One Year On: A British Mum’s Update on Raising an American Baby

Ruth and her soon to be one-year-old daughter Dalia enjoy a cuddle in the park.

Ruth and her soon to be one-year-old daughter Dalia enjoy a cuddle in the park.

“So, what kind of accent do you think she’ll have?” This is a favorite question of curious onlookers to expat parents. I get asked it at least once a week. My stock answer goes something like this: “Erm, dunno. Some kind of horrible hybrid thing, I imagine. Like Lloyd Grossman, or that horse-haired one from Girls.” In truth, I have no idea what my nearly one-year-old daughter’s burgeoning vocal chords will crank out once they’re able to make sounds that include an accent.

And so we move onto: “Will you teach her the “proper” words for things?” Yes, I say, but I won’t do it on purpose. We won’t have lessons at home with me standing by a blackboard bellowing, “Repeat after me: trousers. Pants, my dear, are the things that go underneath your trousers.” No, it’ll just happen because I speak British English, and so does her dad. And so do many hundreds of battery-operated toys her British-based elders got her for Christmas.

The hardest thing about having a baby whose entire extended family lives in a far off time zone is the travel. Pre-third trimester, we used to visit the U.K. three or four times a year. In the last 15 months, we’ve managed only two trips, and both of those were monstrously hard. None of us slept. “Dream on,” said the look our furious baby gave the travel cot we expected her to bed down in for three weeks. “So, here’s the deal: I’ll be sleeping in your bed for the foreseeable. And mother, you’ll be my personal butler and buffet during my eight or nine nocturnal wake ups. Got it? Good.” Like I said, monstrous.

And then there’s Skype. We’re on there every day talking to heavily pixelated grandparents, aunts and uncles. “Doo-doo noo-noo poo-poo!” screeches aunty Ellie, 24, pointing and giggling while her 11-month-old niece imparts a withering look and hammers letter strings into the new window she just thumped into existence. Give the kid a laptop and she’s like one of those Shakespeare monkeys. Except, you know, American.

When you have a child in a country that isn’t the one you grew up in, you’re constantly questioning that decision. How will this little folly of ours play out? If we repatriate at some point, will this mess her up? Will she be teased by her peers—here or back home—for talking/acting/thinking weirdly?

The first birthday is approaching. This presents new challenges and new cultural impasses. Americans go big on kids’ parties, right? Crumbs. Honestly, I’m not sure I know how to throw a party for a one-year-old. As a compromise, we’re having a do that I hope will radiate a, “This time last year I was in labor and hitting my husband for not being. Glad that whole thing’s receding into the distant past!” vibe. Basically, we’re going to celebrate by getting tipsy with our mates while our various offspring go about their business underneath a swaying canopy of boozy parents. It’s the British way.

Are you a British mum raising your children in the U.S., tell us your story! Join @MindTheGap_BBCA on Twitter (Wednesday, February 12 at 2 pm ET) to discuss the differences between British and American parenting using hashtag #MindTheChat. Tweet your questions for our expert panel, including Carrie Goldman (@CarrieMGoldman), author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear; Susan Newman (@SusanNewmanPhD), social psychologist and author of The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide; and Susan Bartell (@drsusanbartell), psychologist and author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask.

See More:
10 Expat Parent Worries and How to Handle Them
Crazy Baby Names and Five Other U.S. Parenting Trends That Will Drive You Crazy
What the U.S. Can Learn From British-Style Parenting

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • expatmum

    Happy birthday to you both! Mine all had fairly English accents until they went to school then it went all twangy and mid-western! (They can still imitate me quite well though.)
    The transition was pretty weird. Words like Party became something like Powdy before it was full on American Pardee. If I say “banana” to my ten year old, he will sometimes say it back in an English accent and then correct himself. Tee hee.

  • Sarah G

    My kids have been here 4 1/2 years. My daughter was 4 and now as she nears her 9th birthday she sounds more American than British. Her brother who was 6 when we came over has retained his British accent and only has the odd word that is more American than British. Of course the biggest thing is my daughter is no longer called Katie but is variations of Kadie and Casey. I asked them which the thought they were British or American (even though they were born in the UK), and they both said ‘both’.

