Frida Kahlo, Portrait of Frida’s family
By Vicki Boykis
Growing up, I was always told that Russian and/or Jewish culture was better than American culture, A La “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
If American culture even existed. “What do these people eat other than gamburgeri? What do they know about dressing, except to wear jeans,” my family philosophized loftily as we sat at a table filled with salads that were 85% mayonnaise by content. We didn’t have the Russian tricolor or the Israeli Knesset menorah painted on our garage, but I, as a result of the constant discounting of American culture, up until college, didn’t think there was anything positive whatsoever to be gleaned from American society. To paraphrase Mr. Portokalos, while my people were writing the Torah and inventing ballet, America was at the mall.
Flash-forward a decade or so. When I found out I was pregnant, I was really excited to carry on my cultural heritage to the next generation by fully parenting Russian-style: speaking Russian, newborn cold exposure, kasha, soups, guilt/anxiety, the whole deal, as described in this article.
My mom and mother-in-law waited in the wings, ready to help. “You’ll need to take her outside for lots of long, long walks so she’ll be healthy,” my mom told me confidently in December, the month before I was due. “Yeah, I left [my husband] out on the balcony for hours,” my mother-in-law confirmed. “And you’ll need to make sure to start potty training as soon as she’s able to sit up,” they echoed in stereo. I nodded along. I wasn’t going to raise an American baby.
The baby came, and as usually happens, everything changed. What I thought was going to be easy — speaking to her in Russian — turned into a grueling slog that has only recently become rewarding as she babbles the same poems of my own babyhood, punctuated by a string of “One-two-free-five.” At first I, like any good Russian mom, was ready to enroll her in a million activities. But, after seeing how exhausted she was, tiny, slumped in the car seat coming home from daycare, I decided to put off organized enrichment for as long as I possibly could. And, while I was excited to become a super-aggressive tiger mom, the more I’ve read about the American education system, the more I want to question all of it and explore other options for my kid eight hours a day.
Something that’s also become important to me as my kid grows up is her personal space and autonomy. The longer I know my daughter, the more I realize that, as sad as it is, I have her on loan. While she was born to me and I’ve thus far been responsible for feeding her and teaching her how to be a human being, ultimately she will be more than the toddler I see today, someone I can tell where to go, how to dress, what to do. I saw a quote from a friend on Facebook the other day: “Good parenting is essentially the process of separating from our children…while still maintaining a connection.” To me this means her agency is more important than my need to claim parental authority over her merely because I’ve helped her learn how to do things – something parents are supposed to do, no strings attached.
It turns out, that while I was very Russian in some ways, I had, surprise, surprise, grown up American. And my mom and mother-in-law were not immune. As I set about the task of bundling up the newborn for the very first time, they both looked at me. “Maybe we shouldn’t take her out for long,” my mom wavered. “I would be terrified,” my mother-in-law said. “How did I ever leave [my husband] out for so long?” They both shook their heads.
It turns out, 20 years in America will really make you American, even if you don’t realize.