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.

Reblog: Please Educate Your Kids About Adoption So Mine Don’t Have To

Dang it, I wish I had written this one myself. But, since I didn’t, and this woman says it so well, you get to read from someone else today. This mom has two brown (and adopted) sons and two white (and birthed) daughters. I think she knows a thing or two. Here is Kristen, from the Rage Against the Minivan blog:

Please Educate Your Kids About Adoption So Mine Don’t Have To

As my son gets closer to school-age, these kind of peer conversations are.going.to.happen. Help him out by teaching your children about all the different kinds of parents in this world.

(PS, Her selection of books is wonderful. My son and I just had a special moment over “A Mother For Choco”… but it’s too precious to write down here. Sorry.)

Mother’s Day Can Sometimes Feel Like a Bruise

Like many of you, my feelings about Mother’s Day are a little complex. Despite the fact that I have those chubby toddler arms (x6) around my neck, there are still “tender feelings – the way a bruise is tender” (to quote a sensitive leader of my church). My heart goes out to all of you for whom this day may feel a bit like a bruise.  My heart goes out to all of you who have lost a mother, or have adopted this year, or have placed a baby for adoption, or have experienced miscarriage, or have lost a full-grown child, or have chosen not to parent, or biology has chosen not to allow you to parent.

I think of my son’s birthmother today, on Mother’s Day. To say that I am thankful for her is an understatement. My heart hurts for her, and my soul is filled with love for her. I wonder if she is thinking of him. I hope she knows I am thinking of her.

Melissa and MomI think of my own mother today, on Mother’s Day. I am completely thankful for and in love with my own mother, who raised me well and taught me everything I know about parenting (well, almost… she didn’t know much about twins). She is a wonderful grandmother to my children. And, during my miscarriages and infertility treatments, she used to skip church with me on Mother’s Day to hike in the woods, so that I wouldn’t cry when they passed out flowers to the mothers in the congregation.

I think of my mother-in-law today, on Mother’s Day. She raised my favorite man. She gave me the gifts of teaching her son to hug perfectly and to listen well and to notice everything. She gives me every Tuesday morning off from motherhood while she plays with her grandbabies. I hope I can offer my future daughters-in-law even a fraction of those gifts.

I’m so lucky to have these women in my life, who have loved us and are still here with us to wrap their arms around us to literally hold us up. I am so lucky to have my three sons here on earth with me, to wrap their fat arms around my neck, to literally hold me down.

And yet, I miss the ones I have lost.

And yet, I think of you, the ones who might be hurting today. I am thinking of you women who, like me, have tender feelings for one reason or another. You are loved! I have not forgotten this wound, which is now just a tender bruise, and I have not forgotten you.

 

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Sorry I posted this *after* Mother’s Day. I am just Okayest, after all.

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Notes:

“While we tend to equate motherhood solely with maternity, in the Lord’s language, the word mother has layers of meaning. Of all the words they could have chosen to define her role and her essence, both God the Father and Adam called Eve “the mother of all living”- and they did so before she ever bore a child.” -Sheri L. Dew, “Are We Not All Mothers?”, LDS General Conference, October 2001

This blog post says it better than I can: http://www.messymiddle.com/2012/05/10/an-open-letter-to-pastors-a-non-mom-speaks-about-mothers-day/

 

 

How I Really Feel about Birthmothers

I’m not going to talk about R’s birthmother here. I’ve said all I’m going to say about her already. Her story and her information belongs to my son. What I am going to talk about is how I feel about all birthmothers in general.

A birthmother is selfless. A birthmother chose to place her baby for adoption because she loves him so much that she wants more for him. She chose adoption out of love and selflessness. Of course she could have raised that baby. What she is doing instead is providing him with whatever she feels she can’t give him: a father, an education, stability, or maybe even protection. She is considering the needs of the baby, and not the needs of herself.

A birthmother is brave. Placing a child for adoption is probably the hardest decision she will ever make in her life. She has to live with the loss every single day of her entire life. Would I have that kind of courage?