  • Jennie B

    I’m a British expat. My kids are 8½, 6 and 2½. I haven’t visited the UK in over 10 years now, so none of my kids have been there. You are lucky that you’ve managed 2 trips in the past 15 months! My first child was a very high need baby, so we didn’t dare to drive 3 hours and then take an 8 hour flight with her. Then we had 2 more kids…

    My husband is American and so my kids pick up American words from him. The oldest two had British accents as they grew up, since I’m a stay-at-home-Mum, but then they sound more American once they start Kindergarten. My American friends say that my 2 year old still has a British accent, but he might lose it even quicker, I think. Since his big sister and brother sound American now too.

    My 8½ year old now tells me that I’m saying words wrong or that she doesn’t understand certain words: ones with R in them.

    The few British words that they still use (and my American husband has adopted) are “bin” and the pronunciation of “garage”. I still say “banana” and “yogurt” like a Brit, but even my 2 year old has started Americanizing those now too.

    I haven’t managed to get any of my kids to like Marmite, but they do like British pancakes rolled up with lemon & sugar. My oldest son likes a soft boiled egg with soldiers too.

    Oh and I do insist on them writing my name as “Mum” rather than “Mom”.

    • expatmum

      My little guy over-corrects me! Anything I say ending with an “A”, (for example, his cousin Luca’s name) he says it with an “er” ending; when he first got into Dr. Who he called the Daleks “Dar-leks” ’cause he thought I was doing the accent thing again. It’s all very interesting.

      • gn

        Me: Mummy’s gone to the spa.
        5-year-old daughter: The sparrrrr?
        Me: Not the sparrrr; the spaaaaahhhhh!

        • expatmum

          She’ll freak out when she sees a Spar store in the Uk then.

    • Aaron Davis

      Your name is Jennie, not mum!

  • gn

    Congratulations on surviving your baby’s first year!

    As for accent, I’m afraid you’ll have to let go. It’s just a fact of life that children acquire most of their accent from their peers, not from their parents. This applies to everyone, whether they’re children of Scots living in London, or children of Brits living in the USA. The so-called “critical period” for accent acquisition is thought to last from around 4 to 16: adults usually end up having an accent based on the speech they were exposed to during that period of their lives, regardless of where they lived before or afterwards.

    Unless you’re planning to homeschool (or return to Britain), your daughter will have a US accent. Look on the bright side: she’ll probably be able to pronounce “th” and “r” better than her English cousins. And she’ll almost certainly be able to do a very accurate and amusing parody of your accent!

    • expatmum

      Being a bit thick here – what’s the “th” reference?

      • gn

        Some speakers pronounce “th” like “f” or “v” (using the lower lip rather than the tongue). This used to be considered Cockney, but it’s now quite widespread in the south of England.

        • expatmum

          Ah yes. Don’t think it’s reached the north yet. Won’t be long.

          • Aaron Davis

            As Catherine Tate would say:
            I ain’t bovvered!

        • Guest

          I ain’t bovvered!

  • Liverbird

    As a British mum with an American husband, I was expecting my kids to come out speaking American. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they are now in high school and still have English/mid-Atlantic accents. I think it was the result of the nursery school teacher telling them they needed speech therapy in order to speak with a proper New York accent!

  • ukhousewifeusa

    My 6 year old son has been here 18 months now. He tried the American accent, failed and mumbled, and then opted to keep his British accent. The chicks love it! 😉

    • Kaley

      He really should keep it … you know, for 10 years from now. :)

  • Alyson Mac

    i have a daughter that was born in england and we moved to US when she was 8. She had a tough time to be begin with but now has a strange accent like mine. When talking to british people she sounds american, when she talks to americans she sounds british. My son was born in america and has learnt to manage a crazy english mum and balances things well! We are moving to Mississippi so I am really interested to see what happens to my accent there. We are going to end up with a third way of saying tomato!!!! :)

    • Robbie B Walk

      I have lived in Mississippi my whole life and I can tell you now that your whole family will be a hit here. Most of us are in awe of all things British. Depending on where you move in Mississippi, your tomato could sound like anything from Tuhmayduh to Tuhmayter. Be careful not to hold our accents against us, we are mostly a very friendly people. I hope you love it here.

      • Alyson Mac

        Thanks robbie…we are moving to central mississippi, just 30 or so miles north of Hattiesburg. We are really excited to make the move and to make new friends and learn new things! Where are you located?

