Where Will We Raise Our Children?

Angie and Francois

Francois: Eight years ago I was feeling homesick and a little guilty about taking a research position in Minneapolis rather than returning Haiti. I had already been away six years for medical training, and was anxious to go home and begin practicing medicine. However, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to join the hospital’s research team.

I met Angie at the hospital staff open house. She was pretty and easygoing, but what really drew me to her was her sharp wit. She seemed genuinely interested in my dream to build a pediatric clinic with public health outreach in Haiti. That first night we met she challenged me, saying I should include parent education and mental health screening. I was intrigued by her ideas and assertive enthusiasm. Then she offered to show me around Minneapolis. Before long we were spending our weekends together.

Angie: I was immediately drawn to Francois. His energy was infectious. He didn’t look or walk or talk like a local. He had unique mannerisms and his skin was darker than African-Americans I knew. I couldn’t place his accent. His passion impressed me. I had five years experience as a hospital social worker and was beginning to lose faith until Francois’s vision for pubic health in Haiti carried me back to a hopeful place.

Francois loved pediatrics, but he wasn’t obsessed with work. We started hanging out, hiking in the countryside and exploring the nightlife. Even though Francois had a brutal schedule with medicine and research, he knew how to laugh and keep his spirits up under just about any circumstances. He seemed to have it all balanced. I couldn’t help falling in love.

Family Matters

Francois: I was shocked my parents reacted so coldly when I called to tell them I had asked Angie to marry me. The timing was perfect. Angie and I had been together a year, my research grant would end soon and Angie was excited about moving to Haiti to work with families and children.

I had been telling my parents how smart, talented and beautiful Angie was for months, but somehow they didn’t want to believe we were serious. Although they never said anything, I knew my parents hoped that after my training I would marry a Haitian woman, preferably from our social circle. They were not enthusiastic about a ‘foreigner’ in the family even though our family had lived in France for eight years.

All my life, my parents had stressed how our family has been prominent in Haiti since the slave rebellion in 1791 that led to Haitian independence. Expectations go with that legacy. My parents didn’t think an American would fit in or understand us.

Angie: The first time I brought Francois home to Chicago was for Thanksgiving. We’d only been dating a few months. My parents were, as usual, warm and welcoming. My Dad is retired Army

and works as a high school history teacher. My Mom owns a business specializing in financial planning for African-American women.

My parents grew up on the south side of Chicago in a poor neighborhood with limited opportunities. They were high school sweethearts who did well in school but couldn’t afford college. The Army offered a way out and up, and for my parents it worked. My Dad became a respected non-commissioned officer and both my parents finished college as the Army moved us around the country. They raised my brother and I to work hard and give back to those less fortunate. It’s no surprise I‘m a social worker.

Like most military families, we are a tight family. As Francois and I got serious, I shared my feelings for him with my mom, but she was not thrilled. She was worried that he was too foreign-looking and elite-acting. She was concerned he came from a chauvinistic culture. My parents were skeptical that we’d make it with all our differences, and they definitely didn’t want me to move to Haiti. But eventually they put their feelings aside, gave me a very special wedding and welcomed Francois into the family.

Our Dream and Our Reality

Angie: We moved to Haiti when I was four months pregnant with Annie. Everything was great at first. I took six months off after she was born and then I wanted to be at the clinic three days a week. Francois was surprised but OK with it. Francois’s parents were thrilled with their new grandbaby but when they found out I planned to return to work alongside Francois they pitched a fit. “What will people think of Angie working at the clinic with a baby at home? She should be entertaining and thinking about your career.”

The clinic was tough. Although I tried hard, the language barrier made it difficult for patients to trust me. My career has been working with the underserved, but in Haiti I couldn’t connect. It broke my heart. It was humiliating. I became depressed and asked Francois to find a position back in the U.S. Francois’s parents were furious at me, but they never said a word directly. In Haiti I felt unwanted everywhere.

