LETTERS FROM BERLIN
★ ★ ★ ★
I AM AN IMMIGRANT MOTHER
By Annie Mark-Westfall
I have a bad attitude in February, and my thoughts are scattered. It is always an exhausting month, even when I am not helping my infant and toddler get back to sleep every other hour, all night long. Amid the relentless cold and darkness, spring taunts us with early flower shoots—premature signs of hope that will be soon squashed by snow and ice. My son’s daycare administrator circulated a foreboding email with the subject line, “Grippewelle // Disease Wave.” This dramatic title prefaced a rather anti-climactic message about the flu going around. As if none of us realized that our children are essentially playing in a giant petri dish every day.
Every year for the past decade, I have vowed to travel somewhere sunny in February. Last year, our first winter in dark Berlin, it actually happened. While my husband was out one evening, I impulsively cashed in our credit card points and booked a long weekend in Rome. I was pregnant, winter-angry, and needed to prove to myself that we could still travel, even with children. Plus, there was a cutesy name for this type of thing: Babymoon. When everything was paid for, I texted my husband to tell him what I had done.
Are you mad?
Mad?! No, Rome will be awesome. And I know who I married.
This last line made me fall in love with him all over again. In that swoony way, though, not the way that happens when he volunteers to change one of our kids’ poopy diapers.
This winter we have two children, and I asked before booking a visit to exotic Bristol, England, to see my college roommate and her family. I splurged and rented a house with a stocked playroom, so that the children can leave us adults the hell alone, so that we can enjoy this family vacation. (Obviously, I only mean that a very little bit.) Actually, the reviews all mention the plethora of children’s books in the house. I am excited for this infusion of English language books, and the quality time with my son that this promises.
He is an insatiable reader, but the English section of our local library is too small to contain his interest. Each time, he demands that we check out some German books. Once home, I slide onto the couch, eager to read these children’s picture books auf Deutsch to help my own learning… but the moment my little angel realizes his error, he jerks the book out of my hands.
“Don’t read the words, Mommy. I look at the pictures by myself.”
The first time this happened, my husband and I laughed until we cried. We grew up in a small university town in Ohio, with a relatively large immigrant population. We each have fond and funny memories about the parents of our first-generation American friends. My favorite is my husband’s story about the Middle Eastern mother who sewed lace belt loops on her son’s Little League baseball pants.
When I first heard that story, I was not yet a mother, and I cringed for the boy in the story. Now, after my own little boy has so roundly rejected my own assimilation efforts, I cringe for the mom.
My heart sees a fellow immigrant mother with boundless love for her child, hunched over his too-big pants, late at night before his next game. She is exhausted and dreading the hours at the baseball field where she must nod and smile, and pretend to understand and enjoy the game and its commentary around her. Maybe she ran out of fabric, and it was too late to go to the store; or maybe lace belt loops are sufficiently masculine in her home country. The next day, as her son ran onto the field with his pants firmly held in place, she felt proud and grateful for the life she was providing for her precious child. She had no idea that her efforts—a small but monumental gesture of love that was everything in her universe at the time—would earn them both ridicule for the next 25 years.
This narrative I have invented is clearly more of a reflection of my own fears and insecurities than anything that probably happened. However, the lace belt loops become a shorthand symbol for the insecurities that my husband and I share as immigrant parents. It is what we text each other when we find ourselves experiencing an immigrant parent moment—like the day I rushed my son to daycare, only to stare at the darkened windows.
Coming home to sew on the lace belt loops. Apparently today is a public holiday.
It is easy to despair, during these moments. To feel like an outsider. To question whether you, or your children, will ever fully belong to this new land. In fact, though, on better days–in better months– I realize that I am re-learning one of the important lessons that my parents instilled in me, that “People are people”. By this, we mean that everyone, regardless of their standing in life, is human—which comes with certain essential truths that connect all of us. That feeling of connection to humanity can, in the best sense, flatten the world. It can travel across time and cultures, letting me connect with a fellow immigrant mother 25 years ago. On the loneliest days of living in a foreign land, I am grateful for that lesson, that feeling of connection.
Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization.
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