Last weekend, as my wife, Meredith, and I were helping our 2-year-old out of his stroller in front of our Brooklyn stoop, a neighborhood panhandler stopped to chat.
“Who is this little guy?” he asked.
“Our son,” I replied.
“But he's a different color,” he said, rubbing his bristly unshaven cheek, looking at our white faces, and pointing at our son’s sweet brown face with his other hand. “What’s his story?”
“That is the story. He’s our son,” I said. “Have a good day.” I was eager to move him along.
“Why what? We love him. He’s our son -- end of story.”
Of course there’s more story, but that’s all I wanted to share with him. And there’s truth to what I said -- to what we both said: He is our son, our beautiful, hilariously funny, vibrant, Thomas-the-Train-obsessed son. And he’s black, and my wife and I are white. Occasionally, in our progressive brownstone-lined Brooklyn neighborhood, people of all ages and races ask us questions, or offer an opinion, be it with words, a smile, a glare, a click of the gums.
A white neighbor said to us, “You know, he’s going to know he’s adopted.” As if that’s a bad thing.
“Because he has two moms?” quipped my wife.
“Oh, yeah, that too.”
Ours was a domestic open adoption -- which, in general, means there was some contact between the adoptive parents and at least one of the birth parents. In our particular situation, we were in regular contact with the birth mother during her pregnancy since we first connected with her six weeks before our son was born.
When we brought him home from the hospital -- we had the rare privilege of witnessing his first bath in the delivery room -- friends and strangers would ask: “What country is he from?” That one always made us laugh. “This one.” Yes, you can adopt black babies in this country.
The one that didn’t make us laugh: “Oh, your son is so lucky.” That one actually pissed me off. I understood it was intended as a compliment, but I found it presumptuous. To my mind, it was an insult to his birth mother, whom people knew nothing about -- not her life, not her family, not even the situation that led her to decide to place her child for adoption.
The fact that she felt it was in the best interest for her baby to place him with, of all people, two white 41-year-old lesbians -- a lapsed Catholic and a secular Jew -- in Brooklyn, made Meredith and I feel very lucky. She was taking a leap of faith with strangers, hoping that we would love him and care for him and protect him and give him the best possible life. And we were being given a gift of an opportunity we’d long sought: to become parents to a beautiful, sweet, healthy baby, one who is growing up to be a kind, good-natured, smart, handsome little boy.
When our son was about five months old, I took him to a party, strapped to my chest in a Baby Bjorn. A black female guest pulled me aside to tell me what other black women think when they see a white woman with a black baby: that she’s a disingenuous “Angelina Jolie” type who has wrested the child away from a black mother, or that the child is the product of a relationship with a black man -- and that isn’t cool either, because available black men were few and far between.
I realize she didn’t speak for every black woman. She claimed she wasn’t even speaking for herself -- that part I was less sure about. It didn’t matter: I still felt the need to explain myself to her -- and so I told her how he came into our lives. I hated knowing that I was being misperceived as an appropriator, a thief, and that I was being resented and loathed for loving my child, by anyone. But I also worried that people would assume I was going to fail my son because I am white. Even if I put others’ assumptions out of my mind, I worried about it.
So I appreciated her honesty -- she explained some of the looks we got and would continue to get, so it was a relief to get it out in the open. I am appreciative in general that New Yorkers are upfront, that they tell you what they’re thinking, that they’re not scared to ask questions, because at least there is some semblance of an open dialogue about race. And adoption. Once you leave the city -- any major metropolis, really -- the looks and under-the-breath comments are bitter reminders of just how little progress we’ve made in this country.
First, we have here a tableau of two white ladies and a black child, and same-sex marriage still doesn’t play well in proverbial Peoria. And second, let’s be real: Transracial adoption -- transracial relationships for that matter -- provokes a lot of strong feelings, in everyone.
