When Mac and I started this adventure we knew that there were things we needed to have a very long, serious, introspective conversation about. Adoption forms ask you explicit questions about your potential matches for kids. Many of my friends assured me that there is a roll of the dice with biological children, and of course they are right. We are fortunate to have friends who have shown us families can grow stronger embracing children born with unexpected challenges. In the last few years we have welcomed children with eating challenges, intellectual disabilities, epilepsy, diabetes, heart defects. In a flash those terms are replaced with names. They are Paul, or Sabrina, or Elise. They’re loved little humans, not squares you check on a form.
However, bio parents roll the dice with a certain set of givens already in place. Adoption forms ask probing, intrusive questions that you MUST answer honestly. Agencies want to know what you think of “conception circumstances.” I am going to sit here, in my living room, and decide if I could raise a baby that was the product of what one depraved criminal did to a survivor who is somehow carrying her rapist’s baby to term. The questions only get harder from there. Disability? Degree of disability? Will you risk adopting children of unknown paternity? If you gamble, and he shows up, the baby may be taken from you. In the end though, the most complex set of questions were about race.
I know several adoptive families that had difficult discussions about race. In the end, most found they couldn’t see raising a child that looked different from themselves. One of the moms explained to me that she was concerned that when she touched the hair of a black child it wouldn’t feel right. It may be easy to dismiss that as not being open minded. But if, like me, you’re white, I want you to go on this journey with me. See what these questions are. Walk yourself in our shoes.
First of all, ask yourself, really ask yourself, would you feel comfortable knowing every single person that sees your family wonders if your child is adopted? Would you be comfortable with strangers coming and asking (and boy, do they) “where did you get your child?” The correct answer, by the way, is “Iowa!” People never have the guts to ask if we’re joking. It’s pretty great.
Take the question one step farther: could you learn how to braid tightly curled or coiled hair? Could you deal with lactose intolerance, sickle cell anemia and other medical issues found more commonly in the non-white population? Would you feel embarrassed or offended if a teacher assumes you aren’t a mom and bypasses you to go straight to the Chinese family that looks like they must be your daughter’s parents? Do you think about terms like your child being a coconut? An Oreo? A banana? If you don’t even know what I mean here, then you have a serious ways to catch up. These are derogatory terms, usually aimed at kids, to say that the color they are on the outside isn’t who they really are. My son isn’t really Mexican; he’s a coconut. Brown on the outside, white on the inside. A black person may be an Oreo, an Asian person a banana. And we have yet to touch on the special hell reserved for people who are multiracial. It should be so cool: twice the membership, twice the acceptance. It almost never seems to work out that way. These kids may be seen as not enough of one, or too much of the other.
Our neighbors, let’s call them Seal and Heidi, witnessed this. Heidi, as a white woman, never knew the extent of racism in American today until she saw how her black husband and biracial child can be treated. She told me (and I will never forget this) that she realized she was a different person when someone called her beautiful daughter a nigger and Heidi’s first thought was “I’m going to that person’s house. I’m going there to kill them. This is the day I go to jail.” Incidentally, I didn’t do “the N word” or n—– because they didn’t call her daughter “the N word.” They called her daughter a nigger. I refuse to minimize what was said. It didn’t get sugarcoated for her, and now it shouldn’t be sugarcoated for the people who need to think about what it would mean for this to happen to your daughter. Remember, you’re walking in our shoes right now.
Mac and I looked inside ourselves. We thought about color, ethnicity, belonging, our comfort, the child’s comfort, our families, our friends. We were fairly lucky. A few people disappointed us by focusing on many negatives (a black child would have a higher chance of being born an addict was something we heard several places). We educated others on the fact that medical condition is separated from skin color. We could agree to have a black child and still decide we could not accept a child born on drugs. As it turned out, we did say we were willing to look at a variety of medical complications on a step by step basis if our insurance covered it. But we don’t have great coverage. The hard truth was, we couldn’t afford to take home a very ill child no matter what. It felt heartless and horrible to imagine somewhere out there a beautiful child I may love forever wouldn’t be mine because I said “no” to a certain condition. In all honestly, I was a mess thinking about how much I’d be willing to hurt myself if it meant getting a child. Thank god it was my therapist who sorted me out. She pointed out that as someone with minor mobility issues myself (I have a chronic pain condition and sometimes walk with a cane) I may not be able to adopt a child with a disability if it would make my own health worse trying to care for the child. I didn’t want to feel selfish, or close-minded. What if I missed out on the one meant for me? She asked, very gently, “what if that child misses out on a strong, healthy mom that can’t WAIT to teach a kid how to recover after each surgery and get bigger and stronger? What if they have the money, the means, even other kids to help? Don’t those families go looking for their own “right kid for us?”
But the one, deep-deep-DEEP down fear I had was simple. I am a white woman born in Nebraska. In NYC I got made fun of for being the only white woman in my security division at [STORE REDACTED BUT THEY ARE VERY FAMOUS AND HUGE AND I CAUGHT VERY CREEPY SHOPLIFTERS.] What the hell would I know about raising a Latino or black boy in America? Any other race, or a girl, I felt I could do it. But raising a brown or black man in America? An America where black men have The Talk with black boys about the things you do to survive in a culture where you are constantly a minority, even if you are in the majority. The America where Arizona would require my son to have his birth certificate on him all the time because he looks illegal. What do I do when he asks me about clothes he wants to wear like the other kids and I admit that to me it looks too foreign? How could I tell my son I’m afraid people will assume he’s in a gang? Would he talk one way around me and then become someone I couldn’t even understand as a teenager with his friends? His black or Mexican friends? Would I finally be forced to accept that there is a whole side to race in America that I haven’t thought about because I have never had to? Questions my biological children would never have known. My white nephew Dude plays with toy guns 26 hours a day. What’s the line where a black boy can play with fake guns and it’s cute then it spills over into scary? Would I let a black son become an expert in stage combat like his adoptive father? Sounds great. Until I wonder how it looks if there’s a black guy running around with a training pistol. Here in our relatively small Midwestern enclave these things are probably no big deal. If we move I don’t know how big of a deal they are. Who gives him The Talk? What other Talks exist out there for non-white Americans I don’t know about because I never had to know?
It took days before I decided to answer the most important question: would I love him? Yes, I would. Would I be willing to go outside my comfort zone to learn about a culture where I am an outsider? Yes, if it meant my son felt less on the outside.
I have lots to learn and many fears to face and I need help. I have to talk to people that will help me understand my son’s reality as an American will be different than mine. Most crucially though, I know for sure I can do it. After an extensive soul search I know from the bottom of my soul:
The first time I hear someone call my beautiful son a wetback…that will be the day I’m going to jail.