Do you measure up?

I am feeling a bit “run ragged” and it isn’t really the children who are doing it. Mainly, I feel like I am constantly trying to meet three different sets of standards, which are sometimes contradictory and all tend to be very demanding of time, energy and self-control. There are the standards for behavior, parenting and housecleaning set out by Czech culture and the standards set out by my segment of American culture, particularly the more progressive parenting books and my family back home. And, finally, I also have a few standards of my own and these are often among the most demanding and yet to me make the most sense. Because I live in the Czech Republic, yet have my family in the US, I really have to try to meet both sets of standards, which can be a real challenge.

I can’t even remember all of the rules and standards in each of these categories off the top of my head but here are some illustrative examples:

Czech norms:

– House must be spotless, including dusting and windows sparkling whenever anyone comes to the door. No dishes must EVER be left in the sink, even awaiting washing. (Recently, I heard a foster parent castigated by a social worker because her child had dumped out his school backpack on the floor in his otherwise spotless room and then run outside. The things had remained lying in a heap for several minutes!)

– Everyone, except honored or feared guests such as the adoption social worker on inspection, must take their shoes off when entering a home or apartment.

– Children are expected to take off not only their shoes but all of their clothing and dress in a new set of inside clothes, when arriving at home or preschool.

– Children are expected to wear pajamas for afternoon naps.

– Children must never be allowed to splash in mud puddles and must not be seen with dirt on their clothes. Faces must always be clean, even when playing outdoors in dirt.

– All clothes including t-shirts and underwear must be ironed.

– Adult women must wear either dressy black slacks or tight fitting jeans or sober dresses when in public.

– Children must be nearly silent in public.

– Children must not run around or stand to look out of the window on the train or tram.

– Parents must use every means necessary to enforce such rules, including bribing with sweets and constant shouting. Parents spank but not in public and generally do not admit it.

– Hair brushing, teeth brushing and other grooming are taken very seriously and must not be left up to children’s whims.

– When two people pass in the street the younger or less socially prestigious of them must say “good day” to the other. Parents are expected to publically scold their child, if they don’t greet strangers by age three.

– Playing with food is strictly forbidden. Written parenting advice states that parents should remove food immediately at the first sign of fidgeting, in order to train children to eat in an orderly fashion. Balanced nutrition is not emphasized. Many adults refuse to eat vegetables. But men and children should not be expected to eat the leftovers. Each meal should be different.

– It is embarrassing if a child is not potty trained by age two.

– Children should know the colors and be able to recite at least one rhyme by age three.

– Children should learn to read in the first grade. Children should not be made to read too early.

– TV is a normal part of parenting. The TV may be on at all times and children are expected to watch TV every day. Parents who do not allow enough TV will be criticized for stunting their child’s social development and ability to make friends. During a recent court case involving allegations of child abuse the newspapers printed stories condemning the parents in the case by stating that they never allowed the children to watch TV. Familiarity with popular TV shows is an accepted social prerequisite.

– One does not refer to controversy or conflict openly. One does not disagree openly with persons in authority. However, one also does not apologize for missteps but accepts the consequences. One should never admit to ignorance on any subject or point out that another does not know even the smallest fact.

– One does not use a tone of voice audible more than a few feet away.

– One must avoid showing much outward emotion at all, although negative emotion such as a grouchy tone or scolding a child is more acceptable than exuberance. Parents are expected to be upset with a child expressing emotions.

– Adoptive parents should avoid talking about adoption, except in private. Open adoption is a completely taboo subject.

Progressive American standards:

– Hygiene is the most important part of house cleaning. Things may be cluttered but baby bottles must be sterilized and cutting board kept separate.

– Children must be allowed significant freedom of movement and expression.

– Children’s toys, including markers and paints should be within their reach at all times. (This can be a significant hazard if the parent is visually impaired, but it is a constant demand in progressive American parenting books.)

– Children should be allowed to pick out their own clothing and should not be forced into grooming that they categorically reject. However, boys must never be allowed to wear pink or purple, except for specially tolerated dress-up games.

– It is normal for children to get dirty within reason. Parents who don’t allow it are criticized.

