Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: immigrant

Roots

When I was a sophomore in college, I was assigned to write an essay for a linguistics class about the origin of my surname.

I thought, I don’t know. I think it’s German?

What I discovered about my name has stuck with me.

It wasn’t German. It was Frisian. And Frisian is the language that is most closely related to English.

I learned that my ancestor, Okko Peter Tjaden I, the seventh of eight children, arrived in the United States on June 4, 1856. In the United States, he met and married his wife, Anna Ubben Juttbrook on May 17, 1857 in the Silver Creek Reformed Church in Forreston, Illinois. They both died in Ocheyedan, Iowa (population in 2010–490 people).

Okko grew up in a city called Emden, which is currently part of Germany. But it hasn’t always been German. When you look at Emden’s political situation over the past five hundred years, it makes you weary.

East Frisia

It made me think, How did my family view their national identity? Did they consider themselves to be Germans?

When I asked my father about this while he was still living, he gave me a very broad answer, something like, They were Dutch-speaking Germans. They didn’t speak German. They spoke Dutch. But Germany controlled the country. 

It was all very confusing to me, a twenty-something who was still actively untangling my own identity. If they spoke Dutch, why was the origin of the Tjaden name Frisian? Which parts of my values and beliefs came from being an American? Which beliefs came from my religion? What did I think about politics?

***

Over time, I’ve been able to sort through what I believe and what I value and trace back their origins.

It makes sense now that my ancestors probably didn’t value their national identity as much as their religious identity. Politics can change. Governments topple and are rebuilt. But the Kingdom of God is forever, they would argue.

I understand much more fully and more completely now just how important religion was to my ancestors.

When I was in graduate school, I dug into the research on Dutch immigrants and their cultural assimilation in the United States. I found that compared to their Catholic Dutch counterparts, Dutch Protestants stuck together as a cultural group and resisted assimilation.

Many Dutch Protestants came to the United States to establish Dutch-speaking religious schools where they could teach their children without government interference. In the past, there was increasing pressure on schools to outlaw Dutch children from speaking Dutch in schools.

It’s a story we’ve heard over and over again. A government forces children to learn their language in order for them to be considered True Citizens of wherever they’re living. Forget your old culture and embrace our new better culture.

La-Dee-Dah.

So they were forced to use German in the schools. Obviously, this didn’t go over well with Dutch families and some of them even decided to leave the whole country behind and forge ahead in a new country, where they were told by relatives who had already settled in the States that they could set up their own religious schools and teach what they wanted, without government interference in the language and values that were taught in the school. (By the way, we have religious Dutch immigrants to thank for Betsy DeVoss. Sorry about that.)

I don’t know if this is the key reason that Okko Peter Tjaden left Emden, but he did join a large community of Dutch immigrants who had settled in Iowa. His arrival in 1856 suggests that he probably left because of the decline in agriculture (an influx of American wheat was driving down the price where he lived). However, he and Anna were married in a Dutch Reformed church, which certainly had members who had left behind Holland/Friesland and other areas because of school indoctrination issue.

***

For whatever reason, I’ve always felt that I’ve had a strong connection to my father’s side of the family. It’s not because I spent a lot of time with them. I actually spent more time with my maternal grandmother and aunts, uncles, and cousins on my mother’s side. They are the people of whom I have the warmest memories.

But there is no doubt that I don’t look like my mother’s side of the family.

I look like my father, and my father’s brother, and a cousin on my father’s side.

Bundy_X-mas_09_009

It turns out, I was right.

I did the 23andMe genetic test and found that I have the following ancestral components:

Sharons Genetic Results

The French/German made sense. That was the Tjaden line through my paternal grandfather. The Eastern Europe made sense. That was my paternal grandmother (nee Osimowicz), who was 100% Polish.

But Scandinavian? 22%? Really?

I looked back at the family tree that I had mapped out so far and thought, Oh. That’s interesting.

My paternal grandfather’s mother was 100% Norwegian. Her parents immigrated from Norway in 1870 and I’ve been able to trace back the Norwegian line all the way to the 1600s.

Genes are fun.

