Intercultural Pregnancy: The First Trimester

This blog post has been a long time coming, especially considering the fact that I’m working towards my sixth month of pregnancy, but after months of writing bits and pieces here and there, I’ve finally found the time to get it done. As it turns out, taking my time with this blog post was actually necessary. When I first started writing, it was just a three-page long rant. Now that my hormones have chilled a bit and Ray and I have had many discussions about intercultural pregnancy and I’ve allowed the conviction of the Holy Spirit to do its proper work in my heart, I’m approaching this blog differently. Trust me. You’ll be happy that I did.

Relationship vs. Research

One thing I have learned about Kenyan culture, my husband’s culture, is that it is very relationship oriented. Generally speaking, young people learn by sitting under the guidance and wisdom of older family members. The older women take the younger women under their wings and show them the ropes. In fact, according to tradition, an older woman (grandmother, mother, or aunt) will typically move into the home with new parents for a few weeks to help with the household chores and to teach the woman about how to take care of the baby. I’ve been told that this process can start even a month before the baby is born.

The way of my culture is mostly to Google everything. If you want to know anything, get a book, scour YouTube, or find an article or forum. We also have pregnancy classes you can attend on a weekly basis. (What I wouldn’t give for a pregnancy class right now.) Yes, some mothers stay with their daughters after the baby is born, but it’s not a tradition per se, and most women I know end up frustrated with their mothers in the end. I think American women going through their first pregnancy prefer a more do-it-yourself attitude, though they are grateful for the help and support of friends and family. Just as long as people know when to give the couple space.

This difference between our cultures has made accepting help with this pregnancy difficult for me in some respects. I don’t like being told what to do, and because I have been raised in a culture that encourages research, I feel like most of what I read contradicts some of the things certain Kenyans tell me about pregnancy or baby rearing. If I had more humility, I would just listen to what people have to suggest and move on. Sometimes I am capable of that, and then sometimes I find myself arguing with people.

And it’s not just me. Expats from first-world countries that live in third-world countries typically struggle with valuing the input of locals on many fronts. We have a friend from the UK who broke his arm here. He went to see a Kenyan doctor and the doctor set his arm in a cast. Our friend felt like the cast had been completely set wrong, so after two days he removed it and set his arm himself. That’s typical of expats. I’ve done the same thing many times with medicines doctors have prescribed for me or advice they’ve given me.

Ray actually gets annoyed with me when we go see doctors here, because he says I try to tell them how to do their job. I don’t. I just suggest alternative options… I know that sounds terrible, but when I had health problems two years ago, I had three very wrong diagnoses that required me to be put on antibiotics for two months. I ended up much sicker than when I first started seeking help! That has happened to many expats here, so I believe such instances make us very skeptical of believing what we’re told.

Kenyan Healthcare

I don’t mean to paint a bad picture of Kenyan healthcare, but the public healthcare system is terrible. I’m talking two to three pregnant women to one bed. Not one room, one bed. All three women in various stages of labor. But private healthcare here is pretty good. There aren’t any good options here in Kitale where we live, so Ray and I rent a car once a month and travel an hour and a half to a bigger town called Eldoret to see my OB/GYN. She’s delivered babies for some of our Kenyan and American friends, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about her, so I’m thinking she’s the best choice.

One thing I did have to get used to though is the fact that because my doctor is in high demand in this area, she doesn’t have a lot of time. Her office hours start around noon, but she usually shows up an hour or two later (she’s always busy with surgeries and deliveries), and then you have to wait in a room with about 30 other women. Once you finally get in to see her, she quickly goes through what needs to be covered, sends you to do lab work and whatnot, and then you have to come back to the waiting room and wait all over again to get back in to go over the results for her. You have to block out an entire day for about 15 minutes with the doctor. I’ve definitely learned a lot of patience in that regard. And by patience, I mean I usually sleep in the waiting room until I’m called.

