Published on March 15th, 2022 | by Milda M De Voe


“You Know How Americans Are”

I have kids that don’t speak Lithuanian, because I did not have the tenacity to make them learn it once they realized that English was the language everyone else spoke. I remember the day I quit trying. My 3-year-old son came home from his first week of preschool, and when I spoke to him in our home-language, he shouted until he was red in the face, “Talk MEDIUM, mom.”

He didn’t even have the words to say “speak English”—he only knew that my language was not the language everyone else in his world was now speaking, and that enraged him.

The preface of Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, And Chart New Paths for Their Children by Masha Rumer promises: “a portrait of the different ways immigrants are honoring their heritage while integrating their families into American life.” I was ready to jump right in and see how helpful Rumer could be in answering the question of assimilation vs ancestry. It occurred to me that while I was curious to hear the experiences of others, mainly, as an immigrant parent myself, I hoped to see myself reflected in its pages.

And I wanted to be forgiven.

It is a funny quirk of having a heritage from any country smaller than the United States that you feel a sort of buried-treasure-discovery moment whenever you see the name of your country in a book written by someone who isn’t from there. I skipped ahead to see if she would mention Lithuanians. It was the first of many unfair challenges I set this author. In addition to the question of how comprehensive Rumer’s diaspora would be, I also wondered whether she would have any professional responses to the questions that plagued me within the first year of having a newborn natural American citizen:

  1. Do you name your child an ethnic-sounding name?
  2. Do you teach your heritage-language to your child?
  3. If you do, when do you introduce them to English? If you don’t, do you ever introduce them to your heritage-language? When?
  4. How many of your family’s traditions do you pass on and which ones?
  5. Do you celebrate the culture’s traditional holidays? and if they fall on the same day as a holiday in the new culture, do you celebrate in the local way or the heritage-way or try to mix? Do you include non-heritage friends to the celebrations that you celebrate in the heritage-way?

Leaving aside the question of citizenship, cultural values, and parenting styles, these are difficult, guilt-inducing questions, and they apply to every immigrant family—but as Rumer quickly points out, questions like these are more keenly obvious when there is a heritage to either preserve or escape. Religion being tied to heritage is another major issue for most immigrants, one that Rumer only glancingly addresses as part of national culture. Somehow, guilt is mostly absent in these pages. Rumer presents a carefree delight in glimpses of American families of every language and color, presenting a superfluity of  creatively blended families raising kids to be global citizens. It is in this gleeful inclusiveness that Rumer shines. She is hopeful.

But I was reading to find forgiveness, not community. I was raised Lithuanian in Texas. My parents who raised four kids on a state university chemist’s salary managed to send me overseas to learn the language of their parents, and I came back both fluent and politically active. Though living in a small town in Texas, I proudly wore my ethnic name until I got married, and there was no question in my pre-parenthood mind that my eventual children would be bilingual—there are simply too many benefits to learning a second language to even consider denying them this pleasure.

But oh, friends, children have minds of their own.  

When I was nine, I was forced to copy an entire page from a Lithuanian history book with all the grammar and punctuation perfect before I could go out to play on Saturdays, because my Texas town didn’t have the option of Lithuanian School like the kids in Chicago and Cleveland and DC. Did I make similar demands of my kids? I did not, even though my kids were born in New York City, where Lithuanian weekend schools could have been reached by subway. There was one week where I put post-it notes in Lithuanian on various nouns in the home, but my daughter quickly disabused me of the notion that we would be speaking in Lithuanian, even when I promised “ten minutes only.” I needed backup—and America didn’t give me backup. America wanted my kids to be content and feel proud at home, not angry that they didn’t know the word for window. “It’s hard enough to just do school, Mom,” I was told.