***

My mother’s father’s line has been established in the United States far longer. Her family (the Bundy family) can be traced back all the way to William Bundy, who first showed up on records in Rhode Island in 1663. That’s twelve generations of Bundys in the United States (No close affiliation to Ted ((he was adopted)), Clive, Ammon, or Al Bundy, thank you very much). They lived in North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. They were hard-living people. Homesteaders and farmers. And also very religious.

My mother’s mother’s line has also been in the United States for hundreds of years. They were the Combs and Haburns. Five generations of the Combs family were born and died in Spirit Lake, Iowa. They were even buried in the same cemetery.

***

What both sides of my family have in common are

  • devotion to the Christian faith
  • lives of hard labor (farming, homesteading, manufacturing)
  • a fierce spirit in the face of hardship
  • a willingness to step out into the unknown

They crossed oceans and nations. They worked in multiple vocations in one lifetime, as my grandfather did (farmer, watchmaker, jeweler). They married across ethnic groups (German – Norwegian – Polish) because a shared faith was more important than shared nationality.

***

I’ve learned that creativity–in a variety of forms–has been a legacy of the Tjaden name. My great-uncle, Otto A. Tjaden, was sign painter, wood carver, and sculptor in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. I found a newspaper article from the local paper in which they talk about an art exhibition of bronze and metal sculptures that was on display in downtown Fergus Falls.

My own father, Leland Tjaden, was a terrific storyteller. Very theatrical in his performance of just about any story that had made an impression (good or bad) on him.

My uncle, Dennis Tjaden, has a love for photography.

And I write. A lot.

Which is not something that happens on my mother’s side of the family. They are a family of few and carefully chosen words. No need to be emotional or superfluous. Just say what needs to be said and be done with it. I have some of the letters that my grandmother wrote to her sister-in-law. Mostly reports on the weather and the children, and occasionally news about who had visited whom lately.

So when my grandmother passed away, there weren’t many people who were jumping at the chance to give a eulogy.

So I did.

Here are some of the words that I said,

Grandma was practical. You could always count on her to reuse an old box of checks for storing rubber bands or a tub of laundry detergent as a garbage can. She wasn’t sentimental. If a soap opera was on TV, she’d usually fall asleep during it. She never said she loved you. She showed you she loved you. She cooked you food and sent cards in the mail. She was a private person. She kept a lot of her own thoughts to herself…

Grandma, you will be deeply missed. I will miss the quiet hours as I would knit and you would doze off peacefully in the armchair. I never cared that you weren’t much of a conversationalist. Just being there was enough. I know you never liked being the center of attention. You were always a fan of serving behind the scenes and laboring without recognition. Know that your life did not go unnoticed. May you find rest from the struggles and labors of life. 

***

What does it all mean?

What does it mean for me to be a descendant of so many travelers who derived their identities from their beliefs and values rather than the country where they lived?

Who could live for years in isolation, miles and miles from neighbors, surrounded in open country where the whipping winter winds chilled them for months, no matter how many fires they made?

What does it mean for me to have the blood of ancestors who struggled through harsh winters in the upper latitudes, who lived modest lives, who worked the land for food, who watched governments rise and fall and clung to their religion to give the world — and their purpose inside of it — meaning?

What does it mean for me to come from families that never once rubbed shoulders with aristocracy and nobility?

Who were for generations uneducated and illiterate? And when literacy came, it came in the form of the Bible?

Who weren’t formally taught science, but who learned about science through tinkering and trial and error?

And what parts of my genetic ancestry have I passed on to my own children?

Will they also have the wandering, curious, creative spirit? The steely resolve? Or will they have their father’s problem-solving and efficiency? Or his penchant for minimalism and order?

Or will they have something else that has been lying dormant for several generations, just waiting to emerge?

***

I wonder if my heritage is part of the reason that I’m always looking out on the horizon, wondering what is next.

Caught between the gratitude for today and what I have and the curiosity of knowing about what’s down the line. Always thinking about the next thing that I’ll create or write or research.

What is the next thing that I’ll discover or learn or understand or convey to others? What lessons and messages will I be able to share before I join my ancestors in Death? How much of this vast tapestry of life and everything inside of it will I know before I die?