– Children are allowed to make some mess while eating. Parents are expected to accept messes as normal and wash the floor after each meal or use a sheet of plastic, which must also be washed.

– Responsible parents provide their children with a balanced diet made from organic produce. Leftovers are acceptable but the diet must be varied and balanced.

-\ Parents must control their temper and present a calm front. Parents who show frustration may be admonished by strangers in public.

– Spanking is completely untenable. Even time-out is frowned upon. Yelling at and bribing children are taboo. One must talk quietly to children to explain rules and there should be few rules.

– Parents must claim to allow young children only 15 minutes of TV per day and older children no more than one hour, whether this is true or not.

– Involuntary potty training should not begin until at least age three.

– Parents must talk to their young child constantly, in order to produce a vigorously verbal child.

– Parents must read to their children for at least 20 minutes per day.

– Many parenting books insist that infants and young toddlers must have the undivided attention of a parent for one third of all awake time.

– Children should learn to read in kindergarten or earlier.

– Mothers who do not breastfeed, even adoptive mothers, shall be admonished in public.

– One does not allude to money, such as by saying one can’t afford to buy expensive organic produce.

– Environmentally conscious parents use cloth diapers.

– One must smile as much as possible and must not tell anyone but close friends about difficulties or problems. One must not show too much negative emotion but exuberant positive emotion is more acceptable. One must keep a positive front.

– Adoptive parents should display constant gratitude and humility. One must at least claim to believe that open adoption is best.

My standards:

– Given that we can’t afford to buy organic produce, I will grow all the organic produce I can and reserve any that is in short supply for the children. I attempt to get rid of other chemicals in the household, in so far as it is hygienically and financially possible. I do use cloth diapers, even though clothes dryers are unheard of in this country and we do not own one.

– I want my children to have experiences with art and other children at least once a week. I want my children to dance to music and go outside every day if possible.

– I take off dirty or wet clothes. Children should nap in comfortable clothes, which may mean taking off jeans.

– Children should be provided with waterproof clothing, so that they are allowed to splash in mud puddles.

– No infant of mine will be forced to poop and pee in his or her clothing against all natural instinct. They will be provided with opportunities to use the potty every hour and after all meals, though not forced into potty training.

– My children will have a lot of books, given that there is no reasonable library nearby.

– My children will have dolls of various ethnicities and especially those that “match” them.

– My children will be provided with the toys of both genders.

– My children will be allowed to choose their clothing within certain parameters of social and climactic necessity.

– We receive no TV signal and my three-year-old watches no more than 25 minutes of any sort of video in a day (in two different segments). My 17-month-old watches no more than 15 minutes and often none at all. This really is the max. I never use videos as a babysitter.

– My children will have all the necessary tools to learn to read early and repeated opportunities to do so, if they decide they are interested.

– One must openly protest when one witnesses injustice, particularly if the injustice is perpetrated against a stranger. One must try to moderate emotions in public to be socially acceptable and in private to avoid frightening children. However, expressing too much emotion is a lesser moral infraction than ignoring injustice.

– Children are in the process of learning self-discipline. Allowing harmful behaviors where the consequences are not immediate enough for them to make the connection does not help them. Children should be protected from addictive influences, such as sugar and passive entertainment, until they can regulate them on their own.

– Hurting others is not allowed, including hurting others’ eardrums as a means of coercion. Children must be allowed to yell and scream at some point, preferably outdoors.

– I believe in giving children choices whenever possible but I also believe in making sure all the proffered choices are socially acceptable, safe and practically possible.

– Clutter is very hard on a visually impaired person, so I try to keep it down. A clean house makes me feel patient and peaceful. I am also afraid to have a visitor in my house if it is messy.

– I try to ensure undivided attention for each child for at least a half an hour each day. I try to talk to the children as much as possible. I definitely read to them two to three times per day.

I certainly fall sort of these standards, including my own, on a regular basis. I favor some Czech standards over American norms, though I probably still lean towards American culture on parenting. I try to clean my house to Czech standards, when I expect a visitor, but visitors still appear to think my efforts are sloppy. Even the five-year-old neighbor girl once asked me, “Why don’t you EVER clean your house?”

