This week’s Motherhood Around the World interview features Adrienne, a freelance writer who lives in Madrid with her partner Juan Carlos and one-year-old daughter Ellen. Here, she shares 17 things she found surprising about raising a child in Spain…
During college at the University of Virginia, I spent my junior year abroad in Seville. I lived with a family and fell in love with Spain. After graduation, I wanted to go back to Spain before it was too late. I went to Madrid, thinking I’d stay for a year. That was in January 1999! I taught English and worked in advertising and opened a restaurant and became a sommelier… one thing after another. Now I live in a quiet area of Madrid with my partner Juan Carlos and our one-year-old daughter Ellen.
On loving the city: Madrid is not as dramatically beautiful as, say, Paris or Barcelona, but the more you get to know it, the more beautiful it becomes. There’s no area you wouldn’t want to walk through; it’s all wonderfully safe and easy. Madrid doesn’t have any blatantly tourist-only areas, the way other big cities do. All the neighborhoods have locals, and I love how all the monuments and homes and restaurants are mixed together. I also love it because Juan Carlos is from here.
On having a bilingual partnership: Juan Carlos and I met at a bar. I was with a friend who had a Chihuahua. I thought Juan Carlos was looking at me, but apparently he was looking at the dog. Now, two years later, we have a daughter; he doesn’t speak English, so he speaks Spanish to our daughter and I speak English. He has learned some phrases from me, though — he’s a good mimic. He says “poopy pants” and “whoopsie daisy” and things like that!
On having babies later in life: Many people we’ve met here had their first children at 36, 37, 38. We have one baby — I’m 40, and Juan Carlos is 44, and that’s really typical here. A lot of it has to do with the economy. People study for a really long time here. In the recent past, if you got a degree, it could take eight or nine years. They just changed it so all of Europe is unified, so it takes four to five years now. It’s common to live at home while you’re in college, so people live with their families until they’re in their 30s. Everything starts later. A low birth rate has been a problem in Spain because of that.
On baby perfume: Babies here wear perfume. They called it colonia. We have four bottles of it that people have given us as gifts. It’s light and smells a little like baby powder, but I think it’s just vile. It’s also really common here to pierce your baby’s ears as soon as she’s born. People also always think Ellen’s a boy because her ears aren’t pierced.
On grooming practices: Some people believe that if you cut babies’ eyelashes they’ll grow back thick and full. My friend’s mom keeps telling her to cut her baby’s eyelashes, although my friend won’t do it. People also say that if you shave your baby’s head, it makes their hair grow back full and voluminous.
My first meal home from the hospital — lots of Spanish ham and cured meats and artisanal cheeses.
On pregnancy (and ham): When you get pregnant here, one of the big things is the toxoplasmosis screening. I heard about it a million times before I got pregnant. It screens for a parasite that lives in uncooked meat and pork. It’s fine for a healthy adult, but if you’re pregnant, it can be really dangerous. Everyone is always asking, have you done the toxoplasmosis screening? If you haven’t had it, you can’t eat any cured ham while you’re pregnant, and that’s a huge tragedy for the Spanish population. My doctor said, if you freeze the ham first you can eat it, but that’s not okay with people. You can’t freeze it; ham is the national jewel. It’s like the #1 tragedy of pregnancy that you can’t eat ham.
When you give birth, there’s a tradition where friends and family come to the hospital and bring you the same amount of ham as your baby weighs. I was excited to get 6 1/2 pounds of ham.
My midwife and doctor told me that once I started dilating a little bit, one of the things I could do to move my labor along was to go out and eat a ton of crustaceans, as they contain prostaglandin. So we went out for a huge seafood meal the night before checking into the hospital!
The key to our hospital room.
On giving birth: There’s a free public health system in Spain that’s excellent. But because I chose my own doctor, I went with a private hospital. It was a religious hospital; we had a stern old nun come around and ask what we wanted for dinner, and not give us one crumb of bread over what was allotted to us. When I was packing my suitcase for the hospital, we forgot to pack diapers and wipes and the important things for our child, but I packed jerky and a large amount of food!
On maternity leave: You get four months paid leave, and after that there’s a thing called la hora de lactancia (or “feeding hour”). There are different options to choose from — for example, either parent can take one hour off each day until your child is a year old, or you can take it as an extra two weeks, more or less, at the end of your maternity leave. You usually get five weeks of vacation in Spain, so many people will take the four months of maternity leave, then tack on two weeks of lactancia, and then take their five weeks of vacation, so you can basically get six months off.
On the typical workday: Workdays are super long here. People often go to the office around 8 a.m. and don’t come home until 8 p.m. That said, it’s not uncommon to go into work, then leave to have breakfast, then come back, then go out to lunch. When I moved here, my first job had a 3 1/2 hour lunch break! But instead of getting out at five, I got out at nine.
