She finally asked. I should have known it was coming due to currently being entrenched in the ‘why’ phase. Becky showed up with her one-month-old baby girl Eleanor and her two-year-old son Felix, who is having difficulty sharing his Momma (and her boobs), with an interloper/new little sister.
It’s a win-win afternoon all around. I get my baby cuddle fix, volunteering to hold (and smell) baby Eleanor. Becky got to cheer on Felix who got to play with Grace. Grace was focused on playing so I got a reprieve from Why-fever. When baby Eleanor would cry, Grace stared profoundly and silently as Becky unsheathed her massive, milk-heavy boobs and fed baby Eleanor.
When Becky, Felix and the baby left, Grace hugged every single one of them, less an act of affection than a stalling tactic, which works because it’s so charming. She wanted me to carry her back home, which is my Crossfit because she’s forty pounds of solid muscle and half my height- at 3 years old. I love carrying her because I crave the casual way she holds onto my chest, with the slightest hint of ownership. Then, she pointed to a freckle on my modest cleavage.
GRACE: “Why are you brown there?”
You try and explain what a freckle is.
ME: “Uh, some people with pale, useless skin like me get these brown dots all over their skin after a sunburn.”
GRACE: “Why do you have so much freckles?”
We are disappearing into a WHY-hole.
ME: “Okay… I have freckles due to being a VERY pale girl who tried to be tan like fancy people used to be when I was little. I never got tan. All I got were sunburns and freckles. So that’s why Momma wears more sunblock than clothes these days.”
I leave out how the 1960s and 1970s were when sunblock was not yet the billion-dollar a year industry it is today, thanks to that pesky disappearing ozone layer. I leave out how only nerds were pale, and how my older sister has battled skin cancer due to methodically tanning herself tobacco brown, in the 1970s. I’m not going down THAT why-hole. By this point we are almost inside our house. She’s getting heavy but I don’t mind. Soon I won’t be able to carry her at all, so I relish it while I can.
GRACE: “Why are you very pale?”
Pause. OK. I’ve been to the therapist about this. And the webinars and the workshops. So, okay. This is happening now. Breathe and relax and truth it out.
ME: “Because my skin is white.”
GRACE: “Why don’t I have freckles?”
Since it’s the tail end of a long hot weekend of single momming, I relax into the tiredness and the fear, keeping ‘the talk’ casual and every day, since this is our every day, normal-ish life. I eye her carefully while mourning the magical bond I might be losing by discussing the blunt facts of skin color.
ME: “You don’t have freckles because your skin is brown. And you are so lucky because your beautiful brown skin is strong and the sun can’t hurt your skin like it does mine.”
She looks at her hands.
GRACE: “Why am I brown? Why are you white?”
Pause. Breathe, relax and don’t spazz out.
ME: “Because, Grace, we are different races.”
Knowing we were no longer in the shallow end of the kiddie pool, and seeing a flock of whys heading my way, I pipe up again.
ME: “Race is the word that explains different skin colors. You were adopted. Do you remember what that means?”
We’d been dropping the a-bomb regularly over the past three years, incorporating it into our family vocabulary. We also watch ‘Despicable Me’ a lot. She adores the minions; I adore the adoption plotline. When she grouses about our two dogs lick-stalking her or our cat strenuously avoiding her, I explain that we adopted our animals because they needed us to take care of them and love them, even when they are annoying. I eye her, wondering how she will respond.
GRACE: “Why am I adopteded?”
Of course she has to be heart-drenchingly adorable at this juncture.
ME: “Well, first, you WERE adopted. Adopted isn’t who you are, it’s something that happened when you were born. Momma and Dada wanted to be parents so badly, and I couldn’t grow a baby in my tummy- like how Becky grew Felix and Eleanor in her tummy. And the really special lady who grew you in her tummy has beautiful brown skin just like you. This special lady loved you so much, even when you were just inside her tummy and she couldn’t see you, but she was unable to take care of you, which made her sad. Meanwhile Dada and I were looking everywhere for you, we were so sad, and waited and waited for you to find us. So, this lady loved you so much that she looked for a mommy and daddy for you. And, luckily this special, beautiful woman and I found each other. And she liked me and I liked her. She really wanted dada and me to be your parents. We were in the hospital when you were born, then the special, beautiful lady gave you to us. Dada and I fell instantly in love with you as soon as we met you. And we became a family.”
GRACE: “Why wasn’t I in your tummy?”
ME: “Because you were in the really special lady’s tummy. But I was looking and waiting for you to be born so I could be your momma.”
I study her glowing face thinking about how much I can’t go into right now. How I waited so long for for a man eager to make a family with me, that my eggs had withered and blew away like a tumbleweed with wanderlust. I don’t go into our two years in the foster care system, where our paperwork was lost over and over again while we furnished an empty bedroom with everything we hoped our future child would want. I didn’t go into the grueling, rejection-laden adoption processs or what it was like to meet and love and grieve with her biological mother.
ME: “So, even though your skin is brown and my skin is white, and I will never be brown and you will never be white, I’m your Momma and Dada’s your father. And we are so lucky that we found you and that you are our daughter. We love you so much. So… any more questions?”
GRACE: “Do we have rice pudding?”
While hoovering rice pudding, Grace told me that when baby Eleanor cried,
“Her momma just put her big, BIG booby in the baby’s mouth. Why did she do that? Why didn’t she just feed her soup or rice pudding?”
Since I never breastfed her, Grace had no idea milk was in those big, BIG boobies.
Adoption is a net gain made up of millions of tiny losses. Since we don’t look like each other, I marvel and mourn at the elusively beautiful strangeness of babies as collage-like amalgamations of generations previous. Some day Grace will mourn the fact that the people who most resemble her are thousands of miles away. I mourn never having been able to be pregnant or breastfeed my baby. The loss her bio-mom endured will be with her for the rest of her life and mine, since she shared her profound grief with me. We can’t afford to adopt a sibling, which doesn’t really matter because I’m too old for another child. Grace will be the black kid with the old white Mom and Dad. But for now, we smile and drop raisins into our cool, comforting bowl of rice pudding.
And like that, the first chat about adoption and race was over. I am aware this conversation will be an ongoing dialogue, and sometimes it will be awful and painful and sad, much like the chats we’ll have about death, drugs, love, loss, sex and whatever the hell kids will be into when she’s older. But for now it’s all about rice pudding and minions. Thank effing god for right now.