Should the decision be a parent’s privilege or a child’s choice?
Upon meeting her five-month-old granddaughter for the first time, my mother-in-law remarked, “Why doesn’t she have her ears pierced?” Her question was raised in a slightly accusatory tone, suggesting that I’d done my newborn daughter a disservice by not piercing her ears immediately after birth. Her follow-up comment, something to the effect of, “but, of course, you’ll do it soon, so she’ll look like a girl,” left me with no choice but to raise my battle arms. After a heated discussion about the pros and cons of ear piercing for infants, and a patient explanation (I thought) of why our daughter wouldn’t wear earrings until she was old enough to make the decision for herself, I let the topic rest. Unfortunately, babička didn’t, raising the topic repeatedly during her month-long visit with us in the US.
The norm in the Czech Republic is for an infant girl to have her ears pierced, typically by her pediatrician at 3-months, just after the first round of immunizations. According to Czechs, having a baby’s ears pierced with a needle, when the ear lobe is still thin, is far less painful than piercing ears later with a piercing gun. Most of my Czech girlfriends had their ears pierced as infants and they followed suit with their own daughters, explaining that ear-piercing is a safe, well-respected tradition and they didn’t want their girls to feel different from their peers. Some however, also confessed that they were pressured by their mothers to do the piercing.
Although I didn’t appreciate my mother-in-law trying to influence a decision that I had made regarding my daughter, and which was in keeping with my own country’s custom, in a sense, I could identify with her desire to make her first grandbaby conform to the image that she held of a baby girl. Having had only a son, she’d never been able to share the joy of jewelry or ear-piercing with Radek. Like many women of her generation, wearing jewelry was an important part of her femininity. I knew how important it was for her; however, there was no way I was willing to let my baby girl’s ears be pierced. It went against all my principles.
Radek didn’t have a firm opinion on the subject, and he left me to reason with his mother and make my own decision. Since I had waited until my 12th birthday before my parents had given me permission to have my ears pierced, I was reluctant to do anything different for my own daughter. I remember the monotony of cleaning my temporary studs with alcohol for 6 weeks and the thrill of finally replacing the studs with earrings of my choice. Choosing the right earrings to accessorize a particular outfit was a ritual that belonged to my preteen years. I didn’t want to deny Anna the pleasure of feeling grown-up or the opportunity to learn to care for her own body. I hoped that my mother-in-law would give up on the issue and we could revisit it in due time.
When we moved back to Prague, just shy of Anna’s first birthday, I took particular note of the girl infants and toddlers on the playground with their ears decorated in brightly colored balls and tiny gold loops. I listened to babička again fuss that no one would identify Anna as a girl without pierced ears. Still, I wasn’t compelled to change my mind. Yes, it was easier to identify a child clothed in her brothers’ hand-me downs as a little girl if she had earrings peeking out from under her hat, but was that a reason to conform? A few times, I noticed the occasional Czech little girl who didn’t have her ears pierced, and I made it a point to ask the girl’s mother why. Often the answer would be related to a medical reason, but a few mothers agreed with me that ear piercing should be a child’s choice, not a parents’ prerogative.
Once Anna started attending Czech preschool at age 3, babička tried to goad Anna into telling her mommy to pierce her ears. Of course, Anna was thrilled to have someone arguing on her behalf. Each time I left her for an overnight with babi, I half expected to return to find the two of them sitting on the couch smiling and showing off Anna’s newly pierced ears. Thankfully, babička soon turned her attention to the length of Anna’s hair (she believed I was trimming it too often instead of letting it grow long), and the earring subject was temporarily abandoned.
Last Christmas after Anna specifically asked me about piercing her ears, I decided that the time was nearly right for her to make her own decision. It was considerably earlier than I had gotten my own ears pierced, but growing up I didn’t have any friends with pierced ears until I was a preteen. I asked our pediatrician for a referral of a nurse who uses a piercing gun, since the doctor told us that Anna’s ear lobes were already too thick to use a needle. Yet, once I had the number in hand, Anna lost interest. Nothing was said about her ears for months.
Then out-of-the-blue a few weeks ago one of her friends brought Anna back a present from Spain. Anna took one look at the present then set it carefully into her dance bag. “That’s nice,” she told her friend, but her face looked glum. “We got her the wrong gift,” her friend’s mother offered. It was a set of six earrings in different pastel shades. They were simple and sparkly and most importantly, the right size. I could imagine a six-year old wearing a pair of those earrings without feeling as if she’d jumped straight into her teenage-years. When I saw Anna’s disappointment, I offered to take her to get her ears pierced, if she agreed that it was what she really wanted.
Anna’s face brightened, and she immediately began asking if we could go straight away. After consulting with the nurse who did the piercing, we made an appointment for the following week. Anna could barely wait. She kept looking at her new earrings and trying to decide which would be the best to wear first, although I told her it would be several months before she could wear earrings like this, since she’d have to wear hypoallergenic or gold earrings to begin with.
At the doctor’s office, Anna was nervous. She kept squeezing the teddy bear she’d brought and leaning against me. But despite her trepidation, Anna was set on leaving with pierced ears. For twenty minutes the doctor and nurse measured Anna’s ear lobes and conferred about the best possible positioning for the holes. In typical Czech-fashion, the doctor wasted no time telling me that Anna’s ear lobes were disproportionate and that while one hole would look perfect, the other ear lobe was massivni and the hole wouldn’t look as good as the first ear, no matter how we positioned it. The nurse agreed, and they continued to peer anxiously at Anna’s ears and mutter, “It’s a shame, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”I kept looking at Anna’s face to see if she was upset that the doctor was criticizing her ear lobes, but she just stared worriedly at the piercing gun. Finally, we reached an agreement. After all the tension of the positioning, actually making the holes was a bit anticlimactic. Anna was brave and although she cried out, she sat still.
The following day, she showed off her new earrings throughout the neighborhood, at school and at dance class. Everyone admired her ears, and several of the women, including her teacher, commented that Anna was finally a slečna (young lady). Although I was surprised to admit it, I actually agreed that the earrings suited Anna nicely. The tiny, cut-glass balls that came with the ear piercing sparkled against Anna’s hair, and her cheery smile and quick adjustment to the change gave me the impression that we’d probably timed it correctly.
If we’d been living in the US, I don’t think I would have given my permission so soon. Some of Anna’s older cousins back in the States don’t even have their ears pierced. However, considering Anna ‘s personality and in the context of her growing up in the Czech Republic, it seemed natural to give my permission now. I expect I’ll get some questions from my family back in the US, but I believe they won’t be anything that Anna and I can’t handle. As for babička, she heard about the piercing first-thing and is already looking forward to picking out some special first earrings for Anna’s birthday later this year.