The “Where’s Your Mom?” Microaggressions

It happened again.

People who know us forgot that I was his mother.

IMG_20170303_171030I am white. My son is Black. This is a tremendous invisible burden for him. Being asked to explain yourself or justify yourself as an adoptee is called “narrative burden.” It’s not fair to him, but it is his albatross.

Every.single.time. we are out in public together, something small happens to make us feel “othered”. These tiny things add up, especially for a young impressionable child. “Microaggressions” is a term I have recently learned, and, while it applies to race, I think it may also apply here to transracial adoption.

Yesterday, after Cub Scouts was over, I was following my son out the door. We were close together. Another mother (who knows us) stopped my son from exiting and said, “Wait, where’s your mom?” WHILE HE WAS TALKING TO ME. I firmly said, “I’m his mom” and brushed past her quickly.

Last week, as I was checking my three sons into the gym daycare, the woman at the desk (who knows us) said, “How many children today?” while looking at only my Black son. WHILE HE WAS HOLDING ON TO ME. My white twins were probably doing cartwheels around us, but she wasn’t looking at them. She was looking at my Black son, who was touching me, and basically asking if he counted. I sternly said, “I have THREE CHILDREN.”

The week before that, I took my son to his school’s book fair. He chose his book, and we walked together to the cash register. I was right behind him in line. We were the only two in line. The teacher (who knows us) added up the total, and then said, “Where’s your mom?” WHILE LITERALLY MOVING HER BODY TO SEE AROUND MY HEAD. I followed her gaze over my shoulder and noted that she was looking at a Black family across the room. I said, “I’M his mom” while shoving my credit card in her face.

Yes, each of these things may be small to you. Yes, each of these things can be explained (“whitesplained”) away. Yes, each of these things might be understandable. Until you put yourself in my son’s shoes. Until you realize it’s cumulative. Until you realize that it happens every.single.time. Until you realize what that would actually feel like to be him.

It’s not fair. It’s a heavy burden. It’s a cumulative effect. It’s one more way the world makes him feel like an “other.” It’s just one more way he may feel he doesn’t belong. He’s getting old enough that this burden bothers him, but he’s not yet old enough to want to answer anyone himself. We talk about these things. I try to give him the language he will need, and the choice to answer when he’s ready. Right now, he is introverted and uncertain about everything. Wouldn’t you be, too?

These microaggressions are probably why he doesn’t want me to eat lunch with him, or chaperone field trips. Unlike white/non-adopted kids, he is asked by peers and adults alike basically to explain himself. No child should ever have to explain why he belongs with his own family.

We know the “colorblind” mentality didn’t work. It was a failure. It is not the goal, either. It is well-documented that children do better when diversity is acknowledged, voiced, and celebrated. Yet white people stubbornly hold on to that “I don’t see color” crap. If you don’t see color, then you WOULD see that he was wearing matching t-shirts with his brothers. If you don’t see color, then you WOULD see that he was holding my hand. If you don’t see color, then you WOULD see that he was calling me “momma” and talking to me and holding onto my waist. You would have already noticed and remembered that we are a family. If you don’t see color, then you wouldn’t make him feel so othered from his own family every damn day. Don’t you dare ever say to me that you don’t see color.

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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.

 

 

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.

100th Post! … Or 105th or 107th? Anyway, Let’s Reflect!

One hundredth post?! Really? Well, actually, my 100th post was about tampons, but that seemed like an inappropriate time to bring up my milestone. This is my 107th post or something. I’m just okayest, remember? Anyway, how have I possibly had that much come out of my head?

It’s time to reflect… and/ or just give you a bunch of leftover thoughts (and way too many copious links):

I’m pretty sure blogging is dead. I’m also sure that the market is saturated. Have you seen how many of me there are? And yet…

… I have 2500+ followers here and almost 200 on my Facebook page. (Oh yeah, and I started a Facebook page.) I started blogging just a year and a half ago, when my twins were not even a year old, and not even walking yet. My oldest was just three and still in diapers. I had three children, three and under, in diapers. Then my niece moved in, and I had four children in diapers. Four children under four. It was a wild time.

