9/11 & culture shock: life with a newborn

What a difference ten years makes.

With all the 9/11 remembrances, I’ve been stepping back in time as we all have, revisiting that day and how it changed each of our little worlds.

But when I talk to people who reminisce wistfully about the swell of patriotism after the attacks, I feel like my 9/11 story has gaping holes. I never shared that sense of national unity, never saw the flags on every porch, never watched the hours of TV coverage.

Because September 1, 2001, found me stepping off a plane in Charles de Gaulle airport, ready to start my semester abroad in Paris. And when the planes hit the towers 10 days later, my thoughts were consumed with culture shock, far from the country I’d left behind.

So when I think back to 9/11, my head is full of France. The sunny courtyard of the school building where I watched my classmates from Columbia crying on their cell phones as they tried to reach parents back in NYC who worked in the World Trade Center. The corner bistro where a group of us – brand-new acquaintances thrown together by jarring tragedy – went to talk and think and simply stare at each other over cafe au lait as we processed the news. The radio in my apartment where I curled up to listen to the BBC for hours that night, since we had no TV to watch the endless loop of the planes hitting the towers again and again.

It’s been strange to have my mind swirling with thoughts of 9/11 and Paris and study abroad as I readjust to life with a newborn. Because it reminds me that the culture shock of learning to live in another land is not so far from the transition of adding a new baby to the family.

Round here, we’ve all been thrown into the strange world of babyhood again. Burp clothes and bouncy chairs surround us; mid-night feedings have rearranged our routine. F and I have relearned the rhythmic rock to soothe the infant during the evening witching hours. And the state of the housework – well, let’s just say we may end up discovering a whole new culture (or life form) once I finally get time to mop the kitchen floor again.

Life with a wee one has its own language: words like “changes” and “pumping” and “thrush” all take on new meaning in this context. Likewise, the land of newborn has its own culture that seeps into every corner of our home: nursing at the dinner table, bathing baby in the bedroom, changing diapers in the living room.

Toss in a good dose of sleep deprivation, add an energetic toddler to the mix, sprinkle some shrill newborn screams on top, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for bleary-eyed parents wondering what strange new land they’ve stumbled upon.

A few months ago, I stumbled across the journal I kept during my months abroad. Early entries are filled with embarrassing stories about faux pas I made and the resulting new words or customs I learned. But slowly my words shifted subtly from English to jumbled Franglais to near-fluent French. And by the end of my sojourn in the City of Lights, the newspaper columns I wrote for the school paper back home revealed just how much I learned – or thought I learned, in the wise audacity only a 20 year-old can muster – thanks to a leap outside my comfort zone.

Perhaps this blog is the closest thing I have to such a journal these days. So let the record show, as a testament to my current culture shock, that yesterday I thought it impressive enough to brag to F that I figured out how to nurse T with one arm while preparing S’s afternoon snack. But in the sink-or-swim of cultural immersion, yesterday’s accomplishments were quickly dwarfed by today’s demands: the frantic need to figure out how to simultaneously nurse the screaming baby, make lunch, feed the toddler and myself, change two diapers, read three stories, settle both children down for a nap, and not lose my mind in the process.

Living in a new culture brings daily lessons in humility – reminders of how little we really know. But it also brings the sweet “aha!” moments of pride when we learn a new trick or realize a big breakthrough.

Right now my only goal for each day is to figure out a creative response to what drove me nuts the day before. S whining about how I can’t help him build block towers while I nurse T? Situation disarmed the next day by hiding the frustrating blocks and replacing them with the Duplos he can handle solo. Stressed out by not having a free hand to make and serve the afternoon snack? Change up tomorrow’s routine by making snack at breakfast and sticking it in a container so S can serve himself.

They’re small victories, baby steps towards the goal of greater ease and comfort that every culture-shocked foreigner craves. But just like the lightbulb moments when I would finally figure out what that French slang on the Metro ad meant, or I’d greet my professor with the proper formality, the small steps add up.

Suddenly we find ourselves looking back and realizing things have gotten easier. We’ve learned; we’ve grown; we’ve changed without realizing it was happening. Confidence boosts; capacity stretches. Life is not so strange around us anymore.

Et ca serait vraiment super, quand ce jour-la arrivera chez nous…

4 thoughts on “9/11 & culture shock: life with a newborn

  1. Love it! Somehow we learn! There are days that are (very) ugly, but thankfully the new day starts with new opportunities to grow. Not having nursed the first baby, it was very challenging for me to figure out how to nurse a newborn while caring for a toddler. Somehow i figured it out.

    Now my least favorite moments are when I am trying to keep the toddler quiet so the very curious baby will EAT!!!! If I have the grace to step back and relax, I realize that it is a pretty funny demand to expect a two year old to whisper. Can they even do that? Sometimes…:)

    Thanks for your thoughts! They are ways so uplifting!

  2. SO wise and so true! Culture shock isn’t just about being in a foreign country … it’s a good description for any time that our “normal life” is upended, or even shaken a little.

    I even experienced a bit of “culture shock” when I got married and found myself adjusting to my husband’s families traditions. Even though they aren’t terribly different from the way that my family does things, it was still a change.

    Congrats on your mama-victories! Keep them coming! 🙂

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