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KIWI magazine

Public Displays of Affection

I was unusual-looking for a Korean toddler, with a head of Shirley Temple ringlets that elicited coos from family, friends, and random grannies alike: “Cham yepuji!” and “Guiyupda!” – Korean versions of “How precious!” and “What a cutie!”

I basked in the attention, but my mother would mutter, “Maybe if she’d learn to behave herself” or “Those curls are nothing but trouble. Takes all morning to bruch the tangles out.” With my childish preening brought to a screeching halt, I would wonder why my usually loving mother was speaking so rudely. She responded the same way years later, when neighbors squeezed my baby brother’s velvet cheeks. I promised myself-as children do-that when I became a mother, I would be a good one, graciously accepting compliments bestowed upon my lovely children and never speaking ill of them.

In adulthood I came to understand my mother’s puzzling behavior as a response to the near-universal superstition known in English as the Evil Eye, a belief that too apparent a display of good fortune invites the wrath of the gods or jealous strangers. Found in cultures all over the world, this belief often involves the shunning of praise, especially of a child’s beauty. In other words, my mother’s elaborate protests were iterations of motherly love, talismans uttered as protection for her children, and comprehended as such by her interlocutors, if not by me.

You can guess the ending. Now, as a mother, I not only sat away compliments, I also complain about my children all the time, even right in front of them. And I’m not alone. We adore our children beyond measure, but we gripe: the 10 leftover pregnancy pounds. The disappearing naps. The dumped cereal. Based on what they hear, our children might guess they are the bane of our existence, rather than our greatest joy.

And how rarely, how fleetingly and reticently do we revel in our children, speak aloud the incredible privilege of being their parents. This may be because the feeling is fundamental. And because parenting is frusterating, and we need moral support. But how much is due to the pilot light of fear that began flickering the moment we first held our newborns, an atavistic echo of the superstition that in other times and places was known as the Evil Eye? We all know families that were torn to pieces in a second, in the fraction of time it takes for a crash, a diagnosis, a fall. We all know how fragile our perfect luck is.

But for me, the time has come to stare this superstition down and be the mother I promised myself I’d be. The next time someone compliments me on my children (who are-since you’re asking-stunningly gorgeous, beautifully behaved, and, let us not forget to mention, phenomenally brilliant), I resolve to smile, and say a simple and heartfelt “Thank you.”

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