Karin, a Dutch mom in Rwanda
Karin (34) is a Dutch mother of daughter Anouk (15 May 2014) and son Aiden (10 April 2016), married with her Rwandan husband Pappy, living in Rwanda.
Being a Dutch mom in Rwanda
I love living in Rwanda with my family. Being born in The Netherlands, I find the African lifestyle very relaxed and I do not experience the stress that I hear moms in The Netherlands often talk about. It can also be frustrating at times, especially when it comes to timekeeping… But this also means there is no ‘agenda culture’! People are friendly and making new friends is easy. The climate is wonderful (20-25 degrees Celsius all year round) and we live outdoors a lot. The children know elephants, giraffes and monkeys from seeing them in the wild, not in the zoo.
Anouk goes to a school where there are 40+ nationalities, she speaks several languages and is in daily contact with multiple cultures.
I had always wanted an international career and freedom. Children simply didn’t fit that picture.
Starting a family
Anouk was born when I was 31 years old. I wasn’t married to Pappy yet, but we were already together for five years. Literally from around my 30th birthday my biological clock started ticking. I had never really wanted to have children before that. Instead, I wanted an international career and freedom. Children simply didn’t fit that picture. But that was until I met the right guy. Pappy was born ready to become a father and after a few years of being together I also couldn’t wait to become a mother!
We planned both pregnancies. When the pregnancy tests turned out to be positive we couldn’t wait to tell our family. We first celebrated it together by going to our favourite restaurant.
The big disadvantage of living abroad in this case was that we had to tell my family about my pregnancy on Skype. Fortunately, the second time, we were in The Netherlands and we could tell them face to face that Anouk was going to be a big sister. Or actually, she told her grandparents herself by the drawing she made on which we wrote “From Anouk – Big Sister”.
My first pregnancy went well. I did have some issues with pelvic instability the last trimester, but not too many complaints and I enjoyed my pregnancy thoroughly. My second pregnancy was harder. I was very nauseous and I suffered from pelvic instability right from the start. Some days this was so bad that I could only crawl, not walk. You can imagine toddler Anouk running around me, when I was crawling!
Nevertheless, both pregnancies were amazing experiences and feeling my baby move inside of my belly is indescribable and so special!
Since we were living in Uganda (during my first pregnancy) and Rwanda (during my second pregnancy), I decided to follow the East African check-up schedule. This means that I only visited the gynaecologist around four times during both pregnancies. I agree with the East African doctors that if there is no reason to worry, there is no reason to have more frequent check-ups. Then again, I do realise that we were very lucky to have two uncomplicated pregnancies and deliveries.
Unlike other Rwandan fathers, Pappy was present at both births, together with the midwives and gynaecologist (in East Africa it is common to have the gynaecologist present at all births in hospital). I gave birth to both Anouk and Aiden at the hospital and both deliveries went very fast. I remember my first contractions with Anouk very well. I was driving myself in busy Kampala traffic, coming back from lunch with a friend. Anouk was born only 6 hours later, at 21:21h. With Aiden contractions started at midnight sharp on the due date and after 2,5 hours he was born. Both deliveries went smooth, fast and without any pain relief.
At least once a day I look at my kids and my eyes fill with years of joy.
The great joy of being a mother
Even though I was a very happy person before becoming a mom, the happiness you get from being a mother is indescribable and unlike anything I have ever experienced. At least once a day I look at my kids and my eyes fill with tears of joy. Those moments of intense happiness are incredible and it is so special (and still feels unreal) that those wonderful little human beings are actually ours. Their smiles, giggles, hugs and kisses are the best thing in the planet. Pappy and I enjoy every moment with our family and it is amazing to experience being a parent with him. It also puts things in perspective; stuff at work, car breakdown, power outages, water cuts…who cares?! Priorities and life change in a good way.
