When Only My Black Son Gets Assigned to the Wrong Family

wpid-wp-1425382344453.jpegThe gym daycare, where we have gone twice a week for a year, assigned my black son to the wrong family while he was wearing the exact same shirt as his brothers.

We came into the gym daycare together. My three children – one black and two white – were all wearing the same shirt that says “I Love My Bro”. I purposely dress them alike when we go out, for the express purpose of keeping them together. There were no other children being signed into the daycare at that time. None. Just my three in their matching shirts.

As I was signing their names into the registration book, the teacher was putting their numbered bracelets on their arms. Each child gets a numbered bracelet to correspond with his parent’s numbered bracelet, for the express purpose of keeping us all together. We do this at least twice a week, every week, and it is quite routine. (I get to lift weights with three paper bracelets on my arm!) The teachers know my children.

I finished signing their names into the book, and I bent down to help a twin take off his shoes. The twins had their bracelets attached by that point, and the teacher was just about to attach my oldest (black) son’s bracelet too. Just then, another mother and son came into the gym daycare too. They happened to be black.

I noticed a situation developing behind me. You know: some mumbling, nervous laughing, flustered-teacher type of situation. I looked up to see the teacher cutting off my oldest (black) son’s bracelet, with an embarrassed look on her face. She is apologizing. She had given him a bracelet to correspond with the black mother who had just come into the daycare.

Even though she knows my children.

Even though we’d been going there for a year.

Even though my children came in together.

Even though my children came in with me.

Even though there were no other children being signed in at that time.

Even though my children were wearing matching shirts.

Even though he had called me “Momma”.

The (black) mother noticed what had happened and she tried to make a light joke or comment. I guess she and I both knew it was an honest mistake. I am a teacher, and I’m sure I’ve made plenty of stupid but honest mistakes throughout the years. I am also not the kind of person to shame someone publicly. I let it slide. I made sure that my son got the right bracelet to match him to me, and I went to work off my frustrations with a barbell.

My friend had been standing off to the side and had witnessed the whole thing as she waited for me to sign my children into the daycare. I asked, “Did what I think just happened actually happen?!” She nodded emphatically. I knew I wasn’t imagining things.

Okay, now, I’m not angry at the daycare. I know not every child looks like his parents. But, dang it, what does this feel like for my son? What does it feel like to have people assign you to the wrong family in so very many situations? What does he think of these things? What is that like for him?

The part that hurts is that his skin color was what the teacher was using to label him. His skin color trumped the fact that he came in with me. His skin color trumped the fact that she already knew who his family was.

She saw his skin color before she saw that his freaking shirt exactly matched his brothers’ shirts.

It’s a slippery slope.

 

 

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“Adoption, Infertility, Miscarriage, IVF, Twins, Oh My” was published on BabyCenter.com!

BabyCenter.com calls itself “The #1 Parenting Resource” with over 40 million visitors per month. Recently, THEY contacted ME and asked me to write a post for them for RESOLVE’s National Infertility Awareness Week. I  was so honored and flattered, but realized I am not used to writing with deadlines, assigned topics, and word counts. I hope I did all right by you all, my loyal readers! They published my post on April 21, 2015 here. I have reprinted the entire post below with their permission.

Adoption, Infertility, Miscarriage, IVF, Twins, Oh My

Have you struggled with infertility? I understand. Have you had miscarriages? I empathize. Have you wanted to run over the “Expectant Mother Parking” signs in parking lots? Me too. Have you gone through IVF? The adoption process? I get it.

After having been infertile for almost a decade, I now finally have three small children, none of whom were created in my own body (one is adopted from someone else’s body; two are from petri dishes).

I can empathize with those of you who are begging for children, and also those of you who are begging for five minutes away from your children (even if you have to hide in the bathroom with that jar of Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter and an US Weekly). I know what it’s like to cry at a poster of a baby in Walmart because you desperately want one yourself, and I know what it’s like to cry because your children won’t stop crying.

After having finally had success with adoption and with IVF (twins!) within the space of two years, I can totally identify with the adoptive moms and the moms of multiples.

