Motherlode: adventures in parenting
April 9, 2009, 9:38 am
Raising a Child in Two Worlds
By Lisa Belkin
When I first put out a call for guest bloggers, I explained that I could only inhabit my own life — married, working mother of two teenage boys living in the New York City suburbs — and that I was looking for first-hand accounts of walking in different pairs of shoes. Nicole Sprinkle’s guest essay today meets that goal, and then some; it is about her realization that she can never fully inhabit the world that her daughter will live in, either.
A CHILD OF TWO WORLDS
By NICOLE SPRINKLE
My child doesn’t look quite like me (Caucasian) or her father (Colombian); she’s something new for both families. When I was pregnant, the thought of having an “exotic” looking child based on our combined genetics – Jose’s inky black hair, dark eyes, and round face coupled with my waspy, delicate looks and tiny build – hadn’t really occurred to me. When my short, funny husband won me over, the only real consideration I gave to our genetic future was: If it’s a boy, he won’t get on any basketball team.
Then I gave birth to our daughter, Nina, and race and culture became, for the first time, an “issue.” Well, actually, that’s not completely true. Riding the overnight train to Florida a few years ago, Jose and I were woken by two plainclothes officers flashing badges, demanding to search our luggage. A routine inspection. But the next morning, I found out none of the other passengers got inspected. Finally, our concierge admitted the search wasn’t entirely random. At the height of the if-you-see-something-say-something era, we were officially “suspicious-looking passengers.”
I was stunned. We were well-dressed and groomed. In New York, no one gives us a second look, but south of the Mason Dixon we’re a dubious pair of shifty-looking ne’re-do-wells. Like a dream, the eeriness of it lingered with me for a few weeks, and then was forgotten. But when I had Nina, I remembered, and hated the thought that such a thing could happen to her. Would her choices of where to live or travel be compromised by her looks? Or would her mixed genes work in her favor? Not being quite Hispanic-looking enough to make her a victim of racism, but enough for, say, college scholarships? Maybe she’d walk through different worlds at will, be whoever she needed to be for any situation. Nice in theory, but the idea of conveniently shifting identities to protect or promote herself left me cold.
And then came her face. Total windfall! Just the right amount of him mixed with the perfect bit of me made for a stunning-looking child (a mini version of Bjork, hard to pin down racially). And people began “asking” us — they lectured us, really — whether she would learn Spanish as well as English. I took the bait, constantly nagging Jose to speak to Nina only in Spanish, while I would speak to her in English.
What I didn’t fully understand was that my husband wasn’t so comfortable speaking his first language. Finally, he told me of moving to America when he was 3, falling ill, and finding himself at a hospital where all the doctors spoke this new, strange language. A nurse once left him in the bathtub and forgot about him for hours. Shivering, he sat there naked and silent, all because he didn’t know the word “help.” So, like immigrant children do, he studied his cartoons and left the hospital, after nearly a year-long stay, almost fluent. Having learned more than I bargained for, I hired a Spanish-speaking nanny instead.
For nearly a year, a gentle-mannered Honduran woman cared for my baby while my husband and I worked. Nina soaked up Spanish words as quickly as English ones, and I’d find myself stumped on occasion. Like at the playground, when she kept saying her name over and over. I finally figured out she was referring to other kids — the “ninas.”
Then my mom asked if I thought this was interfering with her proper pronunciation of English. The next morning, I called the pediatrician, asking if overall language development can be delayed by learning two languages. He assured me that as long as she was hearing native speakers, there’d be no problem. Which language would emerge as dominant, I asked. Impossible to answer, he said, and I began to panic. Yes, I wanted her to be bilingual, but I didn’t want Spanish to be the language she identified with most. Yeah, my kid was of two cultures, and, yes, she would learn Spanish and English, but to emphasize her Latina side, I felt, was somehow a disservice. Frankly, I didn’t want her to lose any of the privileges of being white. I didn’t want prejudice or any extra hardship or confusion — like my husband still feels. I just wanted the eyelashes, and cheekbones, and that lyrical Spanish when appropriate. I wanted the good stuff, and from both sides. I wanted it all.
Eventually, our nanny left us and my husband and I put Nina in neighborhood daycare. The ladies were primarily Dominican — caring, engaged women with whom I truly trusted my child. They had a Webcam to boot. Yet, on the first day I went to check it out, I found myself noting how many kids were Hispanic, how many black and how many white. Out of nine toddlers, there were several white ones. I was both ashamed and secretly relieved.
When the owner of the daycare sent home an enrollment form, I saw she’d already filled out the race portion; she’d placed a check next to Hispanic. I e-mailed her the next day to say that everything on the form looked fine except that Nina was half Hispanic and half Caucasian, thank you very much. There it was again, that uncomfortable feeling, accompanied by an angry reaction. I think I mostly felt indignant that a stranger tried to sum up my kid’s identity when that’s clearly my job for now. And I also wanted that half Caucasian. She might need it later, you know.
One evening, just as I was loosening up about the whole thing, my husband casually commented on the way our day care ladies spoke. When I pushed, he tried to delicately explain it wasn’t quite as “nice” as the last nanny’s.
He wasn’t so worried. Of course, he’s not worried about lead poisoning either. But as sweet and caring as these women are, I was bothered by the misspelled words on their daily reports — even simple ones.
When Nina is ready for real school, the choices in our neighborhood don’t thrill me either. Because of the dominant immigrant population, many have a heavy focus on learning English. While I understand that need, I can’t pretend I don’t worry that my daughter’s education will be slowed while she waits for other kids to learn her native language. Plenty of Caucasian parents in my neighborhood have chosen them, are determined to advocate for better education by keeping their kids there instead of fleeing south. I admire them, truly. But at the end of the day, I’m just not ready to make that leap of faith where my daughter’s concerned. I’m not proud of this, but I’ve accepted it as my parental right.
We enrolled her to start in a private midtown nursery school instead — when she turns 2. It’ll cost us almost my whole paycheck, but there won’t be any rough Spanish — or any homemade rice and beans for lunch like the current day care. (I’ll miss that delicious smell.) But there will be plenty of children like Nina, born to biracial couples. I think most likely it’ll be pretty easy for her to just be Nina there, without having to align more or less with either side of herself. Plus, Abuela Trujillo in Queens will affirm her dad’s culture and Grandma Thompson will affirm mine — salsa dancing and golf, respectively.
Lately, I’ve been teaching Nina colors. Red bird. Black cat. White dog. At our most primal level of language acquisition, we turn to color to make sense of the world around us. We use it to simplify the complexity of language, and then later to simplify social complexities, not always for the better, but because it comes so naturally.
Motherhood is constantly realizing that so much of her life will be out of my control. So is it so terrible for me to see that one of her cultures maybe edges out the other? Just a teeny, tiny bit? If Latinos ruled the world, maybe I’d push things to go the other way, but political correctness and cultural diversity aside, I want her doing well in life — money, success, respect, opportunities, and, most of all, safety. Not gonna apologize for that, though I wish it could be otherwise. I also wish that there weren’t so many boxes to check — and that the only alternative to choosing one is to write on the blank line “Other.”