Confessions of a Bad Mother

In the last two weeks I’ve been called self-satisfied, low-class, controlling, shallow, sexist, smug, priggish, crazed, repulsive, creepy, trashy, frivolous, provincial, disgusting, and just plain horrible. My crime?  I pierced my six-month-old daughter’s ears at the request of my Nicaraguan husband, an experience I wrote about for the nytimes.com‘s “Townies” column.

It was fun to write the essay. But more than that, it was a real eye-opener to read the 181 comments that have been posted since the piece went up on March 15th. I learned so many things from the people who wrote in–for example, that keloid scars may be less likely to form on baby skin than on adult ears during piercing. Also, that the gold you can buy in the US is junk compared to the good 22karat stuff that is the norm in India.

But the most surprising thing I realized was how apparently trivial things  function as cultural flashpoints, bringing up race and class prejudices that most of us are, perhaps, likely to keep buried when discussing more obvious hot-button issues.

Before moving to Miami Beach almost two years ago, I lived in New York, where fashion scrutiny and overthinking everything are as commonplace as earrings on baby girls are in Miami. So I expected that, upon learning that I’d taken my daughter to the pediatrician to get her ears pierced, a few holier-than-thou types would be outraged. I anticipated the “it’s her body, wait until she asks for earrings before slapping them on her” argument—it was one I’d made myself before deciding that it just wasn’t a big deal, given that if Amalía grows up and doesn’t want earrings, she can let the holes close up. If anyone ever noticed the two little scars that resulted, she could explain that she was Greekaraguan, and that in Nicaragua, they pierce baby girl’s ears. It would be a reminder of her heritage, I thought, one she could flaunt or ignore.

I even anticipated the melodramatic comparisons with female genital mutilation, the old “lots of atrocities are cultural norms” argument. But if a person can’t see the difference between permanent alteration of an infant’s genitals, which can result in lifelong pain, and pierced ears, which most women voluntarily undergo at some point, then clearly I was not going to change his or her mind. (Oddly enough, only one comment mentioned circumcision of boys as a parallel to pierced ears of girls. I guess that’s because circumcision–which I don’t have an opinion on yet–is our own cultural norm in the US.)

What shocked, and ultimately amused, me was the reaction of multiple readers who saw earrings as an issue of CLASS, not of culture. “I have never seen an infant born to middle or upper class parents who had her ears pierced,” wrote Taylor from Boston (really? “Taylor from Boston”? I mean, it would have been slightly less stereotypical if the signature had read “Thurston Howell III of Kennebunkport” or “Waspy McWasperson of White Haven”).

What amused me a whole lot less were the few openly racist and vaguely threatening comments, like this gem:

“There is a clear geographical line separating us from Latin America. That line divides us culturally, too. We don’t eat horse meat, don’t conduct cocks and dogs fights and don’t pierce babies’ ears.

If you cannot learn to appreciate the beauty of a baby girl with natural, pierce-less ears, than maybe you don’t belong in our culture.”

Thank you, sir, for appointing yourself the voice of Anglo America. Where do I go to secede?

Jut as creepy as the cockfight guy were the handful of people who equated earrings with sexuality (as opposed to gender), asking when I was going to get Amalía a boob job and “stripper heels”. This just struck me as a wildly strange link to make; how many of us have grandmothers who wear earrings? And do those venerable ladies wear stripper heels and have boob jobs? (Although if your grandma happens to wear stripper heels, let me be the first to say, kudos, madam!)

The bottom line is, we all carry around associations—some of them toxic—with certain articles of clothing. This point was driven home much more tragically with Geraldo Rivera’s “hoodie defense” of George Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin because he found his appearance threatening. Rivera tweeted “His hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman.”

I’m not trying to compare Earringgate to the Trayvon Martin situation; one’s a tempest in a teapot and the other is a tragedy (it would be a bit like comparing pierced ears to female genital mutilation). I’m just pointing out that I now see I was naive to be shocked that people have such strong visceral associations with what we wear (and, apparently, what we eat. I’ve never eaten horse meat but I’m a little unclear as to what makes it that much grosser than eating cow meat. And I say that as a non-vegetarian. But that’s another post).

The other shocker in all 181 comments I received? Not one of them chastised my husband for piercing Amalía’s ears, even though it was his desire that led us to do so. Instead, all these self-proclaimed feminists did what people have from time immemorial: blamed the mama. And I’m just as guilty as all the rest of them–I didn’t even notice the fact that not one reader singled out my husband until he pointed it out himself.

As the guilty mama in question, I can say that I had mixed feelings while bringing Amalía to the doctor for her “beauty visit”. But all the criticism I’ve gotten since made me glad that we pierced her’s ears.

The last comment in response to “Baby’s First Bling” is one of the most damning. “Custom will justify any atrocity,” writes Chandler. “Way to put a girl in her place and show her what’s really important in life, right from the very beginning.”

I have two thoughts in response to Chandler (another name that I would never let myself use if I were writing a novel with a judgey honky character, because it would be too cliché). The first is if s/he really considers ear-piercing “an atrocity”, I hope Amalía will live a life that is just as trauma-free as Chandler’s.

As for the second, I pierced Amalía’s ears for no other reason than because I thought it would make lots of people I love happy, including her someday. But now I hope that Chandler’s right, that having pierced ears may in fact help show her what’s really important in life, right from the very beginning: Family. Tradition. Diversity. And, sandwiched between two blinged-out earlobes, an open mind.

Comments

  1. I found the reactions to your article in the Times fascinating. A lot of jerks out there with nothing to do with their lives but make dumb comments.
    Also – that people feel they have to put up their personal experiences when reading about someone else’s. In this case they were interesting comments.

