“Oh Charlotte,“ I said. “I just love these flowers you picked out for me. Thank you! They are so beautiful! They light up the whole room!“
She looked at me for a moment. Then slowly, carefully, speaking as if I were the biggest idiot she’d ever met, she responded. “Um, Mom? I think that’s the sun.“
Each week I pack the girls up and off we go to speech therapy. When we started speech therapy, my daughter was evaluated as seven months behind in expressive language and it was very difficult for the speech therapist to get her to engage in any sort of verbalization.
A month or two into it, I stubbed my toe on the couch in the living room. “OW!“ I screamed. “WHAT THE FUCK?!“ And both toddlers immediately picked up on it. For days, they ran around screeching “WUH DUH FUCK!“ while I followed them around trying to fix where I had gone horribly awry.
After several days without hearing any cursing in the home, it seemed like I had finally succeeded. The next day we had our regularly scheduled speech therapy appointment. While I was signing my daughter in, the speech therapist came out to ask me a question about something - and halfway through our discussion, my toddler dropped her string cheese on the floor.
“WUH DUH FUCK!“ she screamed loudly.
The whole waiting room, full of children and adults alike, went completely silent. You could have heard a pin drop. And without skipping a beat, the speech therapist pulled out her clipboard. “Okay,“ she said nonchalantly, “So she can say three word phrases now, that’s really excellent!“
And that was that.
The first time I heard it, the words spilled from the mouth of someone I have known since high school, someone I count among my closest friends. “White people are different,“ she sighed as she played peek-a-boo with Genevieve. “You took our land. Repressed our languages. Raped our women, killed our men, controlled our history, ravaged our community, oppressed our voices. I know you do not think of life this way, that you yourself did not commit these crimes, but you should know how it feels. I am the child, the grandchild, the many-greats-grandchild of people who witnessed the destruction of their community. This is my family’s story, what my family must never forget and always rise above. You will never feel that weight. Fostering and adopting is beautiful, but someday someone like me will look at you and say: That wasn’t enough? Now you have to steal our children too?“
The second time I heard it, there were tears involved. “I’m not one of those people, you know, who hates white people,“ Genevieve’s birth mother said to me. “But she shouldn’t be with you. She should be with a Mexican family, with someone who looks like her! Who speaks her language! Who can tell her the way the world really is! How are you going to do that? You have everything you want. You can take, take, take. She isn’t white; she will always have to fight harder for less.“
Over and over the incident repeats itself. In the grocery. At the library. Sitting on the park bench beside me. The faces are different and the words are different, but the ideas are the same.
You are not one of us, they tell me. We are different. Genevieve is one of us. She is different. How can one of you raise one of us? What gives you the right?
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!
- Rudyard Kipling
When we decided to begin walking the path toward foster and adoptive parenthood, one of the classes our agency mandated focused on cultural sensitivity, competency, and connection. It was three hours long. We took the class twice, so we felt pretty confident when we selected the box under the category of Race/Ethnicity that said “no preference” when we were specifying which children we were and were not open to. Love was what these children needed, we told ourselves. And love we had aplenty. And love would be enough. The agency was making too big a deal out of this race business.
I cannot say for certain when we began to be lifted out of our ignorant fog. Perhaps it was the time that a white adult called Genevieve a racial slur and, upon confrontation, said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I did not realize she was with you.“ As though being parented by - or perhaps simply accompanied by - a white woman like myself conferred upon Genevieve a different status of human, as though it would have been okay to call her that same slur if the person “with” her shared her skin color. Perhaps it was the time a white parent allowed her children to play with Charlotte and Evelyn, but encouraged them to avoid Genevieve and the other Latino children who were sharing the same play space. Perhaps it was the time someone whose company we had always enjoyed spent twenty minutes railing against people of Genevieve’s race IN OUR HOME while we stood mouths agape, struggling to find the words to march into a battle we had never anticipated. Perhaps it was the time one of my relatives acted surprised to find that we had adopted Genevieve. She knew that we had adopted, of course, but she thought that we would have “returned” Genevieve for a baby “like us.“ As though she were a piece of merchandise. Perhaps it was the time Charlotte heard a joke made at the expense of Latinos and heard people she trusted laughing and interpreted it literally and spent weeks agonizing, torn between listening to the laughter of these people she loved and listening to my voice telling her they were way the fuck out of line.
Perhaps it was all of these things. All of these tiny ugly moments, sliding like sands in an hourglass, until one day we realized that we had previously lived in the half that was empty and now we were buried. We had to learn to survive in a new universe.
Sometimes when I think over my life, I am amazed by this simple fact: Genevieve’s arrival in our home set off a chain of events in my family’s existence that have been more life-altering than any other. We are different PEOPLE today than we were 18 months ago. We have more knowledge about the foster care system and less faith in it. We are less optimistic and more pragmatic. We set firmer boundaries and we pick our battles. We face greater challenges and have less time to devote to our friends and relatives. Sometimes I remember the days when I fretted about teething or commercial characters on children’s clothing and I want to snap that woman into reality.
