Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

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Strangers among us: the expat parent experience

It’s a sad day.

It’s a sad day, my friends, when your eight year old son fixes you with a look of impending doom and says, “Mamma, I have to tell you something.  But you’re not going to like it.”  And your eyes sweep over the china cabinet, which shows no signs of a soccer ball having been kicked through it, your nose sniffs the air, which does not reveal the acrid odor of legos being baked to see if they will stay stuck together, your hand touches the throat of his younger brother, in which a vital pulse is still beating.  So how bad can it be?

“Mamma, I don’t, um, really, you know, like peanut butter.”

And in that instant the universe shifts just a smidgen, the light seems to dim, your heartbeat slows in dismay, and what you have suspected for the past eight years is suddenly proven without a doubt.

Your children are not, and never will be, American.

I mean, I have had other clues of this over the years.  My sons were scandalized by their American cousins wearing un-ironed t-shirts on a recent trip to the States, they are convinced that eating cherries and drinking water in the same sitting will somehow land them in the hospital, and they have vowed they will never move out of my home (they are in for a big surprise come age 18).  They prefer prosciutto and bread to pancakes for breakfast, say that they are annoyed when bored or nervous when stressed out, and are constantly urging me to pass on the right.  However, until their rejection of the national childhood dish of the USA, I had harbored a hope that I could still, somehow, claim them as mine.

The one who doesn't like peanut butter.

The one who doesn’t like peanut butter.

There is a famous adage which says that parenting is essentially a process of slowly letting go of your child from the minute he is born, and this process is even more poignant when part of that letting go is not only of your  child but of your childhood.  Let’s face it, one of the best parts of parenting is reliving your own youth…the one you really had (I got my kids into Star Wars, early and hard) and the one you wish you had (I took them to Disneyland, where I always dreamed of going as a kid.).  But when they are growing up in a country and culture different from yours, it’s hard to engage them in your passions, your aspirations, your expectations.  You want them to fit in (and, coincidentally, not be ashamed of you—their foreign parent.  Their foreign parent who is still concerned with her cool quotient 39 years into the game.) but not go native.

The one who doesn’t like wearing unironed tshirts.

The irony here (because ain’t life ironical?) is that I lived the flip side of this same situation growing up in an immigrant Greek family in the 1970s.  I think now about how dismayed Yaya must have been to watch as subsequent generations gradually gave up the Orthodox faith, shunned the language, married non-Greeks, (“Honey,” she would say to me, “You find nice Greek boy to marry.  You make your Yaya happy, koukla.”) and finally ended up considering the gyros and yelling “Opa!” as the saganaki was set alight by a Mexican waiter the pinnacle of Greek culture.

The ones who claim they will never move away from home.

My children are not growing up Cub fans, don’t recognize the Good Humor ice cream truck, have never read the Sunday funny pages.  They will not have memories of fireworks on the 4th, of a day with cheese blintzes for breakfast/burritos for lunch/spanakopita for dinner, of trick-or-treating. My children are living a life infinitely different from the one I did and in some ways this makes them less mine.  My children are putting down roots and flourishing in a different land and I am, bit by bit, letting go of their future.

I am, bit by bit, letting go of my past.

I am, bit by bit, letting go.


16 Comments

  1. Jane |

    Rebecca, what a great, poignant read. I enjoyed it. I also learned why Casey, unlike his friends here, is “annoyed” and “nervous.” He particularly is found of “annoyed.” It must come from his time spent in your childrens land.

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      Thanks, Jane…the language thing is both hilarious and frustrating (especially when there is a word similar in both languages but with two very different meanings). The latest bi-lingual gem was Leonardo announcing that the neighbor’s dog had puppets.

      Reply
  2. Joanna |

    Poignant, Rebecca. Now try to think of the things you don’t look back on with pleasure, the things you didn’t like about your childhood, that your children will never have to put up with. xoxo

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      Yes, Joanna, you are so right. But don’t we all tend to look back with rose colored glasses? Otherwise we would probably never reproduce and subject our own offspring to middle school!

