In the states, we are obsessed with safety and protocol. One would never imagine letting a kid run wild in the backseat of a moving car, those days died with the Nixon era. If I start backing down the driveway without my seatbelt my ten-year-old starts having spasms of shock and admonishment. But as we start packing for our trip to Jordan, and I list off all the baby gear I can’t live without a few get some furrowed brow and sucking-in-breath-through-teeth responses. Well, there aren’t really car seats in Jordan, my husband explains. I obviously greet this comment with aloof disbelief and point out that it’s been 20 years since he lived there, surely he’s out of his mind. So we pack the twin stroller, two car seats and two REI baby hiking packs in addition to all our luggage. The luggage cart looks like a well played Jenga tower.
When we arrive in Jordan three cars full of relatives have come to greet us. I try to grasp who drove in what car and what kind of car, certain someone must have rented a van of some sort because according to my math, there is not room for all of us. Alas, 4 door, garden variety sedans is all there is. All three trunks are filled with our stuff including the car seats which I assume my husband was trying to explain but was brushed off as they got stuffed into various crevices. It’s hot out, the sweat is beading and now I’m anxiously asking my husband “what about the twins? What about the twins???!!!” I’m ushered into the backseat of a car with my smiling sister-in-law and her 5-year-old and then handed one twin while she grabs the other, her son bopping around between us. The older girls are stuffed in with some cousins and everyone is giddy and cheerful as we head out while I’m silently suffering a panic attack and high blood pressure. Deep breaths, we are here, just blend in and go with it. The whole car ride my husband is nervously glancing backward and telling me to hold her tight, watch her head, use both hands…I want to strangle him, as if I’m not already smothering the poor girl in my paranoia! At least he isn’t taking this lightly. As we drive through the city traffic I see car after car stuffed to the brim with family members, kids stacked upon one another, a few in the front seat with mom, three-year-olds hanging out of windows, holy shit, my husband wasn’t joking. Car seats are definitely not a thing here. After our first day in Amman, lugging the twins in our laps aboard various forms of public transit, we find and rent, I believe, the only mini-van in the city, because minivans aren’t a thing here either. Every time we carry a sleeping baby in the car seat into a restaurant or load them up in the van, we are a spectacle. When we have old aunties in the car with us they beg to hold a baby, but my husband stands firm, and they stare at the poor twins as if unable to bear watching them suffer this confinement , isn’t the safest place for a child in its’ mother’s arms?
There is a lot of sightseeing to be done in Jordan, and most of it is not conducive to strollers. As avid hikers, we are comfortable sporting any number of high-tech baby carriers on our backs and we do so often back home. But suddenly, my husband is determined to carry his twin and ditch any modern amenities and seems embarrassed when I start unloading my pack from the trunk, “wait until we are further in before you put that on”. I’m perplexed at his sudden embarrassment and conclude that he is morphing into another version of himself, becoming more Arab and therefor more self-conscious of the prevailing culture. I’m accustomed to seeing all forms of baby wearing, trendy Ergo’s with the latest designs, the Earth momma’s with their bright colored wraps, slings, backpacks, you name it, baby wearing is the norm for Western culture. But for our entire stay in the Middle East, I didn’t see even one version of a baby carrier other than my own. Walking through the crowded streets of Jerusalem I felt like I was the tourist attraction. Local kids stopped to point, while their mother’s eyes were finely honed weapons of non-verbal judgment. Every time I returned to our hotel, the woman at the clerk’s desk couldn’t help but exclaim in wonder at my ability to carry on all day like this, up and down the stairs of the city, for she would never have the strength. After days of just smiling back at her, I finally ask why she thinks this, is a mother not designed to bear this burden above all others? You could absolutely do this I tell her, women have been wearing and carrying their babies since they figured out how to tie a knot, trust me, it’s much easier than it may look. I am from a culture where women like to show off their strength, either mental or muscle in a very open way. I get the sense that here a woman’s strength is more subdued, like Jedi power and used more craftily. Neither is right or wrong, just different.
Now I’m from a more pragmatic , German background where children were seen, not heard. I ate at the table and nowhere else, or else, and I ate what I was given or I didn’t eat. My husband’s culture is a little laxer when it comes to child rearing, a little more indulgent. One contested baby tool in our home is the high chair. My husband is suspicious of it and questions it’s safety and lack of intimacy. I gape in horror as the children here are plunked down on the table tops, grabbing everything and knocking things around while being chased down by a spoon. I’m from a, restrain that kid and teach them some manners, school of thought, while they are less inclined to interrupt childhood with a meal. But in the end, their kids end up with superior manners and are completely respectable, I’ve interacted with many teenagers and young adults of the extended family. There as many different ways to rear children as there are people on this planet, and given there are some 7 billion of us, child rearing is not an area where the human race is failing. In this area the old adage, thou shalt not judge, most certainly applies.