Mei-Ling Hopgood is an award-winning journalist who has reported on cops, diversity, the Pentagon, transportation, spelling bees, and, most recently, global motherhood. Hopgood, along with her husband and two daughters, lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for four years and just recently moved back to the US Midwest. While abroad, Hopgood researched and wrote her latest book, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and Everywhere in Between). She consulted with parents and experts around the world on how to raise children, and she attempted to incorporate global child-rearing best practices into her own mothering — with mixed results. How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm shares parenting tips from 11 countries.
Literary Mama Fiction Co-editor Suzanne Kamata, an expatriate mother in Japan, asked Hopgood some questions about writing, travel, and motherhood.
Suzanne Kamata: First of all, congratulations on writing such an interesting book. I found myself thinking about it, and referring to it weeks after I first read it.
Mei-Ling Hopgood: Thanks!
SK: I know that you started out as a journalist, which can be a demanding and fast-paced job. Did motherhood influence your decision to write a book (a more leisurely pursuit), or had you always intended to write books?
MH: I always wanted to write books.
SK: Your first book, Lucky Girl, is a very personal account of meeting your birth family in Taiwan for the first time. Your second, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, includes personal anecdotes, but it’s largely research based. Which book was most difficult to write?
MH: The second book was much harder partly because I had less time. I have two daughters, ages 10 months and 4 years — you know how it is. How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm was also difficult because of the amount of research and travel that had to be done.
SK: Where did you travel?
MH: I traveled throughout South America and the United States specifically for the book, but I’d also observed parents in Asia, Africa, and Europe while writing other stories. My research also drew on first-hand reports from parents and journalists in other countries around the world.
SK: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm?
MH: There were lots of big and little discoveries along the way. It was eye-opening to hear about the level of responsibility that many children are given in their households. In Mexican Mayan families, children aged 4 and 5 start caring for babies. Kids a little bit older help bath, feed, and potty train young children and get them ready for school. I was fascinated too by the varying styles of discipline, and the values that shaped them. For example, in some native aboriginal cultures, it is considered important to be permissive, even to empower kids to talk back, because parents want to raise assertive and strong children. In other cultures, particularly in parts of Africa, I found the regular corporeal punishment quite disturbing.
SK: Was there anything that surprised your Argentinian friends (or friends of other nationalities) about American childcare practices?
MH: I think American or Western ideas are pretty pervasive in many cultures. For example the Ferber method is “duermete niño” (roughly, “go to sleep, little child”) in Argentina, and Baby Einstein is super-popular. But many parents I spoke with were surprised at the insecurity of American parents, and our desire to do exactly the right thing. For example, all mothers lament troubles with our babies’ sleep (or lack of sleep) patterns. If you talk with Argentine moms, however, they complain about sleep, talk about how their child still sleeps with them (at 1, 2, even 3 years old), and leave it at that. There is no whining or scheming about how to change things but rather a sense that these are stages and this suffering is just part of parenthood and shall pass. Similarly, when I spoke to Chinese parents about potty training, they would say, “It’s something we just have to do. Potty-training will happen. No big deal.” We Americans tend to ask for and offer all kinds of advice to solve the problems.
SK: You toured for your first book, and wrote and researched How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm while mothering a small child. How did you manage?
MH: In Argentina, I could afford a nanny! That helped enormously. But writing the book required a lot of time management and help from my husband, the author and journalist, Monte Reel.
SK: Now that you’re back in the Midwest after living in South America, what adjustments have you made as a mother and writer? Do you feel pressure to revert to American norms?
MH: We’ve only been here a month and I still feel like I’m dreaming, like I’ll wake up and be back in my “real” life in Argentina. I’ve been so swamped with finding a place to live, starting work, and promoting my book that I haven’t had a chance to mourn our lives as ex-pats. But yes, everything changes. Bedtimes are earlier, for instance, and I now use pre-made baby food (the organic and natural kind, but still). I find it’s hard to resist all the conveniences and also hard to avoid chatter about the right and wrong ways to parent. It has been a bit overwhelming.
SK: Your oldest daughter was speaking Spanish in Argentina. Are you making efforts to continue teaching her Spanish and to nurture her multicultural background? Or has she become completely Americanized?
MH: I am killing myself trying to maintain this precious bilingualism and multiculturalism that has been so important to our family. I’m terribly disappointed in the state of bilingual education in the U.S. Most programs are geared toward teaching English as a second language, rather than helping English-speaking Americans become bilingual. We have finally found a small non-profit Spanish immersion preschool that we are going to enroll our daughter in. Also, we have her nanny from Argentina here temporarily and I’m trying to speak more Spanish at home. Depending on our school schedule, we also hope to return to South America for a couple months each year.
On the other hand, I sincerely appreciate all that America offers. The playgrounds are cleaner than in Argentina, and have much better equipment. There are more resources and a greater variety of activities. There are better, healthier food options and some incredible schools. But I do so miss the familial atmosphere of Argentina. The other day, for example, I was precariously balancing my baby and a canister of formula waiting in line at CVS and a woman behind me insisted that she was next in line (she wasn’t) and should go before me. That would never happen in Argentina.
SK: You wrote about potty-training your first daughter, that you tried Chinese potty-training practices — the split pants. From your description, you seem to have concluded that American potty-training (kids in diapers until just before preschool) is easier. Are you raising your second daughter differently from your first daughter? We all know that mothers tend to be more relaxed in raising their second child.
MH: So true. (More mommy guilt here). I’m much more relaxed about some things: I realize phases are going to pass. I don’t take nearly as many photos and my husband doesn’t take as many movies! On the other hand, I am more rigid about routines simply because I have two children now. And YES, I’m going to break out the split crotch pants. I’m thinking this summer actually. I hate diapers.
SK: In the book, your husband comes across as a very agreeable guy, but I’m wondering, did you ever have any disagreements about implementing the practices you detailed in this book? You mentioned, for example, that getting your husband to eat vegetables was a challenge, and yet you wanted your daughter to develop healthy eating habits like the French. Was there anything else that he balked at, or was he totally on board?
MH: There was no way he was going to do the male breastfeeding! Ha ha! He’s been in both of my books and he’s taken it like a champ. Gotta love him. It helps that he is a writer, as well.
SK: And how is it, being married to a fellow writer?
MH: He’s my best editor. He is great with ideas and has been a wonderful support in all of my research, writing, and book promotion.
SK: Now that you’ve got two books under your belt, what’s next?
MH: More nonfiction, but I don’t have the ideas fleshed quite yet. I am working on a fiction project, too.
SK: I look forward to both books. Good luck with everything, and thanks for your time.