My wife and I had been pursuing domestic open adoption for several years -- it is a long, arduous process, in which every aspect of your life is vetted and scrutinized -- psychiatric profiling, criminal checks, financial reviews, home visits by social workers, testimonials by friends and family members. You also write a “Dear Birth Mother” letter -- an illustrated booklet, with photos -- a standard practice that your agency, lawyer, or adoption advocate presents to a birth mother, to give her a sense of who you are, and how you live, allowing her to envision the baby’s future with you.
It’s like an extended Match.com ad, and yes, it is a surreal experience, having to distill your life down into a pamphlet and market yourselves, as I’m sure it must be equally so for pregnant women to review stacks of prospective families, trying to decide which family, if any, feels like the right one.
And once you start talking with birth mothers, you must steel yourself for a shit ton of heartbreak -- it’s like one emotional miscarriage after another, as you wait for birth mothers to consider even talking to you, let alone choose you. You hope that the birth mother sticks to her decision throughout the rest of her pregnancy and in the months after the child is born.
Birth fathers who weren’t around before, or who may have been misidentified, may pop back into the picture and decide to withhold consent. All this to say, adoption for mortals like you and me and not the Madges and Angelinas of the world, is not a decision made lightly -- the whole process demands a lot of thought, a lot of time, a lot of emotional resilience. As it should. But goddamn.
Prospective parents have choices too. They can decide in advance if they are open to having twins. A baby who is prone to having medical or psychiatric disorders based on the birth parents’ family histories and medical records. A birth mother who drank or smoked or took various kinds of drugs throughout her pregnancy. And to race: black, Latin, Asian, Native American, Caucasian, mixed. There are prospective adoptive parents who pass on healthy babies of color because they’re holding out for a white child, or a child whose racial makeup more closely approximates their own -- and they wait longer.
We were open to a child of any race. Which meant the likelihood of our having a child of color was all but certain. We asked our friends about black hair care -- and learned very quickly that there was a heated debate over whether to grease the scalp. The wisest advice we were given was to pick a school of thought and stick with it.
I reached out to an old friend who’d been raised by white middle-aged parents in New Jersey in the 1970s. She said the thinking at the time was that “raising the child as your own” was interpreted as not acknowledging racial and cultural differences, her blackness eradicated on the inside, while she stood out in stark relief as the only brown-skinned person in a room full of white people wherever she went. She attended schools with nearly all-white student bodies, had white friends, inhabiting a nearly exclusively white world. We didn’t want our child, whether he was black, Latin, Asian, mixed, to feel like we had erased his identity, his culture, his sense of self, or be made to feel like the only anybody, anywhere -- least of all at home.
I caught a couple of glimpses of what it might have felt like to be an Other, when I was everyone’s token lesbian friend in the late 1980s -- that lasted through the late 1990s until I had finally made a group of lesbian friends. But perhaps I got a better sense of it as a kid in the 1970s, living with my family in a working-class Catholic neighborhood in Chicago, where I was the only Jewish kid and a defiant but wussy tomboy.
I liked playing with action figures, but hated dolls, wanted to play basketball but only to shoot baskets -- I flinched and ducked whenever the ball was passed to me. And the whole unicorn-rainbow-frou-frou girly scene? Not for me. I just wanted to talk about the Beatles and disco and drawing, so I didn’t have much to say to my classmates. Until I killed their dreams; when I was 6, my mother told me that Santa Claus didn’t exist, and, well, it was my duty to alert everyone in my carpool. I quickly became an enemy of the people.
The following year, I was in second grade, and in an effort to integrate our all-white school, the school start bussing in children from the Cabrini Green housing projects -- quickly sparking a white flight as my classmates transferred in droves to the nearby Catholic schools. I didn’t understand why everyone was skipping out, but I wasn’t particularly sad to see many of them leave.