I now feel, as most Czechs do, that taking off one’s shoes in a home is the most basic courtesy and common sense. However, I do not iron anything that can possibly pass without ironing and garments requiring ironing are rarely worn in our family. Ironing without being able to see the wrinkles that get ironed into greater wrinkles is one of my least favorite activities. I end up with a terrible back ache from leaning over to peer at the cloth. I know there are totally blind people who iron. I think they are both amazing and slightly insane. In any event, this marks my family out in Czech society as slovenly. Most Czech women spend at least an hour per day ironing.

I generally agree with progressive American parenting standards but I have to teach my children Czech standards of behavior and grooming to protect them from social ostracism. I employ non-isolating, boring time-outs near me for misbehavior on a regular basis, as well as isolating calming with comforting toys for tantrums. I use natural consequences, routine and preparation to avoid discipline issues as much as possible. I try to explain rules whenever possible.

The long and the short of it is that I simply don’t measure up to the social expectations of the day. I often feel overwhelmed and inadequate but I am comforted by the fact that I manage to follow my own standards best. My standards are demanding but practical. Even so, the past week illustrates the difficulty of satisfying my own standards and progressive American norms, while living with the demands of Czech society.

Last weekend, we went to a retreat weekend for adoptive and foster families. It was supposed to be relaxing and replenishing. Instead, I found it draining. Every time I approached a group of other parents talking, I felt unwelcome. There was never any of that softening of the posture and minute repositioning that opens up even just the possibility of a space for a newcomer. Everyone there already seemed to know each other and although I knew two of the families from previous meetings, I knew neither well. Both of the mothers I knew spared about one minute each to exchange pleasantries with me at some point during the weekend and then they disappeared back into their hardened circles of conversation, in which there was clearly no more room.

The last time, we attended this retreat was in October and I remember that the social atmosphere was similar, but I had enjoyed that first weekend immensely because I was so sleep –deprived from having a new one-year-old particularly emotionally needy baby that I was glad to be an outsider and sleep a lot. The only part of the weekend where I was very involved at that time was when a psychologist came to give us a lecture on Saturday morning and, instead of his topic, he spent the whole morning delivering his diatribe against the criticism the Czech Republic is receiving over its orphanages. He went on at length about how orphanages for infants are not as bad as some people make them out to be. My standards insisted that I speak up and I did, repeatedly. I did not shout or show emotion by American standards, but I was accused of being emotional by the Czech psychologist, who pointed this out to the group as a clear indicator of my lack of credibility.

So, this time around, when the same psychologist appeared and saw me, he launched into a recap of the previous lecture and pointed me out as “those westerners who think that Czechs have just come down from the trees when it comes to child psychology, even though it was Czechs who first pioneered the field in the 1950’s and they are the ones who learned from us…” and so on. I didn’t open my mouth that time. I was too exhausted by the snubbing I had perceived from the other participants and I let Czech standards of not questioning authority override my own standards of morality, so I left the room.

It was not an auspicious beginning to the week. I spent Monday mainly recovering from the emotional trials of the weekend, trying to clean my house at least enough that I can function in it without seeing much, attending to my children according to American standards and teaching my English class at the community center in the evening. On Tuesday, I had to clean the house closer to Czech standards, because I was expecting a 10-year-old English student and his parents would stand in the doorway and look in to inspect my cleaning. I managed to clean and cook, because Shaye was at preschool. Her preschool teacher remarked critically that I had not provided Shaye with three sets of clothes for the day. I had sent spare clothes, in case she got wet, but I had not provided special indoor clothes for her to change into, after wearing her street clothes for all of 30 minutes, prior to arriving at preschool. I did provide pajamas for her afternoon nap but not providing those would have been unthinkable.

By Wednesday, I felt recuperated enough that I decided to take on The Ultimate Parenting Challenge and take both toddlers to Prague by stroller and train for a meeting of the adoptive-parents-with-preschoolers group. The play area where the meetings are held is delightful and Shaye loves it. That said, getting there is like an expedition to the North Pole.

First, I got the kids up extra early and hurried them through their morning routine, so that I could load them (and all of their food, drinks, never-leave-home-without-it stuffed animals and outside clothing to withstand possible rain and sleet) onto the stroller. Then, I took the long way around, which is a bit over a mile up and down steep hills, to the train station, because the short-cut is currently a mud bog, deep enough that small automobiles might be lost in it and never seen again. By the time I reached the train, I was completely exhausted, but proud of myself.

