Category Archives: Parenting

A Birthday Song for My Mom

The inside cover of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is decorated with illustrations–a phoenix, Marilyn’s bust, an open Bible with a solitary rose. I’d lay on my belly and study them, every now and again looking up to see my mom dancing around the house in her bell-bottoms, lip-biting smile on her face.

The picture of Bennie and the Jets transfixed me the most– Bennie with her wild eye-shadow and unwavering stare, the spiky fringe on her crown and her band of booted men. She looked so much like my mom (had my mom been brunette), and I’d imagine my mom’s life before she had me–wearing a mohair suit in a smokey night club, turning down all the men who approached her.  I wanted to be just like her.

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The soundtrack changed as I grew up. Patsy Cline’s songs of heartache and heartbreak filled my pre-teen years. My shower rendition of “Crazy” upset my mom because I had “[woken] up the whole house.” (Though I think she was secretly pleased that Cline stuck with me, the way I thrill to hear my girl singing “Bennie and the Jets”). As a teen when I wanted to sleep the day away, my mom would wake me up blasting Aerosmith and jumping on my bed.

But of all the music over the years, the album that stays with me the most is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I don’t know that Elton John was my mom’s favorite but the image of her dancing around the house, bell-bottoms swinging around her bare feet with that smile, stays with me. I play that album to this day whenever I’m feeling sad, nostalgic or simply in need of a touch of home.

The fourth of July is my mom’s birthday which always struck me as a great irony as she’s never been much for fireworks, or fighting, or even America really; but that’s a post for another day.

Nonna

Happy birthday Mom. Thanks for the music…and all the weird and wonderful.

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Reclaiming Space for Our Girls or How We Read Books in Our House

The night Jas returned from an extended business trip, Cookie wanted him to read a new book before bed. “Jas,” I said poking my head out of the kitchen “the moose is a she.” He rolled his eyes.

Changing the gender of characters in books started for our family with Little Blue Truck Leads the Way. Our girl, 18 months at the time had loved the first Little Blue Truck so much that we naturally picked up the second one in which Little Blue Truck goes to the city and encounters the mayor, who incidentally, is a man. The first time I read it to her I stumbled over the line, “His Honor, the mayor….” Why is the mayor a man? I wondered. Gender had no relevance to the story, no relevance to the mayor’s title, position, or character. (Really, does it ever?)

I began to pay closer and closer attention to the literature we read our girl looking mainly at gender. Children’s literature overall is more inclusive of females today … there are delightful, strong female characters such as Lady Bug Girl and The Paper Bag Princess. But males continue to dominate particularly in books for the toddler set. Lady Bug Girl and its ilk are written for girls specifically. Other books deemed “gender-neutral” continue to focus on and emphasize boys. Indeed, if gender is not central to the story, the default is to turn the bear, cat, moose, crocodile or bunny, male. If a female does show up (as Katha Pollitt points out in “The Smurfette Principle”), she is lone or a woeful minority.

The amount of female authors that take part in this male-centered writing is alarming. It’s as though they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a little girl wondering about her place in the world, bombarded with stories of boys and their heroics.

My daughter learns much from books and stories. They helped me to potty train her, to introduce sibling relationships when I was pregnant with Bean, even to teach lessons about positive behavior–what manners are, what sharing means. If the books we read to our girls predominately feature males, what else are they learning? Nothing good.

Adventure is for boys, not girls. Girls are never the center of a story and therefore they are not the center of life but rather accessories, there to help boys achieve greatness and glory. They also take away the idea that there is no space for them or if there is space, it is limited. This creates enmity in girls not only towards themselves, but towards other females as well. If there is only space for one, then all other females are a threat, competition, a rival to be taken down. Rather than encouraging a band of sisters, the literature we are reading to our girls, subliminally sends the message that they must be the one or the few. The competitive, jealous “nature” that women are stereotypically labeled with is planted and nourished in many ways, not least of which can be found in the literature read in most American nurseries.

And it’s for these reasons, that I will continue to change the genders in my daughters’ books, wielding a black marker to the pages  to ensure they’re read with a female bend. Jas can roll his eyes all he wants. I won’t let our girls grow up thinking the world is his.

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The Great Purge–Clearing All the Clutter

Jas and I have some experience being strangers in strange lands though never more so than when we became parents, a naturally (though delightfully) bizarre state of being. This is to be expected. What we weren’t prepared for was how having children would change our home, not in the baby proofing sense but in the– holy crap! where did all this stuff come from?!– sense.  Two years into parenthood and our house was a glut of stuff, stuff, stuff. Despite having a designated playroom, some form of children’s entertainment (much of it plastic with a million pieces) had made its way into every room of our house and we found ourselves strangers in a strange land once again.  And all of us were suffocating.

