I often think about Uganda, a country on the equator roughly 7,000 miles away from my home in the suburbs of Chicago. A trip there a few months ago with Shot@Life, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation, to observe and learn about efforts to get lifesaving vaccines to children there had a huge impact on me. I’m still processing my experience and I’m realizing that while I did learn a great deal about immunizations and delivery efforts, I learned about so much more. Here are a few things that my trip to Uganda taught me about parenting a teenager.
The power of being both curious and quiet
I’m both curious and a talker. There are times when that’s to my benefit and others when it’s to my detriment. When in Uganda, I joined fellow advocates and staff from Shot@Life in meetings with representatives from UNICEF and the governments of both the US and Uganda, as well as health workers in the field. These people are handling complex problems on tight schedules. It is not the time to get super chatty. But staying silent wouldn’t have helped me become a better advocate. I asked questions that they answered with their unique and important insight that I can share at home.
I tried to limit the number of questions I asked and to make the ones I did ask really count. I’ve been more mindful of taking the same approach with my teen. Quality of questions, not quantity. The jury is still out on how I’m doing, but the intention is there.
I also had the opportunity to meet and talk with Ugandan mothers at vaccine clinics. They would often be a little shy, and then open up more as the conversation went along. After asking a question or two, I quelled my tendency to fill the silence with words and just sat and smiled at their babies. Several different times that silence was followed by moms offering up their stories, what they had to do to travel to the clinic that day, and/or their hopes for their babies.
I’m very aware that these powerful conversations would not have happened had I prattled on as I tend to do. I’m sad to think that it’s taken me so long to learn this important lesson. I fear that I’ve missed out on other valuable conversations, but later is better than never.
I’m working on being more okay on just being with my teen, not always talking. I remember that Uganda, communication took place in a variety of ways, not solely verbally. That can happen at home, too.
Music is magic
The culture of Uganda was completely new to me, but what brought people together time and time again despite the cultural divide was music. From children at a school singing us a wonderful song of welcome to singing along to a CD that our local driver had playing in the minibus, music was a common theme. We didn’t have to know all the words of the song to feel a connection.
At home, I’ve tried to play more music and ask my teen to share the songs she’s loving. When she closes her eyes and sings along, it feels like her stress melts away. I may not know the words, but it’s still a shared experience, and those are so crucial to have with adolescents.
Health is everything
Uganda began rolling out the rotavirus vaccine earlier this year. A mom shared a story of her older child being hospitalized with the disease and the fear she felt. She was over the moon that her baby would receive the vaccine and be protected from what his older sibling endured.
I don’t take for granted the access to health care that we have in this country. I am more grateful than ever for my daughter’s good health and the different systems that support it. These moms didn’t need a fancy waiting room, what they needed were vaccines for their little ones.
Teen parents have a special bond
I had the pleasure of spending a bit of time with Emily, a nurse who works for the Ministry of Health, and is making great strides in standardizing care in her country. She’s also raising four kids of her own. Her oldest son is the same age as my daughter.
Turns out that wanting your teen to do as well as possible in school, trying to minimize their anxiety around standardized tests, and keeping them busy during school breaks are common parental concerns, no matter what continent you call home. We are Facebook friends and her posts about her son always make me smile and feel less alone.
I hope that in working to get babies the vaccines they need that moms in Uganda and around the world know that they aren’t alone. I want them to know that the health of their babies matters, and that we want their babies to grow into teens, ones who cause them just enough consternation to be developmentally appropriate. If you want to join me in that effort, you can do so with your time here and your donations here.