When our daughter was a newborn, my mother-in-law took to calling us up with the voracity of a debt collector, issuing orders for me to avoid spicy food and caffeine while breastfeeding. I related this to a friend one afternoon as we walked our babes through the park. She listened sympathetically then declared my lightweight stroller inferior to her Range Rover-esque pram.
While I tolerated the well-intentioned, if grating, advice of Czech family and friends, the tendency of complete strangers, usually babičky at the supermarket, to declare my infant too warm, too exposed, too flat, too upright, made me wonder if all this unwarranted advice was just another one of those cultural things—like shoddy customer service—that would take some getting used to.
The Czech tendency to meddle is very much a cultural thing says author and iDNES.cz parenting blogger Tereza Boehmová.
“This is the hardest part about being a parent in the Czech Republic,” she says. “When I had my first baby I felt pushed and judged from a million directions. That’s why I wrote my book, Matka z cukru a oceli (Mom of Sugar and Steel). I needed to scream about it.”
In need of doing a little screaming myself, I spoke with Ms. Boehmová, a mother of two, about the difficulties and advantages of being an expat parent in the Czech lands. Our conversation covered everything from the “cult” of breastfeeding to misconceptions about maternity leave and explored some of the differences between Czech and American parenting styles.
Let’s start with those nosy grannies. What is going on there?
Every Czech seems to be a parenting expert, doctor, and psychologist. Everyone has a piece of advice they need to share and everyone is so sure of his or her own truth. You get it especially from the older generation, who feels like it’s somehow their duty. But, unfortunately, mothers of all ages here—and in fact everywhere—tend to judge. And if anything goes wrong there is always someone saying, “I told you so!”
Do you think any of the older generation’s advice is worth keeping?
My mom, for instance, believes that kids should be outside for a very long time every day. She kept pushing me to go out several times a day even when my kids were newborns, come rain or shine. I agree with her about giving kids fresh air, a routine. But do it on your own terms, don’t respond to the pressure.
Speaking of pressure, a Czech friend of mine says the “cult of breastfeeding” has come to the Czech Republic. Is there constant pressure here to breastfeed?
You are made to feel like a hero if you do and a bad mother if you do not. I wrote a controversial article about breastfeeding being torture for me and I got many supportive comments but many more angry remarks. There are all these lactation consultants and fanatical pediatricians who tell you to breastfeed even when you physically cannot and your baby is starving. I am absolutely pro-choice for breastfeeding but I think it’s overrated. Most Czech women try to nurse for one, even two years, but many do not express milk because they stay at home.
It may be fanatical, the push to breastfeed, but at least it’s not hypocritical. In the U.S. the feeling is, “We want you to breastfeed but please do it in private.”
Yes, it is very much okay to breastfeed openly here. Even on a train, restaurant, playground, anywhere. I think it is great we have this freedom, though I’ve seen it taken to another level. A friend once breastfed her baby at our home and then walked around the apartment with her breast out for 20 minutes, saying it needed fresh air.
In the U.S., prolonged breastfeeding is associated with attachment parenting. Are such parenting styles visible here?
I think there are three camps. The first gives up everything to care for the baby and has a rallying cry of, “There is nothing better than being a real mom!” That is Czech-style “attachment parenting.” There’s a smaller group, usually professionals who earn high salaries, that goes back to work full-time. Not a popular choice here, because a large faction of society thinks this is wrong. The third group, of which I see myself belonging to, is grateful to have the choice to spend so much time with their kids but needs to do more than just breastfeed, change diapers, and go to the playground every day.
The lengthy Czech maternity leave makes it possible to spend more time with your baby. My American friends are jealous that I “get to” stay home. But you have criticisms:
The Czech system looks good on paper, but the reality is different. Many employers find ways to make it impossible for women to return to their previous jobs. There are not many part- time jobs and daycare is expensive. Personally, I think you lose your self-confidence, lose touch with your professional life, and lose your mind after being home just a few months.
Shifting gears, let’s talk some of the parenting issues that seem to be all over the Western media these days. What is the Czech stance on sleep training? Co-sleeping?
Our moms were taught that kids should sleep in a crib and you should let them cry it out. Now you find both types of parents—those who would never let a baby cry it out and others who would do it with no problem. I took different approaches with each of my children. But we had a specific sleeping routine. It’s good for kids to wake up, eat, and go to bed at the same time every day.
Sounds like old-school Czech parenting was all about discipline. But even today, I’ve seen toddlers getting smacked in public. Is some of that strictness still present?
Discipline and fear used to prevail. But I was lucky. I had great parents who spoke freely and weren’t so strict. I am trying to be like my parents were. I think most Czech parents want their kids to have freedom and fun, but also a routine and good behavior. For me a smack is the last resort. But there are situations when it works better than a talking to.
I’ve heard that Czechs potty train their children as early as a year old. True?
Yes. You let your kid go without a diaper during the day for a couple of days and you don’t give up. In a few days they learn. Letting them run naked at the chata is a very common thing to do. I did that with both of my kids, too. But we let kids have night diapers, because it is a big hassle to change the blankets all the time.
Maybe that’s why Czech kids love peeing outside! A lot of expats are unsettled by the Czech tendency to let kids urinate anywhere, anytime.
Czech parents seem very practical about this. They don’t really believe it could offend someone. They just let their kids go when they need to go. But I always try to find a bush if available; I think most of us do.
Besides how early they get toilet trained, another thing that impresses me about Czech children is their eating habits. I used to teach preschool here and the kids ate small portions of adult meals and drank from little tea cups. At snack time they’d eat bread with radishes or chives. In America, that would be unheard of. What’s your secret?
I guess kids eat what you give them until a certain age, and if you give them the food you eat, they get used to it. And if that’s all they are getting they have no other choice. Our kids also love fries and pizza, but luckily they do not get them at school, so they have no other choice.
I also noticed that my students went to sleepover camp. For a week! I think I’m going to have a difficult time with that one.
I am, like you, a little more paranoid and cautious about this. I did not let my daughter go. I think a lot of Czech parents look at it as paid overnight babysitting. Of course, at the good camps kids learn new things and independence, but I advise you to check it out beforehand. Some friends of ours made a surprise visit to one camp and found their small children lying on the floor of a barn while the staff smoked marijuana outside.
You spent some time in the U.S. As a parent, did anything you see there surprise you?
What I like about the American parents is that they let their children try activities—piano, dancing, singing, painting, sports—whereas Czech parents are very judgmental and think if a child does not seem to be a genius at something then they should quit. I had to persuade my mother to let me go to choir auditions. She thought I had no talent for singing. They accepted me and I sang in a chorus for eight years. So I try to follow the American way of life in this matter. I want more fun for my kids!
You can read (in Czech only) Tereza Boehmová’s musings on parenthood here.
In the meantime, tell us your thoughts on how living in the Czech Republic has changed your parenting perspective.