On the plus side, healthcare is much cheaper here. A lot of people ask us if we’re going to come back to the States to have the baby. As ideal as that may seem, when you go through the logistics of what that entails, the idea quickly loses its appeal. We’d have to spend $3,000 just to fly to the States, and because I wouldn’t be allowed to fly overseas after I reach 7 months, we would need to find a place to stay stateside for at least five months, not to mention the hospital expenses. To have the baby via natural delivery in the hospital here is just $350. If we require a C-section, it jumps to $1,400, but that’s still a lot less than anything we would pay if we were to travel to the States. So, yeah. The decision was pretty easy for us from that standpoint. I’m just having to adjust to not getting an hour to talk to my doctor about every little question I have, and I’m learning how to make the most of the little time I have with her.

Making More Adjustments

Another area where Ray and I had to change during the first trimester was in regards to sharing responsibilities. When I say “sharing”, I mean Ray did everything. My morning sickness would last all day, confining me mostly to the bed, so Ray had to take care of everything. He cooked, cleaned, and watched me vomit from a distance but with just enough sympathy in the worry lines of his face to make me feel nice.

Culturally, it’s not common for Kenyan men to take on household duties (especially not for three months), but that’s the culture we’ve established in our home. We don’t currently use a house help, though we’re considering employing one after the baby arrives, so we do everything ourselves. Everything but the laundry. I thought I could be Super Wife when I first moved here, and I used to hand wash all of our laundry, then I got overwhelmed. So now we have someone do our laundry every other week. That will be increased to 2-3 times per week once the baby arrives, and we’ll probably have her help clean the house sometimes too, but it just depends on my energy level.

Dealing with Cravings

One of the hardest things about the first trimester for me was cravings. My biggest craving was meat. If I had been in the States, I’m sure I would have visited numerous drive-throughs on a daily basis. That was my point of reference, after all, for all the meaty dishes I craved. There is no fast food here, at least not like what we have in the States. In Nairobi (the capital city) you can find maybe 5 American fast food restaurants, but only one (KFC) has a drive-through. What I know as fast food back home typically operates more like a fancy restaurant here. But that’s 8 hours away from here.

In Kitale my options are limited, so we bought a lot of bacon, sausage, roasted goat, and beef-filled samosas. Here’s what fast food looks like for us. Because we don’t have a car, we rely on guys that drive motorcycles (pikis) to run small errands for us. Ray will call them whenever we need to order something, they use their own money to buy whatever we asked for, and then they bring it to our apartment so we can reimburse them and pay them for their service. It usually takes about 30-45 minutes to get whatever we ordered. When Ray was in Pokot (about 8 hours away) on a video shoot, I called him and whined about my insatiable desire for a bacon cheeseburger. The next morning I woke up to our piki guy knocking on our door. Ray had ordered me a bacon cheeseburger from a restaurant in town and had the guy drop it off. I’ve never had a cheeseburger here that compares even slightly to the ones back in the States, but that was literally the best cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten in my life. He done good that day.

Getting Around

Because I was still small back then, Ray and I mostly got around by piki the first trimester; three to a piki. It’s the cheapest way to get around and there are literally hundreds of pikis around town. All you have to do is go to the main road, and they will pick you up and take you to where you need to go for less than a dollar. We have a couple of piki guys that we primarily take that we know to be safe drivers, but when they’re not available we just take tuk tuks or taxis. They’re more expensive, but they’re safer.

Now that I’m in my second trimester, Ray doesn’t let me ride pikis anymore. Sometimes if I’m late for a meeting or if I need to rush to town, I hop on a piki, but only if I don’t mind having “the talk” with the hubsters about my safety when I get home. Kenyan pregnant women ride pikis all the time and even carry their babies on them. I don’t think I could go that far, but maybe that’s an adjustment we’ll have to make in the future.