I even managed to keep both children seated with their feet not on the seats and keep them quiet with snacks for the 40 minutes it takes to reach the city by train. We received no glares from Czech passengers and I did not even have to use grouchy Czech parenting methods to ensure compliance. One 20-month-old boy even decided that he wanted to sit with my kids and his mother let him. But still I was conscious of the strain to do everything perfectly according to the various cultural requirements.

We got out at Main Train Station and I pushed the stroller laden with children and backpacks down the ramp into the station, onto the elevator and into the subway train under the station. So far so good. I was carrying my white cane while pushing the stroller, which might look a bit odd to anyone who actually understands how a white cane works but it is primarily for identification purposes and it does help when I am frantically trying to figure out whether this train about to depart is the right one or trying to cross a busy street.

We took the subway to the stop nearest the meeting place. I had researched that subway stop on the internet the night before. The Czech Association of Wheelchair Users webpage insisted it was accessible but the map provided had been incomplete. It showed that one could indeed exit the subway station its self on wheels but I knew from experience that the exit left you in an enclosed courtyard accessed only by a huge single flight of stairs two standard floors high. I hoped that somehow I had in the past missed seeing an elevator or ramp and decided to trust the Association. But when I arrived at the station and asked the surprisingly pleasant station guard, she told me that there is no access and that I had to find someone to help me carry the stroller up the stairs. Apparently, the website had simply meant that the station building its self was accessible and neglected the fact that it opened into an inaccessible courtyard.

I managed to find a very nice man to help me carry the stroller up the stairs and we arrived at our meeting in good spirits. One of the adoptive mothers, named Blanka, who has seen me several times before made an extreme show of calling out to me and identifying herself from the other side of the room. “Hi, Arie. It’s Blanka!” Her attempts to be sensitive to my vision impairment are often crude and she speaks to me in a tone far louder than that accepted by Czech social norms, but she is almost the only person in the country who has ever actually identified herself to me, so I appreciate it, even if it feels forced. I always great her by name and often openly thank her for identifying herself. At first, I hoped this might rub off on some the other regular participants, but it never has. Even so, the fact that Blanka accepts me means that the circles of conversation at this meeting are open to me. I sat with Blanka and a group of women who I could almost recognize but not quite. I know some of their names. One is Hana, who is very sweet, but I could not tell which one she was this time.

My children were suitably well-behaved and dressed. But I had to run a bit of interference to ensure that they ate something with nutritional value in addition to the sugary snacks provided as per Czech custom. Then, we did the whole public transportation routine all over again to get home. The trip from my door to the meeting takes two hours. We stayed two hours and it took two hours to return. But it felt worth it this particular time.

On Thursday, I had to take Shaye to the state preschool to pick up a form to apply for a place for her there next year. The state preschool is heavily subsidized and is a fraction of the price of private preschools. There are not nearly enough places in the state preschool for all the children who want to attend, so the principal of the school makes no special effort to make applying easy. There is only one day, when forms can be picked up and then a week later, there are two days when forms can be turned in. The form must be certified by both the child’s doctor and city hall in order to be turned in, so these certifications must be obtained within that week. I did not know all this when I went to pick up the form and the children were so overjoyed to see a real playground that I had to stuff the papers into the stroller to chase after them. The state preschool has the only reasonably good playground in town and no one is allowed to use it, except as part of attending preschool. We were not even really allowed to use it during our visit to pick up the form, but I let Shaye and Marik climb on the equipment a bit and suffered the stares of the other parents and the principal. There are some things I can’t tolerate, and walking a playground-starved child through a playground that she is not allowed to play on is one.

I had my hands so full of toddlers that I was home again before I had a chance to read the form and discover that I should have visited the doctor’s office. I called the doctor to try to see when I could come and he shouted at me over the phone, saying that he had seen me come to town and that I should have come to get the certification while I was there. I tried to explain that I had not read the form, but I could not really explain that reading any text takes me ten times longer than sighted adults, so it isn’t something I can do while on the street with toddlers, and I am a foreigner who doesn’t automatically know the procedure for applying to preschool, which apparently everyone else does. So, I got a scolding and I will have to take a special trip into town with two small children to get the doctor’s certification that Shaye is healthy enough to attend preschool.