        • Robbie B Walk

          My hometown, Wesson, is about an hour west of where you will be moving. I now live in north Mississippi in Hernando, which is just south of Memphis. My husband and I live here with our two daughters, Kate and Kara. Too bad we will be so far away. I would have liked to meet you.

          • Alyson Mac

            that is too bad you are so far away…

    • maggie

      We used to live in Alabama and had a great friend and neighbour whose roots actually were from Mississippi. Instead of my saying ‘tomaytoes’ she started saying it like I do but with a southern accent. It was so funny :) I still pronounce all my words the English way. Our daughter has lived in England for the past 5 years and she still sounds American to me but uses a lot of Brit phrases. Her friends here say she sounds like a Brit.

      • Alyson Mac

        well maggie i think our family is going to end up with a mish mash of accents too! :)

  • EmmaK

    Yeah you are right the flying with babies is the worst part of bringing up babies as an expat. You don’t need to worry about what accent your baby will have- it will be american. I find it quite fun bringing up kids abroad although they have got to the age where they take the piss out of my accent. If Victoria Beckham can do it so can I ….although actually she’s just moved back to England hasn’t she? Here are some of my experiences

  • Donna

    I can give you the long-range answer since I’m the daughter of an ex-pat British mother who moved to the USA in 1957! I was born only five years she emigrated. My mother was a stay at home mom (yes, when I was young I called her “mummy”) and I was teased for having an English accent when I started Kindergarten, even though by then it wasn’t a very strong one. I lost the accent fairly quickly during my early school years but still get told now and then that I speak “proper”. And somehow, I’ve passed this on to my own daughter, who is now 15. She’s been nicknamed “British Girl” at school despite having never been there, and her peers having no knowledge of her ancestry, because she, too, speaks “proper”.

  • Jo Polowy

    I’m the daughter of a British mother and American father who grew up near Boston. My mother worked very hard to make sure I didn’t have a Boston accent. I sound American until British words and phrases pop out of my mouth.

  • Brian MacNevin

    I once worked with some kids who spoke like any other kid in California… unless they were around their British parents or on the phone with them. THEN they spoke in perfect British accents and vernacular. It was so weird, but also cool at the same time.

    I think, for them, their American dialect was parsed similarly to a second language.

  • TrueBrit

    It all works out – mine are now 18 & 20, love having the “british” accentto pull out of the hat to impress the ladies,(it doesn’t convince me but it works on americans!) but sound fully american day to day. They have the wry british sense of humour, know how to spell things correctly but never do & will always have a place to stay if they want to go to Europe – it’s all round the best of both worlds for them! It works out for me too if I need a translator!

  • British Texan

    I know that my nephew and niece were born in the US, went to school there, and have never visited the UK. They view themselves as American. On the other hand, I worked with a few Americans back in the UK, whose children were born in England, went to school there, and subsequently ALL applied for UK nationality when they hit 18 as they felt themselves to be British and not American. I suspect it is less to do with genes and more to do with environment.

  • Bravegirl01

    Merican not British, but raised 5K miles from extended fam before the wonders of email and Skype. Depending on when your family returns to the UK, your daughter probably will be teased (I’m thinking school-age, here); but she’ll be teased for SOMETHING no matter where you raise her. The question is, does living in the States give her — and you and your husband — something unique you’d never get at home (a broader perspective on the world, certainly broader than most of your American neighbors), or does the distance from family prove more distracting and upsetting than the benefits of living abroad?

    Also, depending on how long your job posting is, returning to the UK after getting acclimated to the US way of doing things can be *very* hard. I was 12 when my folks returned to the US, and it was a struggle. But I can’t help but feel I’ve lost something ineffable leaving the expat life. It really makes a difference to be an outsider, to see how your country is perceived in the world. Thanks for this blog. It’s useful, and necessary.

  • JanetLaraine

    My husband and I moved to the states in 1985 with three children. It was the most difficult thing I have ever experienced. No school uniform! Parents were super soft with their children. Let them stay up all hours and watch violence on TV, whereas we banned it. We taught our children to be respectful to their teachers and USA parents would encourage their children to talk back if they disagreed. All in all, while this was a challenge, our children have turned out to be respectful, polite and motivated people with American accents.