Baby Gear

When we announced our pregnancy, some friends of mine announced their pregnancies in the States at the same time. Within weeks, my friends were sharing some of the items they had already purchased for their baby or things they had made for the baby room. I, on the other hand, had not even thought about that stuff yet. I actually had no desire to get anything for the baby. It wasn’t until recently, when someone offered to bring things over from the States for us that I started thinking about what kind of things we might need.

I didn’t need to get a car seat because we don’t have a car (even if people have cars, most of them don’t use car seats anyway). I didn’t need to get a stroller because everyone carries their babies on their backs, and where we live the roads are not nice enough for a stroller to pass. I didn’t need to prepare a special room for the baby, because the baby will be sleeping in the room with us. It’s uncommon for babies to get a whole room to themselves in most Kenyan households. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that all the baby really needs are clothes and hygiene items. This is one aspect of raising a child in a third-world country that I’m excited about. It’s going to force me as a mother to learn how to raise this child with minimal product support.

And this brings me back to why even though I’m going to continue to Google, YouTube, and get advice from friends back home, I need to learn to accept the advice of Kenyans around me. They are the only people who can truly advise me on issues like dealing with hygiene properly for babies when there’s no washing machine, or how to protect the baby from Typhoid and malaria, or how to get along without electricity and so on. They’ve been doing it for years and raising healthy children, and though their methods are very different than my own, I know that I still have much to learn.

If you guys have any specific questions you’d like to ask about how this pregnancy has been going, feel free to leave a comment. I tried to be as thorough as possible with this post (sorry it’s so long), and I’ll do another post for each trimester here on.

Much love!

Cultural expectations strike again

We get a lot of emails from people across the world that read this blog who are in or are about to be in an intercultural marriage. It has been a blessing to get to develop relationships with some of you and to hear your stories. I just want to take a moment to say thank you for reaching out. Though the combinations of cultures differ, we all pretty much face the same challenges, and I’d like to think we can find some solidarity in one another. So, I wanted to write today’s blog specifically for this particular demographic.

Facing a new challenge… again?

One of the biggest talking points for newly married cross cultural couples is cultural expectations. As I’ve been saying the past few years that I’ve been writing this blog, culture plays a big part in how Ray and I understand each other, and without earnestly seeking to understand each other’s culture, this marriage would have been over long before it even started. #truth

In our first few years of marriage, we mostly focused on cultural expectations as they related to our marriage – what he expected of me as a wife, the assignment of marital responsibilities, and the like. But as we are currently working on our third year of marriage, we’re discovering the importance of discussing cultural expectations regarding people outside of our marriage, specifically family members.

Before we got married, my husband was the man of his mother’s household, as his stepdad had died some time ago. Culturally speaking, it was his responsibility to take care of his mother and his siblings. Leave alone the fact that he had become the man of home, there is also a general cultural expectation that once a child gets on his feet financially, he should always be aware of his family’s needs and provide whenever possible. I might even go so far as to say it’s more like a rule, not just an expectation.

I’ve shared this before, but when we had our African wedding reception, we didn’t just feed each other wedding cake; we also fed cake to his mother and grandparents as a sign that we would always take care of them. I had no idea about that wedding tradition or the implications of what it meant for our marriage until later. (Side note for people marrying into other cultures… take time to learn the significance of the traditions you will perform at the wedding. They will give you great insight into your spouse’s cultural expectations. There was no rehearsal before our African wedding, so I was totally clueless about what I was supposed to do or what anything meant. To this day I wish we had done things a bit differently. This is Sam. Sam didn’t take time to learn the significance of Luhya traditions before her Kenyan wedding. Don’t be like Sam.)

The tension of transition

Once we got married, Ray encountered a lot of emotional anxiety because I was crying, “Leave and cleave, bruh!” while he was feeling the pull of cultural responsibility to his family. If you know Ray, you know he has an incredibly big heart for people and an even bigger place in his heart for his family. Even when he came to the States, I was busy focusing on how to pack my entire life into three suitcases, while he was considering foregoing packing his suitcase with clothes so that he could fill it with gifts for his family. Because he had also given a bunch of his clothes away before he came to the States, I made him get clothes for himself, but for months after that he complained about feeling like he hadn’t given his family enough.