Francois: In Haiti we have significant language and social class barriers. In a strange way, it’s comforting because it’s tradition and people know how to live with it. Our system is changing slowly, but you can’t rush change, especially in Haiti. As a people we ease into change, avoid conflict, and maintain relationships that bring long term outcomes.

I think Angie expected too much of herself too quickly. She has a strong personality and is very American. She wanted parents at the clinic to make changes they weren’t ready for. The poverty, domestic violence and lack of protection for women really upset her. The patients could tell and they would avoid her.

People in my family’s circle welcomed Angie even though they thought her very odd for wanting to work at the clinic after Annie was born. Her behavior was confusing to everyone, regardless of social status.

By the time Annie was three Angie was pregnant again. We argued about staying in Haiti versus an offer I had to return to the research project in Minneapolis. I love Angie. I was worried about

her and I wanted the second pregnancy to go well. Though it wrenched my heart, I took the job in Minneapolis. I think we both knew that moving to Minneapolis was only a temporary solution.

Who Do We Want to Be?

Francois: Our departure from Haiti was painful. My parents blamed Angie for their disappointment. I was torn. We all cried. I wanted to stay in Haiti but not at the cost of my wife and children. I will always ache for my Haitian roots; the flowers from our garden, the street music, Haitian food, and the benefit of having a supportive, well-connected family.

I feel secure when I am with my extended family. Here in America no one is available to help. I am Haitian, not African-American. If I stay in the U.S., what would be my children’s cultural identity? What will be our family identity? Will my family and my traditions be lost if I stay in America? What about my dream for public health in Haiti?

Angie: I have always been a flexible and open-minded. Usually I love a challenge. I was the school-aged kid who led teams and earned citizenship awards. So naturally I was shocked when I found I didn’t get along with most Haitians unless I did it 100% their way. Tradition rules in Haiti. I didn’t have much wiggle room and that rigidity doesn’t fit for me. I got depressed and didn’t recognize myself.

My father-in-law, as head of the household, makes the important decisions, and my mother-in-law defers to him even though she has day to day influence over the household. I found the subtle use of women’s power manipulative and was even more shocked when it worked. It really scared me that my mother’s fears about women’s roles in Haitian society were spot-on.

Francois is not as domineering as his father, but I was taken aback when he slipped into Haitian cultural attitudes the longer we were there. I love him, but I was afraid of losing myself. I talked to friends and my parents for support. My mom kept saying, “Just come home. How can you raise your children there?”

The Counselors’ Perspective

Angie and Francois are bonded by their idealism, both in their relationship and in their devotion to service for others. They were both disturbed by Angie’s culture shock. She had moved several times regionally in the U.S. and hadn’t thought it would difficult to move internationally. Francois was confused because he had adjusted easily to the U.S. It rocked their relationship until they started examining why Angie’s culture shock was so powerful.

Angie grew up in a mobile, career military family based on American individualist values. Her parents raised their children to have a sense of personal autonomy and to trust that outside institutions, like schools and government, can and do work well and help people. Angie and her brother reaped the benefits of the hard-won civil and individual rights battles of her parents’ generation. As an adult, Angie was successful at making creative decisions, facilitating fair treatment and empowering her patients to self-advocate.

Francois’s family has classic collectivist cultural values. Everyone in Francois’s family and community has a role that makes for a secure sense of belonging. Family reputation is essential.

Francois’s family gets things done by relying on trusted, generations-long relationships without which few important social transactions or job advancements would be possible.

In-law meddling in a couple’s relationship is even more challenging when one family is collectivist and the other individualist. Angie and Francois are talking about deeply grounded philosophical worldview conflicts in addition to the usual relationship conflicts like how to negotiate a budget and what to eat for dinner. Angie and Francois need to listen carefully to each other’s most cherished memories, traditions, and beliefs. Their challenge as a couple is to negotiate and combine, choose, define, and create shared beliefs, and then decide how to describe their decisions to both extended families.

