Whether you’re in an established multicultural marriage or you’re just starting out on your journey in an intercultural relationship, figuring out what makes multicultural families work is a lifelong journey.
There are never any hard and fast rules in any relationship. It takes time, compromise, communication and maturity for couples to get to a place where they can say they truly understand each other.
Throw in a couple of cultures (maybe even a religion or two) that may seem completely at odds and you have yourself one very complex family.
I speak from experience having grown up to Persian and English parents and raised in Canada. I’m now raising three daughters in London, England with my Nigerian husband. So I can honestly tell you that complexity doesn’t begin to describe my family.
We have misunderstandings, miscommunications, heel digging and more. We struggled with where to live, we fought over rituals that may or may not be completed at birth, religion (which one and if) and race on so many different levels.
Having said that, I’ve picked up some things along the way which are pretty relevant to all multicultural families. Together with snippets of wisdom fellow multicultural marriage elders have shared over the years and which all of us with mixed families can appreciate.
If religion matters to you, both of you, figure it out. Beforehand.
There’s nothing worse than assuming religion will just sort itself out when it matters. When it matters is when you have your first child and you’re in the first few days of bonding and your spouse suggests you get him ‘christened’ or ‘blessed’ according to his/ her religion. THAT is not the time for you to have this discussion.
If you can, and you know it’ll be a point of contention, have the discussion when you’re both unemotional about it, when you can both be objective and think clearly. Trust me, when your first baby arrives, you will be doing none of those.
When you do have the discussion, talk about what matters to you most about your religion. Is it the traditions? The marked occasions and festivals? Or is a an absolute belief in one dogma which doesn’t compromise? While it may seem intuitive you’d be surprised how many folk don’t actually talk about religion and how they want to raise their family before they start one. My parents didn’t and it became a sticking issue. I know of other parents who came from different religious backgrounds who became more religious as they got older. Gradually, these become bigger problems because neither partner has shared why it’s important to them and what exactly do each have in common.
Celebrate your Multicultural Family
Celebrate! Celebrate! Then celebrate some more! And don’t be afraid to get the best of both worlds where you celebrate two festivals weeks apart from two different cultures! That’s the beauty of being in a multicultural family!
It’s important that your children know the different cultures and traditions that make up who they are. And what better way than to make it fun! Children will feel positive about culture and traditions when these are associated with positive and fun memories.
For example, if you want to teach your child your language, don’t just enrol them in a Saturday class, let them watch cartoons or movies they might enjoy in that language, read them their favourite books or sing songs to them in the language.
Another idea may be to get them involved in cooking a recipe from you or your spouse’s culture. Food is always a winner and children love to cook! For more ideas on how to celebrate your multicultural family, check out this free fun downloadable list!
Choose a Neutral country/area to live in
One of the best pieces of advice my Mum ever gave me was that couples should choose a neutral environment (at first anyway), away from where they grew up, particularly if only one of you is from there.
Unless you’re both amazingly well-versed in intercultural communication (and you can get there, it just takes a lot of effort from both of you), it’s often easier for you both to start out afresh, away from your families, schools and friends that you grew up with.
It may sound counter-intuitive not to live somewhere where at least one of you has the support base but moving somewhere neutral means that you both start out on an equal footing. So for example, instead of one person in the relationship constantly having to catch up or be at a disadvantage because they don’t know the system, understand the cultural nuances etc, both of you are forced to lean on each other.
We did this when we started our family in England. Neither of us is from here but after attempting to live two years in Nigeria and another year in Canada, we knew we were happiest where we could both start afresh.
I’m not saying it can’t work and certainly having family nearby is a great support but it can also add an extra layer of pressure when you’re both just starting out and figuring out how to make your relationship work. Keep them nearby but perhaps not down the street?
Stay Connected with both sides of your extended Family
Families, especially grandparents, can have some of the most enriching influences on your children. Although I admit relationships can be frustrating at times, their wealth of knowledge and adoration for your children makes everything worth it.
Celebrating festivals, traditions and religious holidays when you were growing up were driven by your parents so why not ask them to help you continue the traditions? They’ll be over the moon!
