August 31, 2010

"What is in a name?"

It happened again last night. You would think I would be used to it. You would think as much as I think about it, rehearse what I would say, and run through endless come-back possibilities it would not catch me off guard. But it does. And then I nervously find myself explaining away, answering the question behind the question, giving more information than I wanted to give. And when I walk away, as usual, I kick myself over and over again. For the last three years this question has bothered me, bewildered me, and frustrated me more than any of the intrusive, offensive, tactless, and ignorant questions we have been handed.

We are a little bit famous in our small town. We are “that” family. People may not know our names, but we are recognized wherever we go. There are not many families like ours in our community, so we get waves, smiles, dirty looks, you name it. But like other “famous” people, we seem to have traded our privacy for the right to be a family. Adoptive parents, especially obviously adoptive parents, will tell you that there is open season on questions that, in any other context, would be considered inappropriate: “How much did he cost you?” “Why can’t you have biological children?” “Why did her birthmom not want her?” “Aren’t you afraid of how he will turn out?” “Do you know who her REAL parents are?”

Because I believe most people operate out of a lack of understanding of adoption, a desire to show interest, and a basic ignorance of the whole process, I have self-appointed me as an adoption educator. I field most of these questions with a smile, hoping to leave the exchange having taken one more step in my quest towards adoption awareness. As my kids get older and can understand the questions asked, I approach those exchanges more cautiously, trying to teach them how to respond appropriately as they listen. But…there is that question, that one question that stirs in me feelings that go deeper than education, politeness, or promotion. It started with Noah’s arrival. It is not really offensive, tactless, or ignorant. In fact, most people ask in genuine interest and wide-eye innocence. To be sure, many of my friends have asked. But each time I hear it, there is a pain in my heart that makes me catch my breath: “Are they brother and sister?”

What does that mean, to be brother and sister? How does that strange, wonderful relationship happen? Is it in the sharing of DNA and the splitting of genes? Is it in the growing up together, laughing, playing, and fighting? Are they mutually exclusive? Can one not exist without the other? I know what the person is asking: Are they biologically related? But that is a very different question, isn’t it? Every time I’m asked the question I am reminded that our society claims to see adoption as a truly viable option to form a family, but still only as second best. These are two children being raised by the same parents, under the same roof, and who share the same last name. What else do they need to qualify to be considered siblings? Yes, they are brother and sister! And they happen to be biologically related as well.

Time after time I vow to simply answer “yes” the next time the question comes and let the person asking figure out what that means. Time after time I find myself explaining: “They have the same birthmother.” Inevitably I get angry with myself and I think about the day when we have a third child who does not share DNA with Isabel and Noah. What will I say then?: “Well, these two are brother and sister, but this one is not”? Is NOT? If they are not brother and sister, all three of them, then they are not really my children and if they are not really my children, then what is adoption but a fantasy? Maybe by the time baby number three comes along I will finally have learned to quit blubbering like a fool when asked and simply, resoundingly, and decisively say: “Yes, yes they are.”

August 27, 2010

The Incredible Edible Family

I read a book not long ago about the stages children go through in their understanding of race. Race as we understand it is a man-made creation. Sure, God made us different colors and with defining physical characteristics, but we have made the act of differentiation into an art form. If you need proof, check your latest census forms. Children are not born with that understanding of race. They develop it as we teach it to them. They first notice the color difference, but don’t realize there is anything else attached to it. Then they notice that families, for the most part, tend to be the same color. It is not until we teach them that race comes with cultural labels attached to it that they begin to think in terms of “White people are supposed to…” and “Black people usually…” and “All Asians are…” etc. The author of the book suggests we allow children to go through those stages naturally and not force them to come to our understanding of race too early.

Isabel is still stuck on the first stage. She realizes people are different colors and has begun to think about this. Most children her age have already moved to the second stage of noticing that most families are of similar color. That usually begins with their own family. My little girl does not have that experience. Not only is her family all kinds of rainbow, but each of the six classmates she has in her Sunday School class is a different color. Four of them are a different color than their parents. So it is understandable that the idea of families being similar is lost to her still. However, since we have not pushed the idea of “Black,” “White,” “Hispanic,” etc. she has allowed her imagination to fill in the gaps.

One day I put my arm next to hers and asked her if she had noticed we are a different color. She said she had. I asked her: “What color are you?” to which she quickly replied: “I am chocolate!” And so she is. Delicious, milk chocolate color. “So what color am I?” I proceeded. “You are coffee color!” Yes, I am. CafĂ© con Leche, to be exact. “What color is Noah, baby?” “He is chocolate too, mami.” Duh. Of course he is. “And daddy? What color is he, Isabel?” She didn’t skip a bit: “He is cheese color!” Cheese? Huh. I looked at him with more attention that night. What do you know? He is kind of cheese color!

