16 Feb

Qualities in a child update

I did an analysis a few years ago based on 2007 data on desirable qualities in children. The World Values Survey had a similar question, so here are the newer results. For what it is worth, I doubt that the translations are equivalent. So it is quite likely that a word for “thrift” or “obedience” that had a negative connotation was used.

This is the percent of respondents that said, yes that is an important quality in a child.

am2 az2

16 Feb

I hate happiness ;)

Happiness or subjective wellbeing is one of the most difficult things to measure cross-culturally. Every time I see some happiness index I cringe.

Gallup results are floating around the Internet, but here are the more transparent results from the World Values Survey. (Here’s more on WVS in the Caucasus).

Taking that into consideration, I just wanted to point out World Values Survey’s mean results per country for happiness. 1 = very happy and 4 = not at all happy:


And here are the frequencies for my two favorite countries:

am az

08 Feb

Just Imagine… Some more contextualization for the Armenia baby with Down Syndrome case


I see how upset foreigners are about the Baby Leo story. Again, I wish to add some context. As I mentioned in my first post on the topic, I have spent a lot of time in Armenia and the region and I spent most of my pregnancy 6 years ago in Armenia, so I have some intimate knowledge of OBGYN care there.

While my research is broadly about technology and inequality in the region, I also spend a lot of time thinking about and writing about family life. Inequality and family are impossible to separate.

Again, here are some things that may help people contextualize the situation better: My first post covered the disability side of things. This post focuses on family and I am creating a hypothetical situation that is a blend of the experiences of my friends and what I’ve personally witnessed in my 17 years hanging out around here.

Importantly, many, if not most, Armenians live in multigenerational households. I did a quick analysis of the 2013 Caucasus Barometer and there are an average of 4.52 household members and 3.45 adult household members in Armenia (SD 1.93 for total, SD 1.35 for adults). Even in the capital city, there is a mean of 4.20 household members and 3.34 adult household members.


Multigenerational households operate a bit differently from the stereotypical nuclear family. Grandma is sort of “in charge,” non-retired male members work and bring income to the household. Younger female members might work, depending on their skill set and presence of children. Household responsibilities are distributed in a way that may be unfamiliar to Americans. Just imagine what it would be like – both good and bad – to have that many adults under one roof? Personally I am often envious of the great support that this system provides – especially when I’m racing home to pick up my child to drive him to an activity. Oh how I wish that I had more adults around to help distribute the tasks. But let us also imagine that this involves more adults to be concerned about not cleaning their hair out of the drain and other annoyances. And you’re not in a romantic relationship with all these adults, so your ability to work these things out is quite different. And onto status differences…

When a couple weds, how this usually works is that the new bride moves into her husband’s parents house. There are varying norms when there are multiple brothers or if there are no sons, but this is the general rule.

There is a lot of pressure on a new bride to socialize into the family – she may have to do some of the unpleasant chores, for example. And there is pressure to have a child very soon in some families.

Relationships between men and women in Armenia are not like what relationships between men and women are in the United States. While there are certainly exceptions, for the most part, young Armenians do not “date” like Americans do. I’m happy to elaborate on this and I acknowledge that things have changed, but this is just how it is.  And premarital physical relationships are a big no-no. Armenians also marry much younger than Americans do on average. And, by and large, I would argue that most Armenian couples don’t know each other as well before getting married as most American couples do.

Baby Leo’s family story is a bit different because Dad is a foreigner and they were residing with her parents. But I want you to imagine that these are people that are living in a very different household management system from the one that you may be used to.

Baby Leo’s parents are different here because he is a foreigner, but again, imagine that this is the norm that exists in this society.

Fatherhood in Armenia is not like fatherhood in America. In part because of this system of household management and in part because of cultural norms, traditionally, fathers have not been very involved in the day-to-day childrearing. I haven’t seen any data from Armenia, but in the neighboring two countries, very few men had ever changed a diaper, for example. Of course there are exceptions, but again, this is the system in which this story unfolds.

So take this combination of a different style of household management with many more adults with status and the different ways that men and women relate to each other and let that sit in your brain for a bit.