  • Peter Avery

    I am the son of british parents… It is nothing but a blessing to be a cross cultural child. Especially two that are so close. It gives you the scope to see how much of our world is just cultural constructs. One thing though do teach them how to say Vitamins… americans really do make fun of you for that one.

    • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

      Aluminium, is another one. Most people from the US will not understand you at all with the Brit accent. Also, Yellow Squash and Zucchini instead of Courgettes. Courgette is a French term that we do not use.

  • niamh17

    We moved here 9 years ago when my youngest was 7 and all my children still have strong English accents. They are bilingual in their use of words but mostly speak english at home. We have a few friends who moved over after us who’s children have “gone native”. It is fine either way, my children claim they wanted to keep their accents so maybe that was why they?

  • ProudUK/USMummy

    As the British mummy of a very proud four year old American, I can say it’s completely wonderful. She has the craziest accent a mix of Californian and Boston (we live in Nevada), she Skype’s with her grandparents every weekend, and loves playing with her British toys (Thomas the Tank Engine not Thomas the Train). Do I make her pronounce her words my way? No, but there is the time when I am helping her with her A to Z and I’m afraid Z is pronounced Zed not Zee, and lets not get into the discussion about when I thought she said “stinky trees” instead of “slinky trees”. Does she know the difference between pants and trousers, sneakers and trainers, well yes, but not because I am teaching her, but I’m just too stubborn/lazy to use the American version.
    Ask my daughter where she is from and she will proclaim “America” (although sometimes she think she might be from China) and she knows her flag, and out of everything this is the thing I am most proud of. I am fed up with meeting Americans who proclaim themselves to be English, Irish, Scottish, Italian, only to find they have never left the country and was actually born in (insert state here). My daughter knows she is from English heritage, but she is proud to be an American!

    • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

      We celebrate our parts in the US. Our heritage is important to most Americans, as well as being American.

      • ProudUK/USMummy

        Oh I totally agree, but I really wish as Americans you would be proud to be American first rather than saying you are from a random country! You have a beautiful country with amazing history, you have persevered through adversities and have become a strong nation. If your country didn’t live up to the “American dream” idea, all of us immigrants wouldn’t travel so far to be part of it. I would just like to have one conversation where if I ask where you are from the person replies “I’m American but my grandparents/parents came from (insert county here)” not “I’m English” and then when I ask where they came from, find they have set foot on British soil.

        • TMarius

          I love hearing Britons say that, it really just reminds me that despite the fact that you were our cultural progenitor, gave us our first official language, and a poetic-literary culture to use as a foundation for our own literature and art… despite the fact that we consume so much of each other’s culture, and have the closest relationship between any two nations on earth – you guys see us like Canadians or Australians. I mean no offense in saying that, because I completely understand how that frame of mind would be present in native British population.

          All of the other major NATO powers are nations with thousands of years of proud history in which they had plenty of time to form a concrete sense of national identity, inextricably linked to a very specific spot on the world map. To be fully English, one needs to be born inside the borders of England and to be raised in the very sophisticated, stratified, and venerable culture of that ancient nation.

          But Americans.. We created our nation out of thin air as we were struggling to get by in an inconceivably vast wilderness which was totally alien and hostile to us. We had no substantial ancestral connection to the land, nor did we want to do things anything like the English did.

          What unifies us is not the land we come from, not our religions, not the shared history of thousands of years of proud history, and it’s not where we were born (many of our war dead from the Revolution were born in England, Germany, and Ireland). It’s about our ideals; specifically our Constitution and the freedoms and values enshrined within. Any immigrant that takes the oath of citizenship must swear to defend and uphold that document with their life, whether by force of arms or by agreeing to non-combatant military service, renounce any titles of nobility, and vow that their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union comes before their land of birth.

          So, so long as those caveats are met – we welcome people to call themselves X-Americans and be proud of that culture. If we like the culture they practice, we adopt the parts we like from it and it becomes American culture.

          Our promise of egalitarian is viewed as a fresh start by people all over the world, and through those expectations, the “American Dream” was created. We are absolutely a functionally stratified society, but the fact that we try to enforce theoretical equality does set us apart from many countries. For an American to wear a title awarded to them from a foreign government while still on American soil would be considered as just shy of treason.

