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Short Story

Mother Tongue

Myna and William began affecting New Zealand accents the summer Sarah and I forgot to enroll them in camp at the Y. Sarah worked from home, so we decided to leave our kids to their own devices. Watching movies on their cracked iPads, they became obsessed with the films of New Zealander Taika Waititi, specifically Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This was the summer before Myna started middle school and William began high school. We figured a couple months of screen slumming wasn’t going to cause any lasting harm.

Myna soon began calling us both “Mum,” and lilted her speech with that nasal, clipped quality of New Zealand English. William joined in, favoring a New Zealand accent that took on more of a Māori tone. Sarah and I laughed, not because we found anything humorous in New Zealand English—I find it to be the calmest, friendliest, most innocent form of the language—but because our kids’ mimicry was perfect to the point of magic. It brought sorely needed delight to our crash-course in raising adopted kids.

Thing was, Myna and William wouldn’t take a break from their mimicry. They studied Waititi’s films even more closely until they could repeat the script verbatim. They fought over who got to play the character of “Ricky Baker,” a “real bad egg.” They jotted down their favorite phrases and added to this list with research from the internet. Myna even made flash cards. At least it was keeping them wholesomely occupied, we thought. They asked if we were out of milk, but in New Zealand English; they complained about having to take a shower, but in New Zealand English; they yelled at one another—occasionally at us—but with derogatory New Zealand slang that was probably meaner and dirtier than it sounded. They could see how much it made us laugh, but also how it began to annoy us, too. No wonder they wouldn’t stop.

I hadn’t considered that their New Zealand obsession would involve ears other than Sarah’s and my own until we took them to the natural history museum, a week before school started up. As we left the dinosaur hall, a mother with a couple of boys in matching baseball caps came up to us.

“I just love your accent. Are you from Australia?”

“You calling me an Aussie?” William said. “Yeah nah.”

“Ignore my brother,” Myra said. “He packed a sad this morning and been bit of a dag since. We’re from New Zealand.”

“Oh! I’ve always wanted to go there,” the woman said. She turned from the kids to us. “I hear it’s lovely.”

This is where Sarah and I found ourselves in a dilemma. We could reveal the charade (and cause the woman to feel embarrassed or fooled), or we could take the expeditious route.

“Yeah, thanks,” Sarah said, in a fair New Zealand accent. “But it’s fine country here as well.”

I moved us quickly into the Hall of Mammals. That the kids didn’t burst into laughter but maintained their equanimity during this and subsequent encounters in different performance spaces (the grocery store, school uniform shopping, music lessons) should have conveyed to us how deeply they’d absorbed this new tongue. Sarah saw it as a healthy imaginative foray; I feared we’d be approached by a real, honest-to-god New Zealander and berated (kindly) for cultural appropriation. But the odds of being berated were slim, what with New Zealand’s population being under five million. And in a different hemisphere. Every New Zealander spotted abroad is a rarity.

William turned fifteen and used his birthday money to buy swag: a hoodie with the New Zealand ensign, a hat with a Kiwi bird on it for Myna, and placemats with a map of the islands for us. All made in New Zealand. The shipping was more than the total. We had a talk about the oval NZ stickers they put on our cars’ bumpers, but the stickers remained, thanks to adhesive that hadn’t been designed for renunciants.

The kids wanted to visit New Zealand, of course. Maybe if Sarah brought in more income and we saved for a few years we could almost be able to afford it. But I could also picture us being taken for child snatchers while there. I imagined authorities being called in: New Zealand police, child welfare, psychologists—in that order—as they tried to unravel what two American women were doing with two New Zealanders.

Sarah and I separated for a couple of months toward the end of that year. Maybe it’s different for birth moms, I can’t say, but I felt an abiding guilt for coping so badly with how much parenting and motherhood were looting my life, rather than producing the endless affection I had supposed would bubble up. It was a generic mid-life crisis. When I say we separated, it wasn’t by much distance. By now, Sarah wasn’t bringing in much more than grocery money, and I couldn’t afford another place, anyway. So I spent the evenings after work in the room we used for storage, above the garage. Sarah might not have even noticed we separated; she might have thought I was simply organizing. Without me in the house, I could hear her using New Zealand English with the kids. Sarah had been the one to really want kids, and I had gone along with the adoptions mostly out of love, of wanting to perfect Sarah’s desires, even at the cost of my own.

Not until nearly Christmas did we realize that the kids had been carrying on with their New Zealand accents at school. They said their teachers either found it hilarious or said nothing, perhaps thinking they were from New Zealand or, more likely, not giving a shit. The schools in our neighborhood aren’t the best, and you’d assume kids like ours would be teased for pretending to be New Zealanders, but William and Myna said no one at their schools even knew that New Zealand wasn’t part of Australia—or that it had its own form of English. At their new schools, making new friends, our kids had become fraudulent ambassadors. When Myna created a family tree project to trace her ancestry, it wasn’t my family and Sarah’s that she chose to map out, but a fictitious one that tracked back two lineages, one all the way to the original Polynesian settlers in the 1300s, the other going back to 1830 with invented relatives from Great Britain, every name seemingly plucked from thin air.

Of course William performed a haka at the talent show.

A couple of months later, after I’d moved back into the house, accepting the now-spare, but entirely congenial relationship with Sarah, she showed me that our daughter now had a YouTube channel. Myna had given herself the name Charlotte Dawn McKenzie and presented herself as a New Zealander living in the U.S. who gave tips on how to do a convincing American accent, and, generally, conquer life as an American tween. Accepting this additional imaginative layer felt necessary to my sanity, just as it was necessary for me to accept that the affection that had once flowed between Sarah and I was now—out of a scarcity of time, energy, and money—dammed. And damned.

Over time, I recognized that it was perhaps healthiest that our children compose their own histories—in no small part because the truth wasn’t anything supremely positive—and for me to accept those histories. My concerns began to change. When Myna requested her name be legally changed to Charlotte Dawn McKenzie, I didn’t hesitate to say I found it a fine idea. I’d gone into parenthood thinking I would be making generous room for others within the borders of my rich and growing life, but now I saw that parenthood was not a state but a territory, with capricious borders drawn by others who have no interest, not even for a moment, of standing with me and gazing back at my preconceived notions of what life would be like: Sarah going back to work full-time so I could try working from home for a change, for example, or the traveling we’d planned together—all the plans that fell with such thunder in my ears, but in no one else’s.

I’ve watched the early films of Taika Waititi more often than can be healthy. I get my news from TVNZ and have accepted that Jacinda Ardern is leading the country, my country, in a wholesome direction. I’ve switched jobs for one with a higher salary—because we need the money, desperately—and on my ninety-minute commute home I listen to New Zealand podcasts and radio shows and imagine that we are held in a social safety net and will not fall, even though we are all falling, me and Sarah and William and Charlotte Dawn. But if you fall together, perfectly, it can seem you are all together and at rest.

“Mother Tongue” first appeared in Paper Dragon.