As someone who struggled with my own ethnic identity growing up, I often wonder how to cultivate a strong sense of belonging and identity in my daughter.
She is a mix of at least six different ethnic backgrounds. My husband is Greek, Puerto Rican, Irish and German. I am half South Indian and half Parsi. We come from different religious backgrounds and were raised in different parts of the country. Because our own nuclear families were already so mixed, we grew up exposed to different cultures but not fully committed to any one identity.
I’ve noticed more and more millennial families that look like ours. Interracial and interethnic marriages have multiplied in recent decades, and naturally the percentage of mixed-race children has also grown by 50 percent over the last decade. There is so much beauty in people coming together, merging and integrating their cultures and religious traditions, and creating new rituals that feel authentic to their values. But multicultural families also face many anxieties, particularly against the backdrop of a polarized news cycle and racially charged political speech.
Cultural issues, unlike other parenting issues I’ve explored, can remain dormant for months or even years, until they flare up. This happens a lot around the holidays, which force some degree of practical decision making (“Are we getting a Christmas tree? Are some of these presents supposed to come from Santa? Are we spending this holiday with my family or yours?”). Starting a family makes you think about things that weren’t as important to you, or were easily ignored, before becoming a parent.
I spoke to several families and what I found was more questions, a variety of approaches, and some encouraging pearls of wisdom about how to engage in the tough conversations with your partner, kids, extended families and broader communities.
Several families are taking an all-in approach to integrating the customs, rituals and nostalgic elements of their own childhoods to blend traditions and make everyone feel included. This can be particularly important for immigrants, who are physically leaving behind not only their extended families but their communities and cultures.
Jenny Perotti Lim, whose husband, Tim, is the son of South Korean immigrants, says they have merged traditions to make sure their daughter has a strong sense of her identity. “We just celebrated Penelope’s doljanchi, where the baby wears a traditional dress and then chooses what her life is going to be [by reaching for symbolic objects]. When Penny was born, we chose a Korean name for her, 임 서 윤 [Seo-Yun Lim]. That was really important to us, to make sure she knows her Korean name and what it means — ‘felicitous omen.’” They also benefit from having Tim’s mother nearby, who reads to their daughter in Korean and is teaching Tim and Jenny how to cook traditional Korean dishes.
Neha Ruch, who is Indian American and converted to Judaism prior to marrying her husband, Dan, is raising their children Bodie and Lyla in the Jewish faith. The family is also committed to instilling a sense of open-mindedness and inclusivity in their home. They reevaluate each year which traditions make the most sense and feel authentic for each family member. For Dan, that means lighting the Shabbat candles, saying Jewish prayers and attending synagogue. “There’s the ability to integrate or modernize those things to feel relevant to our family. ... Last year we did ‘Hanukkah stockings’ and we put up lights on our cactus plant.” This year, their family created a “holiday tree,” decorated with ornaments chosen by 3-year-old Bodie, and topped with a Star of David.
It’s also important to both of them to create traditions based on the values that come from Neha’s family. “Both my children’s names are Sanskrit. We are taking them to India for their first trip this year. I have most of my extended family there, and I want them to be as comfortable there eventually as I am. It’s important to me that they understand there’s a world that is bigger than this country.”
Angerlyk (“Angie”) Frytz, mother to newborn Cooper, came to the United States from Venezuela and ended up meeting her husband Justin, who grew up in Indiana. Despite the fact that they are both Christian and celebrate Christmas, their cultures did so in very different ways. “Back home, Christmas Eve is a big party, everyone eats and drinks a lot and stays up really late opening gifts. Here, you go to bed early and open the presents in the morning. For me, that was a big shock.”
Among immigrants I spoke with, a common anxiety is the distance of their extended family, who could otherwise have helped to bring some of their heritage to their children’s upbringing. “One of my biggest fears is that he won’t develop a relationship with [my parents]. He won’t understand not only how amazing they are, but all the richness of my culture. ... I’d like him to see himself as American, but Venezuelan too,” says Frytz.
