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.”
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.
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.