        • TheronC

          I think that some Americans feel a certain rootlessness in this gigantic, relatively young country. Linking themselves to an older, deeply rooted culture anchors them, and also helps them differentiate themselves from the crowd. (By the way, you wouldn’t hear “I’m English” from me, as those roots are centuries old. Southerners like me tend to be “old stock.”)

      • TMarius

        The beauty of being an American is that anyone can come from anywhere, retain their culture and practice it enough until it’s absorbed into the mainstream American culture. We’re like the Borg in that respect.

        Despite whatever our country of birth was, and what culture we most closely identify with – thing that binds us together is the Constitution and the values enshrined inside.

        Outside of that, we are still building our culture as a nation, but it will be one that we all have a say in creating.

  • Special Mom

    People you have NO idea about traveling with a child until you travel with a child with Autism. Not to mention the jet lag that affect my daughter as much as it does me when we fly to the UK. I love to go back and see family but I love getting back home here in the US too.

    I don’t care about my daughter’s accent, I just want her to speak.

    Cheers my dears!

  • Raine Scott

    My mum married an American in the military and we went back and forth from USA to UK. I attended English and American schools. I really hated how some kids in High school said that I was putting my accent on. I found that whenever I was around my mum or her friends, or watched English programming, my accent came back, Even today, when I watch BBC America or talk with my family in UK, my accent comes back. My kids, sadly, though, grew up mostly in USA and have no accent. Really, they have no American regional accent. Being a spouse of someone in the military myself, we have moved too often for any accent to ‘stick’ with my kids. In total, I have moved, more than 18 times, and I’m only 44. My kids have moved around 4-5 times. I miss being English and would love to go home

    • maggie

      I would love to go home too Raine but our daughter is moving back here from England as my husband is very sick so I don’t think it will happen unless she moves back as she said she is fed up with being so far apart from us.

      • Raine Scott

        I’m ever so sorry. I do hope that your husband gets better. I am so sorry. Really, nothing, moving here or there is really as important as having our loved ones. SO, I guess, in reality, having an accent is really superficial when comparing to one’s health. I do hope that he is on the mend. Take care.

  • Raine Scott

    My mum married an American in the military and we moved back and forth across the pond many times. I attended both UK and USA schools. I hated though while I was in High school,. some of the students would say my accent was fake. Whenever I would talk with my relatives back in UK, watched an English programme, or talked with some of my mum’s friends that were also English military spouses, my accent came back. I married into the military and we moved back and forth. My kids had an accent but once they went to USA schools, they lost it quickly. Really, though, they have no American regional accent. We have moved so much that nothing really stuck. I myself moved 18 times in 44 years. I miss my accent and would go back to England in a flash. I miss my home.

  • Jwb52z

    Please don’t crush me too hard for saying what I’m about to say since I have no children personally, but I do have nieces and nephews. From observation, I have discovered that it is probably very difficult to truly harm children unless you’re taking drugs like heroin or crack or you’re abusive. Most children will be fine as long as they have love and support, even if you’re moving across the ocean to a new country. The younger a child is when something “big” happens, the more resilient a child seems to be now. Parents should not beat themselves up or worry themselves into spasms over it.

  • Jo

    The one year birthday party consists of a group of grownups oohing and aahing while gathered around the little angel, who’s presented with the first piece of cake, laughing and applauding in proportion to the amount of her cake that misses the mouth and adheres to the face, while older kids accept it in good grace earned by way of cake. lol

  • Gill

    Both my kids. Orn here have American accents…..they have odd words..banana, yogurt, vitamin that comes out mixed up… It took years for my son who is now 8 1/2 to realise that I spoke with an accent…lol should not be surprised at it took me moving away from my parents to hear my dad had a Scottish accent

  • bluecar

    My daughter was born here and has a purely American accent. When she was a preteen, though, I would hear all the time from other parents how they loved having her to stay and spending time with her and later realized that it was because she had very British manners. I am still occasionally surprised by how little American children are expected to say please or thank you and it is not that they are rude necessarily, it’s just a cultural difference that I am sensitive to. “Please” was my little British/American child’s first word!

  • Jensee

    John Barrowman (Scottish)…is known to use his American accent in the U.S. and his familial accent when in Scotland.