I was born a Southern belle, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and spent virtually the whole of my childhood a Yankee in Great Neck, New York. Today I live in Glasgow, Scotland of all places, an honorary Brit, and a large ocean away from where I once called home. I first moved to the UK for graduate school, because I was an anglophile. I loved the sarcasm, the scones, the double decker buses, the very idea of Britishness; I wanted to wrap myself in it, like a fine Burberry scarf, for as long as I possibly could. Though I clutched a one-way ticket in my hand as I boarded that Virgin Atlantic plane almost fifteen years ago, in my heart of hearts I didn’t know I would end up settling here. And I certainly wasn’t thinking about what it would be like to raise children in a country different from the one in which I was raised myself.
Now I think about it often. Many of my closest friends live in America and many of them have children. To what extent, I wonder, are our varying experiences of motherhood shaped by the fact that my kids say “biscuit” while theirs say “cookie”? These are the four ways in which it is most obvious to me that my children are growing up British:
They have accents
Accents are only accents if they sound different from the way you speak yourself. And let me tell you: my kids don’t sound a thing like me. It was strange in the beginning, very strange, especially with my first child. I did what the experts say and I talked to him, incessantly. Enunciating as I pointed out the “lorries” (trucks) in his first-word books, unleashing a steady stream of chatter as I changed his “nappy” (diaper) or pushed him in the “pram” (stroller). But when he started talking back, I didn’t hear in his sweet baby voice traces of my own dulcet Long Island tones. No, what I heard instead was the Queen.
My son, it turned out, spoke with a perfect English accent. “Do you want a bath, Oliver?” I would ask (where bath was pronounced with a short “a” as in “apple”). “Yes, Mummy, I’m ready for my baaahth,” he would reply (where bath was pronounced with a soft, yawning “a” as in “father”). His accent was clipped and slightly nasal and a good deal posher than his dad’s. Once he was at school, however, and peer pressure began to work its magic, he came to sound increasingly Scottish, as does my second son. My youngest children, who have revelled since birth in a nanny with a lilting brogue like Merida from Brave, sound as Scottish as Scottish can be. The wee lassie and laddie can even roll their “r”s.
They have other points of cultural reference
America has made a big impression on the popular culture here, no doubt about it, but Britishness itself is still as strong and distinct as a well-steeped cup of Earl Grey. The “telly,” the food, the sport. Where I was plonked down in front of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, my kids have been immersed from the time they were tiny in the wonders of the BBC, with its psychedelic In the Night Garden and its possibly more psychedelic Doctor Who. At the table, their palates have been molded by fish and chips and bangers and mash, by shepherd’s pie and sticky toffee pudding. It is rather amazing to me that, at eight and six years old, my sons have yet to experience the taste sensation of a Snow Cone or a Twinkie or Jell-O pudding for that matter.
And then there’s football. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which football (soccer) is the UK’s national pastime, the significance it holds both socially and culturally. The season runs from August to May, so for the majority of the year my boys are cheering their teams on, to the exclusion of all other sports. The newest Arsenal “kit” or Rangers “strip” (uniform) is the birthday present par excellence. Even the little ones are kicking a ball around as soon as their bandy toddler legs can sustain them upright. There are no basketball games for these kids, no baseball games or Little League. No peanuts and cracker jacks and root, root, root for the home team. If they were to play anything with a bat, it would be cricket, a game the rules of which I still don’t fully understand.
Their elementary school experience is different
It’s called primary school, first of all, not elementary school. And, in Scotland, “grades” are known as “years” and numbered like this: P1, P2, P3, etc. The children have uniforms, even at the public schools (which we call “state” schools or “comprehensives”) so there is very little agonizing over what to wear. I used to be skeptical about school uniforms, the mundanity of them, the lack of individuality; as a mother, I couldn’t embrace them more. What are you wearing today, kid? The same grey slacks and polo shirt I wore yesterday! School feels quite contained here from the parent’s point of view. There is no cascade of events for which to take time off from work, no birthday cupcakes to bake, perfectly or imperfectly, and share with the whole class.
When my kids started to read, they called letters by their sounds (“mmm”) and not their names (“em”), a system the Brits refer to buoyantly as “Jolly Phonics.” When they learned to spell, I watched them insert “u” s into innocent words like “colour” and swap “s”s for “z”s in unsuspecting verbs like “realise.” And when they study history, the history of America, insofar as it will be touched upon at all, will be treated as a foreign subject. They won’t suffer through state capital tests, like I did, or recite the Gettysburg Address. Rather we will sit together at the kitchen table, constructing mnemonic devices by which to remember the names and order of the British monarchs.
Rain is a way of life for them
At our latitude it gets dark during the winter at about 4pm, the sun only having risen seven or eight hours earlier. Scotland doesn’t see much snow, the temperature rarely dips below freezing, but we make up for it with rain. “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.” It is a favorite ditty in the nursery schools: if there is one thing you can count on in this country it is that the rain will always come again. As a parent, you find ways to cope. You buy heavy waterproof jackets for the cold months and lighter waterproof jackets for the handful of other months. Hoods are a necessity, because you can’t push a pram and balance an umbrella at the same time. And even if you could, the wind, your endlessly whistling companion, would blow it inside out like a buttercup.
You take the babies out for walks, even when it’s wet, the pram sheathed in plastic. You learn to read the sky, its nuances of grey, and to predict when the first drops will give way to mist and when to downpour. You shuttle the toddlers weekly to indoor playgrounds or “soft plays,” of which necessity has made you spoiled for choice. The chronically puddled ground means wellie boots are a year-round staple of the wardrobe. And when the long winter ends and whatever approximation of spring or summer takes its place, your children treat the sun, which has the audacity to herald morning before 5am, as the villain of the piece. “It’s too bright, Mum, it’s too hot.” For of course nobody here has air conditioning.