The Skype sessions between me, my daughter, and my parents tend to follow the same predictably infuriating trajectory. First, my parents call out my daughter’s name and exclaim ecstatically over her general cuteness and whatever she happens to be doing at the time. But once they’re done with all that, there’s a pause, during which my mother squints toward the camera and tilts her head to the side – putting my child, and thus, my parenting, under further scrutiny.
“Poor girl, her nose is running,” she might say. “Why isn’t she wearing a sweater? Is it very warm, in your home? Where are her socks?”
My mother is maniacally obsessed with keeping my daughter bundled within an inch of her life. Though we live hundreds of miles apart, she enforces her regimen any time my parents visit. If my daughter has taken a bath, then she needs to put on a hat and get wrapped in several towels until her hair dries. If she’s preparing for a nap, then being wrapped in multiple layers of onesies — princess-and-the-pea like — is a must. And if she’s venturing out for a walk, then forget it – she requires multiple pairs of socks, pants, shirts, jackets, and even hats, along with several blankets, which means by the time she’s dressed to leave, she’s so tired and cranky that she’ll probably just sleep the whole time, which is just as well. If it’s summer, then she needs to be fully covered for maximum protection from the deadly sun. There is no season in which she is safe.
My parents were born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine, and while I lived there until I was five and understand the layers of superstitions and obsessions with the cold that fuel its people, I am not an anti-draft evangelist like my mother. She believes that letting in a cold, or rather, a draft, is the worst thing a mother can do. The draft is the monster at the gate, threatening to unleash its chaos on your innocent, helpless children. Open the door or window just a crack, and it might kill you.
I became more critical of my mother’s ideas not only because they were torturing my baby, but also because I became more short-fused in general.
Until I had a child of my own who was subjected to cold-related paranoia, I didn’t really question my mother’s many superstitions and obsessions. I became more critical of my mother’s ideas not only because they were torturing my baby, but also because I became more short-fused in general. I spent my first year at home with my daughter, a challenging time to say the least, and it didn’t take much to set me off.
I began to wonder: my mother has a PhD in mathematics and analyzes clinical trials for a living. She’s a scientist — shouldn’t she know better? “You know, there’s no scientific evidence that wet hair can give you a cold,” I would try to argue, and she would just shake her head and say, “You don’t need evidence. It is common knowledge.” I would tease her about it, but I began to notice that she would actually get defensive, as if her entire character were being assaulted.
Once my daughter turned one and began day care, I started to have more room for sympathy for my mother. I always knew, on some level, that her cold-terror goes back to her unsurprisingly hard Soviet childhood. Most notably to the fact that her father, my grandfather, suffered from a lung condition so severe that he spent most of the winters of my mother’s childhood laid up in the hospital. Mama and my grandmother would pick up jars of supposedly salubrious liquids and truck across half of Kiev on multiple buses to deliver them to him. Though my grandfather and his lungs made it to America with us, he only lasted a handful of years there. So, one might argue, my mother had some reason to fear the cold.
I can understand and pity my mother, but that doesn’t mean I can stop my blood from boiling when she tries to shove my squirming child into yet another cardigan. As my daughter grows older (tellingly, one of her first words is “socks”), I’m becoming more aware that the cold is the least of the earthly threats I’d like to protect her from. There are criminals and predators in positions of power and, as was recently revealed to me in an “accident/incident” report, biters at her day care. Additionally, one day her mother will die, hopefully long before her, and then she will follow suit, trailing her foreign, bedraggled relatives right into the pit of oblivion.
A grandmother with a mortal fear of a draft doesn’t seem as big of a threat compared to all that, and I can understand it — my mother’s need to control at least one aspect of her faraway granddaughter’s life — even if I’m too stubborn to tell her so in person. And, as my mother witnessed my own parenting struggles from afar — postpartum anxiety leading to a really fun eight-month spell of insomnia that nearly killed me — I could understand it, her desire to make our situation a little bit cozier, if not better.
There is so little that I can do to ensure that my girl gets the life that she deserves. […] I can at least keep her warm, and that’s not nothing.
When my daughter turned one, she was deemed old enough to sleep with a blanket. And I must hand it to Mama: on the first night I covered my girl with a blanket, it felt nice, tucking her in to the warm cloth — just as my mother used to do to me in my crib in Kiev, calling me her little mummy. There is so little that I can do to ensure that my girl gets the life that she deserves, that she is safe from the monsters lurking outside the house. But since I can’t keep her safe from all that, I can at least keep her warm, and that’s not nothing.
Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kiev, Ukraine and moved to the United States as a child. She received an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, Oksana, Behave! was published by Spiegel & Grau/Random House in 2019. Her fiction and nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Southern Review, Guernica, The Threepenny Review, Crazyhorse, Slate, and elsewhere. She lives in Auburn, Alabama with her husband and daughter and teaches for Auburn University. She is at work on a second novel, which will be published by Random House in 2021. She is also a fiction editor at The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature.