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An American mom in Norway

My daughters' Scandinavian customs help me see my own culture through fresh eyes.

By Kathryn Southwood / October 15, 2008

On the march: Children’s parades are a popular way to celebrate on May 17, Norway’s National Day.

Bjoern Sigurdsoen/AP/File

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Neither of my daughters has ever seen the pulse of fireflies on a summer evening. They think licorice is supposed to taste salty, not sweet. They've been known to wear wool sweaters in July. They insist that footballs are round and that Walt Disney's most enduring character is named Mikke Mus. If I hadn't seen their passports myself, I'd never believe they are both American.

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I had been married to my Norwegian husband for almost a year when we moved to Oslo. We planned to start our family within a couple of years of our arrival. Although I knew this meant we'd be having our children in Norway, I hadn't fully grasped that they would be... Norwegian. Now, eight years later, I have two daughters who speak two languages, have dual citizenship, and carry four passports between them. This is not the way I imagined it would be.

The pangs I feel are small but frequent. I've grown thicker-skinned about my family's preference for goat-cheese sandwiches over PB&J. It's bittersweet, though, when I try in vain to convince my daughter that the Norwegian train song she likes to sing is really "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad," an American classic. The greatest pang of all comes in wondering if my daughters will ever truly understand their American-ness – and mine – if they don't experience an American childhood firsthand.

But there are advantages to my daughters' Norwegian ways: They offer me opportunities to be a fly on the wall. Although I also speak Norwegian, my girls tend to address me in English, so when they start speaking to their father in Norwegian, I am off duty. My 8-year-old's incessant questions are charming when they are directed at my husband in another language. I'm free to smile at her inquisitiveness and her growing understanding of the world. On the other hand, questions that begin in English, "Mamma, how do..." leave me cringing – and hoping that I won't get another biggie about hydroelectric power or the internal combustion engine.

My children's other cultural identity has taught me, as so many lessons of motherhood have, that I need to let go. This isn't about just me. When my first-grader marched by with her school in her first Norwegian National Day parade, I could easily – and selfishly – have thought, "Wrong flag, wrong day, wrong country," but I puffed up, instead, and thought, "Wow, that's my kid!"

My daughters' experience of life will be different from mine, and childhood won't be impoverished for them if it is not a replica of my own. It just took living in another country for me to realize that. The give-and-take of motherhood surprised me, too. Experiencing Scandinavian culture from the ground up along with my daughters enriches my experience of motherhood every day.

The reverse is also true. When we hosted a Halloween party and all the girls stroked the jack-o'-lantern we had carved – peering into its flickering, snaggle-tooth grin and saying, "Wow! Is that a real pumpkin?" – I saw my own culture afresh through their eyes.

I could think of my daughters as being foreign to me, to my experience of childhood, but, really, I'm the foreigner here. This is their journey, and there's a seat saved for me – a reminder that although I'm their parent, I'm not just meant to guide and teach; I'm meant to learn, too.

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