About two weeks into my village life, pa woke me from a nap. Struggling with my limited Khmer, I gleaned that I had a visitor. He knew I had been looking for a Khmer language tutor, preferably an English speaker, and one of his primary school teachers wanted to answer the call. I stumbled downstairs where a young Khmer woman awaited. Immediately after attempting chit chat in English, her eyebrows spoke volumes: She didn’t, in fact, speak English. We proceeded to make further appointments in kinder-Khmer as the doubts piled up in my head about the efficacy of such an arrangement. Her name was Leakhana.
I have since grown to love those eyebrows which paint the exact contents of her head and heart plainly on her face – especially when I am brutally butchering our latest vocabulary during tutoring sessions. We call each other “Sweetie” and I have come to covet her trademark sass, a rarity in the sea of crippling shyness that characterizes many Khmer women my age. She never ceases to surprise me with her directness and depth of silliness. Still, her greatest reveal took place upon my first visit to her home where a toddler ran up to her. “Oh, little brother?” I asked. She smiled. “My son.”
By now the racket about American women “having it all” has likely reached your ears. Such is the title given to describe the seeming mutual exclusivity of motherhood and career success in women’s lives. Countless articles, NY Times bestsellers, and infinite listicles have been churned out in recent years asserting that, no, women still cannot have their child-career cake and eat it too. Authors of these pieces want to draw attention to the veiled but predominant perspective held by their coworkers and peers that in pursuit of the two, one must suffer, either the job or the kid; and more likely than not it will be both. This is not unique to America but all developed countries where improvements in workplace childcare and more flexible scheduling have only made it easier to heap on fresh blame for moms to shoulder. What kind of mother leaves her child with a stranger all day? How can she commit to this project if she’ll always have to leave early to pick up her kid? However, this dispute seems to have had to reach an organic equilibrium here in Cambodia as more women have sought work outside of the home amid the population boom following the years of Khmer Rouge rule and later civil war.
Three of three of four midwives and a nurse at my health center have babies between the ages of 4 and 18 months. When their shifts coincide, the center can feel something like a daycare. Coworkers are understanding when one of the moms shows up a little later or leaves a little earlier than expected for kid-reasons. Patients do not bat an eye when a check-up is paused in order to put a baby down for a nap or breastfeed – something that wouldn’t fly in America where customer/patient service and respect for their time reign supreme. What is more, state-funded Cambodian jobs allow at least three months of maternity leave to it’s new mothers on the payroll, such was the case for one of pa’s teachers and the latest child of one of the midwives at work. Luckily all of the beloved, routine chaos with these little ones at the health center is managed in part by vaccinator Pu Vuth and receptionist Pu Sosieb. They are two of the most kind and gentle men on this planet. Years of raising their own kids has effectively disarmed them of the usual machismo, show-boating swagger that prevails among younger Khmer men. We had a laugh when I used the Khmer word for “skilled or smart about something” (pukai) to praise their kid skills, i.e. pukai peekaboo.
Vuth and Sosieb are not alone in this supportive role. In fact, the opportunity for women to work outside of the home, especially those who cannot bring their kids to the workplace, is made possible by multi-generational living arrangements which avail a trusted caregiver at most if not all hours of the day. This is where the grandmothers, hailed as yaayees in Khmer, are the true power players. Although Leakhana’s mom is still young by true yaayee standards, she is always keen to snatch up her grandson when he is utterly ruining our tutoring sessions by being especially khoic – meaning “broken” or “spoiled.” Another uncle of mine, Pu Kha, manages to find equal time to work the rice fields, sit and casually school me about Khmer over coffee, and tote his grandbaby around the market when he’s in his mother’s hair.
While I respect the hell out of the tough old yaayees, I have to admit it is the uncles who melt my heart. I still grapple with male culture here. That is a post for another day, but for now suffice it to say that blind drunkenness and philandering are still considered badges of true masculinity in most circles. My hope for a future of emotionally literate Khmer men is hinged on the quiet culture of good men who show their kids and grandkids the strength and peace that comes from supporting the ambitious young mothers in their lives. This is not to say that all young dads are constantly falling off barstools somewhere, just that I don’t spend enough time with fathers and married men my age to know what their home-lives are like. I can speak highly of Leakhana’s husband, at least, who alone can wrangle their wild son when the boy refuses to yield the giant blade he loves to steal from his grandad and brandish at “the French woman” (me).