      Reply
  3. George |

    Beautifully written and oh, so true! I do not have children of my own to pass my childhood on to, but I often see the childhood of my nieces and nephews (I’m excepting the godchildren you know, who are, essentially, living your children’s life) and wonder at how different it is to mine.

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      Thanks, George…I think even non parents out there marvel at how the childhood experience has changed. For better or worse? Hard to say….

      Reply
  4. Melissa Muldoon |

    Ciao Rebecca, so your kids are bilingual? What do you speak the most of when you are at home? Is it hard to get them to speak English? I ask because I have Italian friends from Milan, raising three children and they speak Italian at home, but the kids tend to answer back in English. My friend Roberta often speaks about how hard it is to be raising “American” kids so different from her Italian childhood. But, she also says every time she returns to Italy, it seems a little bit different and less like the Italy she left.

    We all feel tugs at the heart strings no matter what…we are parents after all! I often think that my three boys are all so completely different from each other and so completely different from my husband and me and they are having a completely different childhood that I experienced. There is continuity with language and traditions…but times they are changin’ and nothing can really be repeated! I thought I would have little clones of myself but how wrong I was! Turns out they are completely their own people. Also learning to let go and enjoy the people they are turning out to be.

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      Yes, Melissa, my kids are bilingual…I speak English to them at home, and they tend to answer back in English.
      I think the expat parenting experience is harder for families in the US because the American culture and English language are so dominant there is little space left for the parent’s language and culture. I have the tiny advantage of the “cool” factor…speaking English is cool, the US is cool, having family members who are American is something to brag about.
      Yes, I certainly agree that seeing your children grow up differently from you is something pretty much universal to all modern parents. It’s just easier to put your finger on the differences when you are a “stranger in a strange land”!

      Reply
  5. Valerie |

    Confession: I never liked peanut butter either and have always preferred ironed T-shirts, though I didn’t understand why until I moved to Italy! (My mom didn’t iron them, I had to do it myself. Mean American mom.) Just wait…as they get older they’ll want to bank on that cool factor and ‘become’ more American to impress their friends. Then they’ll come barking up the mom tree for cultural wisdom!

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      Valerie…I think I have a long time to wait before my kids will turn to me for wisdom! As Mark Twain put it “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” 🙂

      Reply
  6. Michelle |

    I love this post, and I fear my son will never like peanut butter either. He is only two now, and I’ve been waiting to give it to him because he suffers from bad eczema. Peanut butter is somewhat of an acquired taste, and by the time he eats it, he may not like it. Oh well. Pazienza! Anyway, I linked to your post from my blog today. Just FYI!

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      Thanks, Michelle!
      I just read your last few posts, and cracked up. Yup, the importance of the holiday breakfast involving baked goods is lost on my men as well.
      I also did some reflecting about posting pictures of my sons when I began my blog, but came to the conclusion that as long as they aren’t doing anything inappropriate like bathing or picking their noses, the black-out faces just was too off-putting. Plus, frankly, we live on our agriturismo so our private family life is pretty much out there anyway. So, they’re all over the place. Just one more thing they can bring up to their therapist 20 years down the line.

      Reply
  7. Kerstin Mierke |

    Hi!
    I found your site through Michelle (just above this comment!) and really enjoyed that post. My parents had this experience with me, and now I’m having it with my son … it was lovely to read your post and have all of those feelings and thoughts put into words so concisely!

    (I also linked to your blog from mine, but I’m not sure anyone really reads mine!)

    Kerstin

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      @Kerstin…Hi! I just saw your kind comment now, please excuse the delay in responding! Yes, I notice many expat parents really identifying with this experience. Thanks for linking from your blog, that was very kind!

      Reply
  8. Amy |

    I feel exactly like that.
    You really summed it up perfectly.
    My oldest move to Chicago 3 years ago, but still doesn’t eat peanut butter.
    The other two have learned to love cheesesteaks though.
    Never give up hope!

    Reply

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