The funny thing is that the moments I enjoy most now are the simple moments; family breakfasts with the four of us whereby we do funny dances and laugh a lot. Seeing Anouk and Aiden already at such a young age playing and giggling together, sibling love! But also lazy Sunday morning playing on the floor in the living room. Family walks in the neighbourhood, looking at birds and playing in the grass. Even though the middle of the night wake-up calls are not really fun, the moment Anouk or Aiden calms down in my arms and I stand there holding my little one close to me in the dark quiet night, nothing else matters and it is pure happiness.
The downside of being a mother
The chronic tiredness that comes with being a mother of two young children does not always make me a nicer person. And at times I have those moments whereby my body is physically and mentally exhausted and I wish both kids would stop crying, go to bed without a fuss and the never-ending mess and laundry in the house would end and I could sleep for a week!
But those moments never last long and the next thing you know, one of the kids gives me a big hug or a kiss and everything is okay again. Breathing also helps.
Day to day life
Our day starts at 6AM. Usually the kids wake us up, sometimes it is the alarm clock that rings. First thing I do is breastfeed Aiden and then we have breakfast with the four of us. We always have breakfast and dinner (and in the weekend lunch as well) with the four of us at the table with the kids.
In Rwandan culture it is strange that our children eat with us at the same table. When we visit Rwandan relatives the children often eat separately with the other kids and nanny of that house on a mat on the floor.
Aiden’s nanny arrives at 7:30AM. Anouk, Pappy and I get in the car, we drop Anouk at day-care and I drop Pappy at the office and then go to work myself. I am a Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor for the Government’s Social Protection Programme for the Poorest in Rwanda.
I work five days a week until 13:00h. On Tuesdays and Thursdays Pappy and I have lunch in the car while we pick up Anouk together. Pappy then returns to work in the afternoons, except on Fridays when he finishes work at 2PM. I am at home with the kids in the afternoon. Both take a nap and I do the cooking and play with them when they wake up. Sometimes I meet up with friends and/or other kids. Pappy comes home around 17:45h and we usually go for a little walk around the neighbourhood. Then we have family dinner at 18:15h followed by the kid’s bath. Both Pappy and I enjoy this moment each day a lot.
Bedtime is around 19:30h. Either Pappy (in Kinyarwanda) or me (in Dutch) read Anouk a book before bedtime.
Pappy and I go to bed around 10-11PM. Aiden sleeps through the night since a few weeks (hurrah!). Anouk sometimes wakes up once to use the potty.
Time division: being with the children versus me-time
I am very lucky to be able to work part-time and spend the rest of my day with the children. This makes sure that on weekdays between 2PM and 19:30h I am fully theirs. We dance, laugh, read books, draw, paint, sing, walk, play in the sandpit, on the swing, on the slide (all in our garden), make puzzles, watch Sesame Street on Dutch satellite TV and enjoy lemonade with a (most of the time) healthy snack.
I have good resolutions for daily meditation and Pilates, but it doesn’t happen most of the days…
Children’s favourite toys
At this moment, Aiden prefers to play with balls, empty milk boxes, water bottles, cookie jars, plastic cups and spoons (and ignores most of his “official” baby toys). Anouk is currently all about “babies” and “phones”. She puts her baby doll (or any fluffy toy) in the doll pram, under a blanket on the sofa or she gives the baby “nyonyo” (breastmilk in Kinyarwanda) and changes diapers. She basically copies me with Aiden. She is also crazy about phones and anything can be used as an imaginary phone. She calls her dad, grandparents and ton ton (uncle) regularly and holds complete conversations.
Both kids love watching Peppa Pig movies on my smartphone. I allow Anouk around 30 minutes maximum a day (in total watching tv/phone)
We still have the 1980s Fisherprice Activity Centre my brother and I used to play with. Anouk and Aiden also like to play with it as well as other old toys such as the Bert & Ernie dolls and ‘Happy Apple’.
Rwandans usually have a hot meal for lunch, but we like to have a sandwich. Anouk eats the same as we do. In between meals she has a fruit snack or biscuit with diluted juice.
