I don’t like my skin

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Mother Care

We traveled to Ethiopia in December of 2009 and returned with our son EJ on Christmas day. This little guy has completely changed my life and how I view things. There is no one that makes me laugh harder, keeps me on my toes, and challenges me more often.

Some of the best conversations take place between 7:30am and 7:50am every morning. EJ uses our car ride to school to voice opinions, ask questions and tell me stories. I learn a lot in twenty minutes.

But this morning’s conversation was something I wasn’t expecting to happen so soon. A conversion that threw me off, made me sad and brought me back to reality.

I had taken EJ to the dermatologist the day before. He goes every year to have his eczema checked out and check some of the pigmentation marks he has. It is routine and takes only minutes. I told him that his skin gets a little rash sometimes when it is dry, just like Mommy gets, and we just need the doctor to check it. She told him he looked great!

So this morning I was surprised when I heard from the backseat:

“Mommy, why did I go to the dermatologist yesterday?”

“Just to check your eczema. Lots of people get that. But you looked great. We just need to keep up with your cream!”

“I don’t like my skin.”

“What?”

“It’s too dark.”

My heart literally sank. I wanted to pull over. These are words that I dreaded hearing but knew that might possibly come at some point. I didn’t think he would be just shy of four.

“EJ, I love your skin. You have beautiful brown skin.”

“Well I don’t like brown skin. I don’t want it.”

“Lots of your friends have brown skin.” (I then listed them in a panic)

“Yeah they do.”

“What kind of skin do you want?” I knew the answer.

“Skin like yours.”

This was lot for me. By myself in the car at 7:30am. I was stumped, sad, and caught off guard. I never wanted him to feel this way. This was a lot for him.  Clearly he had been carrying this around with him. I thought we had done the right things to prevent this. But yet again, I know so little and am so naïve. There is no way to prevent this conversation and I knew that.

“EJ, you have beautiful skin. We all have different color skin. All of us. If we didn’t, think how boring we would all look. You loved learning about rainbows this year in school and all the colors. People are like rainbows, all different colors but all beautiful. I want you to realize that your brown skin is just as beautiful as Mommy’s even if it is not the same. There isn’t too dark or too light.”

“OK.”

We pulled into school and he asked if he was heading to Pre-K for the day.

This conversation is far from over. This conversation is only the beginning. I called Mike on my way to work to recap and I could hear in his voice the same sadness and realization that this day has come. I then went and visited with a colleague of mine who provided me with an understanding ear and some great wisdom. I was very grateful for her perspective and guidance.

I truly wish we didn’t have to tackle these issues with EJ. Not for us. Not because it is hard for us to talk about or involves us doing some work, talking to others and a lot of reading. But because I can see the pain and confusion it causes my little guy. And I would do anything in the world to prevent that. But once again, I can’t.

I would love advice, reading suggestions, stories from those who have far more wisdom and experience than me. I would love some guidance and reassurance that we are taking the right steps and saying the right things. More than anything I wish I could know for certain that we can guarantee that all future pain, confusion and identify issues can be kept to a minimum. That we could know for certain that he will always love himself and who he is, even if he is different from Mommy and Daddy. The best we can do at this point is show him the many, many, many reasons we love him and do our part to help him shape his own identity and self-love.

Tonight I asked EJ if he wanted to read his Ethiopia book. We looked at photos of his birth family. “Your birth mommy and daddy have brown skin just like you! And their skin is beautiful!”

He smiled and nodded, “Yep!”

Matching

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Matching

“Almost all the kids match,” my son declared.

I tensed a little in my miniature chair, wrapped both hands more tightly around my chai and waited to see if he would pursue it. Fourteen munchkins arrayed around the preschool snack table gave him varying levels of non-attention, fixated mostly on their little hoards of raisins and wheat crackers.

Vaguely, it occurred to me that “almost all” was a complicated concept. Their brains develop so fast. They inhale sophistication. I can watch their thinking process grow and change like bread rising.

“Almost all the kids are peach momma. We match. And Saige matches Teacher Miscilla.”

Saige barked, a second after I predict it in my mind, “I match mommy’s eyes.”

This is a recurrent theme in our house for the last month or two. As their minds become aware of color. Of features. Of alike and not alike. Their brains breathe in, breathe out, puzzling it. Our skin is different. Our eyes are the same. Saige has a tummy mommy. I do not.

