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Parenting while too Russian

Plan to teach a daughter to put things where they belonged gets caught in a cross-cultural marriage

Image Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
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“Where is it? Where is my hairbrush?” My husband starts almost every morning with the same question. He then proceeds to hunt it down. Because it’s not where it’s supposed to be — in our bathroom — he checks our daughter’s bathroom, her desk, the top of her dresser, her side table, and then the kitchen and the living room. When he doesn’t find it he asks for mine. But I don’t give it to him. My brush is hidden in a place only I know about and I’d like to keep it that way.

Plus my husband and I have a history when it comes to the act of the disappearing brush — or, in fact, disappearing anything.

When our daughter was born we agreed she’d grow up in a cross-cultural household. My husband, American-born and bred, would teach her about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Sesame Street and “Make Way for Ducklings”, the Patriots and the Red Sox nation. Born and raised in Moscow, I’d teach her to speak Russian, to enjoy blini, and to delight in the friendship of Cheburashka and Crocodile Ghena, two of my favourite cartoon characters. With time I’d enroll her into ballet classes, hire a piano tutor, and maybe even attempt to introduce her to chess. I’d also work to impart the habits that were passed from one generation to another in our family. Read a lot. Respect the elders. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. Don’t waste food. Pick up after yourself. And: Vzyal-polozhi na mesto or “if you take something, please put it back.”

My childhood, much like the childhood of other Soviet children, took place in a tiny flat. Measuring 42 square metres (about 450 square feet) it consisted of two rooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. In it, we fit the kitchen set, the refrigerator, the stove, two beds, two armoires, a desk, a hutch, a TV, and three armchairs. Each thing we owned had its own place with the expectation that it would remain there. “Vzyal-polozhi na mesto” wasn’t a habit formed on a whim: It was a necessity. We, the children, learned to put things back where we found them when we began to walk, reinforced it in kindergarten, and perfected it in the apartments of our grandparents which were just as small as our own.

I started showing my daughter how to return things to their rightful places as soon as she began to walk and comprehend what I said to her. Through her toddler years together we put away the toys, stacked books on the bookshelf, and organised her stuffed animals. All was going according to plan until she reached the early teen stage. The vzyal-polozhi na mesto habit disappeared with the same velocity she learned to navigate her smart phone. My brush was the first to vanish from my bathroom and re-emerge in different places of the house. Knowing that teenagers are inherently messy, I stayed calm the first several times.

“If you borrow something from me, please bring it back,” I’d say to her while combing the apartment for the brush.

“Okay, okay,” she’d respond, her face buried in her phone.

But that okay never translated into action.

So I snapped and I raised my voice the next time I didn’t find my brush.

“Why are you so upset?” My husband said. “We are a family and family is supposed to share. Sharing is caring, you know.”

By this point in our parenting adventure the number of times he’d supported me hovered somewhere in the single digits, left of the middle. His enthusiasm for our daughter’s cross-cultural upbringing ebbed away almost as soon as we brought her home from the hospital, replaced by his belief that American was a far more superior system of childrearing. In his opinion, I was too “Russian”. Too overbearing, too strict, too controlling, and too insistent.

It wasn’t just the vzyal-polozhi na mesto habit. There was always a better way to do it — his way. And so while in more important things I held my ground, this time I decided to let it go.

I started to hide my brush.

It didn’t take long for our daughter to begin borrowing his. At first he laughed it off. But when it started disappearing on a regular basis, he stopped laughing. When it never resurfaced and he had to buy another, he didn’t crack a smile. When he was on his third brush he raised his voice. Turned out sharing is caring wasn’t working like vzyal-polozhi na mesto.

He’s now had to buy several hairbrushes, at least four pairs of headphones, and a few phone chargers. Sometimes his iPad goes missing. And every time he rips through the apartment looking for one of those things, I celebrate a little bit inside. Teaching my daughter to put things where they belonged might have been “too Russian,” but it looks like it could have been useful amid his American-style parenting.

–Washington Post

Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and an artist living in Madrid.

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