Plus their knowledge and often first-hand account of cultural norms and stories can make your cultural values more engaging when you’re trying to instil them in your kids.
Be intentional about helping your children adjust to your multiculturalism—especially in a world which often assumes a single culture
Don’t leave your children to navigate this one by themselves. Your children may be forced to choose between cultures according to societal pressure. They may be asked ‘where are you really from?’ so they can satisfy the enquirer.
Talk to them about their multiple identities. Support them to know that they can adopt one or both or multiple cultures. They should not have to choose. (For more about raising multiracial kids and mixed race identity, click here).
By default you may end up practicing one culture over another, by virtue of where you live, access to extended family or language barriers. But it’s also nice to remember your own. For me, I haven’t lived in Iran since I was a toddler, but I still feel very Persian. I love the food, I love the culture and I try to talk to my children regularly about Persian history so I can remember where I came from.
Tell them stories about your own multicultural family…
You’d be surprised how much of your culture, your upbringing, your history and your way of being is brought alive through the telling of stories from your youth. Painting that picture of the house you grew up in, your grandparents and parents when they were younger, the mischief you got into and how it was handled… all of that brings your culture alive in such a real way.
Siblings may experience a ‘cafeteria approach’ to culture
Although the assumption is that children in multicultural families identify more with the mother’s culture, this isn’t always the case. In fact, different children (even within the same household) can identify with one parent more than another, or relate to one culture more than another. Even going so far as to choose their spouse accordingly thereby solidifying their cultural leanings entirely.
Being from a multicultural family, each child should feel free to identify and choose to develop their own identity and culture.
Having one single common culture isn’t mandatory for all of you to get along. They can be supportive of each other while remaining secure in each of their choices. This is backed up by research of grown adults that grew up in a mixed family- all of whom chose to identify with one culture (or religion) more than another. They supported each other in their choice and none of them felt threatened by the other’s decision as if their cultural choice can impinge upon the others.
They were able to maintain close social ties with both sides of the family in spite of their cultural differences and choices and focused on what they had in common which, in most times, is more binding than the aspects they emphasise in their culture.
Be aware that most of the difficulties your children will face will be as a result of your racial identity and not necessarily your multicultural identity.
Being multicultural is not so difficult in most settings as it is being part of an unfavourable racial group. Most people will embrace, even celebrate different aspects of your culture. Your school may have an international day and ask you to bring in food from your country, your place of worship may ask you to help translate some documents into English. Even your workplace may enjoy the music that comes from your culture.
That’s all lovely but keep in mind that it’s not multiculturalism that is the problem, but rather the tendency for people to stick to their own kind. And if you happen to come from a racial group that is racialized, then don’t be blinded by the affectionate offers to try your food. It’s important your children are aware so they know that they may face negativity when they’re older. For more on how to talk to young children about race and racism, click here.
Children from Mixed Marriages can often end up in mixed marriages themselves
Because of their ability not to focus on cultural differences but instead to focus on social aspects they might have in common with a potential spouse, children from multicultural families often end up choosing a spouse who also has a different culture to their own.
I would say this is true in my family! I chose a Nigerian partner, my sister chose a Pakistani-Indian/Canadian spouse and my brother a White Canadian spouse.
Your Kids will be especially conscious when it comes to their own kids
With an increasing rate of marriage between people from different groups, including interreligious, interethnic, and interracial marriages, these families and their children have had long years of experience living in an intercultural setting.
These experiences will have a huge impact on how children grow up, see the world, understand identity and more. And when the children grow up, they will also have very clear ideas on how intercultural interaction occurs and how it can work successfully.
This will have a huge impact on how they choose to raise their own children, even if their children only inherited 1/4 of their racial heritage. It may mean our grown up children are more deliberate about teaching and instilling cultural values whereas to us, their parents, it happened more intuitively.
It could also mean they’re more sensitive to their child’s potential confusion or feelings of cultural isolation, more aware perhaps that having multiple identities can have that impact.
Chances are, our children will grow up in a much more multicultural world than the world we grew up in. That will mean loss of culture in some ways but perhaps more value placed on it in others. I wish you all the best in your multicultural family and hope you will post a comment below to tell me how you make yours work so well!