  2. I loved reading everyone’s ear piercing stories. It’s a real rit of passage for women, I guess. I mean, you know, like that first bite of horsemeat 😉

  3. Well written Eleni. I grew up in Miami and still live in Miami. It is “normal” to me to see baby girls sporting earrings, although in our family we wait until age 10 (only because that is about the age I was and I have fond memories of my dad taking me). I don’t have anything against it and I find it unbelievable that you got such visceral comments on a somewhat trivial action. Allow me to cyber-hug you and say, “Don’t give those negative comments another thought. You didn’t do anything wrong.” And the class issue…really??!! I must be pretty blind to all that.

  4. My sister’s ears were pierced when she was 6-months old, and myself when I was a very young child. I would much have rather my ears be pierced when I was a baby too. I remember wanting them done, but being frightened of the pain, and I thought it was quite painful. Here in New Zealand, all walks of life get their ears pierced – women, men and children of all cultures. I don’t understand why people are making it such a huge deal? It’s just pierced ears, for goodness sakes! She looks adorable with them, and I’m sure she won’t regret it when she’s older. If anything, I’m sure she’d be happy not to have to have them done later!

  5. People are very angry these days and anonymous comments online have become the place to let loose with that anger. I really believe this is bringing us down a notch in our collective spirit – maybe even reversing evolution a bit.

    What I thought of before you mentioned the circumcision issue is my son. He’s 9 years old and was born in Dublin, Ireland. I’m American, his father Irish. In Ireland circumcision is seen as barbaric and it wasn’t something I could have easily had done in the Dublin hospital where he was born if I felt it was important. Since I had mixed feelings about circumcision already, it was easy enough for me to just go with the program and not have it done. I’ve had people here in the US act quite shocked, and I think a little grossed out, that I didn’t have him circumcised. Yet in Ireland the practice is looked down upon with the same vitriol. It seems that everyone has to look down on someone.

  6. I had both of my daughters’ ears pierced at 9 months. I’m Albanian (though I came to America at 8 months of age and married an American), and we do them young. All of these “shocked” Americans are hypocrites. They’re worried about scarring and traumatizing their children but leave their parents in old folks homes to die. They let their teenagers get tattoos because “they want them.” They let their children fail in school because “it’s really up to them” (the child. He’s almost grown up now, after all). It may not sound like it, but there are a lot of things I love about America. I just think they leave too many decisions to the child.

  7. My first serious disagreement with my husband was about our daughter’s ears. I was raised in Southern California in a neighborhood with a large Mexican population. All the beautiful babies had pierced ears and I told him I planned on having our daughter’s ears pierced before taking her home from the hospital. He had a fit and I gave in and forgot about it. But the curious thing is that my daughter has one oddly shaped ear that the pediatrician would have noticed if he had even been told about the possibility of the proceedure. And it would have been such a minor fix.

  8. I’m glad your baby has an open minded Mom that doesn’t worry about what others think – she’s a lucky girl! I had my daughter’s done at age 2 (because that’s how old she was when we adopted her) and she kept ASKING to have earrings like Mom & grandma, etc. Even at that age, it was not a big deal. She barely cried and I think she hated the sound more than anything.

    By the way, I HAVE eaten horse meat – just like aged beef. So what’s the big deal? I’m still alive – it didn’t kill me.

    People should just lighten up, mind their own business and let others live their own lives…….

  9. Hey there! My name is Nikki and I read your post on AOL news. I was reading first all the names you said you were called and though “Gosh what did this woman do give her daughter breast implants at 1?” I am 26 years old and have lived with my ears pierced for just as long as I have been alive. From what I have heard people used to tell me how beautiful of a baby I was and how wonderful it was that my ears were pierced. People found it enhanced the elegance and loveliness of a young girl. I came from a middle class Italian, Irish, German family with my grandfather having been born here and his parents in Italy. His mother thought it was wonderful not torture for me. I personally don’t find it to be cultural really, more or less its a decision that has been around for ages. People do it when the babies are little for the very reasons you explained, and I find it to be attractive. People are just so sensetive lately and they need to get over it and not sweat the small stuff.

  10. P.S. You better believe when I have a daughter someday god willing she will have her ears pierced too. 😉

  11. I took both my daughters to have their ears pierced at three months old. This proved to be a very good decision as far as we were concerned. We have had no problems with the girls wearing earrings unlike mothers who are friends of my who waited until their girls were older and had all sorts of trouble. If you have a baby daughter and are considering having her ears pierced while still a baby, my advice would be ‘go for it”.

  12. Like Pam, we have two daughters and my partner and I decided that they should both start wearing earrings while they were babies. Each little girl hardly made any fuss while having it dome and have always looked really cute wearig a little gold stud in each ear. We are certainly not ‘lower class’ – my partner and I are both university lecturers but like many other mums and dads nowdays, decided to have our daughters’ ears pierced when they were babies. Congratulations to all the other parents who made the same decision for their little girls.

  13. Hey ladies,
    Thanks for the comments and sharing your experiences. I love hearing from those of you in different countries where attitudes towards earrings differ from those here, which are so surprisingly culturally coded! This weekend was Orthodox Easter and Amalía’s earring looked perfect with her finery.

  14. Maria Agustina says:

    Hi Eleni!!! i love the way Amalia looks with her earrings! CUTE!! <3 i miss all of you!

  15. As I wrote in my last response on your original writing on ear piercings….among many Greeks the piercing of a little girl’s ears is accepted….and even expected. Relax, new mama…ya did good! And your daughter is blessed to have such a forward-thinking mom….a mom who blended her two cultures and did not give in to the opinions of others….now THAT is a valuable lesson for her (for all those wondering what you are teaching this little angel).

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