three heads.
Not only is my baby cold, not only should she have her ears pierced, not only should she be wearing red, but I am usually told at least one other thing that I’m doing wrong. “You shouldn’t carry her in a front pack, it will damage her spine.” “She’s hungry.” “She’s tired.” “She wants to lie down.” “The sun is too bright for her eyes.”
Unsolicited advice. Constant unsolicited advice. I imagine that raising a baby in Cajamarca is like being surrounded by a thousand opinionated mothers in law. I don’t know for sure because fortunately my mother-in-law is positive and supportive, offering advice only when we ask for it. I have to remind myself again and again that the random stranger who just told me that everything I’m doing is wrong has only the best intentions. She’s just trying to be helpful. After all, Peruvians know babies. Peruvians LOVE babies.
Especially gringo babies. I am told that Amelia is like a “muneca” or “doll.” Peruvian babies are beautiful, usually born with a full head of hair. Poor little Amelia is bald, even at 8 months. The only bald babies that Peruvians see are dolls, so they tell me that Amelia is like a doll. My little doll is treated like a celebrity when we go out in public. People flock towards her in the grocery store, their faces light up when they see her. They smile and tell me “que lindo tu bebe.” It’s hard NOT to enjoy the positive attention.
Despite the germs, the constant “advice”, and the fact that everyone thinks she’s a boy; as a mother in Peru, I feel supported. I can still use the “priority” or “preferential” line at the bank, airport, grocery store, etc. This line, reserved for those who are elderly, disabled, pregnant, or have young children, makes life a lot easier in a country where a line could mean anywhere from a 30-minute to 2-hour wait.
I’ve traveled with Amelia by myself several times. That’s right, my daughter, who has dual citizenship has been to five different countries. Of them, the most difficult and least helpful was the United States of America, where I was criticized by a customs official for handing him two passports and asked to keep her quiet when she was crying on the plane (as if I wanted to be holding a screaming baby).
Peru makes it easy to travel. They allow me to board the plane first, help fold the stroller, fellow passengers and flight crew offer to hold her while I go to the bathroom and play with her when she gets fidgety in the small seats. Peru has been the most baby-friendly and embracing.
After all, Peruvians know babies. Peruvians love babies.