My favorite post so far (if you care) is “110 Decibel Lullabies: Memories of  a Loud Childhood”. It was not popular at all, but it was a love letter to my parents that I worked on for years in my head. I am so proud of it. I hope I created a saturated portrait for my sons of what my own childhood was like.

My most-googled/ popular posts have been “My Birth Story: How I Almost Lost My Life, My Uterus, and a Twin”, and “So What is IVF Really Like? (A Thesis)”. Proceed with caution, though, since those two are pretty gory – and pretty dang long. But my all-time most widely-read post was “Benign Neglect: A Case Against Preschool”. It was chosen as a “Freshly Pressed” blog post that was featured on the WordPress Homepage. It had hundreds of comments and daily views. For a minute.

I had never read a blog before I started writing one. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes because of that, but I also hope it added some freshness to my blog.

My super private husband was the one to suggest I start blogging. He knows how verbal I am and how much I needed this outlet for anxious feelings. I figure out a lot out as I write, and even as I plan to write. I was a copious journal-keeper in my pre-kid life, but somehow that hasn’t… conveyed. Now, I blog. But one thing hasn’t changed: planning what I will write is my way to survive.

When times are bad, and there isn’t enough time or energy to actually write for an extended period of time, I get anxious. Too much builds up inside my head and it wants out. Also, when I don’t record something fairly quickly, or scribble a little note, it’s gone forever these days. Taking care of these little ones doesn’t leave much time for reflection or memory.

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It’s so important to me to record at least part of this crazy life for my kids (who probably will never care). I want my kid to know I dragged him along to vote recently, even though he thought I said “boat” instead of “vote”. I want my kids to know that I read one of them a book on the bathroom floor this morning, while one of them sat on the potty, and while the other soaked his diaper-rashed bum in the tub. I want them to know that their dad is working late again tonight and I have a terrific fear of the next three hours. Paralyzing, really. (I also want them to know that, as a result of that, they watched way too much Sesame Street today.)

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I want my kids to know that we stay busy each morning. We have a regular schedule of grandparents, play dates, and trail walking. Rain or shine, tantrums or smiles, poop or no poop, we are doing at least one thing each day. They don’t have normal lives: we don’t go to restaurants (my oldest almost made it to age five without a Happy Meal), and they don’t grocery shop with me. But once in a while they get to ride in a Target cart. (Don’t get me started on carts.)

I want my twins to know that the day I took away their binkies was the end of my life – for an entire month anyway. Okay, it was just the end of my sanity – oh, and the end of my stranglehold on our rigid schedule. You can probably find my mental black hole on this blog that corresponds with that month of hell.

Other than being mentally helpful, my blog has been good to me in other ways. It has generated a little income. I have several interviews coming out soon (you can read one of them here). I officially write for a website as a regular contributor. (They call me a “parenting expert”! Ha!!!) One of my posts, “My Twins Sucked at Breastfeeding”, was even featured on a popular mommy blog and had 11.2K shares at last check.

My blog has also been good to some strangers out there. Women from all over the world have contacted me with messages that are full of gratitude, and tears of sorrow or joy or laughter or relief. They are so grateful to me that I am telling it like it really is. And “it” can be the daily struggles of being a stay-at-home mom (sometimes I feel like a slave that everyone hates), or what IVF feels like, or the not-so-pretty parts of adoption or twins or transracial families. I am in a unique position to understand the infertile women, the parents of multiples, the white parents of black children, the adoptive mommies, and the stay-at-home moms. I try to write honestly about all those things when  I cover all of those experiences.