Genevieve is a wonder. She turned two years old on the last day of March. She can walk and run and jump. She can put together train tracks and utterly destroy a small tupperware full of cupcakes in complete silence. She can mimic any animal sound and is forever saying “MORE HAM” without any idea what that means or any interest in ham whatsoever. She loves to put on her own shoes and says “ME HELPING ME” when she wants acknowledgement for her contributions to the family. She is sneaky, she is emotionally guarded, and she is cheerful. She loves to climb and she loves to jump on our trampoline and she loves to sit in a swing while I push her and her hair flies in the breeze. She never stays still. She has a warmth about her that can melt any heart.
But she is not white. And because she is not white, the greatest change in our lives has been that she brought with her a sort of call to action. We had to confront our privileges, listen to the oft-silenced voices in our community, read alternate histories, seek out alternate news sources, consider new ideas.
What a shame, we say to one another now. What a shame that we wasted so much time reaching this point. What a shame that we did not know. What a shame that we did not care. What a shame to find that we were born into a system of entitlement and institutionalized racism and that it not only took us decades of our lives to figure that out but that we also spent decades of our lives committing all manner of micro-aggressions (and, sadly, some macro-aggressions) without realizing this was a problem. What a shame that we never intentionally sought out the voices of color within our community, despite living in a place where fewer than 1/3 of the residents are white. What a shame that we did not privilege the voices of adoptees, adoption professionals, and transracial adoptive parents before jumping headlong into adoption. What a shame that we believed in a post-racial colorblind society.
What a shame that we thought we had it all figured out.
For awhile, we felt overwhelmed by what it would take to parent transracially. On a day-to-day basis, parenthood is parenthood. We think about the same things every parent thinks about: snacks and naptime and laundry and where the kids’ sneakers disappeared to. But race is always there, always lurking in the back of our minds. How can we provide her with the tools to deal with prejudice, discrimination, and racism? How can we ensure competency in a culture that is not our own? Where is the line drawn between appropriation and appreciation? How can we bridge the cultural and linguistic gap between her birth family and our family?
On and on the questions come, tumbling forward from the depths. Tumbling faster when an unsavory incident occurs. Making us think about things we’ve never had to consider before, making us grow, making us fret. Making us fear.
The most recent time the incident happened, I did not stand in shocked silence. I listened to the woman who was talking to me and heard her, really paid attention to her concerns. When the opportunity presented itself, I thanked her. I told her what we know now, what we want for Genevieve, and I asked if she could help us.
She stood there, my phone number in her hand, my words sitting in the space between us. Then she leaned over, hugged me, smiled at my children. “Gracias, mija,“ she said. “This is good. This is right. I will call you tomorrow.“
And she did.
And so, little by little, we cross over the sea.
Several times a week strangers ask me if Evelyn and Genevieve are twins. At gymnastics a few weeks ago, the question came from a seven-year-old boy.
“No,“ I said. “They are just under five months apart.“
He thought on this for a moment.
“How did you have babies so quickly?“ he asked. “My mom is making a baby right now and it takes her a very long time.“
“It takes me a long time to make a baby too, but I only gave birth to one of the girls. We adopted the other,“ I explained.
“What does that mean?“ he persisted.
“Well, it means that she has two moms. Her first mother was pregnant with her and gave birth to her, but she could not take care of a kid. So now she lives with us and I’m her mom.“
“Are you like her stepmom?“
“No, I’m her mom. It sounds a lot like having a stepmom, though, doesn’t it?“
He nodded and reflected for a moment. Finally, he said, “So. Like. Is she a real kid?“
“Does she look fake to you?“
“Then I guess she’s real, huh?“
He thought this over for a moment. “Maybe,“ he finally said with some reluctance. “She might be.“
And then just as quickly as his line of questioning had started, it came to an abrupt end and he rushed off to play peek-a-boo with the toddlers.
I wonder how much of these questions and answers Genevieve hears and internalizes. There are times when I worry about the day when she is the one asking these questions. But mostly, I worry about the day when the questions are no longer innocent curiosity and the answers are no longer simple.
Last summer, Charlotte went on a hair-cutting binge.
She started with her own hair, of course. She grabbed a chunk of her bangs and her craft scissors and went to work. When she was done, her bangs were all different lengths and it took me the better part of an hour to smooth out the edges.
“Why did you cut your hair?“ I asked her forlornly while I trimmed a bit here and there.
“Because I wanted to look like Caroline,“ she said. “Now when Halloween comes, nobody will be able to recognize me! They’ll see my blonde hair and my bangs and my pigtails and they’ll think I’m Caroline, not Charlotte!“
If only the whole of southern California were as interested in French picture books as Charlotte!