Now, as far as pre-natal care in Armenia – for the most part, most women see a midwife regularly. Yet, as far as I have come to understand, the set of tests given is different. I had to request a number of tests that are standard in the U.S. and just are not in Armenia. Some of those tests may have shown indication of DS. Also it is important to know that in Armenia, like in much of that part of the world, abortion is used as a form of contraception. [link] [link] [link] Because there is less stigma against abortion, it can be assumed that many of those that know of a DS diagnosis would terminate a pregnancy.

I did not give birth in Armenia myself, but as I understand it, the father is usually not present. I cannot comment on the state of the delivery room, but I have heard things that makes me believe that it is not yoga-ball and soothing music-full. Babies don’t sleep in the rooms with the mother. Also, for the record, giving birth can be traumatic and scary and if you haven’t given birth before, it is an entirely new experience. And hormones are all over the place. I had to make some quick decisions immediately after giving birth and I was certainly not capable of doing so with a clear head.

Thus, try to push your own pre-natal and birth experience out of your mind for a bit.

So, let us also let our minds wander a bit. This is all hypothetical – a combination of experiences I’ve seen friends have. We might be assuming, based on our own experiences or otherwise, that everything was great between the mother and father. They were having so much fun picking out names! They had a fun baby shower!  Took photos of them with tiny baby shoes and posted it on social media! So imagine instead that, maybe, this was an unplanned pregnancy. (I have no evidence of this for Baby Leo’s parents, but this is a mental exercise.) And they said, well, it wasn’t planned, and money’s tight, but let’s go for it. Maybe she thought he was a little too mean and sometimes drank too much, but she was sure that after the baby came he would change. And hey, even if he didn’t change, at least there are a lot of people around to help and hey, he’s a provider.  And then, he loses his job. He tries to find other work, but it is not looking good. And the nature of his work means that he has no access to any sort of unemployment benefits. They try to keep it together as a couple, but things are getting scary. They were barely making ends meet before he was laid off, and now this? And as she spends more time with him she realizes that he is sort of a jerk. But it looks like she is tied to him now, so maybe she should just put up with it. It isn’t like she is going to be able to find a new guy very easily, now a non-virgin with a kid. She is prepared to make it work, although sometimes after a big fight she wonders if there are other options. Maybe he beats her. Maybe he is a drug addict.  (Again. no evidence of this for Baby Leo, although we have heard from the mother that the father was unemployed.)

The baby is coming! She goes to the hospital with her mom and sister. It is her first delivery and she is scared. Her mom is running interference with the nurses, sliding bits of money here and there. The baby arrives and everyone is happy! But then the doctor comes to her and says that there is something wrong with the baby. The doctors and nurses’ normal reaction is to send the child to an institution. The mother is hormonal, considering her economic situation, her husband’s attitude and behavior, and the fact that there is little support for special needs children. Her mom and sister give their opinion. Her mother-in-law gives her opinion. Maybe they let it be known that they are not willing to help her be the full-time caregiver for this child for his entire life. They had only committed to caring for the child for the first 5 years and after that only after school. Plus in “their day” “these kind” of children were sent away. And mom, as a younger person with some skills, is a primary income-bringer to the household and if she stopped working, the household would suffer. The mom needs to let this sit for a bit. Then an option is proposed – leave the country. She adds this to her list of things to consider. She’s trying to recover from giving birth. Then imagine that the child’s father appears and whisks him away – maybe another jerk move. But now she’s hormonal and there is more at stake. Maybe she figures that any man that would take a child from its mother should not be one to whom she is married. And then maybe he lies about her to others and this really confirms it. Maybe she planned to divorce him all along and the best chance for her child is to be with him abroad, but that she herself cannot be with him anymore.

Again, I am not trying to imply that any of this happened with Baby Leo’s parents, but that it could have.

There is no way that any of us can know what has happened between these two people. For the most part we’re getting one side of the story and there must be many. Again, I hope to contextualize a bit and additionally hope that people take a moment to fathom that there very well could be good reasons for what individuals have done in this case.



06 Feb

Some context to the Armenia Down Syndrome baby story – UPDATED

Edits in red to reflect updated information.

ETA: Update 11:47pm Pacific 6 Feb: Baby Leo’s mother has come forward to tell her side of the story in an Armenian and English language Facebook post. She claims that her ex is not telling the truth.