Enter  Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids written by Kim John Payne, M.Ed., with Lisa M. Ross,  a book I picked up out of curiosity and a few pages in discovered a kindred spirit. Here was a licensed professional saying what I had suspected just from observing Cookie pass over her mountain of toys in favor of lining up toothpicks on the kitchen floor or using a pot as a bongo–children don’t need all that much– and what I had hoped for–it’s never too late to change course, to leave the land of too much.

Payne’s battle-cry is, “We are the adults in our children’s lives. We are the grown-ups. And as the parents who love them, we can help our children by limiting their choices. We can expand and protect their childhoods by not overloading them with the pseudochoices and the false power of so much stuff.  And as companies spend billions trying to influence our children, we can say no. We can say no to entitlement and overwhelm, by saying yes to simplifying.”

Yes.

The chapter that most spoke to our needs deals with toys. In a nutshell, Payne encourages parents to toss all but the favorites. You can donate some, put some away to rotate every few months, but toss anything that is broken or isn’t great for your children (you instinctually know which these are but he also gives some guidance e.g. toys that are loud and annoying). He claims, “As you decrease the quantity of your child’s toys and clutter, you increase their attention and their capacity for deep play.” I was on board. And it didn’t take much to get Jas on board either. When I shared with him this “new” approach to child-rearing with all the American swagger I could muster, he looked at me impassively.

“What?” I asked, surprised he wasn’t bowled over by my industrious research.

“You’re describing the way I grew up” he shrugged. “None of this is new to me.”

Ah.

We set aside a few days to conduct what I refer to as The Great Purge. As Payne suggested, we started with our stuff.

The panini press we hadn’t used since we started living in places with actual stoves? Out.

The seersucker blazer Jas had bought on sale and never worn as he hadn’t been asked to join a barber-shop quartet? Out.

The long-sleeved jumpsuit I hadn’t worn since my sister asked me what time I was heading to the dojo? Out.

The twelve eye-shadow brushes I consider before settling on the two I always use? Out.

No room was untouched, no corner ignored. Cookie was beside us the whole time. She saw us tossing and organizing. Making space. Breathing.

Then came the night we had been waiting for. After Cookie went to sleep (again, as Payne had suggested), we hit the toys. We had four piles–toss, recycle, donate, keep. As we let go of the stuffed animals she never hugged, the games she never played with, the books that were ripped or age inappropriate, we danced giddily our feet getting lighter and lighter as we moved from room to room. I was particularly proud of the bathroom purge where we said goodbye to the singing octopus, floating ball, seal, whale, polar bear, starfish and elephant. All that remained was a stacking triad of water flow cups. Throughout, we kept only the favorites which not surprisingly happen to be the “good” stuff like blocks and puzzles, instruments and dress-up clothes, construction paper and crayons.

I had a few fears–that Cookie would be overwhelmed by the loss. That she would wake up in shock and ask for things we had gotten rid of. Would she wonder where-oh-where did that stuffed hippo go? Would she cry and beg me to find her toys and bring them back? Would this buy her extra hours on the therapist’s couch?

It wouldn’t surprise Payne to know that not only did Cookie not look for the missing toys, she didn’t even notice they were gone. She exclaimed over the “new room” (which was the playroom stripped down)  happy to see and easily find all of her favorite toys which she now plays with more and for longer periods of time. She has not experienced a loss but rather freedom from the overwhelming amount of choice that she once had. By taking things away from her, we ended up giving to her.

A few days after The Great Purge, Cookie did ask about the missing toys. She climbed into the mini-tent on the floor of her bedroom, which had become a depository for an ark’s worth of stuffed animals, and poked her head out: “Mama! Where did all the guys go?!”

I pretended to be as surprised as she. “Huh! Maybe… they… went on vacation” I said.

“Oh! That should be fun” she said and ducked back in to make me a cup of tea.

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Learning English Inside and Out

“When I first came to America, I was surprised how Americans used their language,” Jas told me.

Having learned British English during his schooling, Jas had some trouble adjusting to American slang and colloquialisms.

“When someone would say ‘What’s up?’ I’d look up. When they’d say ‘How’s it hanging?’–I’d look down.”

When I was just getting to know Jas, I remember how excited he would get upon discovering a new phrase and how quickly he would recycle it, no matter how odd he sounded. He once complimented a friendly co-worker on her “weave” looking “tight.”