If that wasn’t enough for one week’s misadventures, Friday was Marik’s adoption court date. My niece Ember has no classes on Fridays now, so she came to watch the children. While in the US a child generally must be present in adoption court, here it is discouraged, if not forbidden. The first time we showed up with 10-month-old Shaye in adoption court the judge castigated us harshly. When Shaye tried to get down from my lap and whimpered when I held her fast, he told us he could not believe our audacity in bringing an infant into court. When we were standing at attention to hear the judge’s formal pronouncement and Shaye started to cry, I glanced down at her for less than a second, thinking frantically how I could quiet her. That was when the judge threatened us with a ruling of “contempt of court.”

The social worker commiserated with us afterward, explaining that he was the meanest family judge. When we got our summons for Marik, she told me that we had drawn the nice judge this time, but we were still nervous. The case scheduled before ours appeared to be a divorce case with four children involved and it went 30 minutes over time. It was only scheduled for an hour but obviously there were complications. Both the judge and the social worker looked as if they had been through the ringer when it was over and she whispered to us that we had better be quick and meek with the judge, as he was in a very bad mood.

The judge got down to business as soon as we were in our places but he seemed befuddled. He kept searching through his papers and asking ridiculous questions of nobody in particular. He didn’t appear to believe that we were married for one thing, despite having both copies and our original marriage certificate. When that was settled he made me swear formally that I understand Czech, so that I could never claim that I had not understood the proceedings. Protocol in Czech court is very strict. One must keep one’s eyes on the judge at all times. One must stand to speak, even if only answering a yes or no question. We were also each called to stand at a wooden railing of sorts that took the place of a witness stand and questioned very perfunctorily.

When Dusan was up, the judge asked, “How long has the child been with you?” and then “You are delighted with him, right?” Then, to the woman typing the proceedings, “Put down, ‘We are delighted with the child,’” even though Dusan had simply answered “Yes.” When I was up he mainly asked, “You agree with everything you husband said, right?” When I answered yes, he told the typist to write, “I refer to the statement of my husband.” In this fashion, our case was closed in half the allotted time, making up for some of the previous delay. We didn’t mind the abruptness, although the judge might have been less gruff.

The important thing was that he admitted as “evidence” the letter of the official state linguist of the Czech Republic, which we had brought to prove that Marik’s name is permissible under Czech law. That’s another thing. In the Czech Republic, you can’t just name a child whatever you want. There is a name for each day of the calendar year and one is strongly encouraged to use one of those. Then, there are official books giving lists of names that have been approved by the official linguist of the country, an unpleasant woman who enjoys her position of power a bit too much. But we had been able to extract a letter from her, for a price, which grudgingly admitted that Marik Rye can be Marik Rye. She was not happy about the name Marik in particular, although American baby name’s registries claim that it is “Czechoslovak” and Zdena claims it is common in Slovakia. But, in the end, the letter was written and stamped with an impressive state seal. Thus, the judge allowed Marik’s full name into the official record, which will make many bureaucratic matters easier in the future.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Julie Farnam
    Apr 26, 2012 @ 23:36:51

    Finally got to read the measuring up piece. It’s overwhelming to have someone articulate it. I think this is the cause of homelessness as a lifestyle choice. the bar has gotten too high. Having a disability makes reaching the socially defined bar a ludicrous thought. How can playfulness and joy ever fit in?


  2. Jessica
    Oct 09, 2013 @ 06:21:43

    I just found your blog, I am a nineteen year-old Australian university student, who has (over the pass two to three years) started dreaming of one day adopting a Romani child. At this point, Australian adoptions are run through the state government, and there are no programs to any European countries – Well, besides Lithuania, but you or you partner must be a Lithuania citizen. It breaks my heart. So I am seriously considering moving to Europe to undergo the process once I’ve finished studying. Thank you for your blog, it gives me hope, your little ones are stunning. I’d love to adopt a little girl like Shaye.


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