My daughter took her first international trip when she was six weeks old: a fact that required us to get her to get a passport within days of her birth. When her shiny, blue American passport arrived, I laughed at the squashy newness of her face in the photo, and marveled at this, too: she was an American Citizen, and at less than a month old, could already travel so many more places than I could with my visa-restricted foreign passport.
Oh baby, the places you’ll go.
As a parent, I hoped that having an American-born child would mean she would have first class rights in the Land of Opportunity. She had the birth certificate and the passport to prove it, and while she carried vestiges of her parents’ distinctly accented English as a toddler, by the time she entered public school, her accent had adapted, too. She even donned sparkly red, white and blue clothing to wear on July 4th, and as the saying goes: if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then surely it must be…
But being a mother to American children has proved to be more complex a matter than procuring them passports and Old Glory T-shirts. As it turns out, there are myriad ways for a Non-American mom to mess it up for her American kids: a realization that made itself rudely apparent one chilly Tuesday morning.
It was Valentines Day, and my daughter was in tears. She wanted to take candies and cards for all her classmates, and I had failed to do the necessary “mom prep” with my credit card at Target. Coming from a culture where Valentines Day was for the hormonal and horny, I did not understand what first graders were doing passing out valentines day cards: and not just to their “crushes”, but to everyone: “the teacher said so!” I had ignored the email blast about cubby protocol. I had neglected to purchase chocolate hearts or pink swirly pencils.
My daughter was undone: “I’ll be the only one who doesn’t have Valentines” she wailed. I assured her this would not be the case, but a quick survey on arriving at school proved me wrong. My American kid needed me to mommy-up and pay a little more attention: Valentines Day was different here, and my rolled eyes at the silliness of it all were not helping her.
In my first months in the US, a co-worker quizzed me about cultural traditions in South Africa. “Do you celebrate American holidays,” he asked, “like St Patrick’s Day and Thanksgiving?” I remember scoffing at the hubris of calling an Irish holiday “American”.
In hindsight, I wish I’d been less snarky, because while St Patrick’s Day may be an historically Irish holiday, it has taken on a distinctly American flavor stateside. I’d wager that on March 17th, there’s more green worn as pinch-prevention in the USA than there is on the Emerald Isle itself.
Did we celebrate American holidays like St Patrick’s Day? Or Valentines Day? No, in truth, we didn’t.
And so it is that I am slowly learning that American children are not just children who were born and raised in America; they are children who have had an American childhood, complete with its cultural cues and textured traditions. American children know about trick-or-treating, and candy apples, and that camping means s’mores. They have magical memories of Disneyland. They know the words to “take me to the ballgame”, because an adult actually took them to a ballgame.
American children grow up to be adults who talk about their “holiday traditions”, because whether it be ugly Christmas sweaters, or Aunt Myrna’s secret glaze for the sweet potato pie at thanksgiving, American families know they are supposed to collect and articulate traditions. American children know that on Valentines Day in 1st grade, you are supposed to make a card for everyone. “Everyone knows this, mom,” says my kid.
But this non-American mom doesn’t know. She’s learning. This non-American mom went trick-or-treating for the first time in her thirties, and only recently discovered Sesame Street. She is trying to learn the rules of baseball, because she’s vaguely aware that at some point in the future, someone is going to try and have a sex talk and explain “the bases”, and she should probably at least have a basic grasp of the vocabulary. This non-American mom doesn’t really understand the draw of Disneyland, but since we live in California, realizes we will probably need to make that happen for our kids at some point.
Raising kids is usually a matter of remembering the best parts of our own childhood, avoiding the bad parts, and mixing it all with a sprinkling of what-we’ve-seen-work-elsewhere. For most American kids, this means getting the best of their parents’ memories recreated for them: July 4th fireworks, Christmas pajamas, playing football after Thanksgiving dinner, and watching It’s a Wonderful Life.
I’m raising American children, but the best of my childhood memories don’t involve any of the quintessential American markers. I have other things to share with them: a tradition of eating hot cross buns for Easter, and giving alms on the day after Christmas. I share these with joy, but with intentional fluidity: for while my children are of foreign descent, they are first generation Americans.
And so together we will learn about pop tarts, baseball, and American traditions like St Patrick’s Day. And next year, come February 14th, we will be ready with the candied hearts.