This Old Mom’s first birthday Party-Where-Things-Got-Awkward featured a handmade trough, maybe 20 feet long and 6 inches wide, narrow and silver- the size and shape of a rain gutter one might install on a house.
But this gutter was filled with scoops and scoops of every imaginable flavor of responsibly colored, cruelty-free ice cream, artfully dotted with ethically sourced sprinkles and dollops of fresh, organic, raw milk whipped cream.
As 25 toddlers scream and boy-band-rush the trough, they grab tiny pink spoons and turn into a furiously focused Altima assembly line, whose sole task is to inhale as much ice cream as possible.
As Baby G power-eats, spilling nary a drop, a feeding trough instead of a high chair begins making all sorts of sense to me.
A lovely girl wafts over. Slender, pale, with glossy wisps of golden wheat-colored hair teasing her beautiful young face, she appears eight but exudes the world weariness of a fourteen year old. Lovely girl is the sort of child who’s too old-souled to be a child actor. Like Charlotte Gainsbourg might have been at eight, but this one rocks a Serena & Lily late-spring-early summer linen tunic. Either her dad is an actor-producer or her mom’s a supermodel-thought leader or both.
Lovely girl and I watch my kid eat and look around suspiciously, as if packing as much ice cream inside herself before someone can yell, “Hey, stop eating ice cream outta my gutter!” Lovely girl studies me with huge expensive blue eyes and an expression not unlike that of an agent about to drop you from her talent roster.
Lovely Girl: Why did you have to adopt her?
Even while wobbling, I love and respect how abrupt kids are. They suffer no tedious propriety. No chit-chatty wind-up. No, “Hello, I’m Poppy. Who are you and what’s up with this child you are pretending to parent?”
Still, somehow, explaining my withered uterus, perimenopause, or unplanned pregnancies doesn’t feel like appropriate ice cream party chatter to have with a sub-tween.
Smiling too hard like a grown-up does at problem children that aren’t her own, I hate the defensive tone in my voice, yet can’t help but sound defensive.
Me: Well... I couldn’t have a baby... and we wanted to be parents, so we adopted her.
Lovely girl doesn’t nod or smile back. She just forges on, like Megyn Kelly digging beneath the talking points.
LG: Why didn’t her real mother want her?
Blanching, I protectively eye my kid, who is unaware she is being discussed, as she is far inside Sugarland Express, and unavailable for questions at the present time.
My mind coughs.
What’s my pat, polite party line about the searing pain of giving a child up for adoption, especially in front of my kid? I think harder than anyone should have to on a Saturday morning. Realizing how California I’ve become, I am sooooo the Slightly-Stammering-Center-for-Non-Violent-Parenting.
Me: Well, I am her mother, but her birth mother loved her so very much but, and, but... uh, sadly, wasn’t able to take care of her so she made the awfully difficult decision to give her to someone who was desperate to have a child. That’s how much she loved her. And we met and liked each other and she gave her, the, uh, our baby to me and I’m raising her like my very own child. She is my child. And so I’m raising her. The adoption was brutally hard and emotionally exhausting, but clearly the journey of a lifetime.
I didn’t know I could sound like a nervous brochure, but apparently I can. And I deplore the use of the word journey, unless it’s in reference to the band. Since God’s answer to anxiety is food, I grab a spoon and dig into the ice cream. I am not just eating my feelings, but the feelings of everyone at this party.
Even though all the ice cream has melted into a truly venal if gluten-free monster flavor, I eat and force a smile at mini Nancy Grace, who resumes studying my happily oblivious daughter as if she were a wounded butterfly.
Suddenly, as sugar cauterizes my brain, I turn on Lovely Girl before she can pelt me with more inappropriately honest questions.
Me: How old are you?
Me: Do you know any adopted kids?