I know what it’s like to have black and white children as my three boys are of various races and genetic makeup.

wpid-wp-1430331810741.jpegI know what it’s like to wait years for a baby. I also know what it’s like to bring a baby home all of a sudden, after a birthmother picked me only three days prior. I also know what it’s like to suffer through the endless nine months of torturous twin pregnancy and bed rest, feeling like it will never end.

I know what it feels like to be fingerprinted for an adoption home study, to suffer through painful fertility procedures, and to try to go to sleep one night knowing that the baby inside you has died.

But I also know what it feels like to sniff that newborn’s head and want to eat him. I know what it feels like to get an hour or two of sleep a night for seven months. I know that surge in my heart when my children giggle, or run to me, or hug each other, or turn a single-syllable word into four syllables.

wpid-img_20150426_185249.jpgI understand the pain and the joy of so many of you moms out there. By the bad luck of my own biology, and by the miracles of adoption and modern science, I am all of you.

You know what I don’t know?

I don’t know what it feels like to hold any of my babies on the first day of each of their lives. (Due to adoption paperwork and a near-death childbirth experience, I still have weird misplaced guilt about missing those first days with all three of my children.)

I don’t know what it feels like to go into labor and give birth. (I had a Cesarean section with the twins.)

I don’t know what it feels like to have two children. We went from one to three instantly.

I don’t know what it feels like to have a pregnancy without fear.

I don’t know what it feels like to make a baby for free, or to make a baby in my husband’s arms, or in my own bed.

I don’t know what it feels like to worry about birth control choices, costs, or side effects.

I don’t know what it feels like to carry a single baby to term.

I don’t know why our birthmother chose us.

I don’t know how to teach my black and white sons about race.

You know what? None of it matters. What I know, what I don’t know – maybe it doesn’t really matter. If I could go back to my childless and hurting self, what would I want myself to know? What do I want you to know?

I want you and I to know that we are mothers long before our children arrive. We become mothers the moment we decide we want to be mothers.

I want us to know that it doesn’t matter in what body our children arrive. If their souls are meant to be in our family, they will come.

I want us to know that the pain is only temporary.

I want us to know that someday, although the acute pain of infertility will fade, we will refuse to forget. We are going to remember the hurt, on purpose, so that we might strengthen others who are forced to follow us.

I want us to know that so many women out there understand what we are enduring. I want us to open our hearts to each other and embrace our shared pains and joys and hopes. It’s going to be okay.

I know this because I’m an Okayest Mom!

White Parents, Black Child: People Ask Us the Tough Questions about Race

imageAs a parent of one black son and two white sons, many of my friends have asked me questions about race during the past few months. I feel grateful that people trust me enough to ask the tough stuff. I feel grateful that we can “have a dialog” (ugh!) about race and the events in the news… as long as you’re not a stranger in the mall.

The mere fact of having children of different races does not make me an expert on race. I am not a college professor or a news reporter or a humanitarian worker or a politician. I am a stay-at-home mom who is not as well-versed as she would like to be in current events, because most of my current events involve poop.

The only thing I know for sure is that the world feels different when you are raising a black son. Black parents have conversations with their black sons that white parents do not have with white children. That leaves my husband and me to straddle two worlds.

I just want you to know that the world looks different to us than it did before we adopted.

Here are just a few of the questions we have been asked recently:

  • How do you explain race to kids? When my kids were younger asked these questions, I always acknowledged them, and said that people come in different shades, from very dark brown to very pale almost white, and that there is beauty in diversity. What do you think of my approach?

Your approach sounds like what I have read: acknowledging color is best. What I have read (often) is that we were all taught “colorblindness” in the 1970s and 1980s, and the research now shows that this approach does NOT work. That is why my son and I talk about skin color outright. “Your skin is brown, like your birthmother’s skin.” Sometimes it’s hard for me to do that, but I am practicing while he’s young, so it will get easier. Adult black adopted children raised by white parents have stated that if their parents taught colorblindness, then they felt like their parents were ashamed of them, just because they never acknowledged the differences. Their adoptive parents were probably not ashamed of them, of course, but the children made their own assumptions. Parents need to help them navigate this stuff with proper language and outright discussions.

  • Have you felt that your son is treated differently?