A birthmother may be alone. The number one deterrent to adoption, according to Gordon B. Hinckley, is the birthmother’s mother. In other words, the baby’s biological grandmother is often the one who discourages the adoption. Birthmothers who choose adoption anyway may do so without the support of their families or partners. I want to give all of those women a huge hug. How’s that for bravery?

A birthmother loves her children and she loves the adoptive parents. Every birthmother loves her child. Again, she chose adoption because she loves him. Additionally, birthmothers love us adoptive parents. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t let us raise their children! When I went to an adoption conference to hear birthmothers speak, they repeatedly said versions of this statement: “I wish the adoptive parents knew how much I love them for caring for my child as their own.” This touched my heart. It made me see birthmothers more as friends and less as someone to fear.

A birthmother is facing challenges. The majority of birthmothers who place children for adoption domestically are not actually teens: they are in their twenties! Therefore, the stereotype that a birthmother is just too young to raise a baby may be inaccurate. Often, she is a full-grown woman, and she is choosing adoption for a different reason. She may be facing challenges that we can’t imagine.

A birthmother chooses adoptive parents for different reasons. We may never know why a birthmother picks a certain family to raise her child. When birthmothers look at profiles of adoptive parents, different things might impress them. For example, I heard a birthmother say that she chose birthparents who ice skated, because she used to do that as a child and wanted her child to have some of the same experiences that she did. Some birthmothers express a spiritual feeling, which helps them to just intuitively know where their child belongs. Some even express a feeling that the baby never felt like theirs, and that they were entrusted with the job of delivering the baby to his parents.

A birthmother wants to be defended. When I hear someone say, “Well, I could never give my baby up” , especially in front of my child, I bristle. I got in the habit of defending birthmothers, long before my son could understand, so that he would hear me and be able to mimic my responses later. A birthmother chose adoption out of love, and that makes her far more amazing than anyone who questions her decision.

Each birthmother has different needs. Some birthmothers need to see the baby on a regular basis; some may need to see pictures; some may just prefer email updates because pictures are too painful; some may need to distance themselves completely in order to deal with the pain. All of these are okay. I have no idea what I would need if I were in their shoes.

A birthmother doesn’t want to be forgotten. It is very important to a birthmother (and to me) that we teach the child about her. She wants him to know how much he was loved, how much she struggled with her decision, and who she was.

I have gone through many different emotions about birthmothers – awe, fear, anxiety, love, even a little jealousy. I believe that my son’s soul belongs in our family, and that it didn’t matter in what body he came here. Our bodies are just a vessel for our soul. His birthmother brought him to us when my body couldn’t carry him. I love my son exactly the way he is, but sometimes I feel a little jealousy of his birthmother because I wish he would have just come from my body. On the other hand, I also feel completely in love with her for bringing us this little soul and want to celebrate her – and her genes and her selflessness and all that she is!

Sometimes people pretend his birthmother doesn’t exist, I think, but not intentionally. I might be the only one who thinks about her every day. I have taught R to pray for her every night- both to thank her and to bless her. I have to admit that sometimes I might feel just the tiniest bit flattered that people forget about his birthmother, because that means that they truly accept me as his mother. However, I know that his birthmother is extremely important and should never be forgotten. I am teaching him that he has two mothers, two stories, two histories. He will be taught to love her and respect her.

I really only answer to my son when it comes to his birthmother. Someday, I will have to fill in more details for him. Someday, I will have to answer the harder questions. Someday, I will need to show him our correspondence and the paperwork I have. Until that day, we will talk and we will pray. And we will teach others to love and respect birthmothers.

