Since when I became a mother, I’ve kept wondering how will our multicultural family influence our children’s cultural identity. Adopting our son from India has added a new layer to this. How will R and E culturally define themselves as adults? What actions can I take as a parent to help them navigate through their identity building journey? I am blessed with many friends from other countries and cultures, and some of them were so kind to share their story with me for my new blog series “Growing up in a multicultural family“.
Katerina contacted me from The Netherlands with a rich story about cultural identity. She was born in Switzerland to a Spanish mother and a German father. Her family lived a couple of years in Germany, and then moved to Brussels, which, she explains, “is very multicultural and it’s not Flemish, it’s not Walloon, it’s not German, it’s Brussels“. She attended the European school in the Belgian capital, which introduced her to several different cultures and an underlying message of respecting diversity. That meant also “to put your own national values, the things that make you German, Spanish, to put them aside and adopt broader values where everybody fits in”. She and her three sisters grew up in a neighbourhood she defines as “Belgian and to a certain degree Arabic”. When they lived in Switzerland, her parents used to talk French to each other. After moving to Germany, her mother learned German language and started regularly speaking it at home with her children and husband. While they were living in Belgium, she was the main carer. As a result, Katerina tells me she doesn’t speak Spanish and her main language is German, even though she learned it through a non-native speaker. She describes her situation as “the disconnect of speaking one language [German] and not really knowing what it means to be a German kid”. She feels she missed many key experiences of growing up as a German child, like kindergarten songs, TV programmes, children’s books. At the same time, she didn’t experience the Spanish upbringing or Belgian education, which placed her in the middle of all these cultures: “My parents didn’t think how the different cultures fitted with each other”.
While in school she met her future husband, who belonged to an Irish family. They have four daughters together aged from 3 years to 8 years old, all born and raised in The Netherlands. Tragically, he passed away in late 2016. Beside the trauma of losing her spouse, Katerina found herself with many questions regarding the cultural identity of her children. Given her personal history, she is fully aware of the power of roots and strongly feels the responsibility to introduce her children to their father’s birth culture. Katerina and her husband used to speak English with each other and, as a consequence, the family culture leaned more towards the Irish side. She had some strategies in place to foster German culture already and recently she found herself having to set up similar patterns to enforce the Irish cultural roots, which she is little familiar with. “Since my husband passed away, my struggle has been to give the kids enough Irish culture that they can have the roots if they want to, while not knowing anything about being an Irish kid [myself]”. For instance, her daughters have visited their maternal grandmother in Ireland last summer and Katerina is planning to send them to Gaelic camps later on: “the language is the vehicle to be part of the culture”. She perceives her children feel mostly Irish.
Katerina makes conscious choices about exposing her girls to different cultures, maybe also due to her professional background as a researcher in professional and social identity, which includes exploring minorities and the impact of cultural identity at work. “I think that helped me to reflect on what happened”.
Her opinion is that growing in a multicultural family “is an asset because it provides you flexibility to find a place you can call home”. She says sometimes she’s jealous of people who have defined origins, but adds, “[a multicultural family] gives you the tools to build the strong roots you choose to have”. She advises fellow parents to rely on children’s books. I totally agree, that’s our favourite and most effective communication tool.
This interview provided me with plenty of insights about how a child, and later an adult, can feel about growing up in a multicultural environment. After talking to Katerina, I am stronger in my belief that we parents can have a huge impact on how our children feel. Being an expat I’m familiar with the constant discomfort of not having a place to truly call home and I don’t want that for my kids. At the same time, when Katerina shared how her mother put aside her birth culture when raising her children, it didn’t feel like a convenient trade-off. We cannot ignore our birth culture is the one we know the most and can truly impart to our children. I am grateful to Katerina for sharing her unique point of view and also her painful experiences to the benefit of other parents. You can read more about Katerina’s family life and story on her blog, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
If you liked this post, you may want to check out the others in this series.