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: trou-sers. Pants, my dear, are the things that go underneath your trou-sers.” 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.

See more 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 Barclay

    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.

      • dw

        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!

  • dw

    Congratulations on surviving your baby’s first year!

    As for accent, I’m afraid you’ll have to let go. It’s a universal 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.

    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?

      • dw

        Many people 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! ;)

    • http://ymuchomas.com/ 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?

  • 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 http://mommyhasaheadache.blogspot.com/2012/09/raising-global-nomads.html

  • 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.