For the last week the tale of baby Leo Forrest has been popping up in my social media feeds. Basically, an Armenian woman and a man from New Zealand who was living in Armenia got married, got pregnant, and when the baby was born it was discovered that he had Down Syndrome. The father says that the mother and her family wished to send the child to an orphanage (as is not uncommon in Armenia or many other places in the world). The father refused and decided that he wants to take the baby to his home country of New Zealand. The father started a crowdfunding site – asking for AUS$60k to get the baby to New Zealand and so the father wouldn’t have to work in the first year (although there was no sense of how this amount was determined) – the campaign wasn’t doing very well until yesterday when ABC News posted a story and now it is up to over AUS$500k. Incredible. The baby’s mother says that in the immediate emotional aftermath of the birth, she was asked if she wanted to keep the baby or not by the hospital and that it was decided by her that her husband would take the baby to New Zealand for a better life. She makes $180/month. Her husband was/is unemployed. She says that the father took the baby from the hospital and implied that it was without her permission. She seems to have decided that the baby will have a better life in New Zealand and that that is more important than her reputation. She says: “As a mother who has faced this severe situation, being in the hospital under stress and depression, experiencing enormous pressure from every side, not finding any support from my husband’s part on any possibilities of giving a child decent life in Armenia, I faced two options: to take care of the child on my own in Armenia, or to abandon my maternal instincts and extend the baby an opportunity to enjoy a decent life with his father in New Zealand. I went for the second option.”   

I have seen many people – Americans mostly – write before the mother’s side of the story came out about how this dad is a hero and how the mom is a horrible person. And while I absolutely agree that people with Down Syndrome should have all the opportunities in the world and I personally cannot imagine giving up my child, I also wish that these angry Internet commentors had some context. As someone who has spent a lot of time in Armenia and the region as well as someone who went through a pregnancy in Armenia, I hope that I can help contextualize.

First, it is true that it is not uncommon for babies with DS and other disabilities to be given to an orphanage – in Armenia and in many many countries of the world.

Second, it is also true that many women never make it to the point of giving a child up because they opt to terminate the pregnancy upon learning of a DS diagnosis. In fact, according to this article and Wikipedia, 92% of women who receive a pre-natal diagnosis of DS terminate the pregnancy – although this ranges by country. My pre-natal nurse friend told me that ultrasounds can detect DS markers and that blood tests, standard in America, at different stages can also determine a risk for DS. There are more sophisticated tests as well but are not standard in America or elsewhere. In my own pregnancy in Armenia, I had all those standard tests, but it may have been because I asked for them. I don’t know why this mother either did not have pre-natal screens or if she knew this information and chose not to terminate the pregnancy and rather deliver the baby. I have heard that she did have the sonogram and the DS markers did not show and that she did not have additional blood tests done, but I don’t have any concrete information. ETA: 10am Pacific, the mother reports that the sonogram was normal.

Third, I ask you to take into consideration that you probably have little idea of the cultural environment that this woman is living in and what kind of life this baby would have in Armenia. Life is hard in Armenia. There is great economic and political instability. Moreover, the lack of infrastructure and services for this child are tremendous. Having spent some time at orphanages for disabled children, I can say that those facilities – with trained staff and equipment – are probably “better” for these children in terms of opportunities than living at home and not having any sort of outpatient facilities (like a special school) available to them. Although some would disagree with me – there is no lack of criticism of the Armenian orphanage system. Additionally, there is social stigma attached to disability and a family would also have to deal with that. I’m not saying that this is an excuse, but it is the reality. Also because of the lack of infrastructure and services, I can imagine that a family would also have to consider what will happen to this child in his or her adulthood. If an adult with DS needs additional caregiving, will there be someone available to do it?

To be clear, I don’t like that this woman was willing to give up her child. Again, I want people with DS to have all the opportunities in the world. But I am certain that this child would not have as many opportunities in Armenia as he will in New Zealand. Finally, I also hope that people reading this story realize that it is infinitely more complicated and has many more sides than any of us know. So let us all hope for the best for all parties involved.


ETA: Salon did an interesting story on this as well.

ETA: Here’s a nice article written by the mother of a child with DS on this issue.

ETA: Media.am had a great article about the media reaction to this story.