There was a time when I might have cried negligence! at such a sight. In all his 2 years of sword-play, Leakhana notes, he’s cut himself just the once and never again. She asks me which is better proof for her son of the knife’s risk, her words or his own blood. Considering he and all the other little pirates I have met here still boast complete sets of fingers and toes, I do not argue. To create this kind of ubiquitous playpen in which kids can satisfy their curiosities and learn from experience, it takes a literal village. The watchful eye of loved ones expands beyond the immediate family to include neighbors, sellers, friends – really anyone old enough to carry a little one on their hip. It is this ambient supervision that facilitates the free movement of little ones through town of their own volition. This includes the little rotating troupe of tots who waddle solo into to the health center to visit me from time to time. My integration with this framework of parenthood felt near complete when I visited my coworker’s home recently and discovered her 1 ½ year old taking a quick bath alone with the laundry and I could only laugh. I recalled the days of my mom’s home-run daycare in America wherein an inspector once slapped mom with a citation for having “2 or more inches of standing water” in a saucepan at the corner of the yard, otherwise known as a “drowning hazard.”
I am lead to ponder that at least part of the conflict in America arises from our latent belief that motherhood is an obligatory milestone of womanhood, and that throughout her pre-child years, having kids is considered as an inevitable mandate encouraged by society as a whole until she finally gives birth when it is then considered a choice, the consequences of which she alone must shoulder. In Cambodia motherhood is an unequivocal expectation and much of a woman’s health and conduct until she can carry a child is focused on guaranteeing her marriageability and fertility. I am asked constantly when I want to have children and how many – usually with dead seriousness and concern for my future, but with occasional sarcasm on the part of the midwives when they are particularly wrung out by their kids. Given that I’ve often thought of motherhood as a dehumanizing institution founded in female subjugation, a necessity for the propagation of a venal patriarchy, this question deeply perturbed me in the early days. It is more clear now that if for nothing else, standards of living in Cambodia which necessitate communal living have helped foster something resembling a reconciliation between their steadfast demand that women reproduce with societal capacity to support them. Or to supply adequate hammocks, at the very least.
Children are the most certain form of social security here, or what some PCVs and I have jokingly called a “nap ticket,” i.e. an extra set of hands around the house to sell goods, wash motos, or raise the animals while mom can finally take a rest. In a lot of ways working moms here are afforded a little more freedom and independence than their childless counterparts who, it’s worth mentioning, are not without hardships of their own. Bucking the social norm bears with it special burden no matter where you are. An example in my immediate life would be the oldest midwife in my health center. Na Vy won me over immediately with her openness to my strange pumpkin pie and candidness about hoping no more patients arrive for the day so she could play on her phone in peace. She is unmarried and without kids, though not for lack of trying. Still she has been openly heckled as an “old maid” since age 26 and her lack of husband and children is regarded as a failure on her part and as a misuse of her womanly faculties. She is now 35. Na Vy is great at her job, encouraging and gentle with patients, and the midwives’ babies love her. When the younger midwives have headed home for the day with their ornery kids, she toils away on their shares of the daily and weekly reports. Another example is my young friend Rathana who is expecting her first child at age 21.
Rathana speaks decent English and holds down two jobs in public service, both of which she is proud. She complied with pregnancy as the next natural, expected step following marriage with her husband at 19. Recently she and her husband were renting a small room in the provincial town near Rathana’s office, away from their small rural home where they live with her large family. Their financial situation is tightening as her due date nears and keeping the rented room is no longer feasible. Her husband is not letting the lease go without a fight. He was enjoying the minute space afforded to them by the room in town, but Rathana’s office is not as welcoming of tykes as the health center. She will need to be at home with her mom when the baby comes if she is going to keep her job. As the wife she manages the finances and thus it is her call in the end. Nonetheless, the stability of her marriage hangs in the balance. Na Vy and Rathana ratify that no matter how you define all, nobody anywhere is actually having it. Least of all mothers.
I have never had to consider babies as often as I do here. I thought it would be a few more years before my immediate gal pals would be feeding and bathing kids in between chit chat. It has afforded me a whole new vantage point on motherhood – both the utter might required and the tender joy yielded in return. My closest coworker, Nhim Loeun, recently left work at the center to return to school in another province. We visit when she is home on the weekends, but I no longer see her little man, Hong Li (made famous above by his giant bowl bath), from day to day. Countless days these past few months were spent entertaining this kid while Nhim actually accomplished all that for which I lacked the skill at work. I challenge any millennial stricken with the traditional ennui to shirk that ever elusive animal – purpose – when it toddles at you full tilt on chubby baby legs, all 24 inches reaching out to you in recognition, then lingers on you long after you have sung and rocked him to sleep.
Grampa, if and whenever I decide to sign away my lifelong rights to privacy, refusal to share food, and basic hygiene (known colloquially as “motherhood”), I will let you know. Please don’t go holding your breath, though. I plan to go on borrowing babes for as long as possible. It makes for less laundry and fewer showers, from what I can tell.
Love you all the time,