My dark-haired duckling

Half-way through the little kids’ dentist appointment this morning, I was feeling pretty accomplished. Little Guy has a hypersensitive mouth and a gag reflex that approaches a super power. He can even puke on cue. Suffice it say, a regular check-up is borderline torture for him and he made it through without a single tear.

The dentist was patient and followed my lead, warning him about what was about to happen and praising his efforts. This dentist and I were going to be great friends and I began to envision a future together–me and the dentist each holding Little Guy’s hands as he hopped smiling into the chair and willingly opened wide. All was right with the world.

Then it happened. Little Sister took her brother’s place in the chair and the dentist made some comment, but through her thick accent I could only understand the words “her hair.” Still aglow with the warmth of my newfound partnership, I assumed she was complimenting Little Sister. Her hair is thick and glossy and people often comment on it’s beauty. I’m always happy to hear people tell me how beautiful my children are so I asked her to repeat herself.

“Her hair is so dark, how is she sister?” Asked my no longer friend pointing a finger back and forth between Little Sister and Little Guy.

I was caught completely off-guard and probably stared at her with my mouth hanging open. The assistant looked at me awkwardly apologetic, I mumbled something about adoption and my heart sank.

I mean seriously what the fuck? This scenario which has been happening more and more lately really bugs the crap out of me for so many different reasons. First of all you have to be a complete idiot to not figure this out on your own. I am white, my husband is white, our first four chidren and our sixth child are white, and are fifth child is a dark skinned raven haired Latina, how do you think this happened? Secondly, what kind of insensitive pig asks a question like that in front of a child, and finally it’s not your business and I don’t owe you any explanations. Oh there’s more, but I’ll stop to prevent this from becoming a maniacal rant.

We had a similar experience not long ago. We were celebrating a birthday at a local Japanese restaurant when the hibachi chef who’d been very entertaining up to this point suddenly asked Little Sister, “Why you look different?” Not quite satisfied that he’d thoroughly offended us he pointed his utensil one at a time at each the kids seated around the grill saying “See, blond hair, blond hair, blond hair, blond hair, you black hair.” Yes, really, I can’t make this shit up.

I’ve been teaching the kids sarcastic retorts alternating with shocked dismay–I’ve told them to gasp, look at each in horror and ask “What happened to your hair!?”–to the persistent informants at school who like to remind them that they don’t look like each other. I’ve considered adopting four more kids of various races so I can simply respond that all of my children have different fathers and I like variety in the bedroom.

Okay jokes aside, it pisses me off and it hurts her. She is reminded at every turn that she is different. A difference she is acutely and painfully aware of. The rest of us look ridiculously alike. Even Little Guy looks like we fished him straight out of our genetic pool. Unmoved by so many compliments on her glossy black hair, she has told me many times that she wants to dye it the same color as mine. She rejects and even destroys her darker skinned dolls and barbies while doting lovingly on her white ones. She is asked day after day by everyone from classmates to strangers to explain how her very existence can be.

My journey pales in comparison to hers, but I can begin to understand how painful this need others have to draw attention to her differences is. As a child I was very blonde, fair skinned, and freckled while my older brother and younger sister had brown hair and eyes and slightly darker complexions. I endured endless jokes about being the mailman’s child. As funny as these jokes were to the adults around, they were hurtful to me. So much so that it still stings to bring those memories to the surface. Like I said, a cakewalk in comparison.

For so long we were so caught up in managing the behavioral and cognitive differences that the physical differences didn’t even register on the radar…for us. We failed her. We won’t anymore. I’ve written to her teacher asking to help her develop an adoption awareness/sensitivity program that I can help administer to Little Sister’s class and hopefully beyond. I am writing letters to the owners of restaurant and dentist office, I’m preparing for the next occasion whenever it comes (and it will) so that I won’t be left with my mouth hanging open again.

A New Holiday Story

The tree is down, lying pathetically shedding tinsel at the curb waiting for a pick-up that I’m not sure is coming. I should probably look into that. The garland has been unstrung, the new possessions assimilated and properly placed, the lights hung Christmas 2012  finally tugged from the rooftop (don’t judge, we’ve had bigger fish to fry) and we’ve quietly returned to our not so normal existence.

The kids are in bed and will return to school in the morning. I  can finally heave a sigh of relief.

