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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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Maternity Leave & Where It’s Left Me & My Babe

It’s been awhile since I’ve written. Not because I haven’t had time or been at a loss for ideas, but because whenever I sat down to write about maternity leaves, I ‘d get angry and tongue-tied. Rather than waste another hour trying to decide how to approach the subject with a level head, I’ve chosen to write my angry post in the hopes it will help me move on both in my heart and with this blog.

I’m a college instructor in New Jersey. With my first daughter, I was a half-timer and only eligible 6 weeks leave (my other job at the time had no maternity leave protection and could not give me financial or job support until the following semester). This time I am at full-time status and yet because I gave birth to Bean during the summer outside of my contract, I lost all of the time allotted to me with full pay (4 – 6 weeks) had I given birth during the school year. Instead, I had the option to take up to twelve weeks of leave for 60% of my salary.

This may sound like a lot. It’s not. Financially I was only able to take six weeks and even then, I was stretching the family budget. As compared to the rest of the world*, maternity leave in America, the country that prides itself on upholding family values, is laughably hypocritical at best, and downright damaging at worst.

“I’m lucky” is the mantra of these early days of my second daughter’s life. Lucky that I love my job. Lucky that I work unorthodox hours and that I’m able to spend most of my days with my girls. Lucky that the days I can’t spend with them, they are still at my home with someone who loves them.

It’s what I tell myself when I receive a text with a video of Bean crawling–a moment I missed. It’s what I tell myself when I’m painfully hand-expressing milk in a bathroom stall during my lunch break. It’s what I tell myself when I receive a call in-between classes that Bean is crying inconsolably because she misses her mother, or that she refuses to eat only taking a few tugs from a bottle during an eight-hour day. “I’m lucky,” is what I say to mitigate the frustration, anger and sorrow I feel in these moments. I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m….

*Bosnia-Herzegovina makes this list of countries with enviable maternity leave policies. The policy however encourages female hiring discrimination in a country where the unemployment rate is 30%; and its inefficient and corrupt political system has led to childcare horrors such as those that spurred the Bosnia baby revolution just months ago. 

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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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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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Kafa vs. Coffee

Sitting on Jasmina’s couch, I found myself alone with my niece’s new nanny–a young woman who spoke beautiful English. This was the first time we had met. She asked me where in America I was from and indicated she was familiar with my particular location in New Jersey. “Oh! Have you been there?!” I asked enthusiastically.

“No, no” she replied, flipping her hand. “I watch a lot of movies. The truth is, I don’t like Americans.”

Oh. As I struggled for both a response and a film that my small town had been featured in, she quickly followed it with “No offense to you. It’s just….I don’t understand people who walk down the street drinking a cup of coffee.”

It’s hard to think of a culture that takes its coffee, or kafa as seriously as Bosnians. Their passion for the drink is so great that if you spit in any direction, you’ll hit a coffee bar. Most Bosnians drink several unadulterated espresso-sized cups a day. Ask for milk and you’ll get a sideways look. Forget finding a spot that serves it with whipped cream, caramel or any of the other accoutrements so popular in America today. Kafa is served straight up with a bowl of sugar cubes on the side. It’s drunk before one heads to work, never on the way to work. Nor is it swallowed in one shot as some cultures are prone to do. Coffee drinking in Bosnia is a part of the day that one slows down for, not a means to an end.

When you knock on a neighbor’s door, kafa is brewing before you step over the threshold. Boiling water is poured into a long handled pot and a few tablespoons of kafa are added. The pot is placed on the hot burner to simmer for a minute or two and then is brought to the table with tiny espresso cups and a bowl of sugar cubes. Some sip it straight, while others dip the sugar cube into the cup, bring the cube to their mouth so the dipped sugar breaks off, and then follow it with a sip from their cup, ensuring that each taste of kafa has the perfect amount of sugar. (I’ve never seen anyone drop an entire cube into their cup).

Traditional Bosnian coffee pot

Traditional Bosnian coffee pot

“Sip” is the operative word here though, as kafa is a daily indulgence. An event. It is a time of day to sit and rest. To breathe. To talk with your family, your neighbor, or a complete stranger.  It is a symbol of hospitality, respect, and even superstition as some Bosnian women claim to have the power to read your future in the stray grounds left in your cup. And yet, I’m sheepish to admit, I’ve never been able to join in this daily tradition as coffee has always given me dreadful stomach aches. As an American, I’m allowed such “odd” behavior (hosts will pat me on the back and give me a cup of juice), but Jas is also not a coffee drinker simply because he does not like the taste. This is not as acceptable and he often finds himself “drinking” a cup for the two of us. What he really does is use it as a dip for the ubiquitous sugar cubes. It’s not uncommon for a host to rise and refill the bowl repeatedly when we visit.

The honest nanny was not employed by the family long–something about eating her weight in Eurocrem–but her observations on our different approaches to coffee drinking did , and still do, ring metaphorically true. When I’m home in America, I think of her everytime I see someone speed-walking, cell phone in one hand, styrofoam cup in the other.

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The Season of Roses

We have a rose-bush in our backyard and the first bud bloomed today. I imagine the same thing is happening in Bosnia, a place I cannot help but think of whenever and wherever I see roses. Though the official national flower is the golden lily, the country is awash in roses. If you travel there in the spring and summer months you will find roses in the garden of every home no matter the economic status of the owners. And if the wind catches just right…their scent will overwhelm you.

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See?!

A beloved flower, they appear in the most unlikely places. These beauties?–

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–they’re outside of a Target-type department store.

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This little group graces the exterior of a car insurance company.

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You’ll even find them outside of gas stations.

Excuse the long view.

Excuse the long view.

Roses are used to make juice

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…and they have become a metaphor for the losses from the war in Bosnia as Sarajevans saw their familiar petals in the grenade blasts on the street and subsequently filled the crevices with red paint. (That is a topic for another day though).

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*

To mark the season of blooming roses, here is a bud for you–similar to the ones my father-in-law Akif would cut and give to me every morning after I’d stumble down to breakfast bleary-eyed and jet-lagged.

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Enjoy!

*Thanks to wikipedia for the image of the Sarajevo rose.

 

 

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