Today, for our Motherhood Around the World series, we’re chatting with Anna Babics, who was born and raised in Budapest. She now lives there with her husband László and their two children — Róza and Lőrinc. Here, she talks about her country’s three-year maternity leave, the joy of thermal baths and the #1 conversation starter in public…
Anna’s background: Anna met her husband László at a university meeting in Budapest. “The talk was really boring, so I was just looking around, and I noticed he was looking at me, smiling back,” she laughed. For work, the couple then moved to Scotland and Italy, before returning back to Budapest. Anna was a teacher for five years until their first baby, Róza, was born, and then became a freelance copywriter. Her husband works for Forbes Hungary. They welcomed a son, Lőrinc, last year.
Budapest combines two formerly separate cities — Buda and Pest — on opposite sides of the Danube River. Pest has a rich architectural heritage with palaces, museums and a very busy city center. “I go there when I want to feel the city’s energy,” says Anna. Buda, where the family lives, is very green, with small shops and cozy cafés. “Our neighborhood feels like the best of both worlds — the rolling countryside and a taste of city life.”
“Newborn Lőrinc in the background — time for Róza to learn to be bored.”
On shared labor rooms: We had both our children in Budapest. When you’re pregnant here, you typically choose a state hospital near you, and then choose a doctor from there. All the doctors seem to provide a good level of care, but the hospital buildings differ in size and quality.
When you arrive at the hospital, you stay in a room called vajúdó, where six women have contractions in six beds, very close to each other. Sometimes the women chat between contractions! My first labor was very long, so I was sitting on a hospital bed and trying to read The Girl on the Train. The other women in the room were already further along in their labors, and in deeper pain than I was, and I remember putting down the book and thinking what was happening in the room was already enough to handle!
In Budapest, you typically stay in the hospital for three days with a newborn. Again, the hospital determines how much privacy you have. You might be in a room with four or six other women. During the first night, doctors ask you to leave the baby with the nurses. My doula told me, ‘Labor was hard work and the next 20 years will be tough, too. Have a nice sleep tonight, Mama.’
The bedroom that the kids and parents share.
On an extended maternity leave: In Hungary, depending on the mother’s field of work and how long she was at her job before having a baby, she can stay at home on a paid maternity leave for up to three years. During the first two years, she receives part of her previous salary. In the third year, only a small amount of assistance is provided — one couldn’t live off this alone, so not everyone takes it. After those three years, the mother’s last work place has to offer the position she left before giving birth. There is a debate if this system should be modernized, but it was a luxury for our family. I heard my children’s first words and taught them how to walk. But there were long winter days when I wished I had my office job! You can start to feel isolated. It’s easy to lose friends because of your differences in lifestyles.
On a close community: In the countryside, and sometimes in the big cities, too, there is a tradition called komatál, or a friends’ potluck. For the first few weeks with a newborn, relatives and friends organize meals for the family every day. I remember when Róza was born, I came home from the hospital and my brother’s wife put a tower of pancakes and homemade strawberry jam in our fridge. After breastfeeding that night, I had never felt so hungry. I ate a bunch of pancakes and felt really grateful.
On strong folk traditions: In Hungary, our folk songs are beautiful, rich and full of humor and sadness. There is a lovely thing called Ringató here, where, once a week, you attend sessions in a community room where mothers and fathers sit in a circle on the floor with babies on their laps, and sing together. You meet a lot of new parents in your neighborhood. The belief is that you help foster emotional intelligence and brain development by singing these folk songs to your baby.
On respecting your elders: Old women are the top of the hierarchy in our society, and no etiquette rule controls them when they want to wear their heart on their sleeves. When traveling on a bus or tram, kids have to stand up and offer their seat when an older person comes, otherwise they get *the look*. ‘Don’t they have shoes, honey?’ Is a sentence I hear every summer day when I let my kids run barefoot in the park. When you’re with your baby, on the metro or in a pharmacy, they tell you how to raise your child. ‘Only breastfeed,’ or ‘Give them formula, it won’t hurt.’ Also, my favorite, ‘Was the second baby planned? Only two years difference!’ In Hungary, there’s never a sentence that starts with, ‘In my opinion…’
Printed stroller signs at the tram stops indicate wider doors.
On conversation starters: Children here are very much loved. When you have kids in Hungary, that’s like wearing a sign that says, ‘I am ready for a conversation anytime, just talk to me.’ People will tell you their whole birth stories on the metro! The public transportation system is kid-friendly, too. If you have a stroller, you can follow signs at tram stops that show you where to stand to enter the wider doors. And every third bus has a lower floor designed for mothers and kids, so no one has to lift a stroller.
