When my Italian immigrant parents threw me a birthday party in elementary school, I realized my family was a little different from many of my friends and classmates. I remember the strange looks and giggles from my friends when my father would try and chat in broken English. It used to make me burn with shame and embarrassment. Why couldn’t my parents just be normal? Why did they have weird accents and habits that made our family stand out?
While I have always loved my family deeply, I never thought about how being raised by immigrant parents would affect me when I decided to have my own children. In fact, if anything, I thought I’d intentionally parent very differently from my parents’ strict rules, corporal punishment, and distrust of the average American way of life.
Deciding what to keep from my upbringing
When pregnant with my first child, the idea of keeping even a little of my mother and father’s parenting style made me break out in hives. I knew my parents loved me and did their best, but when it came to being hands-on in school, attending my activities, or being interested in my hobbies, they were often too busy working long hours to even give it a thought. As a little girl, I had big expectations from what I saw happening in other families around me. And on more than one occasion, I was left very disappointed.
I know I don’t want my children feeling the same way, so I decided to incorporate traditions I really enjoyed from my childhood while also taking a different approach to parenting than my parents did. I’ve realized I don’t want to take an “either or” mentality to parenting. I want to share some of their amazing values—like a strong worth ethic and respect for others—while taking a bit more of a gentler approach with my children.
Reframing work and family time
My parents measured success in your work ethic and your upkeep and dedication to taking care of your home. At the same time, I got mixed signals from school, where the importance of grades and a career-building resume outweighed everything.
Growing up, I saw my dad one day a week. Not because he wasn’t around or didn’t care but because he believed that providing financially for his family was the most important way to show he cared. He would work over 12 hours in a sweltering kitchen at the family restaurant to make sure we were taken care of. Meanwhile, my mom worked as much as she could while we were at school, which often meant we were watched by our grandparents after school and on the weekends.
Now, while I appreciate everything my father provided for me, I realize I yearned for more time with my dad and mom. The time with my grandmother and grandfather made me cherish how the small moments with one another could mean so much. We would go on walks together, play soccer in their driveway, and work on their garden in the warm summer sun.
Looking back at my childhood, I realized that my parents taught me the importance of valuing and spending time with the elders in my family, which is something many of the kids in my school did not have a chance to do as often as I did. I now prioritize spending time with my children and incorporating time with their grandparents as much as possible.
Celebrating our culture, while learning and appreciating others
Since the moment I could eat “real” food, my parents were feeding me traditional Italian dishes rich in flavor and love—after all, my father was a chef who was born and raised in Italy. To say that the Italian culture and traditions ran in my blood would be true, even though I was adopted.
Growing up, my parents told stories over the dinner table on Monday nights (my dad’s only day off) and would tell tales of chasing after goats, walking miles to school, catching a ride on the back of a farmer’s truck, and swimming in a stream after washing their clothes.
These sweet memories and moments learning about my parents’ culture hold an important place in my heart. But as a Woman of Color who grew up in a majority white family that believed in colorblindness, I make an effort to discuss race, anti-racism, and the struggles others may face in America. By applying my parents’ passion for culture in a broader way, my children and family can learn about their own culture and other people’s heritage too.