No one at church or preschool treats him any differently, as far as I can tell. Our friends are very accepting, and I welcome any and all questions and discussion from them. If you are close to my family or my son, you have the right to ask *anything*, but not the right to treat him differently.

It’s mostly in public that we get stares, comments, and questions, some of which are inappropriate. My goal is to teach him which questions deserve answers, and which questions deserve nothing at all.

Beyond that, though, we worry about subtle racism. From what I have read, subtle racism, also called “everyday racism” or “covert racism”, is as damaging as outright slurs and Jim Crow laws. I think –and much of what I have read backs this up – is that believing racism doesn’t exist is the most dangerous thing of all.

Subtle racism is when someone throws their keys to President Obama, even though he was dressed in a tux at a gala, because they assumed he was the valet. (That actually happened to him, when he was a senator.) Subtle racism is when we let ourselves – or our subconscious – make immediate assumptions about others. I worry about these assumptions that people may accidentally make about our son.

  • I know you get weird responses from people trying to figure out your relationships, beyond that, just in how people interact with your son, do you see him treated differently? Or do you expect that to happen more when he is grown?

As I hinted above, a woman at the mall, who was cooing over my adorable (and white) twin sons, saw my adorable (and black) oldest son call me “momma”. She looked at me with surprise and exclaimed, “But he’s black!” Right in front of him. (I wrote a blog post about it, of course.)

I expect that a lot of the subtle racism he will experience will be in his teens, as I have heard black mothers explain. My husband and I feel that we are going to need to teach our black son a few different things than we teach our white sons. We feel that it will be our job to defend him, teach him to defend himself, and also teach him when to walk away.

  • How do you, as a white woman raising a black son, feel about what happened in Ferguson and other cities?

It makes me feel scared. I feel scared because I am raising a child of a different race and I have no idea how to do that. Will he be angry because he has white parents? Will he be angry because he experiences racism? Will he be angry because I don’t understand the racism he experiences? Will he be angry that he has to experience this racism alone, without black parents to guide him? Will he be angry that he is being raised in a racist culture that claims not to be racist?

If he does feel angry at any of these things, then I feel scared for him. How do I raise a boy to not act on his anger?

I just want people to know that my job of raising a black son in America is complicated.

There is no other way to make any progress in a country as complicated and divided as ours, other than talking and trying to understand more, just more, about each other. What do you teach your children about racism? Have you experienced subtle racism?

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This post was originally posted as members-only content on Beyond Infertility, where I am a regular contributor.

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For further reading…

Recent articles that I have read have really helped me put my feelings into words. The following three posts affected me deeply. They have given me the courage to understand and write what I’m thinking:

Cute Little Black Boys Do Grow Up to Be Black Men, Part II (from Johnson-McCormick Family Blog)

Black Moms Tell White Moms About the Race Talk (from uexpress.com)

Screw Kids Understanding Race (from the Scary Mommy Blog)

For more information on today’s subtle racism:

Definition of “subtle racism” from UnderstandingPrejudice.org

“The Invisible Discriminator”, a PSA from Australia about Aboriginal people, with a universal message

Genes Are a Funny Thing

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wpid-wp-1425383125280.jpegOne of my two-year-old twins, Twin B, still has that baby smell wafting from the top of his head. The other twin, Twin A, lost it when he was still a baby. I catch my husband inhaling that baby-scented toddler skull when he gets home from work. He breathes it in like a drug – I can tell. He catches my eye with a sheepish grin. I, too, find myself inhaling that kid’s head when I am stressed out, or when he wakes up from nap with tremendous sweaty baby-fine bedhead. He’s always clammy, like me. When I take off his winter hat after he has been playing in the snow, the humid smell from the last hour got all trapped inside and it’s a rush of baby scent. I wish I could trap it for my husband while he’s at work.

wpid-wp-1425383049220.jpegTwin B’s hair is still baby-fine and wispy. Twin A’s hair is the exact same shade, but long ago lost the baby smell. Also, Twin A has a manly head of hair that needs haircuts twice as often as his twin. Coincidence? Perhaps not. We have called him “The Toupee” since he was very small. Twin A isn’t clammy at all. Like his father, he is always dry and warm. He feels like a heavy blanket straight out of the dryer. His head is never humid!