A Blankie and a Birthmother

At least 28 Things His Blankie Has Been:

1)      A racetrack for cars
2)      Grass for horses
3)      Fence for horses
4)      Pirate hat

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5)      Pirate ship
6)      Blankie

blankie blanket
7)      Pillow
8)      Sacrament
9)      Baby in a carrier
10)   Baby Bjorn front pack

blankie baby bjorn
11)   Teether
12)   Spaceship
13)   Napkin
14)   Invisibility cloak
15)   Guitar
16)   Helmet for a 4-wheeler
17)   Helmet for a motorcycle
18)   Pacifier

blankie teether
19)   Dog collar
20)   Kleenex
21)   Band-aid
22)   Saddle

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23)   Garage
24)   House
25)   Landing strip

blankie landing strip
26)   Tail
27)   Leash
28)   Security blanket

blankie security

Every child’s blankie (or whatever ratty thing they drag around) is special. But my kid’s blankie is more special than your kid’s blankie. We got his blankie at the hospital where we, um, got him. I hope that doesn’t sound crude. How about this: We got his blankie at the hospital where his birthmother gave birth to him. It was the last time he was with his birthmother. It was the only time that his birthmother and I were ever in the same place. I would like to take him back to that hospital one day and walk through the maternity ward together. He may never meet her, but it’s the one place that we know she occupied.

His blankie was handmade, even though it came from the hospital gift shop. I guess little old ladies make these things and donate them to the gift shop. When he was born, we were given several (or more!) handmade blankets from grandmas and aunts and friends, and each of these crocheted/ knitted/ embroidered treasures is priceless to me. However, none of them came from the place where his birthmother gave him to us.

I’ve been taught proper adoption language. I don’t say things like she “gave up her baby”. I say, she “placed her baby for adoption”. However, when you get down to the heart of it, she did give us a human being. That she made. At that hospital. Where that blankie was purchased.

My son didn’t seem to have the usual oral fixation of every other baby. He didn’t care about thumbs or binkies. To add to that, he was a terrible sleeper. I pushed the blankie on him. Around nine months, I started to hold the blankie against his cheek during every bottle and every cuddle. It didn’t take long before that thing was king. It never left his side at home. He even learned to walk with the blankie dangling from his mouth, because he needed both hands straight out for balance. Frankenstein’s monster, with a blankie stuffed in his mouth.

blankie learning to walk

By the time he was walking, at the ripe old age of 15 months, that blankie was eroding enough for me to be concerned about its future. It was also causing a major anxiety attack in its user at every wash cycle. How do you replace a handmade blankie? The answer is to call the hospital gift shop and give them a sob story. When I told the manager, over the phone, about our adoption/blankie story, she said it was no problem to mail us a second one. She took my name and address and then told me to have a good day. I said, “Wait, don’t you need my credit card information?” No, she wanted to send it to us as gift. I was overcome with emotion.

That blankie arrived, for free. We promptly sent a thank-you note with a picture of him loving on it. It took a while before he accepted it as wholeheartedly as the first one. But, soon enough, it was part of our wash rotation. We had to make blankie rules, such as No Blankie in the Car, No Blankie at the Table, No Blankie in the Bath.

He learned to talk. He couldn’t say “blankie”, so it came out as “Dee Dee”. Now, I am not a fan of baby talk. I don’t necessarily correct his speech, but I do what I was taught to do in my classroom: to repeat the phrase correctly myself, after he says it incorrectly. “Dee Dee” was the one word I left alone. “Dee Dee” can be a person’s name, I rationalized. Plus, it was so dang cute.

He is now old enough, at 3 ½, to know that he has to refer to it as “Blankie” to other people, but can call it “Dee Dee” at home with us. Dee Dee is not allowed out of the house, and never was – except for when I was in the hospital and he was a frightened little thing. (You’ll see it in our hospital pictures!) However, it has become quite a fixture in this house during both playtime and nighttime.

no last name

To him, Dee Dee represents all of the dozens of things I listed above. To him, Dee Dee represents security. But to me, Dee Dee represents the last connection he has to his birthmother, the woman who gave us our firstborn son. She is the woman who chose us, from thousands of others, for some unknown reason. She is the woman who felt that this little soul belonged with us.

She deserves her own blog post. Let me get on that.