How to Survive Your First Year of Motherhood in a Foreign Country

How to Survive Your First Year of Motherhood in a Foreign Country May 14, 2012

All right, I’ve been here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for about three and-a-half months now and I’ve probably cried the equivalent of at least one of those months so far. No, don’t say “Aww, she’s miserable.”  For the record, I’m not miserable or suicidal; I am a first time mother of a beautiful five-month-old baby boy who moved halfway across the world with my husband seven weeks after giving birth.  Do I love my little boy in a completely indescribable way that only other moms would be able to understand? Yes. Does he make me so crazy that I want to run full force into a brick wall screaming at the top of my lungs? You bet. Welcome to a day in the life of a stay-at-home mom… in a foreign country.

Dawn. Creep out of bed like I’m doing Tai Chi. Must. Not. Wake. Sleeping. Baby. Wash up, say my morning prayers, and then slip back into bed. Hubby’s up getting ready for work so I have space to stretch out on my back (after nine months of not being able to do that, you know how great that feels).  Close my eyes, go to my happy place, and drift off to sleep… for about ten minutes. Idris used to sleep until about 9 am but has now assigned the first few rays of sunlight seeping through the curtains as his official alarm clock. After the usual moan and groan and “You gotta be freakin’ kidding me,” I look over to find Idris bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, smiling sweetly at me with a look that says, “Come on mommy, let’s play!” Yeah, he’s cute like that. Now I could give you a complete play-by-play of our day from here, or I could sum it up with a brief description: Nurse, nurse, nurse, nurse some more, nurse a little bit more…and a little bit more, nap, change stinky diaper, play, soothe cranky baby, nurse, nurse, nurse some more, and some more…and a little bit more, take a deep breath and call on the Lord for strength, escape to the bathroom for some peace because that is now officially the only alone time I get (and even then I get interrupted), change several more stinky diapers, nurse several more times, soothe cranky baby several more times, call on the Lord several more times, put baby to bed and finally collapse for about two hours of uninterrupted sleep, three, if I’m lucky. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Some things about motherhood are universal (see above rant). One of those is unsolicited advice.  Everybody and their grandma has an opinion about what I could and should be doing better. Now, although my boy weighs a good 18 or so pounds, apparently my breast milk isn’t good enough. “Just breastmilk!” one mom said with a look of shock like I told her we give him martinis or something.  Another mom told me to give him formula because my milk was “too little.” She even gave me the brand name to use, S-26. Now you tell me, would you give your child something called S-26? I mean I know it’s formula, but does it have to sound like a formula? It sounds like something you use to clean rust off metal, not something you give your baby. S-26 is now a household joke. “Oh, Idris is still hungry, give him some S-26. And if there’s any left over, use it to clean the windows.”

What’s unique about motherhood in Ethiopia? Well, they have an interesting way of keeping babies quiet and getting their attention. They snap their fingers in front Idris’s face, clapping their hands, banging on glass… Did I say interesting? I meant to say annoying. I want to ask them kindly to please stop, but as it turns out, the little booger likes it, smiling and cooing to their satisfaction. Ethiopian moms are also viciously protective against the possibility of a chilly draft giving their baby a runny nose. It’s not unusual to see babies wearing what look like snowsuits, winter hats, and at least three blankets…in 80-degree weather. When I take Idris to the pediatrician in short sleeves and (gasp!) no hat, the air in the waiting room is thick with disapproving looks.

Being a mother is hard work. Every mom tells you, warns you, how hard it’s going to be, but you just don’t know until you become one. You work nights and weekends. No lunch or bathroom breaks. And your boss screams at you if you’re late with his luncAnd it’s lonely too, especially when you’re a stay-at-home mom. The world keeps moving without you. The life you’re used to no longer exists. And even though you know everybody’s doing the same old thing, suddenly everybody’s lives seem so fascinating and interesting and yours seems so…not. (But don’t worry, it does get better).

Most days are good. Having a baby keeps you busy and gives you plenty to look forward to. For Idris, everything is new and exciting, and I can see it in the way his eyes dance. I could spend the whole day looking at my son, watching him attempt to crawl or reach for things, or smiling at the curious look on his face when he sees a bird or a lizard, wondering what is going on in that little brain of his. Or probably every mom’s favorite, gazing at your sleeping baby’s face, the tiny grimaces, the pouts, the smiles—babies must have some intense dreams!

But some days aren’t so good. Idris wakes up in a funky mood and will only be pacified by nursing and screams bloody murder if I try to take him off. Or he’ll only sleep in my arms and wakes up every single time I put him down. Or I’m grumpy because he woke up about ten times the night before but still got up bright and early, energized and ready to play like nothing happened.  Those days when you want a break but can’t have one because you are mommy and no one can do your job but you.

Those are the days when being thousands of miles away from home really, really sucks. When I can’t call my sister and ask her to come over. Or meet a friend for some tea and sympathy. Those are the days when I just want to throw myself on the floor and have a good old-fashioned six-year-old temper  tantrum, pounding my fists, screaming, “I WANNA GO HOME!!”  Okay so it isn’t that dramatic, but it’s tough. It’s lonely. It’s monotonous. It’s…motherhood. So I have myself a good cry, get it all out my system, then I throw some water on my face and tell myself, “Alright girl, get it together.” Because it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel lonely or sad, or want a break, sometimes. But eventually you have to get yourself together because you have a baby to take care of.

So how do you survive your first year of motherhood, no matter where you are?

How should I know? I’ve only been at this for five months. Ask me later.

No, seriously, you do what you have to do to keep going strong. You count your blessings, starting with number one—that adorable little baby you carried around with you all those months. You find something fun to do (it is possible). Cry, if it helps. Keep a journal. Take a walk. Call on the Lord for strength. Take a break, when and if you can, even if it’s only a few minutes in the bathroom. Try to find the humor in things. And most of all, enjoy it, because they sure do grow fast. There will be some bad days, but you’ll get through them. They will come, but they will also go.

Here they have a saying, ‘keus ba keus,’ slowly but slowly, and it’s used for any situation that requires patience. So keus ba keus, slowly but slowly, I think I’m getting the hang of this motherhood thing.

The author would like to note that this was written more than two years ago when she was experiencing new motherhood and her first time abroad at the same time and that she is now back home in New Orleans and much calmer.   In retrospect, her frustration had very little to do with Ethiopia (a country she loves and misses) and more to do with learning how to be a mother.  Look forward to a follow-up post in the coming weeks!


Ambata Kazi-Nance

Ambata Kazi-Nance is a freelance writer and full-time mother. She lives in her hometown of New Orleans with her husband and son. Ms. Kazi-Nance is a candidate for the Master’s degree in English from the University of New Orleans and is an aspiring fiction writer. She blogs occasionally at

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