After she cut her own hair, I had a stern talk with Charlotte about not using her scissors to perform hair-cuts and that was that.
A week later, she cut Evelyn’s hair. Of course, unlike Charlotte’s self-hair-cut, Evelyn’s trim could not be easily rectified. No more little ponytail, no more hair clips. I ran around the yard bawling like a madwoman as I picked up strands of her baby hair while my three girls stood by the window and watched me in what can only be described as utter confusion.
The next morning, I confiscated Charlotte’s craft scissors. Then we made an appointment to have Evelyn’s hair fixed at a local kids’ salon. I made Charlotte break open her piggy bank and use the money she had earned picking up the neighbor’s newspapers during their vacation to pay for Evelyn’s hair-cut. The poor hairdresser gave Evelyn a pixie cut while Charlotte cried about losing her money and her scissors, Evelyn cried about having a stranger so close to her, and Genevieve cried about not being the one in my lap. (I tipped her well, the poor thing.)
Three days after that, Charlotte cut Genevieve’s bangs.
I was absolutely dumbfounded. Where had she gotten the scissors from?! I hunted through the whole house to no avail. Finally, I resorted to asking Evelyn (then 20 months) and Genevieve (then 15 months) for direction. Both were still pre-verbal, but they quickly lead me to Charlotte’s avocado tree in the yard. The avocado tree had a small hollow. And in the hollow was a pair of nail scissors. After a long talk with Charlotte about scissors and bodily autonomy, I confiscated the nail scissors too.
Time passed, of course, and after a month or two I (mostly) forgot about the whole episode. Charlotte earned her scissors back and I provided her with ample quantities of cheap bargain bin yarn to chop instead of hair.
Unfortunately, it took over six months for Evelyn and Genevieve’s hair to recover.
Although Evelyn had the more drastic hair-cut, Genevieve got the shorter end of the stick in the long run because her hair-cut had involved her bangs. Charlotte had taken a small sweep of hair right in the middle of her forehead and cut it all the way down to the skin. As a result, there was nothing we could do to fix it except wait - and within a few months, the only way to mask it was to keep the rest of her bangs long so that nobody could tell that a small chunk was oddly hacked.
When we signed adoptive papers last fall, the adoption worker said to us triumphantly, “And now you can cut her hair whenever you want!“ This is a big deal for a lot of foster parents because as long as birth parents’ rights are intact or the possibility of an appeal lingers, foster parents are strongly discouraged from cutting or styling foster children’s hair. But it was not a big deal for us because we were still waiting for that small bit of hair in the middle of her forehead to grow long enough for us to clip it back or trim all Genevieve’s bangs.
Shortly before the winter holidays, her hair was finally long enough for me to clip it back. On Christmas Eve, for the very first time, I proudly and excitedly combed her hair into two pigtails and clipped the short bit of her bangs to the side.
As soon as the other children saw her, they said she looked like Boo from Monsters, Inc.
After that, Genevieve always wanted pigtails in her hair. And small children have indeed been coming out of the woodwork ever since to tell me how much she looks like Boo.
So that is the story of Genevieve’s nickname and how what once seemed like something I might have to disown Charlotte over turned into about the cutest damned thing in the world.
Image by Maggie of Sandy Toes Photography
Charlotte Anais is 5 years and 9 months old. She can read beginning chapter books in French and English. She loves riding her bike, skateboarding, climbing trees, and listening to music and audio books. She is especially smitten with Harry Potter, Emily Windsnap, and the Rainbow Fairies. She belongs to a junior bowling league and takes gymnastics lessons. This summer, she starts folklorico dance. Her most recent hobby is making latch-hook rugs.
Evelyn Ruby is 2 years and 4 months old. She is pensive and sensitive. She loves riding her bike with training wheels, playing dress-up, dancing, and picking flowers. She absolutely adores animals. She is very shy and often takes weeks or months to warm up to new people. When she feels comfortable, though, she is a very sweet and loving soul. She calls butterflies PAPI-FIES - a mix of “papillons” (French) and “butterflies” - and bug bites BUTTER BITES.
Genevieve Norah turns 2 years old in a few days. She is endlessly inquisitive. She loves playing with water, chasing bubbles, finger painting, riding her tricycle, and putting puzzles together. Her favorite toys are our train tracks. She is very outgoing and adventurous. She gives hugs, blows kisses, and can run like the wind. One of her most beloved pass-times is untying my shoelaces. She loves to tote my shoes to me with no shoelaces in sight, declaring ME HELPING MOMMA!
I am 36 weeks pregnant. I am cranky, hungry, and sleepy. This is my first pregnancy with cravings: pork roast, chicken soup, strawberries, and mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Image by Maggie of Sandy Toes Photography