The answer, I’m sure, is Not Enough.

There’s too much beauty and mystery in this life for one human being to ever be able to hold it all at once in one human mind.

It’s too wonderful.

Even when it’s the worst, it’s too wonderful.

***

On February 2, 1913, Anna Juttbrook passed away in Ocheyedan, Iowa. Okko followed her a year later on February 14, 1914.

104 years later on February 2, 2017, I lifted my hand to the bright winter light that streamed through my hospital window, crying out in pain as I moved into the hardest part of labor.

In that moment, I felt the spirit of my father beside me, although he had passed away three years earlier. In my worst moments of pain when I wasn’t sure I could go on, I closed my eyes and saw people around me. Some of them I knew. Some of them I didn’t. But the people whom I didn’t know, I had a strong feeling that they were related to me and the child for whom I was laboring was a continuation of their blood.

That was what kept me going.

The knowledge that I was not alone.

That I would forever be connected to those I loved and to those who gave me Life.

And humbled by their presence, I said,

Yes.

I will try.

I will try for you.

I don’t know if I’ll succeed.

But I’ll try.

Three hours later, I gave birth to our second child. A son named Henry.

I did not know until recently that this was the name of Anna Juttbrook’s father.

And her son.

***

On my worst days, I think about the courage that I had on this day. To step out into the unknown, into the heart of pain and danger, and feel no fear. Because there was no room for it. I was surrounded by Love and strengthened by the Life that was coming through me.

On my worst days, I remember that I was born with ferocity and resilience. I remind myself to feel gratitude for what all of those who came before me have done. Unlike the rugged individualist story that I learned in American history classrooms, I didn’t grow like a magic bean from the ground, dependent only on my own fortitude and industriousness.

I am here because of Okko Tjaden and Anna Juttbrook and Laurence and Mary Osimowicz and Hans and Kari Vaagesar and William Bundy and so many others whose names I’m still learning.

I am here because they left their homelands and struggled in this new foreign country where they were often scapegoated and resented as newcomers for generations before they were considered “real Americans.”

I am here because they chose uncertainty and the hardships that come with it over stability and familiarity.

Am I grateful enough?

Do I make them proud?

 

My Baby’s Due Date is Inauguration Day

The timing of this is not lost on me.

I started this pregnancy in May 2016 to the devastating news  of the measly 3-month sentence of Brock Turner, a “man” from my own hometown of Dayton, Ohio. A man who raped an unconscious woman.

Then, the Harambe the Gorilla madness.

Then, a crocodile eating a toddler at Disney World.

Then, the Orlando mass shooting.

All of this set against the backdrop of this shitty election, the Syrian refugee crisis, and constant shootings of unarmed black Americans.

Now imagine having a full month of nausea day in and day out while living through this.

But we pulled through.

Once a Bernie Sanders supporter, I swallowed my pride and embraced Hillary.

I believed that Donald Trump would certainly crash and burn.

I think we all thought that.

And when Pussy Gate happened, I breathed a sigh of disgusted resolve.

Certainly, now, there is no way enough people can stomach the reality of voting for this numb-nuts. Look! Every decent Republican is withdrawing their support! They are finally saying he has crossed the line. They are showing that they care about women. 

And then Election Night 2016 happened.

***

We bought pizza and champagne to usher in the first female President. We invited our friends over and we were festive. It’s like Christmas morning! we cheered.

And then Ohio was called.

We shouted. We felt betrayed by our own neighbors. We looked at the electoral map by county. The only blue counties were the ones with the major cities. Clear as day, you could see Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland, and Toledo.

And then we understood.

***

I’ve cried a box of tissues since this news broke.

I’ve had to look my international students in the eyes and tell them, without totally losing my composure: “No matter what anyone else says, I welcome you. am not afraid of you. I think you matter. This is not the message that I am sending to the world. Please do not think that the way that Donald Trump acts is the way that Americans are.”

I’ve sat in my colleague’s cubicle, spilling my fears about the future, so thankful that she was willing to listen to me and tell me that she still believes in the goodness of people. (I love you, Jeri.)

