As I have said before, being an adoptive family, especially transracially, never turns off. Sometimes it is easy to slide into cruise control and forget this fact about your family, but just as soon as you do, you are reminded of reality. You just have to be one step ahead at all times.
I’m not the best at that. A lot of it has to do with the fact that our experience has been so positive. Our family, friends, and community have embraced us. When Odette first came home we were more proactive. I remember many conversations with her preschool, gymnastics instructor, even waiters about her language or cultural issues. We made a point to inform them of the uniqueness of her background. But then as time went on and her language exploded (Today you would never know that English is a third or fourth language for her.) we slipped into letting her just be another kid. Sure, when families look at us they can instantly tell she is not our biological child, but many expect her to be a domestic adoption or have no idea that she came home so recently and at the age she did. And typically those who do know those things, know very little about Congo.
Last Friday, I walked into Odette’s preschool classroom to pick her up. I wasn’t feeling the best and just wanted to quickly pick her up and get her home and changed for trick or treating. While she was cleaning up, one of her teachers mentioned that she asked Odette about Congo today. It went something like, “So I was talking to Odette and asked her about Congo. Like, I asked her if she lived in a house, like a big house with a lot of rooms, or did she live in a hut. Did she go to school? She didn’t really answer. I asked about her biological mom and dad and what she remembered about them, but she didn’t know.”
After I picked my jaw up off the floor and let me heartrate settle down, I attempted to put together my response. I explained that she probably doesn’t remember these things. I said that research has shown that often times children handle the trauma of adoption by completely forgetting much of their past. Her teacher went on to ask a few more things, and I kindly explained that Congo is the poorest country in the world. Very few children go to school. We call her birthparents her Congo mom and dad and talk about them often. She was living in an orphanage when we picked her up, but that is all we know. She has never talked about anything else. All the while I am trying to smile and be kind about these questions, but inside I wanted to curl up in a ball. Why did I set Odette up for this? Why didn’t I do my part to prevent this? How did Odette feel? Why can’t I just say what I really want to say to you (ie. it’s none of your *#@^ business)? I did pull myself together enough to say, “Just so you know, sometimes these types of questions really bother Odette and upset her. She struggles some with being different and likes to try to be just like everyone else. This is especially true about her skin color.” This was met with surprise and a story about Odette sharing with her teachers and/or the class about her playing with water and flowers that make everything smell good? Thankfully I did my part in learning about international adoption (All adoptive parents really should read Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child) and was able to once again, calmly and nicely, explain that sometimes children will create stories to patch up and piece together parts of their lives that they may block out or no longer remember. The conversation drug on for.ev.er. I could add so much more that I heard about how Odette has bragged about being “café” during Spanish class or about a family she knew who adopted from country x and their daughter knew quite a bit about her biological mom and dad. They even stay in touch. It was like Charlie Brown’s teacher talking, won won wa, by this point. Thankfully Odette was now standing next to me with her backpack and jacket. I turned to her and said that we needed to get home quick for trick or treating.
Seething, at mostly myself, we walked out to the car where I immediately picked up the phone and called Jeff. I don’t think he finished his hello when I was rambling on and on about how I let my daughter down. How I knew better. How I could have and should have prevented this. How I should have prepared Odette with how to handle these types of situations. How I was so naive that this wouldn’t happen to her and happen so young. Not to mention me going on and on about this being none of their business. I get that they had good intentions and Jeff reminded me that we always have to think about that, but dang it, come to me with those questions. Not to her.
It is our job to not only protect Odette from hopefully being put in that situation again by a teacher or other adult, but to more importantly equip her with the words to handle it in a matter that empowers her to share what she wants. There is a fantastic blog post by Rage Against the Minivan that I read, and then forwarded to Jeff, and pinned on Pinterest, and saved to my favorites but never gave to Odette’s teachers. But the thing is is that we can only prepare others so much. I can’t go around and shove this into the face of every person Odette is going to come in contact with. My biggest failure was not in not printing the letter. My biggest failure was not being proactive and having the discussion with Odette that should have taken place long ago.
Learn from me. Take my advice. Talk about it with your child before it is too late. Talk about it with others before it is too late. Educate yourself.
Since then we have talked to Odette about this “conversation” and she doesn’t seem the least bit phased by it. She doesn’t really seem to understand why she might not want to answer their questions. But the point is, she now knows that she doesn’t have to!
Jeff and I have talked at great length about what we need to do to address the immediate issue. We are not going to print the letter and send it in. At this point the damage (not that there really seems to be any) has been done. We can’t bring it up to her current teachers without them feeling like we are offended. We aren’t confrontational and Odette is kinda stuck with them for a long time. We have to think of her. What we are doing is having the frank talk with Odette. We are equipping her with choices and examples and role playing. We have talked about letting her take some pictures of herself in Congo into class to share, but are realistic in the can of worms that could open. (Such as, why don’t you have hair?) Before we open her up to that we will be absolutely sure that she knows that she can talk about as much or as little as she wants. The power is going to be in her hands!