Aiden was exclusively breastfed during the first 6 months (same as Anouk). Now he also eats fruits and vegetables, mashed potatoes, meat, pasta, rice and porridge. Until he is one year old, he is not allowed to have cow milk, honey, oranges, nuts, salt and sugar.
I believe breastmilk is the most healthy and natural option for babies and I enjoy feeding Aiden. With both children I started breastfeeding right after birth (about 20 minutes after) and both times it went without problems. In my experience, breastfeeding does not only have health benefits for the child, but it is also emotionally important for bonding and happy moments of being close together. The feeling of being able to feed your baby yourself is amazing and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Anouk and Aiden both slept in a crib in our room until they were 7-8 months old. It felt right to have them close, being so little. It was also practical with night feeding. After that both Aiden and Anouk slept in their own rooms. In reality Anouk ends up in our bed some nights, but most of the night she stays in her own bed.
I used to feed Aiden 2-3 times a night, but since New Year’s Eve we started having Pappy give him water only and after one night the magic happened: Aiden is sleeping through the night! If he does wake up, a sip of water and a hug will help him to go back to sleep by himself. With Anouk we went through many phases of staying by her bedside until she would sleep, rocking, singing etc. Anouk falls asleep by herself now (with the door open..). Of course, she has her tricks of pretending to want to use the potty (in many cases this is a real need, but she also uses it as trick to avoid sleeping and getting more attention from us when she is supposed to sleep by herself).
After sleep training Aiden now also falls asleep by himself. Before, we would rock him to sleep.
Anouk has had malaria when she was 1 year old. Fortunately, we had good medication.
Generally, our children are very healthy. They only suffer from colds and occasional flu. This has definitely increased since Anouk started day-care, but hopefully she will benefit from a stronger immune system in the long run.
Furthermore, Anouk has had malaria when she was 1 year old. With early diagnosis and medication this was easily cured.
Mom’s worries and comforts
When watching the news on TV I worry about our children’s future. But it is good to realise that even though the world seems to be on fire it is still the safest time ever and the stuff we see on tv are exceptions and the world is generally a safe nice place to be. Climate change worries me though and increased support for extreme right, discrimination…Being a mixed family Pappy and I want to raise our children to be strong confident loving individuals. It worries me that one day they will probably face discrimination for their skin colour, but I hope they will be able to deal with it in the best way possible and surround themselves with amazing positive people. Similarly, for Anouk being a girl, she is likely to experience sexism and I hope we will raise her to be a strong independent woman who will be able to (symbolically) kick the men in question in the bollocks when/if this happens (excuse my French!). Of course, I sometimes worry about the worst nightmares every parent has (violence, illness, death), but I try to block these fears as much as I can and live life optimistic and positively.
When the children are sad or in pain, usually hugging and holding them helps. When Anouk has a tantrum we put her on a chair in the guestroom for a “time-out”. We explain why we put her there and tell her she can come back when she calms down, which is usually 30 seconds later.
All the things our children do make me proud. Aiden crawling around, sitting, being the very happy boy he is with the most amazing laugh. And Anouk being the smart cookie, starting to recognize letters (“look, the A from Anouk!” Is a commonly heard sentence, especially in the car, since every number plate in Rwanda starts with RA). Both of them are smart, sweet and beautiful and filling us with happiness every single day.
We want them to be happy and positive, so we do lots of singing, dancing and laughing!
What we teach them
What I want the children to learn is to have respect for other people, cultures, religions, ethnicity, sexual orientation, lifestyles etc. At the moment they are too young to actively teach them about this, but they are in a multicultural environment which will help regarding respect for diversity from a young age. We do already teach them kindness, compassion and being polite (trying to get Anouk to stay “hi” and “bye” is work in progress). We want to raise them as strong, confident individuals, who are happy and positive. Therefore, lots of singing, dancing and laughing is very important!