LG looks at me, finally. And from there we have an actual conversation. About her friends who are adopted and of different races and what that’s like for her and for her friends and how OK and cool it really is. There is no mussing of hair or an awkwardly sweet hug or sharing of names ― I don’t get to meet her parents before she wafts off like a Crew Cuts model called to set.
It didn’t qualify at all as a teachable moment for anyone except me. We have to get our story straight and soon.
Right now our daughter beams at us with the purity that sees no difference between us. But that will change, most likely because someone else will hurl that difference at her.
And it will probably happen without us being there to protect her.
But forewarned is forearmed. So I go home, freak out all over Canada, we call an adoption specialist therapist, join PACT and start educating ourselves for our future. And for Grace’s.
We found salvation and safety in Jeanette Yoffe, an adoption and foster therapist, based in Los Angeles. Raised in the foster system, Jeanette has devoted her life and career to helping children and adults navigate the complex waters of foster and adoption.
Top 10 list of what to say and NOT to say to adoptive transracial families.
- Please don’t ask “Where did you get her?” as if she’s a limited edition Hello Kitty handbag. Especially in front of her.
- Please do ask, “May I ask you about your family?” Unless we are about to board a plane, in the middle of dinner, or a tantrum, we are happy to discuss transracial adoption.
- Please don’t tell us how lucky she is, especially in front of her. We assume you mean well, but we don’t want to assume you are (accidentally) racist, so don’t assume our child is lucky because she’s black and we are white. You have no idea... We could be awful parents!
- Please don’t ask, “What happened to her real parents?” If she can wipe her nose on my shirt, then I get to be called her real mom.
- Assume my daughter hears and understands everything you say. She’s not deaf, she’s adopted.
- Please don’t get up in her cornflakes and ask her in a cute voice, “Are you adopted?” She’s NOT adopted. She was adopted. It’s not who she is, it’s one part of her big, fabulous story.
- Actually, please don’t ask her if she’s adopted. She is little, and still in the process of understanding her life. We don’t want her to be self-conscious or feel there’s something wrong with her.
- Please, please do ask us anything in private. If our family story can inspire others to foster or adopt a child, we are thrilled to help.
- Please don’t ask if we are going to raise her “African-American.” We aren’t really sure what that means... but we do love sharing her brilliant culture with her. She’s really into hip-hop freestyling as a way of avoiding bedtime and she loves watching Esperanza Spalding play the bass.
- Please don’t get uncomfortable when we talk about race, either in general or in the (sometimes humorous) context of our child. We know she is a different race and believe acknowledging her skin color doesn’t make us racists. It makes us realists.
PS. Pretending race doesn’t exist isn’t going to solve racism or race issues in our country. Talking about race, passive or active racism, experiences with race and racism is almost always awkward but, when approached honestly, is all good— it’s the only way we will achieve the understanding that we are all truly in this together.
PPS. Nurture Shock is a book I wish every parent could be given upon the birth of their child. Chapter 3 is titled Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race. Most families of color discuss racism with their children starting around age 3. Because they HAVE to. Because they have to prepare their children for the reality of racism. Ironically, white people are the most uncomfortable discussing race with their children, mostly out of fear of bringing attention to race and racism.
Fact is, if parents don’t talk plainly to their kids about difference and diversity, children automatically self-segregate based on skin color, as early as age five. Open communication and rejection of the failed concept of “colorblindness” is key to racial equality and acceptance. If we talk about race and racism early, we declaw it, and one day, hopefully soon, a person’s skin color will no longer be the first defining quality about them. It’s OK to be uncomfortable while discussing race. At least we’re discussing it instead of pretending it doesn’t matter.
Want to learn more about adoption? Here is a link to PACT.org - an adoption alliance...
Jeannette Yoffe is an adoption specialist therapist and founder of the Celia Center, a truly inspirational network and support system for everyone affected by foster-adoption.
Dear reader: In an effort to bring the reader up to speed, here is the origin story of how This Old Mom came to be. A version of this blog post can be found at ThisOldMom.com. Visit it if you dare...