Originally from Finland, Pia Heikkila is a journalist, author and publicist. Having lived and worked in countries including Afghanistan and the UK, she is now settled in Delhi, India with her husband Joe and daughter Elsa, 4.

Then and now
I was born in Finland but left the country at the age of 19. Since then I have lived all over, including the UK, US, the Middle East and Afghanistan, working as a journalist for Al Jazeera. I did my university degrees in the UK. In 2010, the same year my daughter was born, I moved to India – first to Mumbai, and then to Delhi in 2014 because my husband and I both got jobs there.

Finland is almost polar opposite to India – an orderly society, quiet, and people are quite withdrawn, minding their own business. India is chaotic, noisy and at times totally incomprehensible; full of colour and festivals. Here I would say people ‘participate’ in anything that happens publicly, so wherever you are, as a foreigner you will very quickly get a hundred curious onlookers around you. The school system is also very different, here you have to pay for a child’s education whereas in Finland there is no such thing as private schools. Children are also treated differently – in Finland a child is raised to be very independent from a young age but in India, parents, nannies, cleaners and extended family do a lot for the child. It is not unusual to see a five-year-old being fed by a nanny.

We also have a small Finnish community here (there are 40 of us to date), and there is a Finnish school which meets once a week and celebrates Christmas and other important Finnish festivals. I am raising Elsa bilingually and grateful for being able to offer her at least something from my culture. We tend to spend summers in Finland, as much as we can.

How it works
I run my own communications business and write fiction books in my spare time. I still do the occasional article, too. Elsa goes to playschool five times a week, and I also have a full-time nanny, driver and gardener, which saves everyday headaches. India is a country where ordinary things like paying bills or any official business takes ages so our driver is like our Man Friday, he takes care most things. Good childcare is very inexpensive in India, too.

Generally the working mum culture here depends on your social status. If you are educated and upper class, you are more likely to work. Having said that, a lot of casteless women often have no other choice to survive than to work, making things at home, collecting garbage or even working on construction sites with their children playing nearby. Middle class women are expected to drop out of the workplace once they start a family. It’s very common for families to live together, with several generations under one roof. In truth India lags massively behind when it comes to equal opportunities and most women and maternity leave policies vary widely.

The expat mum crowd in Delhi is mixed, I would imagine half of them work and the other half are what we called “trailers” – trailing spouses who had come to India due to their husbands jobs. Some work with local charities or with expat schools.

Highs and lows
There is a huge international expat community here, and you could spend most of your days having coffees with mums. The community is also a good resource when it comes to schools, baby foods, anything a Western mum might need. Play-dates take place in the winter at people’s houses (Delhi has proper, cold winters) but once the weather gets warmer, we also visit local parks and attractions. The groups are often mixed with local mums. During weekdays the nannies arrange the play dates amongst each other or there is often a group activity like yoga, sports class or football, or my daughter goes to ballet or horse riding.

Delhi offers a wide variety of activities for kids – soft play, ice-skating, exploring age-old monuments, interactive play centres… Typically, on weekends, we would go and do one activity in the morning, then meet friends for a lunch and spend the afternoon at the park or open play area, or exploring the markets. Lots of the children centres are located in the malls. On weekdays, Elsa goes to playschool in the morning and has an activity in the afternoon. My office is located in the same building as our home, so I see her during the day.

India is an incredibly child-friendly country, you can take your kids everywhere and no-one bats an eyelid. Children are celebrated and almost always the centre of attention. Locals are very friendly when they see a foreign child and want to chat, take photos and have a play, even kissing and cuddling my daughter. People also stare openly at Elsa (who is very blonde), but mostly it is good-natured, curious staring. Everywhere we go she is greeted with smiles and requests for photos. Sometimes to the point of frustration because she feels that she is not left alone anywhere.

It’s also an amazing, easy place to travel around, you can fly to a beach in just few hours or take a train to the mountains or explore a tiger reserve. But the worst thing is Delhi’s pollution, which reaches alarming levels during winter-time, so that I worry about my daughter’s lungs. Endless traffic is also a pain and the gulf between the rich and poor is visible in most large cities.

The downside about having a baby in India is is that breastfeeding in public is a taboo. Officially you can do it in a Western – style café but even in those places I would never breastfeed my daughter because there are usually local men, and it’s just not culturally acceptable to expose your breast in public. India is a very conservative country and still in many places women spend the majority of their time confined in the home. When a child is of breastfeeding age, most women stay at home and don’t really venture out that much. Also, the benefits of breastfeeding has not quite reached India yet – many see bottle as the better option.

The future?
It’s hard to say. India is a fascinating country where each day is unpredictable, surprising, sometimes even heartbreaking. It’s a country which is changing at a breathtaking speed. Right now we are enjoying the adventure. There are also plenty of business opportunities for the PR agency I have founded.

The Indian school system is quite demanding and children as young as three are put through a system that is intensive and incredible competitive. Education is seen as an investment, often families pay a lot of money in hope their children will create a better life for themselves. This is turn puts a pressure on the child to perform well. India has the highest suicide rate amongst youngsters. Teaching here is focused on repeating knowledge, rather than encouraging free thinking – which is what we were taught, growing up. There are few international schools here in Delhi though and we are hoping Elsa will start at the British school next autumn.

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