One time, while working for the San Diego CHOICE Program, my friend and boss Cedric (that was him on the front page of the website, by the way) and I were having a conversation about qualities I expected from my fictitious significant other. Okay, so the conversation didn’t exactly start out like that. What really happened was that I was complaining about some of the foster parents we worked with when he said, “Hey, if you can do better, why don’t you?”
“I would, but what if my future marriage guy didn’t want to be an adoptive parent?” I responded quickly, sincerely believing my logic.
“Would you really want to marry someone who didn’t want to be an adoptive parent?” he asked.
I thought for less than five seconds before answering. “No,” I said. I mean that's the correct answer, right? I guess I had never thought about it like that. Why would I want to spend my life with someone who didn’t feel morally obligated to give back? I believe strongly that when our own family experiences have been positive, it’s our ethical responsibility to pay it forward, but that's a lot easier said than done.
I guess for the most part, I tend to be pretty unsympathetic to children in biological families (including myself). I can’t help but to think that their biological status gives them a social edge that is unjustly denied to adopted children or children in foster care. Besides, I have such high expectations for myself that I am not sure I could be appropriately sympathetic to children I birthed. However, I can’t help but to be sympathetic to children who have survived adversity like foster care and even adoption. Those are unbelievable challenges—ones that I’m not sure I would have been strong enough to overcome. That’s the thing about being the Mom of my kids, I don’t just love, respect and appreciate them. I admire them. I watch them in awe and can’t help but to think, “Wow, they’re amazing.”
Anyway, so recently, another friend and I were discussing prospective dating material. I made sure to point out that anyone who I dated would have to not just accept Mychael and Malcolm, but admire and respect the difficulties they have overcome. I wouldn’t expect the person to love them right away, nor do Mychael or Malcolm, at ages 23 and 20, need a father. Hell, they made it this far without one, why start now? My friend said, “Well, guys might be intimidated by the whole situation.”
“That’s not the guy for me then. I mean please, that intimidates them? Walk a mile in their shoes. Shoot, walk a mile in mine. I'll tell you about feeling intimidated,” I responded quickly, annoyed. I proceeded to list off the other qualities: hot (conspicuously first), hard working (of course), kind, no biological children, fun, etc.
“Okay, so you know that guy doesn’t exist, right?” my friend said.
“Whatever. I'm okay either way,” I said, thinking about how different I felt now, ten years later, than I did during that conversation inside 4500 El Cajon Boulevard in East San Diego. It is what it is and even if you didn't anticipate it, you'd better learn how to roll with it.
It’s funny because you have all these reasons why adoption is such a big risk—why it’s going to somehow hamper your lifestyle, goals and dreams. But that's not how life goes because in the end, you re-evaluate your goals and realize that being happy isn't necessarily defined by how much you can indulge your individual, perhaps selfish, desires (though that is definitely fun to do sometimes). You also discover that you’re more flexible and more resilient than you previously realized. I guess that insight is inevitable considering that once you adopt, you’ll be forever influenced by your children, who just so happen to represent the purest form of strength and resiliency.
It’s funny how your biggest priority prior to becoming an adoptive parent becomes your lowest concern once you’ve secured the position. And besides, sometimes it's just about doing the right thing--walking the walk you talk, practicing what you preach.
However, the other day, I was talking with a new person and they wanted to know if I had children. That triggered the whole "You Don't Look Old Enough" thing. After she was finished interrogating me...Okay, I'm being mean because she was just curious and in my rational mind, I know that. I accept that we don't look normal and frankly, I hate normal anyway, so what am I complaining about?
Anyway, after she was able to make sense of the fact that I am, in fact, the abnormally young Mother of my 23 and 20 year old sons, she asked, "What do they call you?"
In the past, I would have had the answer waiting on the tip of my tongue. But, it'd been a while since someone asked, and quite frankly, I was off my game. "Barry," was what I wanted to say. In fact, when I wasn't so rusty, I would have quickly provided an answer that only I would get to hear...one in my head: "Jim, Barry, Freida, Bitch, Warden." And within seconds, would have been able to provide the more audible response of: "Mom, they call me Mom just like I call my Mom...and sometimes when they're pissed at me, they probably call me other things, just like I did with my Mom when I was a young. We're just like every other family. I know that might seem difficult to grasp, but we really are just like everyone else."
We are, right? Because every Mother knows what it's like to have to prove that she is, in fact, worthy of being called "Mom"? And likewise, every son or daughter knows what it's like to feel like a fraud for calling your Mom, "Mom"?
On one hand, I get it. I understand that whenever you choose to be different, you're going to face obstacles. It's not that people won't accept you for being different, it's that first, they'll need to understand you. We're socialized to view everything in boxes and categories. When someone or something doesn't fit into our nice and neat scenarios, our brains simply can't process. I'm proud to be so complex that I cannot be easily understood. In fact, I strive to be indiscernible. And yet, sometimes, it would really be nice if someone just assumed that I was "Mom".