Gellért Hill slide park.
On the low birth rate: The Hungarian population is declining, and most families have one or two children. Statistics say many parents wish for a third, but they don’t feel that it’s financially or emotionally possible. Most people we know work long hours and often have a second job. Many careers, even traditionally well-paid ones in other countries, have a low salary. To help with population growth, the government has been trying more and more to support families in different ways. Hungarian families now get 10 million Forints [about $36,000 in the U.S.] for buying a home when they have three children, or promise to have a third baby within 10 years. Also, mothers with a small baby pay half price on public transport, and when you have three kids, school meals and books are free. There’s also a foundation called Three Princes and Three Princesses. It’s named this because in Hungarian folk stories, three is always a lucky number and the third prince or princess is often the king’s favorite and the hero of the story. The foundation presents lectures and creates clubs to support families who want to have a third baby.
“Grandparents and Róza being loved, loved, loved.”
On extra help: Grandmothers and grandfathers are important in Hungarian culture because of parents’ long work hours, and many kids go to their grandparents’ after school for the afternoon. Kids will often spend weeks of summer break at their grandparents’, too. My parents live a few blocks away from us, and are adored by their gang of grandchildren. Some Saturdays, they take my kids to the park or zoo and leave my husband and me in the house alone. For 20 minutes we just lay on the bed and enjoy the silence. Last weekend when the kids were away for the afternoon, I went to the kitchen and made myself a snack. I looked at my plate and realized I made baby food for myself! I was laughing so hard. That’s why you need some relaxation sometimes!
On homemade food: The first food for our babies was an apple smoothie, and then you cook and cook and cook your whole life for them. Even university students go home at the weekends to pick up six meals for the next week, prepared by their moms! (The roles here are still quite traditional — women are expected to fully care for the kids and run the household — although our generation is becoming more equal.) Classic Hungarian cuisine is heavy — lots of potato-based meals with sausages and onion. But my generation cooks more vegetable-based cuisines. Our family makes főzelék, a thick, creamy vegetable dish. People also love rustic bread here; for many families, breakfast and dinner centers around a sandwich or slice of bread with cheese, salami, tomatoes and paprika. My nation also has a sweet tooth, and, to me, the peak is homemade fruit jam. Last week I bought 26 pounds of peaches and I didn’t go to sleep until I turned it into lovely, creamy lekvár that we’ll open on a gloomy January morning so it will taste like summer.
On a love of water: We have lots of open-air swimming pools in Budapest. My favorite thermal bath is Gellért spa, where there are hot springs for adults and a huge outdoor swimming pool for kids. It was built in Art Nouveau style and has some artificial waves in the outdoor swimming area for five minutes every hour, so you feel like you’re swimming in the ocean. Hungarian kids typically learn to swim around the age of four or five, and swimming is part of the weekly school curriculum.
On a difficult language: Hungarian language is one of the hardest languages because of its strict grammar and difficult pronunciations — we have seven pairs of long and short vowels! So, school kids here are required to learn at least one foreign language, like English, and to choose another one, typically German, French, Spanish or Russian. During secondary school I was learning English, German, Spanish and Latin. We cannot wait for others to learn Hungarian, we have to learn their language first! Many teenagers go to work as an au pair in England, France or the U.S. for a year to better learn the language.
On name days: In the calendar, we have first names attached to every day of the year (for example, Anna is July 26th), and you celebrate with flowers and cake. It’s like a second birthday but because everybody knows your name, you get even more fanfare. For example, a traditional Hungarian name is Erzsébet, so if a school teacher is called Erzsébet, ALL her students will bring her flowers on November 19th, her name day.
Near Lake Balaton.
On the Hungarian countryside: Tour guides often say that Budapest is the heart of Europe, and it really is. We are in a lucky position — cities like London, Rome, Barcelona, Paris, Vienna, Prague, Copenhagen or Amsterdam are all within a cheap two- or three-hour flight. To keep things slow with the children, we usually just enjoy the beautiful Hungarian countryside, though. We rent a tiny cabin at Lake Balaton for the summer. There is no running water and the house is very simple, but my kids enjoy this freedom so much. There I feel at home and fuel myself with clean air, wildflowers and long walks.
Thank you so much, Anna!
(Family photos of Anna by Norbert Juhász Photography, and others courtesy of Anna. Second photo from top by Jovana Rikalo/Stocksy. Metro, market and street photo from We Love Budapest Instagram. Cake and jam photo by Beatriz Opitz. Slide photo by Csudai-Sándor for We Love Budapest. Pool photo by Max Rosero. Window flower photo by Cloé Blot. Wildflower photo by Tibor. Bench photo by Yuliia.)