On late-night dinners: Hardly anyone goes to restaurants before 9:30 p.m., and it’s common for people to be seated much later. Restaurants will be serving dinner at midnight on a Tuesday. One of the great things about Spain is that kids are welcome anywhere, anytime. When you go to a bar or restaurant, you’ll find everyone, from babies to adults to old people, even late at night; there’s a lot of integration in this society. I love that. There’s been a lot of talk about changing the clock here, but it hasn’t happened yet.
On long meals: When you go out on a weekend, you don’t really see the tables turning. If you reserve a table for the night, it’s yours. Sobremesa, which translates to “above the table,” basically means the time you spend talking after a meal. It’s wonderful. You sit around, you have dessert, then coffee, then a digestif, then a cocktail. You could do this at home too: someone comes over for lunch at 2 p.m., and you do a sobremesa and it’s six hours.
On sharing plates: Tapas, or small plates, are the way people eat almost every day. You share everything; you’d never order your own entree in Spain. Traditional tapas are cheeses and Spanish ham, and you have regional dishes — for example, in Galicia, the huge thing is boiled octopus covered in paprika and served over boiled potatoes. But because Spain is the center of haute cuisine — with many Michelin starred restaurants, and the whole molecular gastronomy trend — you also have a bunch of modern places doing creative tapas.
Food definitely equals love here. Every single family get-together revolves around a meal. And each holiday also has its traditional dishes. New Years is always shellfish and grapes. You eat 12 grapes to ring in the new year, in sync with the chiming of the clock tower. You madly scramble to gulp down 12 Spanish grapes, one at a time, for good luck, on the countdown to midnight. It can be a challenge as the grapes here usually have seeds!
On nightlife: Spaniards love to go out. You always say, “Let’s go for the penultimate drink,” or the penúltimo. Even if everyone knows it’s actually the last drink. Because you never really know!
Wine and beer are such an integral part of eating. People here don’t actually drink sangria. They drink Tinto de Verano, or the red wine of summer. It’s red wine over ice, either mixed with sweetened fizzy water or lemon Schweppes.
There aren’t many non-alcoholic beverage options. In the States, there are a million options — iced tea, cranberry spritzer, mocktails. In Spain, you can have non-alcoholic beer or juice (the options are usually so boring, like orange juice or pineapple juice that’s not even fresh) or soft drinks or water.
On the family unit: In many families, both parents will work because the economy has been so bad, so they rely really heavily on the grandparents to help take care of the kids. Everyone seems to love children here. My friend went to a restaurant in the south of Spain and asked for a high chair, and the waiter said, that’s what grandparents are for. He wasn’t kidding, he was totally serious. Another friend of mine gave her Spanish in-laws a high chair because their son was going to spend a lot of time in their house, and the grandma was like, what a great idea! We always just had the grandparents hold our baby!
On conflicting dietary advice: The official guidelines for kids’ foods here is completely different than in the States. When Ellen started eating solids, our pediatrician’s instructions completely contradicted things I’d reach about in the States. It said “Do not give your baby peaches until they’re older because they might be allergic. Do not give your baby spinach because it’s gassy.” In the States, that’s one of the first things people give babies! In Madrid, around seven months or so, you start giving babies a little olive oil and ham. The conflicting advice was doing my head in, so I threw it all at the window. I asked a pediatrician friend in the states, who said, anything’s fine but honey.
On washing and drying: We live in a small apartment, like most of the housing in Madrid. When I go back to the States, I really miss having a bidet, because it’s the best place to wash your feet in the summer. We have a washing machine in our kitchen, which is normal here. But there are very few dryers since utilities are expensive here. In the older apartment buildings, you might have a line going out of your kitchen window going over to your neighbor’s window, and each of you get a side of it. There are a lot of IKEA drying racks, too. We have one on our terrace.
On sweet greetings: You always say hello or goodbye when going into shops or restaurants, even elevators. It doesn’t matter if nobody’s listening! It’s really nice. In Madrid, instead of “adios,” they say “hasta luego,” or see you later, even if you’re never going to see them again.
On looking ahead: I’ve never really contemplated moving back to the States until I had Ellen. Now that I’m a mom, I yearn to have my family close by. So the answer is, I have no idea what the future will bring. It is exciting and also terrifying at times. A clear direction would be helpful, but at the same time I don’t think I’ve ever known where the hugely varied things I’ve done would lead me, and if Ellen is the result of all of the little, and at times wavering, decisions that I’ve made along the way, than I’m more than satisfied. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
Thank you so much, Adrienne!
P.S. The full Motherhood Around the World series, including women living in Turkey, Australia and Abu Dhabi.
(Family photos courtesy of Adrienne; Madrid city and landscape photos by Lisa Limer/Conde Nast Traveler)