In the beginning this issue actually caused lot of fights between us, because my perspective was that his only obligation was to me. As far as my culture is concerned, once you’re 18 you’re on your own, and once you’re married… fahgedaboutit. American parents typically don’t support their children financially after they hit those two milestones, and there is no expectation that the child should support the parents unless the parents can no longer take care of themselves. Generally speaking, what you do with your money is your business.

It took some time before we realized that the tension we were feeling was stemming from cultural differences. He just assumed that I was a miserly, selfish woman (as I’m sure many other Kenyans assumed and still assume is true of me to this day), and I just assumed that he cared about everyone else but me. There may be some truth to the fact that I’m a tight wad and my husband is overly generous, but we also were raised with different expectations about what money and marriage are supposed to look like.

Considering a compromise

As a couple, we’ve really had to work together to come up with a compromise that prioritizes our marriage while being as helpful as we possibly can to his family. For us that means if someone is requesting an amount under $10, he can give out of his discretionary fund, and he doesn’t have to tell me. That’s his prerogative. We’ve decided to do it that way simply because I have overreacted numerous times in the past.  So instead of selfishly asking him to stop giving, this was the next best happy compromise. We also have designated a fund just for requests we might receive from family, and once that fund is empty, that’s it. We don’t dig into our personal money or make ourselves broke and we don’t allow ourselves to feel guilty about it. We do what we can, and that’s that.

If there’s anything cautionary I can say about cultures similar to the Kenyan culture, it’s that I’ve seen young people really incur financial loss on account of family members needing to borrow money so frequently. If the young person doesn’t have a financial plan or doesn’t know when to say no, they can easily give what they can’t really afford to give and later on they find themselves resenting their family for putting them in a hole. As a whole, the culture can pressure people to make unwise financial decisions, which makes it difficult for anyone to get ahead, and it just perpetuates this cycle of constantly needing people to bail you out of financial problems.

But, if there’s anything encouraging I can say about cultures such as the Kenyan culture, it’s that you can rest assured that when you give to those in need, they will be there to support you when you are in need (for the most part). There have been times we’ve had to rely on the kindness of family to get us through a dry spell, when we didn’t have any work coming in or when we had exhausted our savings. Because of Ray’s connection to family, he can reach out to them, and they will do what they can to give a few dollars here and there. One of the greatest attributes of Kenyans is their giving nature.

A Word to the Wise

Now, to those of you embarking on an intercultural marriage, I would urge you and your partner to talk about this particular matter thoroughly. This has truly been a source of stress in our marriage, and considering money matters are one of the biggest reasons for divorce these days, you may want to commit to paying special attention to this area. Trust me, it can come to a head fast. Even the first week that we arrived in Kenya, after only two months of marriage, we came face to face with this issue, and we fought a lot. Seek to establish a cultural compromise for your money matters, and then tweak it along the way as your financial situation changes or even as your perspectives change.

Also, as I’ve said in other posts before, if your family is the side putting financial pressure on your marriage, you are the one responsible for being the spokesperson to share whatever you have decided as a couple. Your spouse should never feel like they have to defend decisions you made together to your family. It’s easier for you to deal with disappointment from your own family than for your spouse to deal with disappointment from their in-laws, if you know what I’m saying.

No matter what, protect the integrity and reputation of your spouse. A lot of Kenyans used to tell Ray that they thought I was controlling, but Ray has always vehemently stood up for me and asserted that we make decisions together. I can’t tell you how much that honors me as his wife and makes me love and respect him all the more. Hopefully you can learn from our mistakes and instead of fighting about money, foster love and respect in your own marriage as well.

Much love!