I also want to teach both children that they are in charge of their own bodies and that “No means no”. At the moment, this means that Anouk doesn’t have to hug people (which is very common in Rwandan culture) if she doesn’t want to. But that a polite high five or handshake is expected when meeting people. At a later age, we will have more serious talks about that with both Anouk and Aiden. We want them to feel comfortable talking to us about anything and we want them to know that we will always be there for them, no matter what.
Dutch traditions in Rwanda
Living in Rwanda with double nationalities we find it important to – next to Rwandan culture – also introduce our children to typical Dutch traditions and the Dutch language. Therefore, I read them typical Dutch children’s books like Dikkie Dik and Jip & Janneke, I sing Dutch children’s songs and watch Dutch children’s television programmes with them. Anouk attends Dutch toddler school on Wednesday mornings and sometimes I cook Dutch food. This year we celebrated Sinterklaas [sort of Santa Claus] and for the first time Anouk, who is now 2,5 years old was very much aware of Sinterklaas and the Pieten coming to give presents and sweets. So, we sang songs, read Sinterklaas books and she left her shoe out at night for Sinterklaas and Piet to put a present in. We celebrated Sinterklaas at the Dutch Ambassador’s residence with the Dutch and Flemish community. This created a bit of an awkward situation when Anouk’s 9 year old Rwandan cousin asked us why she is not getting any presents from Sinterklaas… We made up for it with Christmas!
My husband and I also find it important that the children grow up helping in the household and (at a later stage) earning their own money next to their studies. This will help them learning about the value of money.
That is contrary to what Rwandan children are being taught. Rwandan children grow up having a nanny and a cleaner in the house and not having to do anything in the household!
Since I am a mother it is so much easier to let go of inhibitions and just be silly!
Thoughts about the future of our family
When I made up my mind about wanting to become a mother, I expected to like it, but I never expected to love it as much as I do! It is the most amazing thing and I believe I am a fun and playful, loving mother to my children. Of course, I would like to have some more energy and at times more patience, but in general I am very happy about the way I am as a mom. Since I am a mother it is so much easier to let go of inhibitions and just be silly, playing with my children and not care about what others think. So much fun!
One big disadvantage about living in Rwanda is that the children do not go outside by themselves to play in the neighbourhood or go to school on their bicycle like I did in my childhood. Here, you need to go by car everywhere and children are dependent on their parent(s) or caretaker to take them out. This will possibly be one of the reasons for us to move to Europe (for a while) at one point in the future. Furthermore, my husband works fulltime and I wish the children could spend more time with him (as does he). Maybe one day we will get a tiny house on wheels and live the simple life travelling around the world with our kids.
Hopes and dreams for our children
I hope our children will be happy, healthy, confident, independent strong individuals who care about and respect others. They can make any career choice that makes them happy but I secretly hope they won’t aspire to become rich or famous, but instead that they choose a profession helping others/society and enjoying life to the fullest and seeing as much of our beautiful planet as they can.
Most importantly: that they will always be themselves. I hope they will find an amazing partner (men/women doesn’t matter) and share their lives together and if we’re lucky we’ll have some grandchildren one day!
So far, I have lived the life I always dreamt of. I studied International Development Studies, worked for governments, United Nations and NGOs worldwide supporting vulnerable men, women and children, I lived in different countries in Europe, Africa and Asia, met amazing friends, I have a great family and most importantly I found the men of my dreams with whom I have two amazing children.
What I would like differently? More family weekends away and more holidays together (the disadvantage of living abroad is that our leave days and holiday money go to visits to NL and there is not much left for other holidays). I’d like to not spend as much time inside the office, but having more real contact with the people I work for. Last but not least, we lead healthy lives, but we can still improve in terms of eating even more healthy and exercising more. Also, we live consciously, but we can (and should) always improve in terms of living environmentally friendly.
What I would like to learn from other mothers is:
How to raise strong, kind, confident, independent children (who still want to hug and kiss mom and dad all the time when they are big, haha).