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Eleni Gage Headshot

Confessions of a Bad Mother

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In the last two weeks I've been called self-satisfied, low-class, controlling, shallow, sexist, smug, priggish, crazed, repulsive, creepy, trashy, frivolous, provincial, disgusting, and just plain horrible. My crime? I pierced my six-month-old daughter's ears at the request of my Nicaraguan husband, an experience I wrote about for the New York Times' "Townies" column.

It was fun to write the essay. But more than that, it was a real eye-opener to read the 181 comments that have been posted since the piece went up on March 15. I learned so many things from the people who wrote in -- for example, that keloid scars may be less likely to form on baby skin than on adult ears during piercing. Also, that the gold you can buy in the U.S. is junk compared to the good 22 karat stuff that is the norm in India.

But the most surprising thing I realized was how apparently trivial things function as cultural flashpoints, bringing up race and class prejudices that most of us are, perhaps, likely to keep buried when discussing more obvious hot-button issues.

Before moving to Miami Beach almost two years ago, I lived in New York, where fashion scrutiny and over thinking everything are as commonplace as earrings on baby girls are in Miami. So I expected that, upon learning that I'd taken my daughter to the pediatrician to get her ears pierced, a few holier-than-thou types would be outraged. I anticipated the "It's her body, wait until she asks for earrings before slapping them on her" argument -- it was one I'd made myself before deciding that it just wasn't a big deal, given that if Amalía grows up and doesn't want earrings, she can let the holes close up. If anyone ever noticed the two little scars that resulted, she could explain that she was Greekaraguan, and that in Nicaragua, they pierce baby girl's ears. It would be a reminder of her heritage, I thought, one she could flaunt or ignore.

I even anticipated the melodramatic comparisons with female genital mutilation, the old "lots of atrocities are cultural norms" argument. But if a person can't see the difference between permanent alteration of an infant's genitals, which can result in lifelong pain, and pierced ears, which most women voluntarily undergo at some point, then clearly I was not going to change his or her mind. (Oddly enough, only one comment mentioned circumcision of boys as a parallel to pierced ears of girls. I guess that's because circumcision -- which I don't have an opinion on yet -- is our own cultural norm in the U.S.)

What shocked, and ultimately amused me was the reaction of multiple readers who saw earrings as an issue of class, not of culture. "I have never seen an infant born to middle or upper class parents who had her ears pierced," wrote Taylor from Boston (really? "Taylor from Boston"? I mean, it would have been slightly less stereotypical if the signature had read "Thurston Howell III of Kennebunkport" or "Waspy McWasperson of White Haven").

What amused me a whole lot less were the few openly racist and vaguely threatening comments, like this gem:

There is a clear geographical line separating us from Latin America. That line divides us culturally, too. We don't eat horse meat, don't conduct cocks and dogs fights and don't pierce babies' ears. If you cannot learn to appreciate the beauty of a baby girl with natural, pierce-less ears, than maybe you don't belong in our culture.

Thank you, sir, for appointing yourself the voice of Anglo America. Where do I go to secede?

Just as creepy as the cockfight guy were the handful of people who equated earrings with sexuality (as opposed to gender), asking when I was going to get Amalía a boob job and "stripper heels." This just struck me as a wildly strange link to make -- how many of us have grandmothers who wear earrings? And do those venerable ladies wear stripper heels and have boob jobs? (Although if your grandma happens to wear stripper heels, let me be the first to say, kudos, madam!)

The bottom line is, we all carry around associations -- some of them toxic -- with certain articles of clothing. This point was driven home much more tragically with Geraldo Rivera's "hoodie defense" of George Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin because he found his appearance threatening. Rivera tweeted, "His hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman."

I'm not trying to compare Earringgate to the Trayvon Martin situation -- one's a tempest in a teapot and the other is a tragedy (it would be a bit like comparing pierced ears to female genital mutilation). I'm just pointing out that I now see I was naive to be shocked that people have such strong visceral associations with what we wear (and, apparently, what we eat. I've never eaten horse meat but I'm a little unclear as to what makes it that much grosser than eating cow meat. And I say that as a non-vegetarian. But that's another post).

The other shocker in all 181 comments I received? Not one of them chastised my husband for piercing Amalía's ears, even though it was his desire that led us to do so. Instead, all these self-proclaimed feminists did what people have from time immemorial: blamed the mama. And I'm just as guilty as all the rest of them -- I didn't even notice the fact that not one reader singled out my husband until he pointed it out himself.

As the guilty mama in question, I can say that I had mixed feelings while bringing Amalía to the doctor for her "beauty visit." But all the criticism I've gotten since made me glad that we pierced her's ears.

The last comment in response to "Baby's First Bling" is one of the most damning. "Custom will justify any atrocity," writes Chandler. "Way to put a girl in her place and show her what's really important in life, right from the very beginning."

I have two thoughts in response to Chandler (another name that I would never let myself use if I were writing a novel with a judgey honky character, because it would be too cliché). The first is if she or he really considers ear-piercing "an atrocity," I hope Amalía will live a life that is just as trauma-free as Chandler's.

As for the second, I pierced Amalía's ears for no other reason than because I thought it would make lots of people I love happy, including her someday. But now I hope that Chandler's right, that having pierced ears may in fact help show her what's really important in life, right from the very beginning: Family. Tradition. Diversity. And, sandwiched between two blinged-out earlobes, an open mind.