Tuesday, January 19, 2016

I never really thought of my family being *that* different until our son entered elementary school.

In some ways, this seems like a silly thing for me to say. We are, after all, a Caucasian lesbian couple living in Virginia, and we happened to adopt a black-biracial son. To be honest, I don’t know of another family that looks remotely like us in our neighborhood. 

Before our son started school, none of that really mattered in our day-to-day existence. Our neighbors and friends have seen us only as a family. Our son sees us as his parents, and we see him as our child. Of course, there were always boxes to check on forms, and forms biased for “mother” and “father” pairings to remind us, but we didn’t spend a lot of time on our difference. We were just another Northern Virginia family.

When our son entered preschool, however, we found ourselves answering first the questions of “Who are you (to our son)?” and “Where is his dad?” to “Why doesn’t he have a dad?” Our adoptive family status became obvious quickly because his curious classmates were trying to make sense of the family constellations around them and they couldn’t for the life of them figure out why our son had two moms. It was entirely new to them, and it defied the categories of “mom and dad” that they saw in families around them and in just about every show they’d ever seen or story they’d been read. And though our son was exposed to those very same messages, we were at least able to show other examples of family constellations and spend social time with families that looked more like ours.

Throughout the early years, the parents and teachers at our son’s two preschools were great; without exception, all of the adults talked about how there are all sorts of families. And while, for me, the worst penalty was having several preschoolers ask me if I was my son’s grandmother (ugh), these questions marked the beginning of exposure to messaging that my son’s status as an adoptee--and one with two moms, no less--made him different and that this experience included a deficiency and a reminder that he was born into the loss of one family as he gained another.

After several years in the same preschool and a tightly defined community, we didn’t need to explain ourselves as often. Everyone knew who we were.

But when our son started elementary school, we found ourselves having to come out as an LGBT and an adoptive family all over again. This time, the questions were more intense as he was most often asked, “Why don’t you have a dad?” which always came out sounding like “What’s wrong with you?”

Adding to the complexity of our son’s developing identity was the realization that he was learning a great deal about race from his observations and experiences with the world around him, and he was thinking about it as a “brown” person in ways that we, as White women, had never considered.

During the week of the Martin Luther King, Jr unit of his Kindergarten year, I picked our 6-year-old son up from school and he asked me a question that explicitly paired gun violence with race. He had understood that someone shot a brown man for speaking up about race and injustice, and he was trying to make sense of it. I was frozen to the spot, trying to figure out what to say. He had understood the lesson correctly, but didn’t stop with the thrust of the lesson--“Martin Luther King is a great man.” He went all the way there. And I was unprepared. 

That afternoon, I made a promise to myself that I would do my very best not to be caught by surprise again. On that day, I understood that, beyond the ways in which we needed to teach pride, privacy and communication skills about adoption and heteronormativity, my wife and I needed to get serious about recognizing how our whiteness and the white privilege that influences our environment was impacting him. 

I can’t say that we are doing everything perfectly, but we are educating ourselves (as White women) about the work we need to do to nurture, support and advocate for our brown son and the larger community of color. We are having explicit (age appropriate and need responsive, of course) conversations with him about adoption, race, gender, sexuality, and violence as a means of teaching him our values and creating a space for his worth so that he will be not only prepared to digest and respond to what he’s experiencing around him (in the digital and social worlds he inhabits), but also will feel safe talking with us at home about the questions he has. And, we are attempting to share our experiences as a transracial adoptive family with our friends, family and community to raise more awareness about the experience of adoptees and how even the most innocent-seeming turns of phrase and questions can be painful for a child, who, on the occasion of his or her birth, experienced a deeply significant loss that can influence a lifetime.

photo: Kathryn, Amy and their son in their Northern Virginia neighborhood.

Kathryn Hamm, adoptive parent, author & educator