Rumer addresses this issue in chapter 6: “Bilingualism: an uphill battle sometimes,” a relentlessly kind chapter, in which she confesses her struggles teaching her children a second language. At the end of this chapter, the author shrugs off the problem of children who don’t want to learn, and does not at all address spouses who might side with the kids. The chapter’s suggestion is that raising kids bilingual is hard, so it is okay to fail—you tried, anyway! (But later in the book she says: “I begin to notice how much they already know. And the more I marvel, the more they want to learn, on their own volitions and with plenty of enthusiasm.” Rumer’s kids DID learn to speak Russian, and the implication is that if yours did not, it is because you didn’t stick with it, not that this is bad—she is clear that she does not blame anyone who failed.) 

I would have loved a piece in there—and maybe it’s what I’m trying to write now—that exposes the intense pain of this failure and suggests ways to ameliorate it. True, Rumer collects such a vast quantity of anecdotes from such a vast assortment of mixed-culture marriages that you do feel that you are not alone. Every family is different and it is impossible to meet all the expectations you might have for yourself and your kids. But this diaspora inadvertently highlights a different truth about the global expectation of parents: that if you truly love a thing, you probably ought to pass it on to your kids.

Because no one else will.

The fact that so many of us fail to manage at bilingualism might, in fact, point to a failure of American Society to accept bilingualism as important—a failure of our schools to support this learning at home, while also not teaching it in the classroom.

The conclusions drawn by Rumer boil down to “do your best and accept this as enough” – which ironically is the forgiveness that I was seeking. But the whole time I was reading this book I felt angry at America: why does it not value multilingualism? Why are “foreign” foods not eagerly accepted? These stories illuminate a schism between the children of immigrants whose parents kept their culture and those that aggressively assimilated: those of us who have our own special foods want to try the special foods in other cultures, we respect and are intrigued by traditions that do not belong to us—much like Rumer, we feel solidarity with the vast diversity of families who have their own unique history and we want to hear that history and share ours. We want to compare and contrast, to be openminded and learn. But between the lines of this book, we learn that the overall culture of America, at least in its schools, is one that suppresses everything that isn’t familiar. Second languages are suspicious and foods with strange names are to be avoided (herring under fur coat salad is the dish that Rumer repeatedly mentions, in my own culture it is bacon buns—you’ve never lived until you’ve tried them).

This is a smoked fish. A Lithuanian beach snack.

If you teach your child another language, Rumer hints, it can be painful if they get it wrong—if the language is accented or badly spoken, whether the accent is in their grasp of the home-language or English. We don’t like our children to make errors. Same for traditions. I get this: in my own home, my children don’t know the traditions of Lithuanian Christmas Eve beyond eating fish dishes. I have allowed everything religious to fall by the wayside in favor of the foods alone, and even then I don’t usually have the forty-eight hours it takes to cook like my grandma did so I skip the cranberry kissel and the poppy seed milk. My kids have tasted these traditional foods in relatives’ homes, but when it is just us, we are lucky to have bread to break and a candle or two. Forget the idea of singing the traditional folk songs in their original language.

A spectrum of possibilities exist for an immigrant parent between rigidly maintaining every aspect of the heritage culture for their child and completely assimilating that child by subsuming the family into the new culture. When parents reduce this spectrum of choice to an all-vs-nothing binary decision, immigrant parenthood causes guilt and pain for all parties.

But as in all parenting choices, no matter where you fall on a spectrum it can cause fracas among not just family but also opinionated strangers. Where Parenting with an Accent knocks it out of the ballpark is in Rumer’s inclusiveness: she is determined not to write a binary how-to book. Instead, she presents flawed and fascinating parents from various countries and cultures in a vivid kaleidoscope of relationships, from LGBTQ+ parents to new parents who were themselves raised by various blends of immigrants. By presenting swaths of culture-mixed couples, Rumer illuminates how humans have individual relationships, not only to our cultures and spouses but to parenthood itself.