At first I believed his mimicry reflected a lack of originality, but soon learned that this was his way of learning American English inside and out. Now, he’s become so comfortable with American English that he’s even created his own choice sayings which I refer to as Jas-isms. Pay attention–one of them is bound to sweep the nation at any moment:

“Broccoli”–Jas has turned this word for the cruciferous veg into a lovingly disparaging label and uses it the way one would use the word “silly,” such as: “I can’t believe you thought I forgot your birthday you broccoli!”

“Dripping like a watermelon”–is used to describe anything that is dripping, perspiring, or simply wet.

“Dumb as the night”–This is my all-time favorite used to describe anyone he feels is dim-witted. If you analyze this simile, it actually makes perfect sense.

While British English does creep into his vocabulary here and there (such as when he asks me if I’ve packed my “bathing costume” for the beach) Jas has made American English his and uses it like a native…albeit a sometimes outdated native. I didn’t realize how often he calls on our American colloquialisms until my two-year-old Cookie, began repeating them to me. Behold:

Nudging me awake– “Mama, let’s get this party started.”

When experiencing frustration– “Oh come on, Man!”

Running out the front door, she’ll toss me a “Later, homey!”

While getting out of the tub one day she smoothly paired a Jas-ism with a colloquialism–“Mama, I’m dripping like a watermelon! Let’s get some towels in this joint!”

After ladling ravioli onto her plate–“Alright! Let’s eat these puppies!”

It is just a matter of time before the student becomes the teacher, and one can only imagine what Jas will do with the language Cookie (and Bean!) will teach him.

Partners in language crime

Partners in language crime

The Big American is excited to announce our new baby girl, who we’ll refer to as Bean, born July 19. After a brief and wonderfully wild hiatus, we are ready to write again.

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The Magic Show–For Bosnian Moms Only

We pulled up to the tiny cultural arts center in Donji Vakuf. Excited for Cookie’s first magic show, I took her out of her car seat, saddled her on my hip, turned and froze. Ahead of me was a crowd of women and children. All women and children–there was not a man in sight. In the parking lot behind me cars were pulling up and dropping off, men at the wheel speeding away, women and children on foot. Jas put his hand on my back and guided me into the building–the slightest smirk on his face that usually appears when he sees me engulfed in culture shock. 

In America, a “family event” like a magic show is for the whole family. In Bosnia, I discovered that evening, it is for moms and children. Not that men wouldn’t be welcome to join in–they just don’t. It’s not their place. Their role is to provide for their families, not to indulge in the children’s fun particularly after a long day of work and particularly when there’s a soccer game somewhere in the world and a television broadcasting it. 

Parenting roles are very clearly defined by gender in Bosnia and as such are reminiscent of 1950’s America. This has rankled my sister-in-law Jasmina since she got married and had children. As the men in her family always took a more active and therefore unorthodox role in caring for the home and children, she wasn’t prepared for her husband’s more traditional ways. At the time of our visit, she had just ended a cooking strike to get him to help around the house. “If I can work full-time, then he can help take care of the children and the house” she told me. “Until then, he’s not eating.” 

Once in the auditorium I was relieved to see a few males in the back of the room, then distressed to see them exit after kissing their children. We found seats next to M. the wife of one of Jas’s childhood friends and her children. She gave Jas a sidelong look. “Aren’t you going to watch soccer with the guys?” she asked.

“Yes, you can go,”  I piped up.

He looked at me smiling. “That’s ok. I’ll stay for awhile.”  

See my face? I’m praying that the guy sitting behind me stays for the show. He didn’t.

The show started. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn’t get comfortable. The magician was the only other man in the room. It was like Jas wasn’t meant to be there. Or shouldn’t be there. After urging him to head out for the tenth time he rose from his seat. And that was when Cookie decided that he wasn’t going anywhere. When he tried to put her in my lap she squealed and squirmed. I spent the next twenty minutes trying to coax her to stay with me. The other women began to take notice. I’m certain they did. What kind of mother was I? Why wouldn’t my little one sit with me? And who was this man I married? Didn’t he have something better to do than sit and watch a kid’s magic show? At home, such thoughts would never have crossed my mind, but here I felt cloaked in inadequacy. 

Jas stayed for the whole thing. He was one of the first in the face-painting line with Cookie at the end of the show. Towering over the women, smiling from ear to ear as a butterfly was painted onto her cheek. Grinning for the camera. The women looked at him, then looked at me and my empty, empty arms–theirs all full of children.

A happy, happy Tata.

A happy, happy Tata.