I was hearing the word “nigger” for the first time -- a lot -- and fights were being instigated in the hallways and during recess. I asked my mother what it meant -- she slapped me and warned me never to utter that word again. She was keenly aware that parents were pulling their kids out of school -- she and my father assured my younger sister and me that we weren’t going anywhere.
I sought out friendships with the Cabrini Green kids, with whom I related a lot more than the neighborhood kids I might have been mistaken for, even if I’d never lived in a housing project. But as a fellow outcast at the grammar school, I believed we were somehow connected, and anyway, I was invited to play in the other kids’ reindeer games, even though I was the absolute worst double-handed rope-turner, never mind the clumsiest jumper.
My friend Florence, who wore her hair in elaborate braids, offered to do my hair at recess, even though mine was short -- an unkempt Dorothy Hamill ’do. Which is why she wanted to try, she said -- it was the challenge. If I had braids, I thought, I’d really look like a girl. Was I ready for that? “Pleeeeeaaseee?” asked Florence. I couldn’t say no. But my hair was too limp and didn’t take. She reached in her pocket and gave me a plastic blue barrette with a bird on a branch. I kept it as a consolation prize for having uncooperative hair.
Our lawyer started to send out our “Dear Birth Mother” booklet, and alerted us to potential matches, but some of the women chose to go with other families, and other situations didn’t feel right for us. But then we got a call about a birth mother, and my gut told me she was our match. I can’t reveal much else, because it’s our son’s story to tell -- one he doesn’t yet know because he’s too young to understand -- but I can share this much: When we spoke to the birth mother on the phone, the first question she asked was, “Are you sure you want to have a black African-American boy?”
“Yes, definitely,” I found myself saying emphatically before I really took in what she was asking. “We are sure.” I realize now that I thought she was asking me if I’d love her baby -- to which there was no question in my mind. I could absolutely promise her that I wanted to be a parent. To a baby. To her baby -- and that Meredith and I would love and cherish her baby, and fully devote ourselves to her baby. And maybe that is what she meant by the question. After years of pursuing adoption, we’d discussed the possibility of having a black child, a mixed race child, a Latin child, a white child -- what we most wanted was a healthy child from a birth mother we liked.
The birth mother had been told by our lawyer that we were open to race, but she understandably needed to hear it for herself. With six weeks before her due date, she wanted to make sure we weren’t going to back out -- another couple had. She was shy and nervous on the phone, as we were, but she was clear-headed and direct, and asked thoughtful questions, envisioning what his life would be like. She said, “I know a bit about Brooklyn. I like your lives.” And she especially liked that Meredith’s father is a pediatrician -- it gave her peace of mind, she said. “All right,” she said, “sounds like a plan.”
That was over two-and-a-half years ago. She kept her word. And we held to the promise of the life we laid out for the baby that is now our son in, of all things, a booklet: that he’ll have an excellent education, a safe and wonderful neighborhood, a gajillion friends, top-notch medical care, playgrounds, culture, parks -- all that good stuff.
More importantly, the child she was placing with us would be loved more than he could possibly bear. By us. By two sets of grandparents. By everyone in our family -- a family that includes our friends, who are black, brown, white, gay, straight, married, single, with and without children. And that he’d be part of a new, additional community of families we’ve joined, one that closely resembles our own in one way or another -- transracial adoptive families, black adoptive families, families with same-sex parents.
As the adults get together to discuss how best to not repeat the mistakes of previous generations of adoptive parents in introducing the stories of our children’s lives -- of their birth parents, of cultural differences -- and in really listening to their concerns and their questions, our children, too, will have one another as they grow up together, to process what it means to them to be adopted, to be with families that may not look like them, to express their inevitable grief and grievances, frustrations.
We will make mistakes, of course, but we want our son to be proud of who he is, to know who he is, who his birth parents are, and where he’s from -- to know that he can ask us anything, and feel safe, loved, supported, and above all, happy. Which is to say, our wishes for him is a wish all parents have for their children. Because above all else, that’s who he is: He is our son.