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 7:30 am and 7:50 am 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. It 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.”
“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.”
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!”