I watched my twins grow from the time they were each an 8-celled embryo in a Petri dish, outside of my body. How many of you can say that? I know that they were equally 50% of each my husband’s and my DNA… but when they came out of my body, I was astounded by the fact that I made them. Me. Alone. Like any mother, I was just in awe of the fact that I built every hair on their heads, every bone in their bodies, every eyelash and organ. No wonder I was so sick: I built them. I made them from scratch. At the same time! After being infertile. It was amazing.

When I was three years old, I suddenly declared to my mother that I would stop sucking my thumb when I turned four. I used to rub the tip of her thumbnail with one hand, while simultaneously sucking my thumb on the other hand. While I was trying to quit the thumb-sucking, my mother gently told me that I could pick thumb-sucking or rubbing her thumbnail, but I couldn’t do both at the same time anymore. I guess this was her baby-steps plan for me. I remember thinking that her idea was both incredibly sensible and frustrating. I indeed quit sucking my thumb precisely on my fourth birthday. My mom said she checked on me often that night while I was sleeping, and I had an iron will, even in my sleep. My thumb would automatically raise to my mouth, and I would drop it while sleeping. However, I am fairly certain I kept rubbing her thumbnail for a while.

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Fast-forward thirty years. One day while nursing, Twin A began to rub the tip of my thumbnail with his fat little baby finger that has those inverted little knuckles. I burst into tears. Of three children, he was the only one to have “inherited” that particular trait. Even at two years old, he continues to do it when he is sick or just watching TV in my lap. How can that be a coincidence? But how could that be inherited? Our bodies are so awe-inspiring. He never saw me do it, so was it possibly picked up via “nature”?

My oldest son, who came to us through adoption, never rubbed my thumbnail or had that baby smell past the infancy stage. He has, sadly, inherited my absolutely worst trait: picking his cuticles. When I am nervous or anxious (all the time?), I pick at the skin on my fingers. It is gross, and Mr. Okayest absolutely hates it. I am certain that this is the only thing about me that he actually hates. If we were ever on a game show and the host asked me what my husband hates about me, this cuticle picking would be the answer. We would both win all the money because we would both answer the same thing. (In my defense, I have cut waaaay back. And I am constantly trying to stop.) My oldest son started doing this at eighteen months. I am absolutely ashamed that he picked this trait from me to “inherit”. He picked up that bad habit 100% from the “nurture” category. He sees me do it, and he does it.

Why have his twin brothers – who are biologically from my genes/ my body/ my nature- not picked up this nasty cuticle-picking trait? They have also seen me do it. Neither the nature nor the nurture has inclined them to harm themselves. My only guess is that they are just not anxious or nervous people. My oldest son must be more like me in that way, and this habit “works” for us. (Dr. Phil says people do it because it works. The pain actually releases the endorphins or dopamine or whatever to relieve your anxiety. That is why it is so hard to stop.) Let’s hope he picks up a good trait or two from me as well.

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He isn’t warm and dry like Twin A and Daddy. He isn’t clammy and cold like Twin B and Momma. He’s just him. He’s cool and dry, like none of us – or like all of us put together.

I look at his beautiful brown body, cool and dry, and I am in awe of his birthmother. Was she cool and dry? She made him. She built him from scratch. She carried him for 8 months and made every hair on his head and every bone in his body. She also gave him many of his traits, but I will probably never know which ones. I did not give him a single fingernail, but I gave him cuticle picking. And everything I have. And all my love.

Why am I telling you about these things? One son’s baby-head smell, one son’s rubbing his mother’s thumb, and one son picking up a bad trait? I’m not sure. Genes are a funny thing.

MLK and Me … and You

all three at sinkConfession: I’m not sure I ever cared enough about Martin Luther King Day in the past. Now that I have a black son and two white sons, I care. I care a lot.

I’m writing this post today to ask that you will care perhaps a little more than you already do. I’m writing this post to ask that you take a couple minutes to show your kids a picture of Dr. King’s face. Play a few minutes of his audio. Tell them why you care. Nothing fancy. If you have older kids, ask them what they know. Just take two minutes and say something.

I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my minivan while my husband is in the hardware store and my children of two colors are in the back begging for more goldfish crackers. I’m writing on my phone and stopping every sentence to settle a fight or apologize for forgetting the juice box.