I went into the holiday season braced for disaster. Last year was Little Sister’s first Christmas home and it wasn’t exactly a time of holiday cheer. We had finalized her adoption just days before–an action that flung open a  hatch sucking her  into a dark abyss. I can’t say for sure why and there probably isn’t a simple explanation—perhaps the realization that this was the last stop and she could no longer get by on superficial interactions, the disappointment that we were not the fantasy family kids in need dream of–we don’t have a pool or a horse, eat ice cream for every meal, and grant her every wish–the fear that we would abandon her as everyone had done before, the integrated belief that she was not lovable and did not deserve nice things, or all of the above and so much more. But either the finalization itself or seeing her sister by birth who wept through the process awoke the trauma she’d been keeping sedated. Little Sister set out on a mission to push us far, far away beginning Christmas morning..

She complained about her gifts then  destroyed them one by one–painted nail polish all over the new baby’s face, dumped out all her new perfume, smeared make-up all over her bedding and the bathroom,slammed her new camera around the room and picked the plastic coating off, you get the picture. When she’d destroyed all her new possessions she turned to the old ones writing all over her furniture with a marker, breaking her blinds, and pulling the curtain rod out of the wall. In the coming months she cut up her sheets, smeared gum all over the floor, climbed the rails of her day bed and wildly rocked it slamming it into the wall while screaming and raging about what a terrible family we were, and on a few occasions physically attacked me, all the while batting her eyes, smiling sweetly at, and throwing her arms around strangers.  The screaming could last for hours, but only happened when Big Sister and I were home alone with her. She would stop immediately when Dad or one of the boys walked in. It was a bad, bad time that did not improve for 6 months.

With this being Little Guy’s first Christmas home, not knowing what trauma triggers were wrapped up along with those pretty packages for him or whether the demons that haunted Little Sister were  gone or simply sleeping waiting for the holiday wake-up call, I was ready for a repeat performance.

It didn’t happen.

We put up the tree and decorated and nobody lost their mind. Over the course of a month we amassed a mountain of gifts under the tree and everyone stayed calm. We hung the stockings and there wasn’t a single meltdown. Unable to find an exact match to our existing stockings, I had to settle for a similar stocking for Little Guy and tentatively told him ready for the tears. “That’s okay, Mom,” my sweet angel replied. “I like it.”

Throughout the month, we went to several holiday festivals and parties and visited Santa five times in five different locations with nary an uncooperative moment. Christmas morning came and went full of smiles, genuine appreciation, and lots of joy. It made me a nervous wreck. I was still waiting almost wishing for the explosion for fear the longer it took to happen the worse it would be.

It didn’t happen.

When all of our warm family activities failed to ignite the fuse, I was sure their time at day camp would. After all, Little Guy had been expelled from this very camp just six months earlier after he repeatedly attacked the staff. And Little Sister always copes with new situations with regression and oppositional behavior. Too many changes, too much unpredictability, too much sugar, too little sleep, too much of all that sets off traumatized kids would surely be the final push sending them over the edge. I dropped them off and  waited for the staff to call and demand I come retrieve my little darlings.

It didn’t happen.

Here’s what did.

New Year’s Day we took down the tree. The little ones watched silently as I removed the ornaments one by one and packed them up for next year. When I took the candy cane ornament that Little Guy had made from the tree, his lip began to quiver. “That’s mine!” he demanded in a tone that always precedes his loss of control. I knew I had about one second the figure out the root of the crisis and derail it or the express to Rageville was coming through.

We stopped what we were doing and explained we were just packing it away for next year and showed him all the ornaments that the older kids had made in years gone by that we got out year after year. The one that Firstborn had made in preschool and had a picture of him around Little Guy’s age and looking so very much like him did the trick. Breathing and heart rates returned to normal, but the trauma gates were open. As he continued to talk, the roots of his anxiety became clear.

He needed evidence of our shared journey. He needed to see the past connected to a future. He needed the physical proof that he belonged here and that wasn’t going to change.

He’s too young to fully understand what adoption means, but he knows that it’s the means by which he joined the family. He doesn’t remember his first Mother, but knows it wasn’t me. They don’t call it the primal wound for nothing. For all his inability to comprehend, he knows one thing. It hurts and he wishes it were different.

With words that at once filled me with joy and anguish, he told me,

“I wish I grew in your tummy and came out and was always here.”

I’m not so vain as to think it’s about my magnificence. He only wants what we all want. To belong. To be a part of we. To feel secure that we are one and will venture into the future together. Most of us get this security through biology and a shared past that begins without trauma. It begins in a warm embrace and grows by the second with loving touch, smiling eyes, nurturing, and shared joy. For us the story began very differently and I arrived five years late–after many sad chapters had already been written.

After hugs and assurances that we would get it back out next year, he agreed to let me pack away the candy cane ornament. The day went on and all of my fears continued to not happen. Instead, the beginning of a new story did.