I have privacy concerns constantly. I try to balance the introversion of my husband and the privacy of my children with my own need to vent. I never know if I’m doing the right thing. While I can identify with many different parents and non-parents, I don’t ever want to throw any of my family members under this public internet bus when writing.

[Wait , someone’s crying. Be right back.]

I am trying to tell my own mothering story without sacrificing my family or my dignity. I give my husband veto power over my articles, and more than a few will stay on the cutting room floor that is my laptop. I hope my children will read all of this someday, so I am careful only to write things that I would say to their face in ten years or twenty years. I am as honest with my readers as I am going to be with my children. That means that there are some things that will never get written. I wish I could talk about body image issues, or the developmental delays of one of my sons, or hilarious things my husband says. I wish I could show you their adorable fat naked bums and cellulite (the kids’, not the husband’s*).

There are just some things that remain whispers between spouses, stuck forever in your bedsheets, even when you’re a public blogger.

But, hey, thanks for reading!

 

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* If you are reading this reference to my husband’s bum, then it survived his veto power. Woot!

 

I Have A Dirty Little Secret About Adoption

Worrying about what should happen during bonding wastes too much precious time that could be spent actually bonding.

I have a dirty secret about adopting my infant son: I didn’t bond with him right away. I felt like I was babysitting him for the first few months. I had read all these warm and fuzzy stories about adoptive mothers’ “love at first sight” moments with their newborns… and it didn’t happen for me. The worst part is that I had expected it to happen, and felt guilty when it didn’t.

Son, I apologize to you for not bonding with you right away. I still hold some misplaced guilt about that, despite the fact that we soon bonded as much as if you had come from my womb. I am telling our story so that other mothers can know they are not alone and perhaps not be guilted and distracted by what it is “supposed to” feel like.

Some friends and family members have told me that even their biological children felt like strangers when they held them for the first time. Despite carrying them for nine months, some biological mothers are brave enough to admit that they still needed time to bond with those little strange people who are suddenly in their arms. It is finally time that adoptive mothers are also allowed to admit that a new baby in their arms can feel like a stranger – and that doesn’t make us less of anything!

I personally believe that adoption should not be a “last resort” or a “plan B”, so I can tell you that my husband and I worked very hard to gain a testimony of adoption before beginning that process. However, in fairness, I can also admit that I would not have worked hard to gain that testimony of adoption had I not had to endure the hardships that I did.

Many adoptive mothers – at least ones like me – are already facing so many slams to their self-worth. The adoption process can be cruel and unusual punishment, especially for someone who may have already lost choices, dreams, or even babies. We have to get fingerprinted, prove that we put childlocks on all the cabinets years before children arrive, and watch close friends and drugged-out celebrities on TV accidentally get pregnant over and over again. Some of us may feel less than whole as our lives are scrutinized by caseworkers and uncertain extended family.

So, upon arriving at the hospital the day after my son was born, I was already knocked down a few notches. I couldn’t carry a pregnancy, I hadn’t had much choice in anything, and I had to constantly prove I was a fit mother even though I had no children. My husband and I were beyond nervous – but my nervousness was not about bonding. I assumed I would bond with him. I had read many books about adoption, and I was so excited to meet the child who would automatically feel like mine. I was only nervous that the birthmother would change her mind.

As our birthmother had chosen not to meet us, the kind hospital staff put us in our own private room in the maternity ward, just down the hall from her. They shut the door and told us to wait there, and they would wheel Baby Boy into our room in his bassinette.

My heart was racing. I just knew that one look into his eyes would seal us together forever. I just knew that we would instantly be one. I just knew that it would be love at first sight.

It didn’t happen.

It hurts my heart to admit this to myself, much less to him, but I think it’s so important for other adoptive mothers to hear: my son was a stranger.

At the moment, there in the hospital room, when the nurse closed the door and left my husband and I staring at the stranger in the bassinette, I was mortified. I thought something was wrong with me. How could I not feel like this perfect newborn was mine? His birthmother had chosen us for him. She had hand-picked us. I had spiritual confirmation that this child was meant to be in our family. She had spiritual confirmation that he was meant to be in our family. Why didn’t I feel love at first sight?