Even the most loving, open-minded families assume their children will follow their cultural beliefs, language and traditions. For Francois’s collectivist family, breaking with tradition is more devastating than for Angie’s individualist family, who are accustomed to their children thinking more independently.

When grandchildren arrive, the emotional expectations of both sides of the family escalate. Both sets of grandparents want to see their family’s traditions take precedence, and when they don’t they feel threatened. They use the weapons they know best: Loyalty and Guilt.

Francois and Angie are in a major life stage transition making decisions on where and how to raise their children. They will need to have an open-ended conversation on gender roles and parenting philosophies in order to negotiate how to model values for their children. It will also be helpful for them to strategize around living in the United States and visiting Haiti without being defensive.

The goal for both is to feel free and flexible to fit more comfortably in both cultures. They know another move is coming, and they have to be proactive about finding the right fit. But if they know they don’t have to lose their identities along the way, any relocation will be more comfortable.

What Has Helped

Angie: I felt better immediately after we resettled in Minneapolis. That’s when I took an honest look at myself and realized how I had misunderstood my own culture shock. I hadn’t considered how different Haitian culture was from mine.

Because Francois had fit in so well in Minneapolis, I assumed it would be the same for me. I wish I had talked to people who had lived in Haiti, read books, watched movies, and asked Francois more questions before we moved.

Coming home I understood why Francois could get so sad talking about people, places, smells, and foods he missed. I could never tease him out of it when the loneliness came on. Now we talk about culture shock and cultural grieving in a completely different way. We’re consciously bringing more of the Haitian experience into our lives. I’m not saying I want to grow old in Haiti and I am not saying I want my daughter to take on the traditional woman’s role in Haiti, but I am saying it took leaving Haiti and coming back to the U.S. to really understand another culture.

When we lived in Haiti my mom’s fears about living there forever came out in angry emails directed toward Francois’s family. The communication was upsetting to me I would get pounding

headaches. Since returning, my parents and I have had serious conversations about living between cultures. Mom finally told me that when we lived in Haiti she felt scared I would give up my U.S. identity. I wish we could have understood the power of family loyalty then, but I am glad we are talking about it now.

Francois: This has been a hard road. One positive is Angie truly understands the immigrant experience. But I wish I had prepared her better. Then perhaps her experience would not have been so difficult. We were idealistic and naive. It was a mistake to assume just because we love each other everything would be smooth crossing cultures.

I think it was easier for me coming to the U.S. as a single man in my twenties. I was studying hard amongst a community of people with the same goal. When there was time to relax friends took me under their wings. By the time I met Angie, I had been in the U.S. six years. Being back in Haiti activated my love of my country and the importance of my family. Annie, our first child, learned Haitian French from the time she was born. Now I am speaking it with both children as a way of keeping home alive in them.

Angie and I have been looking at all the options for life and work. I have applied to a position at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta that will allow me to align with the clinic in Haiti and visit regularly. Angie is looking for school-based social work positions in Atlanta so she will have summers and longer school holidays that we could spend in Haiti. She has even agreed to spend the summers in Haiti even if I’m not able to be there the entire summer. Nothing would make me happier than to know she really means to raise our children biculturally.

We are finding our way. It’s not perfect. We are learning to check with each other, to sort out if the problem is based on cultural differences or simply the influence of a bad day. Our parents remain competitive about which traditions should have more influence on the children. But we are committed on working on who we are together, and that makes us both happy.

Things to consider

  • Where would you place each of your families on the collectivist to individualist cultural spectrum when you were growing up? Where would you place yourself today?
  • When you plan a visit to the ‘other’ country or culture, make a date to discuss concerns about in-law expectations. What concerns do you have that your partner will culturally align with his family? When you visit, take some moments every day to check in and create strategies to alert each other so you can reconnect if one of you feels isolated or left out.
  • When conflict occurs in your in-law relationships, could cultural competition have a part in it? Could the grandparents fear that their grandchildren will not be at home in their culture?