The other day, I visited the kids at Purdue. We went to Chipotle, one of Malc's favorites. Upon going through the line and reaching the cashier, we found ourselves in an all too familiar position. The cashier, of course, was confused about payment. First, she tried to ring up Malcolm separately, prompting Malcolm to say, "We're together," pointing in the direction of Mychael and I. I could tell by the look on her face that Malcolm's guidance meant little.
I read her mind as she tried to process: "Who's together? The two Black guys? Oh, you mean all three of you are together? Then who's paying? The girlfriend?"
Again, I'm used to this, it really isn't a big deal. I mean really, if I were on the outside, would I assume any differently--especially on a college campus? No, I wouldn't. But I was tired on that night. "For once, I just wish people would assume I'm your Mom," I said to Malcolm.
"At least you look young, which is a good thing, right?" he responded reassuringly.
Oh the wisdom and maturity...
To feel connected even when everyone else thinks you're not is powerful. It's Us v. Everyone Else and maybe on some twisted level, that's actually helped us to be that much stronger as a family. Had we not been forced to openly face our uniqueness on a daily basis, maybe we really would feel less legitimate as a family. Yet, we've certainly not lacked for "teachable moments" in the last ten years and as such, we're extremely comfortable in our roles. We are a very open and communicative team, probably (definitely) more so than normal families. That said, I guess I should be thankful for the seemingly insensitive questions, insinuations and assumptions.
So, thanks, normal people, for forcing us to confront the obvious, find resolution and come out stronger and better in the end.
Oh, and normal people, we appreciate that not everyone can be as strong as us, but don't worry, we still accept you.
Last week, Malcolm and I had to meet with a psychologist as part of the adoption process. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, and it was only afterwards that I realized it was her that didn’t get it—not me. Just because she had the title of psychologist behind her name didn’t mean that she was anymore familiar with the nuances of the unintentional discrimination against older child adoptions than the guy at the DMV. Yet, because she had that title, I let my guard down.
“Tell me about Malcolm,” the psychologist had asked. We talked for about thirty minutes while Malcolm worked on his homework in the other room. I told the psychologist about Malcolm’s situation with school and how he’d moved around a lot when he was in first and second grades. I also shared how I thought the separation of Mychael and Malcolm had affected them over the last few years. I tried to give her an overview of the big picture so she would better understand Malcolm.
I work in the system; I understood her role. Basically, the Court had determined that this woman’s forty five minute interview with Malcolm would somehow give her the authority to evaluate him in terms of his psychological and emotional well being. Regardless, I thought the psychologist and I were allies—that we both wanted what was best for Malcolm. As a result, I never felt any ill will for her whatsoever. That is, until she filled me with bullets toward the end of the conversation. “And so, whereas Mychael had the benefit of being the only child, Malcolm-”
“Stop,” she said abruptly. “If I hear you make one more comment about Mychael, I am going to recommend that you not be allowed to adopt Malcolm.”
I was so shocked by her interruption in the first place that it took me a minute to process the content of her statement. “What?” I finally asked her.
“I’ve sat here for the last thirty minutes and listened to you talk about how Mychael had this and Malcolm had that, about how Mychael did this and Malcolm did that. I did not ask you about Mychael and yet, you have spent half the conversation talking about Mychael,” she said in a haughty, self righteous tone.
Is this really happening, I thought, feeling my face get red and my jaw start to throb. I didn’t even know how to respond; I was so floored by her angry tone and the condemning nature of her comments. I’m not even sure what I said to defend myself, but I know I was embarrassed and humiliated. I left that office feeling like the most horrible Mother on the face of the planet. Despite ice packs, muscle relaxers and a ton of ibuprofen, I didn’t sleep more than an hour that night because my jaw hurt so badly.
The next day at work, my co-worker Lynn, who—like my Mom—was born to Mother, asked me about the appointment.
“It went okay,” I told her, too embarrassed to admit that during the meeting, I’d discovered what a rotten Mother I was. “Did you have both the kids last night?” I asked her, trying to change the subject. She loved to talk about her grandchildren. She picked them up from daycare two or three times a week as a favor to her daughter and always had stories to share. Her oldest granddaughter, Madison, had recently turned three, and the youngest granddaughter, Melissa, was just shy of a year old.
“Yes, and Melissa is getting so big. It looks like she’s going to be walking soon.
“Yeah, my girls are the same way,”
“And you have three kids,” I said, validating the exhaustion of yet another child.
While Del and Lynn continued comparing and contrasting their kids, I found myself thinking about my own and how Mychael did one thing whereas Malcolm did another. Suddenly, I had an epiphany.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean...like, how does she know when her girls might walk, or eat solid foods or potty train or whatever else.”
“I don’t know. I guess for Melissa, she probably looks at
Feeling validated by the information, I explained the situation with the psychologist.
“I can’t believe she said that to you,”
“It’s okay. Just knowing I’m not a horrible Mother makes me feel better. Now that I understand the situation, I’ll be able to defend myself if she decides to go that route. I’m just so glad I’m not a bad Mom. I felt so guilty last night—slept less than an hour.”