I’m torn by her desire to match me. We have worked so hard for three long years to attach as a family. My emotional identity as her mother is strong, but they are young, simple, physical beings still. She wants the hard evidence. She wants to belong to me in fibers and colors and names and skin. Words are not satisfactory. Love. Bond. Concepts can’t be touched. They want to see and hold. Garrett’s hair matches Daddy’s hair. Saige’s eyes match Mommy’s eyes.

I encourage it gently and hide my reservations. My fears are adult fears. I know that she needs an identity as she grows that includes her Haitian heritage and her brown skin. I know that someday soon a desire to match her white mother and not her African American teacher could mean that I have failed to combat the pervasive message in our society that white is beautiful. That princesses are blond. That different is bad.

Not yet though. I feel fairly confident of that. She tells me she is pretty. She smiles when I do her hair and asks if she can see it. Oh, she primps, it’s beautiful. This four-year-old year, I see only a child exploring the ways she belongs in her family, not a child rejecting the way she looks.

The preschoolers looked to me, sticky handfuls of raisins half way to their mouths.

“I don’t match,” I reminded my son, “my skin is olive. Saige’s eyes match mine but her skin is chocolate like Teacher Priscilla. We are all unique. Who else has brown eyes?”

Four small hands went up. “I have blue eyes,” an adorable little blond piped.

“You do. Who else has blue eyes?” More comparing. Liam has green eyes like Garrett.

“But you’re the only one with red hair,” I say, “we’re all different and we all match.”

Just as suddenly as it began, it’s over. Their fickle attention shifted to something else, a spilled water cup, their dwindling raisins. Teacher Marietta directed them to the Rainbow Room where Ryan’s Grandpa, an entomologist, is ready to show them his Australian leaf bugs. They are huge! They are interesting! The biggest one laid an egg on his hand! We talk about bugs and only bugs for days, but I know it will come back up. I know it’s on their minds because of the way it surfaces and sinks and resurfaces in our conversations. Matching. Our skin. Our eyes.

This round is easy because they are easily satisfied. The hard questions wait for us around the corner.

I want to pour my heart into her. You are stunning. You are gorgeous. You are unique. Don’t cave to them, with their airbrushes and their chemical treatments and their make believe women in their make believe lives. Don’t think that pretty and picture perfect are equal. Don’t think that there is a look, a hair color, a weight, a wardrobe that brings happiness. Happiness is a family that loves you. Happiness is friends to giggle with you all night. Happiness is wine night every Thursday. It’s finding a passion. It’s tracing 1000 year old carvings with your finger. It is pouring your heart into something and coming in second. It’s in a hug. It is seeing your grandmother’s eyes light up when she meets your baby boy.

It is inconstant. It takes effort.

If you try to bleach or tan or sleep or puke or buy or exercise or read or drug your way to it, it will always elude you.

She is too small. I know. She is too small for all these words. So, I put them here for her for someday. You can not know the weight of someone’s heart by looking at them, darling. There are plenty of tiny blonds that cry themselves to sleep at night. There are redheads the world over that starve themselves in the name of a warped concept of beauty.

We are all different. We are all the same.

A Child of My Own

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It’s amazing how quickly you can become sensitive to the words of others. Before my son, James, came home from Ethiopia, I gave little thought to how I talked about adoption. Now that he’s home, the value of choosing words carefully has revealed itself to me in ways that I can only begin to describe. When people ask us about his ‘real’ parents, or query about whether or not we have children of our ‘own,’ I cringe. I cringe for myself, but mostly I cringe as I wonder how those words will affect his little mind’s understanding of who he is and how he came to be a part of our family.

As I try to explain myself, some people will no doubt think me picky. Others will perceive me as over-sensitive. I just think of myself as mom. And like any mom, I want what is best for my son. That means sharing our experience with others in the hopes that they will also begin to think about the power of words and the impact they have.

Let’s start with the whole “real” parent thing. When you stop and think about this, it’s fairly obvious why this wording makes adoptive parents bristle. What’s the opposite of real? Fake. Pretend. When you refer to my son’s first family as his “real” parents, you are by default resigning us to being his “fake” parents. Although you may not mean to, you suggest that I am simply pretending that I am his mom. But obviously, that’s not true. I’m about as real as they come. Pinch me and I’ll jump (in fact, sometimes I pinch myself in doubt that life can really be so good). I’ve changed my fair share of diapers, been spit up on repeatedly, gotten up ten times in one night, dried tears, been hugged more times than I can count, worried, worried, and worried some more. If that doesn’t make me real, I don’t know what does.