My oldest (black) son asked why daddy was home today. As we do every year, we explained about who Martin Luther King, Jr. was – and why we care. I am well-versed in how hard it is to explain that to a five-year-old, since I taught Kindergarten. It was one of our state-mandated standards of learning.

It sucks to look at those little innocent faces and explain that people used to hate each other because of the color of their skin. Especially here in the south. I know it sucks to say it out loud. But, if you are a parent, I am asking you to do just that today.

r cuddlesAs a parent of a black son, I am going to have to take this discussion a step farther than I did as a teacher. This year he asked why Dr. King died. I had to explain that some people hated. Next year, I might have to explain that some people still hate. The year after that, I might have to explain that some people don’t think that they hate, but their heart does. I’m going to have to talk about these things, and it sucks. It sucks to say these things to his beautiful brown face.

People who were beaten in Selma, Alabama for trying to register to vote are still alive today. People whose schools were shut down for months rather than desegregate are still alive in our very own community. Furthermore, the people who prevented blacks from voting (even though it was their lawful right to vote then) are still alive today. The people who beat them and even killed them for trying are still alive*. The people who prevented blacks from entering the schools (even though segregation was illegal by then), and who made the decisions to shut down the white schools rather than allow blacks inside, are still alive.

This despicable history is not that far removed from us. Don’t leave it only to the teachers to explain this. Don’t leave it only to the adoptive moms to explain it. Teach your children.

Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day… the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” That’s what we do every night in my house. At my table. With my own sons.

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* In 1965, a state trooper named James Fowler shot and killed an unarmed (peaceful) protester named Jimmie Lee Jackson. He had run into a cafe to hide and protect his mother and grandfather. He was beaten and shot at close range. Fowler was charged in 2007 of first-degree murder. He pleaded guilty in 2010, 45 years after the murder.

Jimmie Lee Jackson’s story is told as part of the movie Selma, which was just released this month.

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Not sure what to say to your kids? Let LeVar Burton start the discussion for you: click here to watch him read a story about Dr. King on Reading Rainbow.

“But He’s Black!” (A Day in the Life of a Transracial Family)

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My triplets

I took all three of my sons to the mall today for “mall-walking” (i.e., trail walking when it’s cold). They were actually wearing matching outfits, as pictured above. I try to dress them alike in public places simply so I can spot them quickly. (It’s not easy to dress them alike when I thrift-shop, so sometimes I just put them in fluorescent orange safety vests.)

I am accustomed to getting more stares when I dress my “triplets” alike. If they are not dressed alike, I think people assume I am the nanny or something. Or a mom who babysits. It doesn’t matter, and I don’t really care. Usually. When I do dress them alike, people get puzzled and stare, trying to figure us out. I don’t mind too much. Usually.

After we did our four-mile circuit through the mall, we stopped at the indoor play place. A nice woman stopped me. Here’s our conversation:

Her: “Are they twins?”
Me: “Yes.”
Her: [Pleasant banter about twin cuteness]
My oldest son: [runs up to me in his matching outfit] “Momma?”
Her: “He is yours too?!”
Me: “Yes.”
Her: “But he’s black!”
Me: “Yes.”

I walked away. That was the end of that.

Then I took all three into the bathroom. My oldest was trailing directly behind me. A woman, walking behind him, said in a loud voice, “Who does this boy belong to?!”

What? He’s mine! He’s standing right behind me, following me, probably even touching my butt, and is dressed identically to his brothers!

I didn’t say all that. I just said, “He’s mine!”

She stammered, “I just wanted to be sure a man didn’t send him in here alone or something….”

Would she have said that if he was towheaded like I am? Lots of mothers look different than their children, so maybe this happens to you too, even with biological children.

When he was a baby, people would often say, “He’s going to grow up to be a basketball player!” I had to wonder why on earth people would say that. I wanted to ask, “Are you saying that because he’s black? Because I really can’t think of any other reason you would say that when his height is in the 7th percentile.” Instead, I would usually reply, “Actually, I was thinking he could be a doctor.” (I don’t think anyone has ever told me that my white sons are going to grow up to be basketball players, despite their heights being in the 90th percentile.)

