10 West Gravers Lane, Chestnut Hill
Philadelphia, PA 19118
All-American Family: Tired But Happy Mom and the Fourth of July
As a little kid growing up in Berkeley in the 1970s, Tired But Happy Mom cannot be said to have had a Rockwellian childhood. Her own mother was working on her PhD at UC Berkeley, her dad was an ice climber, and she attended an elementary school in which no single race was clearly dominant. Before walking to school, she was routinely warned to avoid Manson-like cults that might try to kidnap her, to walk around protesting hippies, to be courteous to Black Panthers while refraining from conversation. But everyone in Tired But Happy Mom’s childhood neighborhood loved the 4th of July.
After a festive parade, people gathered at a tiny local public park for a picnic and to hear speeches from the grown-ups about how their own forebears (or they, themselves) had come to America and what being American meant to them. It was awesome.
Little did she know that from age 21 on, virtually every day would resemble that 4th of July celebration.
Tired But Happy Mom is divorced from, but on excellent co-parental terms with, her daughters’ dad, who moved to the States from the Philippines with his family when he was about 7 years-old. They were together for 17 years (living in New York), and at least once a week, Tired But Happy Mom would hear someone would ask him, “What are you?” Tired But Happy Mom, being Caucasian—and also, having spent her formative years Berkeley—never failed to be shocked by this outlandishly rude question and would often respond, “Look, honey—a talking dog!”
But such comments were nothing compared to those that followed the births of Oldest Daughter and Younger Daughter. Like all children, Oldest Daughter and Younger Daughter look a bit like both of their parents but mostly like themselves. Having said that, their coloring and eyes clearly favor their father’s.
Every day of the first year of Oldest Daughter’s life, someone would ask Tired But Happy Mom something along the lines of: “Where does she come from?” Every single day. This question was even posed a few times when Tired But Happy was nursing Oldest Daughter.
At first, Tired But Happy Mom was simply too stunned to know what to say. Moreover, her childbearing stitches still hurt, and her milk ducts were either clogged or gushing, so she was too out of it to be able to process the question, never mind formulate a thoughtful response. Then, of course, she went through a phase of formulating extremely un-thoughtful responses to the mind-blowingly thoughtless question. Let your imagination fly, and you can bet that it either crossed Tired But Happy Mom’s lips or she at least thought about it.
But after the girls could understand such questions—and had to confront them alone in school or on playdates—responses had to be discussed. It was heartbreaking. “But I do look like you, Mommy!”; “Why do they ask us where we’re from, but they don’t ask anyone else?”; “Why are people so mean?” “Don’t they know it hurts my feelings?” How can a mother answer such questions from her little children? All Tired But Happy Mom could do was listen, commiserate, and tell them they were absolutely right in every case. The girls’ father fumed. But everyone knew that an answer had to be formulated, for the girls’ own protection and dignity.
No one was comfortable with the term “half,” “mixed,” or “bi-racial,” as it suggested to them that an invisible line was drawn down them, separating one part from another. Plus, their dad thought it had a weird ring from slavery times, when “1/8th” was the dividing line between being “officially” black or white. The girls didn’t like “Filipino-American” either; they’d never even been to the Philippines, they rightly pointed out.
“My dad is Filipino, and my mom is American” was the phrase that provoked the most productive discussion. For one thing, their father had been an American citizen since he was 10. For another, while Tired But Happy Mom’s ethnic background hailed from the UK, if she went to England, for example, they’d consider her “mixed,” too: Scottish, Welsh, English. Mostly, though, they would consider her American.
And being American had nothing to do with ethnic background—literally, politically, or philosophically. Wasn’t that the whole point of being an American? It didn’t matter whether your miserable forebears had slogged over on the Mayflower (as Tired But Happy Mom’s had) or if you yourself had immigrated from another country, as the girls’ dad had. The minute you became a citizen, you were 100 percent American. All-American. Even if you speak with an accent, have never eaten American pie, or watched a baseball game. Being “American” changes every day, every time someone swears that oath.
So, that became the answer: “I’m American, like you.” If there is a follow-up question, Oldest Daughter and Younger Daughter—if they’re feeling brave enough—sometimes follow up with their own: “Why do you ask?” Tired But Happy Mom wishes to God such questions didn’t exist, but they do, even in post-Obama America. And she is grateful that her own childhood memories of questioning what it means to be American in some way prepared her for the questions that she and her own children now face every day. Or at least a few times a week.
Tired But Happy Mom is also known as Susan Gregory Thomas, author of In Spite of Everything: A Memoir (Random House: July, 2011) and Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds (Houghton Mifflin: May, 2007). Thomas writes for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Parents, and others. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.