So, not only is my girl stuck in the first stage of racial understanding. She also is stuck classifying people by their food coloring. Because she is cognitively capable of understanding now, I mentioned to her in passing that people call people like her, who are chocolate color, Black people. She gave me a blank look. “But mami, I am not black, I’m chocolate.” Good point, baby. So for now I’m leaving it alone. She will get there when she gets there. In the meantime she has began to point out all the chocolate, coffee, and cheese people she sees on TV, in books, and worse yet because she does not have a quiet voice, at Walmart.

August 24, 2010


“Mami, vamos a contestar,” is my afternoon request from Isabel. “Contestar” is her 4-year-old version of the Spanish word “conversar”- to converse. “What do you want to talk about?” I ask, knowing what is coming. “Tell me about S. and Charleston,” she replies inevitably. S. is her birthmother and Charleston is the first place she remembers. This is our afternoon ritual. When she gets up from her quiet time, she calls me to the bed or comes to sit on the couch and beckons me for our afternoon conversation.

This is actually my fault, though. When she was so small I wasn’t sure she could understand, I started telling Isa her adoption story. When she was about three a friend of mine came to the house with a big pregnant belly. I think this was the first time Isabel noticed this phenomenon and asked me what was inside my friend’s belly. This started a set of questions that inevitably led to the one I was dreading most: “Mami, was I inside your belly?” I knew Isabel knew she was adopted, but this was the first time adoption was connected to biology. I choked as I answered her. How I wish she had been! But, I tried to explain it all to her as matter-of-factly as I could. We have vowed to make adoption as normal in our family as having different skin colors, speaking different languages, or living in different countries: just another way people become family.

As she has grown older the story has expanded, details have been filled, and funny anecdotes have been revealed. It is a joyful time for her. She loves to hear the story of how badly we wanted her and how quickly we loved her. This is the part she revels in. She smiles as I tell her about the phone call that told her dad and I that she had arrived. She giggles at my impression of her dad driving like crazy to get her. She laughs when I tell her how the first time we changed her diaper even the dogs were covered in poop. For me it is a bitter-sweet routine. I laugh with her at the way our life changed that Friday morning, at how full my heart has been for the past four years, at the wonder of the moment we were given a daughter. I shed inner tears when I try to portray to her the sadness her birthmother must have felt at saying goodbye, when I think about how adoption is addition through subtraction, and when I imagine the day she will really come to understand what adoption means and grieve herself.

In the meantime, we “contestamos.” I answer her questions and I re-live the moments since our paths crossed, sweet and sad, afternoon by afternoon. She knows all that a 4-year-old can handle about her adoption and she thinks it is a wondrous thing; after all, seven of her playmates were adopted, including her baby brother. At times I wish we didn’t have to have this conversation; that she was another kid hearing how they grew in mommy’s belly, oblivious of the many other ways to make a family. I wish I could shelter her from the pain I know will come. But, this is who she is; it is who we are and it is who God has called us to be. Adoption was a God thing for us and we believe He brought us together. How else would this crazy multiracial, multicultural, multilingual family have come to be!

August 22, 2010

Grandma and the Satellite Company

My mother-in-law is a weather junkie. She watches the weather as faithfully as some follow a favorite soap-opera. She will tell you that the frustrated dream of her youth was to become a weather girl, and I have never met anyone not in that profession who can understand the terminology, analyze the maps, and predict the forecast the way she can. My husband and I don’t even trust our weather radio anymore, because we know if a storm is brewing anywhere near our area, we are sure to receive a phone call from Mom.

When my father-in-law bought a satellite dish Mom discovered the Weather Channel. Weather all day, every day, from all over the country! Her joy was short-lived, however. Shortly after they bought their dish they realized their “local” channels were those coming from a city an hour away, in a neighboring state. This meant the “local” weather did not reflect the area in which they live. I asked my husband once why this was a problem when the Weather Channel had a section on local forecast. He explained that the Weather Channel did not go into the depth of local coverage his mother prefers, and does not break-in regular programming when there is a weather emergency. She had a point.

Hence begun my father-in-law’s epic battle against the satellite company. First, he called using his polite voice. He was transferred to every department the company had, until someone informed him he would need a new receiver, which would be mailed to him, followed shortly by a technician who would install it. The receiver came; the man did not. Back to the phone Dad went. This time he used what we call his “ma’am” voice. A young lady on the phone walked him through installing the receiver himself and promised to send someone to check his work and fix his problem. The company sent a technician who piddled with some wires and told Dad nothing could be done about his local channels. Then sent him a bill.