My son does have another set of parents. His first parents created him, carried him, and gave birth to him. We talk about them, honor them, and love them. They are very real. But we are no less so.

Another small difference in wording can be heard when I say that my son was adopted. Not is adopted, but was adopted. That may seem like a minor detail, but small words carry great meaning. Adoption shapes a child and a family, but it does not define them entirely. It is simply a way of forming a family. Just like your child was born in 2005, my son was adopted that year.

So if we want to, we will explain that James was adopted. Like all other families, we love to tell the story of the day that our son joined our family. More often, though, I don’t mention it at all. It is rarely relevant to the conversation at hand. When you introduce your child, you don’t say, “this-is-my-conceived-by-invitro-son” or my “oops-she-was-an-accident daughter.” The method by which you became a family is simply not important in most conversations. The same is true of our family. Yes, James joined our family through adoption. Yes, we are very proud of that detail. But there is rarely a need to distinguish our family from others.

Sometimes people will ask me, “Do you have any children of your own?” I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. At philosophical level, none of us “owns” our children. As Kahil Gibran wrote, “Our children are not our children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you, but not from you. And though they are with you, they belong not to you.” Our children belong to the future, not to us.

And yet, like all other parents, I sometimes find myself referring to James as “my own son.” He lives with us, we provide for him, we love him deeply. We are listed as his parents on his birth certificate. We are there when he’s happy, when he cries, when he’s sick, when he hurts. The fact that I did not carry him in my womb is irrelevant in determining the fact that he is our child.

Still, the “child of your own” phrase is the one I hear the most. Sometimes I think this is because it is hard to understand that you can love a child by adoption as much as a child by birth; that a child by adoption really is just as much “your own.” Before James came home, I don’t know that I truly understood that either. Then came the moment a tiny little boy was placed in my arms and I forgot who I was before he entered my life.

So when I tell you that I am eternally grateful that I did not initially conceive a child, I am not exaggerating. I am horrified at the prospect of not having James in our lives. He is my heart and my soul and the joy of my life.

He is my son.

The Children Around My Neck

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running-jumping-girl-cute-sunny

Today I dropped off her purple shoe, size 7.5. She had left it behind and I probably held onto it longer than I should have.

Who can blame me? She was mine for 11 months.

I was her foster mom, which means that the first time I saw her she was standing in my driveway, looking so little and scared and dirty and lost. I saw her through trips to the doctor and skinned knees on the sidewalk. I was there through tantrums in the parking lot and hearing her go from speaking single words to fully-formed sentences. My big hands presented a lovely little homemade strawberry cupcake to her waiting little ones on her second birthday. I texted a photo to her grandmother to commemorate the event.

We became foster parents because a string of miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy left me desperate for that long-awaited baby we had been trying for for four years. 18 months later we received a call for a little two year old girl, the little girl who owns the purple shoe. She was feisty and loving and crazy and sweet. A relative had dropped her off at the homeless shelter and left. She was an abandoned baby who needed a home.

Our home.

She stayed those 11 months, and some days I wondered if I’d be able to stand another tantrum. Other days, I wondered how she could be so sweet and amazing and wonderful. Then, when it became obvious to us that her case was heading toward another adoption, we let her go.

We had to.

Still, today, walking up to her new Mama and dropping off that sweet little shoe, something stabbed my heart.

“We’ll see you next month at the foster care conference!” her Mama said, and: “You know, you’ll never stop being her mom. She’s going to grab onto you next month and not let go. You know that, right?”

I started full-out crying, the ugly cry.

She hugged me and I headed back to my car.

********

There are five little names on a chain around my neck. Three of those names belong to the babies I bore biologically, and two of those little names are babies I got to raise for a short time and then let them go.

I used to have a quiet awe for mothers who choose to give their babies for adoption, but now it is loud and unabashed.

Like me, I suppose, those mothers loved those babies, carried those babies, prayed over those babies.

And then, all quiet and soft, they placed those babies’ hands intoi the hands of other mothers and, holding tight to those names around their necks,

they walked away.