My mother-in-law tried to eat my baby once.
Actually, she still tries.
Whenever we visit my husband’s home on the Black Sea, his mom smooches and smothers our cocuklar until they slither limp from her arms.
Sometimes, Sevim’s grandmotherly embraces end in tears.
My in-laws, you see, love hard. Like most Turks they are quick to pinch a child’s cheek or swat their bottom, all in the name of love.
Americans, in my experience, are less effusive in their displays of physical affection.
Or maybe it’s just me? Perhaps I was born without the touchy-feely chip in my DNA?
I suspect my aversion to over-the-top PDAs is partly genetics. But I think it’s because of the culture I grew up in, too. After all, anglo New Yorkers like me aren’t known for our warm and fuzzy demeanor.
Whatever the cause, overt displays of physical affection aren’t my style.
So, imagine my discomfort when I first experienced baby love, Turkish-style.
On Smooches and Swats
In June 2003, six months after our son Ayden was born, we visited Istanbul. Relatives and neighbors crammed the three-room apartment, eager to meet the newest addition to our extended family. No one was more delighted than Muzaffer, my octogenarian father-in-law, and his wife, Sevim.
The reason? Although they were already grandparents to three children, they had never been blessed with a boy. Ayden was their first grandson.
Exhausted from jetlag and nursing, I curled up on the living room couch and watched as Muzaffer, normally gruff and taciturn, cooed and cuddled my son. Ayden was equally enthralled, giggling and smiling as his dede rolled with him on the floor.
Then, without warning, Muzaffer grabbed Ayden around the waist and swatted him on the bottom. Startled, Ayden gave a little yelp and then tried to wriggle out of his granddad’s reach.
“Luften”, please, I said in my halting Turkish. “Bu bebek,” he’s only a baby.
But Muzaffer didn’t seem to hear me. He pulled Ayden closer and gave him a few more swats on his tush.
“Can you tell your dad to stop?” I pleaded with my husband, “He’s a little too rough.”
But Hakki just shrugged. “Oh, my dad’s just so happy and proud,” he said, “and that’s how he shows it.”
What’s a Mom to Do?
It wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed rough love. Growing up with two brothers I’d seen them toss and tumble on the den floor, ticking and poking each other to distraction.
“Dad,” I’d fret, “Do something! They’re hurting each other!”
“Oh, no, they’re not,” my father would say, “They’re just giving love taps.”
Move like “love lumps”, I’d mutter to myself.
I was thinking about my brothers and about whether I should intervene when Sevim plopped down on the floor next to Muzaffer and Ayden. She scooped Ayden up and pinched his cheek. Then, smiling, she brought her thumb and forefinger to her lips. “Yerim seni ben,” I’ll eat you up, she crooned.
Ayden was clearly not enjoying himself anymore, and looked at me as if to say, “Rescue me, mommy.”
By now I was beside myself with questions and not a little embarrassed at my apparent inability to protect my son.
When we got back to the U.S., would Ayden think it was normal to touch people this way? Worse, would he be upset that I hadn’t come to his rescue?
Should I whisk him away to another room? My gut said that’s what I should do. But I didn’t want to make a scene and risk hurting my relatives’ feelings.
Should I just accept my in-laws’ behavior, and my discomfort with it, as part of being in a cross-cultural marriage? Maybe I should just humor everyone and hope Ayden would soon forget these love taps?
In the end, fate and a full diaper intervened. When Muzaffer got a whiff, he promptly handed Ayden back to me.
I was off the hook, for now. Still I knew I’d have to come to terms with Turkish baby love eventually.
Head Bumps and Fist Pumps
Now seven and nine, my sons are no longer at the mercy of their Turkish grandparents’ exuberant hugs and zealous pinches. In fact, when we spent three months in Turkey this summer, they regularly dished out their own brand of “love taps”.
The sneak attack reverse-wedgie was their favorite way of connecting with their granddad Muzaffer.
“Let’s get Dede!” They’d whisper conspiratorially as Muzaffer puttered around his garden.
One day he was pruning the branches of a mimosa tree. He was halfway up the ladder, a rusty saw in his hand, when my kids pounced. In a flash, they tugged down his striped pajamas until his bottom was half-exposed.
“Cut it out!” I chided, “That’s not nice,” as my kids careened out of reach, their laughter ricocheting around the garden.
But Muzaffer just smiled, hitched up his pajamas, and resumed his pruning.
“It’s okay, mom,” Ayden blurted between fits of giggles, “Dede knows it means we love him.”
Question for you: How is love and affection defined in your family? Do cultural differences show up in how you and your partner express love to each other or to your children?