As the group began to break up, Cookie and I, M. and her children and a few other women headed to a cafe close by.  Jas hopped in the car to meet his friends at the bar and catch up on the soccer game, planning to pick us up later. Cookie was sleepy at this point and easily settled into my arms and I felt better as Jas drove away and we all walked to the cafe. And then Cookie started to cry and squirm. She had had a stomachache the night before and as I tried to comfort her now I could feel her forehead heating up. I said goodnight to the women and walked the seven blocks home, holding Cookie all the way as she refused to walk.

After Jas learned that we were at home (having been texted by M.), he did his own disappearing act that night, drinking and catching up with his childhood friends until the wee hours of the morning. I gave Cookie a bath and dressed her for bed. I administered some Tylenol when her fever spiked. I rocked her, walking up and down the balcony for what seemed like hours until she fell asleep, my muscles aching and shaking. I cuddled and soothed her back to sleep each time the pain from her head or tummy woke her up.

For the first time that night I was adequate. And exhausted. And not a little jealous of my husband.

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Naming a Babe Bosnian-Style

We are expecting Babe #2 and as with our first, do not know whether we’re having a boy or a girl. We’re currently in the throes of picking out names for both genders. If we were to follow Bosnian tradition, we’d simply take Cookie’s name and locate the male version of it or restrict ourselves to a name that has the same first letter for a female and be done. Hence, Jasmin (my husband) and his sister Jasmina. When I first heard this pairing–I’ll admit it– I laughed. A bit hysterically. I figured this naming approach was a quirk his mom and dad possessed, but after spending time in Bosnia I soon realized that this “quirk” is a full-fledged cultural norm.

A man named Amir will likely have a sister Amira. There are Bojans and Bojanas, Darios and Darias, and Ivans and Ivanas—all male/ female siblings. And when siblings are the same gender, or the brood is larger, all of the siblings will have a name with the same first letter. A trio of sisters could be named Mirsada, Melisa and Mirhunisa.

Of course, these are not hard and fast rules, and the younger generations are beginning to break with the tradition. But, where does it come from? How did it begin? It’s all a mystery. Jas has no clue (though he does know that it’s not particular to any ethnicity) and my research turned up nothing as well. (If you have any knowledge of this, please share with me).

It also hasn’t helped us come up with a name for the new babe (we’re particularly stuck trying to find a boy’s name). So much pressure giving a human being a name s/he will have for life! On one hand, I envy the way Bosnians narrow down the process. On the other, the American in me relishes the wide array of choices available to us as evidenced by the two baby name books I own, the four apps Jas consults and the six lists we have going. And it’s nice to know that should we have a boy, our children will never have to deal with some idiot  cackling hysterically upon meeting them.

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Differences Between Mamas & Tatas–A Visual

“Mama, sing Number Five” my girl said to me as she snuggled down for bed.

Number Five?” I asked, wracking my brain.

“Yah. Number Five” she nodded.

“Um….I’m not sure I know that song.”

“Ok. Sing Silly Dogs Mama.”

“Huh. How about…She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain?”

“Yah. That’s good too.”

Later that night I told Jas, “Cookie asked me to sing Number Five and Silly Dogs.”

He nodded. “Those are my songs.”

“Oh?! How do they go?”

“I’m not really sure. I just make them up as I go along.”

I’ve been reading a lot about fathers lately–how their approaches to parenting expose children to different styles of communication, and how their methods of play introduce unpredictability. Ultimately the way men (speaking generally of course) parent help children become more independent, preparing them for dealing with all types of real-world situations. Following are some visual parenting differences I’ve captured over the past couple of years–a celebration of mama and tata (daddy) styles in our home.

How Mama dresses me:

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Easter dress

How Tata dresses me:

"She picked it out."

“She picked it out.”

How Mama plays with me:

At the touch museum

At the touch museum

How Tata plays with me:

"Higher Tata! Higher!"

“Higher Tata! Higher!”

"Yaaaaaaah!"

“Yaaaaaaah!”

Tools Mama lets me play with:

Making muffins.

Making muffins.

Tools Tata lets me play with:

Building a shelf.

Building a shelf.

Snack with Mama:

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Shucking corn

Snack with Tata:

Ok, she didn't actually have Nutella this young, but it was only a matter of time...

Ok, she didn’t actually have Nutella this young, but it was only a matter of time…

...before we had our first Nutella face.

…before we had our first Nutella face.

Sharing Mama’s loves:

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Pulled all the books off the shelf

Sharing Tata’s loves:

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Goal!

And yet, we still snuggle the same:

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Happy Father’s Day to all the unpredictable, delightful Tatas out there!

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I’d love to hear your own mama/tata parenting/ parented observations, so please share with me.

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