An expert pops up: “Be openminded about different cultural norms and expectations,” says Jaime Cárcamo a therapist specializing in immigrant families with trauma or facing deportation when asked by the author to give advice to immigrant parents in day-to-day situations. He goes on to explain that accepting differences while preserving values is not mutually exclusive. Later he reminds the author, “Not all immigrant families are the same.” He is the first of many experts who are extensively interviewed by Rumer, their expertise layered in among the anecdotes like a multi-level cake with slices of froth and fruit.

And that is both the blessing and the curse of this extraordinary attempt to include the whole world into a book about parenting. Rumer’s book is peppered with interviews and memoir, her own experiences as a Russian Jewish mom who wasn’t able to teach her child Russian providing an anecdotal prism through which she invites an enormous cast of diverse immigrant parents to make an appearance. If there is a flaw in the book, it is that the author occasionally conflates general parenting values with cultural heritage questions, thereby reducing both.

Intergenerational Lithuanian Easter includes candles, traditional egg painting, the next generation, and mushroom-shaped gingerbread.

While the vast majority of Rumer’s anecdotal stories do stem from questions of culture and heritage, in some of them, the moms are simply struggling with the age-old question: “do I do what my mother tells me is right or what I feel is right?” and the fact that the mom is from a different culture is irrelevant.

The book itself has a readable, friendly, and inclusive tone, like attending a party where the host is exuberantly attempting to make sure no one feels left out. “The society’s treatment of interracial and multicultural unions is often laden with prejudice,” she writes in an understatement. Yet it is truly a difficult task to take on the whole world—and the immigrant question must do exactly this. Racial issues are briefly addressed and kudos to her for the chapter on myths.

Rumer gives us stories of children raised speaking three languages, children with opinionated grandparents pushing superstitions from four different countries, or children who visit more than one house of worship every Sunday. This is an incredibly diverse conglomeration of families that have not chosen an either/or approach to heritage, but have stacked one heritage upon another, creating in their American child a fascinating young human who successfully traverses geography and language, tradition and novelty, for however many countries as are vital in their specific family. It is a terrific joyride through a world of possible combinations—and there are few countries left out of the mix.

But what I found missing in all the celebration, between the (quite useful) selections of expert opinions, was the reality of a particular grief: the pain of failing to meet your own expectations for your children. I know the feeling of having kids that don’t speak my language, don’t know my heritage and consider my mother’s traditions, which themselves are watered-down versions of the traditions brought overseas by my grandmother, merely quaint and funny. Rumer tells the reader it’s normal: “It’s impossible – and quite unnecessary, actually—to do it all.”

But the fact that other people also find it difficult to raise multicultural kids does not make it any less valuable to me, nor does it make me feel any better to know that my kids are not the only kids who can’t fluently communicate with their great-grandmothers.

I spent many years avoiding Lithuanian-American events because it was painful to me to be confronted by women who shook their heads at my children’s monolingual upbringing. It was even more dreadful to feel my own ability with the language erode over time thanks to avoiding contact with these others of my culture. Had I read this book when my children were little, it is unclear whether it would have bolstered my resolution to pass the gifts of my ancestry on to my kids. However, I might have more gracefully accepted the fact that the cultural gifts I bestowed were neither perfect nor complete. It’s all okay, says Rumer, adding that even without fluency in an extra language, whatever you create is still home.

Lithuanians eat cold beet soup. It is a hard-to-believe pink.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

M. De Voe is a writer as well as an advocate for writers with kids. She founded the nonprofit Pen Parentis to help other writers with kids stay on creative track. The author of the prize-winning guide, BOOK & BABY,the complete guide to managing chaos & becoming a wildly successful writer-parent,she holds an MFA from Columbia and has won more than 20 awards for short literary fiction and poetry. Website: Tweets @mmdevoe


Comments are closed.

Back to Top ↑
  • Subscribe to Mutha

    Enter your email address to subscribe to MUTHA and receive notifications of new articles by email.

    Email Frequency