Last summer I met a couple in our street who happened to be the same ethnicity as my son. They were kind and said hello and chatted for a while but the dreaded question was not far off. “Where are his family?” they said. Another day, another microaggression on the life of an adoptive family. I can’t actually remember how I answered – probably something along the lines of my son’s story being private to him. I remember how I felt though – slightly on edge and thinking, ‘oh no, not this again.’
I’m his family of course, part of it, along with the birth part, the extended part, dad and so-on, a ‘real mum’ in my own eyes but not always everyone else’s. As a transracial adoptive family we have extra helpings of these comments. The world at large is fascinated by children’s DNA and who they most look like. Next-door have what I call Baby Bios (biological babies, not the plant food brand, LOL), twin boys who look exactly like their dad, would you believe. The world around us is melting for the resemblance, gasping at the likeness, cockles of the neighbourhood heart warming as people coo over their double pram. I am guilty of DNA obsession too, intrigued every day at how my chin is both collapsing inwards like my dad’s but also sagging like my mum. Oh for better genes! People are mostly super nice about our family structure, as well as the twins next door (the cuties!) but we have also had a few faces wrinkled in consternation at how unalike we look.
It isn’t half as bad as most articles on transracial adoption would have you believe, nor is it as difficult as the training we were required to do as part of our adoption preparation. We’re not stormed in supermarkets by shoppers who absolutely must know if my son is ‘mine’ before they put so much as a seedless grape on the weighing scales. We don’t face endless questions about his hair or have complete strangers plunge their hands into it before wringing their fingers through the texture. London tolerates difference better than most places although it isn’t averse to commenting. This was a lot more prevalent when my son was a baby. Certain persons seemed to think we were fair game. There have been a few special questions in our time: Where is he from, where is he really from, no REALLY, no before that, PLEASE TELL ME, I mean HIS HERITAGE. The most ardent interrogator would clutch at their chest as if the desire for knowledge coupled with my deliberately side stepping answers could trigger a cardiac event. Who was suffering most back there, me or them? And so it went on like that in the early years: Where is his real mum, is that his real name, do you have your own children, why are you white, does he speak ‘African’, and, the winner, ‘what time zone is he in?’
All of this got a lot better once my son passed the toddler stage. But, as one adoptive mum said to me, ‘There’s a sense that it’s always there, that someone might say something awkward.’ Those questions that you have to work out if you want to answer and if so, how much. What are the motives of the questionner? Are they friendly, naïve or judgemental? Should we educate, inform or ignore? And so ,the need for a certain preparedness and mental agility is always there.
I often wonder why we adoptive families don’t have more of a campaign around the language other people use around us. Society is going through a shift around lots of groups: about gender, LBGTQ people, about neurodiversity and, of course, the movement of Black Lives Matter. Many people are working hard to understand other parts of society outside of their own experience; to learn about the burden of microaggressions and the hidden disadvantages handed out to people from many walks of life. I’m not trying to ‘All Lives Matter’ anyone here in highlighting our group of adoptive families. I’m aware that as white middle class parents we have huge advantages and these, to some extent, shelter our son while he is still small. Nevertheless, I do feel that adoptive families often suffer our own form of microaggressions. Something will come up, at some point which feels very intrusive.
I detested these questions at first. I struggled so much with being an adoptive mum. I didn’t feel ‘real’ myself. Those enquiries were a reminder of what would always be missing from my son’s life: the fine details of his entry into this world, the birth family, his questions that will come, not all of which I can answer. I suffered with all parts of me the sadness that begins with adoption. Looking back, it was important to go through that process. I just didn’t need some random person reminding me of it when I’m trying to deal with my son lobbing pasta spirals around a restaurant and pouring his apple juice on the floor. For a long time I became like a coot in the reeds, the parent skulking around hoping no-one would notice me and dying to avoid the playground where there might be curious people around. Guilt and shame all live in the house of adoption and so, I don’t think I felt like had much right to defend ourselves for a long time. I felt like I had done something wrong that I would never be able to put right.
Several things changed for us that began to keep these intrusions out. My son got older – old enough to understand. Funny how a confident four year old can put people off. Cliché coming up here but as our relationship grew, it became obvious in other ways that I am his mum. Love itself seemed to keep people out. Love wins, for once – ha ha! I developed a radar for the ‘is he yours?’ brigade and I have my special “mum look” for them that seems to keep them out. Maybe I have slightly less friends for being the scowling one but we also have a reasonably quiet life.
Adoption already comes with a lot of scrutiny without that of randoms in the park. We don’t want any more attention to ourselves or our children. We’ve been scrutinised through the assessment process, we are often examining our parenting style, what issues we are bringing to the relationship, pondering whether our child’s behaviour is ‘normal’ or related to adoption, we often have issues with schools on top of just getting through the day and remembering to put the tablet in the dishwasher. We don’t want to be scrutinised by anyone else, thanks. I do wish sometimes though, that there was more education and understanding of how to speak to adoptive families – all types of families in fact – but less of the ‘where is his real mum?’ please. It would be so nice if someone else stepped in to speak for us and educate them. Multi heritage, foster families, single, steps special guardians, same sex parents and all the other types.
We don’t get many questions these days but as I was finishing this article, one did pop up into our life. Last night a Somali taxi driver said to my husband, “He is your adoptive son, right?” This question came without any other introduction or conversation before it, so I guess it was still a bit rude. Then he asked how long we had been together as a family. “Oh well, you are his real parents then,” he said. Clearly the taxi driver is in the ‘improvers’ group when it comes to this kind of thinking. But can we just say that families are all different these days, no questions asked, and respectfully leave it at that.