Other families face more of an impasse when it comes to cultural differences. In these instance, one approach is to give each family member the space to decide for themselves. Jenn Taussig Nguyen, who is Jewish and mother to baby William, told me that the conversation about religion was one of the toughest she and her husband, Tim, ever had.
“We had very different views. In Judaism, the mother carries the religion, so that’s what I had assumed would happen,” she says. “My husband was not okay with that. So, we agreed to raise him neutral.”
This means that Nguyen celebrates all the Jewish holidays and continues to regularly go to her synagogue, but they’ll let their son decide for himself.
Nguyen still hopes to instill some values from Judaism that are most important to her. “There’s something in the Jewish religion called mitzvahs: good deeds, volunteering, and ways of giving back to your community. If there’s anything I want my son to take on from my religion, it’s that. It’s important to have that aspect of him being a good citizen and giving back to the world.”
No matter how open minded or inclusive parents attempt to be within their own families, there’s always an outside world to contend with. The idea of sending our kids out into that world, with its judgment and sometimes outright hatred, can be terrifying. Many parents feel these fears acutely.
Blanca Velasquez, whose family moved to the United States from Mexico for her father’s job, told me, “Sometimes, I’m scared about bringing a child into this. As we are exposing him to everything about my culture, I can’t help but think: How am I going to explain this to him in a way that makes him proud and confident enough that he wants to speak up about his identity and claim it without fear?”
Camesha Mullner, who is a black mother to five multiracial children, has navigated many tough conversations about race as her children have grown up. She wants her kids feel good about themselves and who they are. “I wanted my daughters to have dolls that looked like them, with the same hair color and texture. It was really important for me to see that there are others that look like them. They all do now feel good about who they are in their skin — and even in this climate, they are more outspoken about identifying as African American.”
Mullner shares some valuable advice about handling these conversations as children become teenagers and young adults. “The thing that is really important is to meet your kids where they are. There are some things you can’t tell them when they’re really young, but you can use an analogy or story that makes sense to them. Get them to understand how people think and process things. Why do people think the way they do? What was that person’s experience, where have they been, what have they seen? If you treat and speak to them with respect and honesty, they will embody those things.”
For those who don’t necessarily feel a strong pull from their own childhood traditions, or simply want to start fresh, there’s also the choice to just make it up entirely.
A few years ago, inspired by this essay on family stories, my husband and I started talking about what we want our own family narrative to be. In developing our family story, we’d focus less on our differences and more on our shared interests and values, and the experiences that made us feel more connected to each other. Since the arrival of our daughter, it’s become even more important to create a family story that will give her a sense of safety and security.
We’re developing our own rituals, some large and some small. Since we first started dating 11 years ago, an annual autumn trip to the Shenandoah Valley was our tradition. Anyone who lives in Washington, D.C., knows the joy and relief that comes when the oppressive humidity transitions to crisp, cool air and brilliant fall colors. We mark the transition by spending time outdoors. We’ve now incorporated our daughter into this tradition, so it looks more like pumpkin and apple picking than the wine tasting or three-hour hikes of years past.
We’ve started making waffles together on Sunday mornings, and she’s now old enough to start helping out. Every night before her bath, I hold her little face in my hands and tell her the list of family members who love her. My husband and I will often hold her hand between ours and say, like a pre-game handshake, “One, two, three...FAMILY!” It delights me to see that she now enthusiastically yells it herself. In lieu of prayers, my husband and I have started telling each other things we are grateful for before we go to bed, and I’d love for our daughter to do the same as she gets older and is able to express those thoughts.
None of it is groundbreaking or terribly creative. But simple as they are, I’ve noticed that these little routines have the power to more strongly bind together our otherwise seemingly disparate parts. Our hope was that family rituals would bring comfort and confidence to my daughter, but I’ve realized they actually bring those same elements to my husband and me.