I remember searching his little body for parts that resembled my husband or me. Why would I do that? It almost seems like a subconscious thing. I am not proud of it, but it happened, and I want other adoptive mothers to know. I remember specifically looking at his ten perfect toes and realizing how they were in a perfect descending order, and knowing he didn’t come from my or my husband’s gene pool. My husband and I have toes that are all crazy different lengths. When I think back to that hospital day, I think about my son’s perfect brown toes and I wonder why in the world would I have expected them to look like our imperfectly-shaped, pasty-white toes?

After four years of pondering this topic, I have an idea of a few things that may have contributed to feeling like he was a stranger. His birthmother had only chosen us three days before, so we were still reeling from being selected after eight childless years. We had been through miscarriage(s), and our hearts were still healing. He is a different race than we are, and, thus, looked nothing like us. (Don’t judge: it’s hard to feel like a mother at first when people constantly ask, “Is he yours?”) He was sickly and small, so we had a very difficult newborn phase that was filled with no sleep and constant crying. And, most importantly, we were subconsciously trying to protect ourselves in case the birthmother changed her mind. I know that wouldn’t actually make it hurt any less, but we had 22 days to endure before the phrase “automatic return” was off the table.

The next 22 days were scary for us. We had been through loss before, and we couldn’t bear the thought of going through it again with this newborn who was already in our house. There was a paperwork problem that extended our state’s ten-day “automatic return” to the birthmother if she were to change her mind. My heart was trying to protect myself from more pain, even though my head knew I would be devastated if she changed her mind, no matter how much we bonded or didn’t bond.

newborn adoption 1So I did all the right things: we did as much skin-to-skin contact as we could. I wrapped him inside my homemade wrap. Skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, “the bonding hormone”. I carried him this way for most of every day, because he had to be upright at all times from stomach problems. I sang songs to him that my mother sang to me. I cried for him and for his birthmother, for the losses that they were both experiencing. He didn’t know my voice. He didn’t know my smell. But I was all that he had, and his birthmother had picked me to raise her son.

I was scared that I was a “fraud” mother. I felt (perfectly normal) feelings of grief and guilt. Adoptive mothers experience a wide range of emotions that nobody really talks about, but they are important. Not only was this child a stranger to me, but I was a stranger to him. Theories of “newborn grief” and “adoption trauma” (sadly) propose that newborns can feel loss if they don’t experience the smells and sounds that they had experienced in utero. I felt guilt because I felt like I had stolen this child from the only environment that he had ever known. I had to remind myself on a daily basis that his birthmother loved him enough to make the impossibly hard decision to place him with us. I had to remind myself that each song I sang and each rise and fall of my chest and each beat of my heart inside that homemade wrap was the best I could do for him. And for me. And for her. I was beginning that bond.

It wasn’t love at first sight. It happened one song, one breath, and one heartbeat at a time.

After a few months had passed, and he was healthy, and I had kissed those beautiful brown toes a thousand times, I realized that I would lay down and die if someone took him from me. I no longer felt like I was babysitting. He was just mine. People still asked, “Is he yours?”, but I no longer bristled at the question, because I was secure in the knowledge that he was mine. He knew my heart , and my breath, and my songs – and now he knew my face as well.

Two years later, I gave birth to twin boys, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine. When they came out of my body, and I saw their toes for the first time, my first thought was, “Why are those boys so pink?!” I had expected them to come out brown, just like my firstborn son.

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I would love to hear from other adoptive mothers and soon-to-be adoptive mothers. What did you expect upon meeting your child for the first time? Did it go just as you expected? Was your child a stranger too, or did you feel an instant bond? Let’s start talking about this and stop feeling so guilty!

This post was originally posted on Beyond Infertility as members-only content.