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I understood when people asked me constantly, “Is he yours?” when he was an infant. We had different skin color; I get it. But I’m so tired of answering, “yes, he’s mine,” when he is holding my hand and calling me “momma.” I once made myself a T-shirt that said, “Yes, he’s mine.” Funny or not? I’m not sure.

But this is not about me. Besides, I’m used to it. He isn’t. He is only starting to notice race, adoption, and commentary from strangers. I have had four and a half years to get used to these comments, but he is only now cluing in to what is happening. I am happy to answer questions and perhaps even educate people about transracial adoption, but I don’t necessarily want to be forced to do so in front of my son. The best I can do is teach him the appropriate answers to these kinds of questions… and when it is appropriate to just walk away.

 

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This post was originally posted on Beyond Infertility as members-only content. I am a regular contributor to their website.

 

White Mom, Black Hair

My son was born with straight hair. It turned curly, and then kinky. He had dreadlocks by the time he was five months old and a full-fledged afro by eight months. However, I didn’t want to cut it until he was a year old. I heard it was a bad luck to cut it before a year old, although the child abuse he endured when we tried to tame his dreadlocks was worse than bad luck. Some people snip a curl for the baby book, but I snipped a dread.

His hair didn’t get longer –it just got bigger. What we greasy white people don’t understand is that black hair needs moisture put in, not washed out. I took to washing it only once every two weeks or so, but moisturizing it every day. And I tried to keep it combed out every day. I don’t know if I did the right thing, because there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. (From him or me?) I created in him a phobia of head-touching that continues to this day.

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What I quickly realized is that there seems to be no consensus among the African-American community about what hair-care products are best. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, since there is no consensus among white people either. Was it racist to have assumed that all black people would have had the same opinion about hair care products? Everyone’s hair  and opinions are different, no matter what your skin tone or kinky-ness level. Why did I think there would be an all-agreed-upon product guide or something? People would recommend all sorts of products to me, and lots of them were heavy-laden with chemicals. That was also a surprise to me. (Please watch Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair!) After many months and dollars, I finally settled on shea butter for his hair. I tried everything- even olive oil and coconut oil. Shea butter was my personal winner: it works, it’s natural,  and it doesn’t smear all over my furniture. (And, perhaps most importantly of all, it is  one of the few smells that doesn’t trigger a migraine in his momma.)

My husband finally cut R’s afro on his first birthday. It was a shock to our son – and to us. He looked like a little boy! I continued to rarely wash – and constantly condition – but at least I didn’t have to torture him with comb-outs anymore.

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Hair isn’t just about the physical aspects. Emotion and belonging and tradition are weaved into hair too- and especially black hair. It isn’t just about the hair itself. Black hair is just a catch-all for all the things that I don’t know.

I am no expert here. I only know what I have read. One thing I have read in my adoption books and magazines is that black sons adopted by white parents wish that their parents had kept their hair shorter. White parents have a tendency to think that afros are cute on a black boy, and some children later express that they wished their hair had been kept closely-cropped so they would have fit in better with other black children.

This hair-length issue is a perfect example of things that may affect a black child that we white parents would never think about. Similarly, the literature encourages us to make an effort to take our child to a black barbershop. These are little suggestions, but they encourage me to consider things outside my typical line of vision. (However, I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere near a black barbershop until my son gets over his hair-touching phobia!)

My husband cuts R’s hair every weekend now. He is trying to learn how to do the edges from youtube videos – to make his haircut look more professional. By cutting his hair every week, we hope to desensitize that poor head of his. Also, we hope that by not letting it get long, the clippers won’t get stuck. See, we have no idea what we are doing! I am embarrassed to say that the clippers have gotten stuck in his curls before. What kind of clippers do black barbers use? Do they use attachments? What are we doing?!

And, if R had been a girl, this blog post would have been long enough to have needed its obalck wn blog website.

 

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Are any of you considering trans-racial adoption? What are your concerns? What have you learned about hair during your trans-racial adoptions? I’d love to know I’m not the only one who is learning and growing!

This article was originally published on Beyond Infertility, a website about how parenting after infertility is different. I am a regular contributor to their website.  You can find the original article here.