I’ve cried all the way home from work, listening to gleeful Trump supporters on All Things Considered share their excitement that Trump was going to bring their jobs back (yeah, right) and build the wall (you seriously believe that?) and stop abortions (whatever).

I’ve cried on and off for hours, while my husband listened.

I told him that what hurts the most is that multiple facets of my identity and my values have been insulted by this man who now wants to lead me.

The pain is not coming from a different political party having power.

The pain is coming from being told that who I am (woman, academic, teacher) and what I value (diversity, humility, inclusivity, compassion) are worthy of insult.

I told my husband that I could barely keep from breaking into tears in front of my international students because I realized that I could no longer pretend that our country is the chief beacon of shelter and protection for those who are persecuted. For those who are striving to attain the civil rights that so many of us take for granted.

Canada is stepping into the shoes that we’ve kicked off and tossed into the face of the world. They are becoming the new face of a country of immigrants–and they’re doing it with compassion and community.

It’s ironic to me that so many white Americans are proud of their immigrant ancestry–yet they cringe at the thought of extending a warm welcome to today’s immigrants. They create these untrue historical narratives about our own ancestors. They say they gave up their culture and their language to become Americans. They say they came here “legally.”

But the truth is, we didn’t even have the vocabulary to consider immigration legal or illegal during the great immigrant influx of the 19th and early 20th centuries. (See Episode 47, “Give Me Your Tired…”) People just came. And we just took them. Because we needed them. The Civil War decimated our population. So did World War I.

And those immigrants took a long time to “Americanize.” They kept their home cultures for one or two generations. They spoke their native language. And they were scapegoated for problems in America, just like so many of us are doing today.

So “Make America Great Again?”

That’s a knife to my heart.

How far back should America go?

Should we go back to before women’s suffrage? Or forcing Native Americans off their land? Or Japanese internment camps?

Or how about those Leave it to Beaver days, which white Baby Boomers keep referencing with sweet, untainted nostalgia. You know. The days when black Americans were lynched for voting in the South and the Freedom Riders were attacked and killed.

“Make America Great Again” makes sense if you are a white Christian–and if you cannot imagine this country through the eyes of someone who isn’t like you.

It’s ignorant and myopic.

Donald Trump’s plans for “making America great again” creates a vision of America that looks like this:

20 million Americans stand to lose their health insurance if Obamacare is repealed.

11 million undocumented immigrants stand to be deported from their families and the lives they have built here.

3.3 million Muslim-Americans have been told that they are responsible for reporting “suspected terrorists” to the proper authorities. (Do we ask Christian-Americans to do the same? Did you just do a double-take of the word “Christian-Americans?” Did you stop to think about why?)

And this land of immigrants wants to completely shut its doors to 11 million Syrian refugees who are fleeing from ISIS. We’re completely content to turn our backs on our European allies who are struggling to figure out how to integrate millions of refugees.

***

I told my husband that I’m working through such immense grief about this election. That the last time that I can remember it being this hard to teach through my pain was on the day that my dad died.

And I still went in to teach.

I told my husband that our baby deserves better than this.

Better than sexism, racism, and xenophobia. And better than the rationales and excuses that his supporters make on behalf of this man who cannot control himself. (You’re the puppet! No, you’re the puppet!)

Better than fear-mongering and blaming and ignorance and hatred.

Childbirth is painful. Fucking painful. And I’m familiar with every bit of that physical pain because I did it without drugs.

But believe me when I say this: The physical pain of bringing this child into the world under this next American leader does not compare to the emotional pain that it brings.

Physical pain wanes. Emotional pain scars.

Emotional pain changes the landscape. It can make you callous and cynical. It can leave you hollow and numb. It can drive you to recklessness and disengagement. It can drain your expectations and your faith in others.

But there’s another side to emotional pain that survivors of trauma will unanimously tell you.

It can make you a fighter.

And every time I feel this baby pummel me in the ribs or the stomach, I know that I’m carrying a fighter.

***

My body, and thus this child, have been put through the wringer since the beginning of this pregnancy. At times, my anxiety has been high, but nothing like what I’ve experienced in the last two days. I can only imagine how much cortisol has been coursing through my system.