By this time my father-in-law’s voice was nearing the tone of that of a bear when he picked up the phone again. Again, he talked to everyone in the company, this time going as far as the CEO’s assistant. He talked to the FCC and the Office of the Secretary of the State. He was told over and over that there simply wasn’t anything that could be done about getting him local channels. Finally he gave up. He went out and bought a giant antenna that he planned to install on his roof. One morning, after Dad had left for work, my sweet mother-in-law finally had enough, for what was probably the first time in her life. She picked up the phone.

To say that Mom is a non-confrontational person does not begin to describe this reserved, rule-following, peace-making, people-pleasing lady. A true Southern Belle, she does not raise her voice, does not disagree passionately, and does not argue vehemently. It is just not her style. But she picked up the phone that morning and called the satellite company.

She told me later that she is sure the man with whom she spoke could tell how nervous she was by the trembling of her voice. She had never before fought a battle, made a phone call, or demanded anything. She got a hold of a customer service representative and sweetly explained to him that she was very concerned because her husband was planning on climbing their roof to install this monster and she was worried about him falling and getting hurt. She went on to tell the man that she feared that, were a bad storm to come, they would die in their house because there would be no warning from their local stations, and if she could only have one station she would feel much safer. The man asked her which ones she wanted. When Dad came home that evening, channel 10, a local channel, was blaring from the TV in the living room. They now had all the local channels, Mom informed him.

I don’t know if the man from the satellite was afraid of a lawsuit or if he felt sorry for a poor, defenseless grandmother, but the fact is my gentle mother-in-law was able to do what the polite voice, the “ma’am” voice, the bear voice and all the phone calls Dad made could not accomplish. Like they say in the South: she’s a true steel magnolia kind of girl.

The Day We Lost the Panda

When my daughter Isabel was four years old, she had an affinity for dressing stuffed animals as babies. She would care for them lovingly for a few days and carry them around everywhere she went. Eventually they would be replaced in her heart by a new critter with clothes.

One morning she was cradling her newest offspring: a small panda dressed in a purple coat and matching hat. I was in the kitchen cooking breakfast when she walked in empty-handed and distraught.

- “I can’t find Baby Johnson Isabel!” the panda’s full legal name.

- “Oh, honey – I replied- where did you last see it?”

- “I don’t know, mami”

I was about to dismiss her to look for it with a motherly bit about keeping track of her toys, when something in her voice made me turn around a look at her.

- “Mami, my baby is scared!”

- “Why, honey?”

- “Because she is loooooost!” at which point she started to sob.

We spent the next 30 minutes frantically looking for a scared, lost stuffed panda bear. Baby Johnson Isabel was found hiding inside an old cardboard box to the delight of her mommy, who covered her in kisses and admonished her for hiding.

I reflected later about my little girl’s despair at the thought of her poor, scared baby. In her tearful reaction I saw compassion and empathy – two traits I had hoped to help her develop. Above else, however, I saw my own fears mirrored in my daughter’s response. We had recently begun discussing what she should do were she to get lost at a public place. We were working on her full name and phone number and discussing safe people to approach. She was most concerned about how I would react.

- “What would you do if I got lost, mami?”

- “I would look for you night and day until I found out!”

- “Would you be sad?”

- “I would cry and cry until you were home again.”

This conversation would repeat itself over and over, until she was satisfied that I would never stop looking and that I would be heartbroken over her.

Isabel learns from me; she watches me, and copies me. She wants to wear lipstick because I wear lipstick, she sits and “works” next to me, when I’m working, and she cares for her babies the way she has seen me care for her little brother. The day we lost the panda I realized she will also respond to the world the way I respond to it. In her tears that day, I saw a four-year old version of my biggest fears. Maybe that is why I helped her look so hard and rejoiced with her when Baby Johnson Isabel was finally found.

Welcome to me!

Continuing a long list of things I said I would never do (this will surely be the theme for another day), I started a blog. Part of my reluctance to start one earlier is because I wondered who would be interested enough in our lives to actually read it. To be perfectly honest, I still don't know that anyone other than my husband and mother will take the time. But, as my friends and sister-in-law began blogging, I found myself reading their stories, laughing with them, and getting to know them a bit better.
So I thought: why not? Why not give it a try? I like to write, I have things to say, and this is one more thing to add to my repertoire of new experiences acquired this year. I am blog world!