This morning, I strapped on the pregnancy belt and when for a third-trimester walk/jog. I was still hurt. Still pissed. Still angry.

Then, I started to notice something.

All the political signs were gone.

All the Trump signs that lined our street had been taken away.

And replaced with American flags.

img_20161110_074445

I do not have words for the emotion that I felt in that moment.

But let me draw an analogy.

It was like being punched in the face. And then as my vision returned, seeing an outstretched hand for a handshake.

In the cold, morning light, I started sobbing.

Again.

I thought I was through the pain. But no. It’s still very much there.

Do you mean it? I wanted to ask my neighbors. Does your patriotism extend beyond self-preservation? Beyond white Christian America? 

I wanted to kiss those American flags and set them on fire at the same time. 

How could we all love this country so much and understand it so differently?

This is the complexity of living in a pluralistic democracy. This is the love and this is the pain. There are setbacks, but hope lives on.

I kid you not, as I walked this path of flags, crying into my hands, not caring if the neighbors saw, perhaps even hoping they would see, this song came up on my Pandora feed.

I’ve never heard it before. It’s called “After the Storm” by Mumford and Sons. Let me share the lyrics with you.

And after the storm,
I run and run as the rains come
And I look up, I look up,
On my knees and out of luck,
I look up.

Night has always pushed up day
You must know life to see decay
But I won’t rot, I won’t rot
Not this mind and not this heart,
I won’t rot.

And I took you by the hand
And we stood tall,
And remembered our own land,
What we lived for.

But there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

And now I cling to what I knew
I saw exactly what was true
But oh no more.
That’s why I hold,
That’s why I hold with all I have.
That’s why I hold.

I won’t die alone and be left there.
Well I guess I’ll just go home,
Oh God knows where.
Because death is just so full and man so small.
Well I’m scared of what’s behind and what’s before.

And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

***

Today, I have finally reached my enough point.

Enough crying. Enough sadness. Enough frustration and disillusionment.

Because my baby doesn’t deserve any of that either.

I remember what I once told myself on a desperate January morning in 2014.

When I woke up sick again.

For the third time in a month.

And my 6-month-old baby was sick.

And I still had to go to work.

And there was three inches of snow on the ground.

And I had an 8:00 a.m. class.

And my voice was gone.

Get up, I told myself. You are fucking fierce. You’ve been through worse. You’ve felt worse.

Get up. 

And I did.

But honestly, this time, I cannot do it alone. I’m going to need help. From my family. From my friends. Even from readers of this blog whom I’ve never met in person.

I’m going to need to feel your hands, pulling me up from the thick mud of this grief. I need to feel reassurance that many, many of us are still standing after this massive blow to all the American values that I hold close to my heart.

I need to hear you out there.

I need to know that we’re in this together.

That we are still moving forward.

To all current Millenial Parents out there and all those Millenials who will be parents in the next ten years, I say to you this:

We. Are. Next.

We are responsible for raising this next generation of children. What we teach them matters. How we talk about people who are different from us matters. Whether we are serious or joking, our children hear everything. They see what is acceptable and what is completely unacceptable.

And if our kids’ history textbooks whitewash away the pain and oppression that the ancestors of so many non-white Americans have suffered, it is our responsibility to tell those stories. Those stories matter. Those stories are America, too. Even if these stories are painful, we must tell them so that this next generation is equipped with the empathy that this country needs to engage in effective communication in a globalized world.

Let’s raise these kids to once and for all value everyone’s voice, not just the voices of those who have always been the loudest and most heard.

Let’s teach our kids that the road to our own prosperity shouldn’t be paved with the suffering of others.

And to White Millenials specifically, I say to you this:

Let’s stop churning out entitled white children who never interact with anyone of a different religion or race or language. That shit matters. It matters that our kids have friends who are different from them. Because when you have friends who are different from you, you stand up for your friends.

You don’t let people tell your friends that they aren’t what makes America great.

In 20 years, when the Baby Boomers have lost their political power and the Millenials shift the political landscape, let’s make certain that our children will not have to face an election like this ever again.

Are you with me?

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