Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why It Matters

The baby dog starts kindergarten in the fall. This makes me want to cry, partly because she is going to love it so and that will be a joy to witness and hear about, but also because it's the natural next step of her venturing out into the world without me. We are zoned to a most impressive, blue ribbon elementary school. The kind of school where students test well and national-teacher-of-the-year awards are given and the second graders make very elegant Japanese Tea Gardens for class projects. The kind of school where on kindergarten round-up day Ava was the only face of color amongst the 100+ kids. We are #2 on a wait list to transfer her out of this school and into a very charming, groovier, still academically rigorous school where the student body happens to be 1/3 black, 1/3 hispanic, and a 1/3 white. These stats at a well-ranked school are astounding for Austin.

I find myself in a tedious loop of conversation these days in which well-meaning folk ask after where my child will go to school in the fall. We're zoned for this school, I say—immediately people start saying how great it is there, how top notch!—but we're trying to transfer out of it. But why? Because we don't want Ava to be the only black child, or a finger of a handful, at her school. But why? Because we think that matters. But why do you think that matters?, a woman whom I like demanded somewhat aggressively at a party at which Ava was the only black child. The woman explained she just has strong opinions on the issue is all and she hoped I wasn't put off by her questions but she just didn't get it. Of course she hoped she wasn't offending me by saying that.

And so I tried, willing my eyes not to turn cold or my voice hard, to break down why it mattered. But I felt stupid doing so, and thought her somewhat stupid for asking me to do so, and the conversation itself confused me. Why treat our choice with skepticism? Why do well-meaning friends want to shoo my anxiety off the topic or dismiss it wholesale? I once worried on the matter of diversity to some friends and one lovely woman said "You know what? Your girl is so beautiful, it's not going to matter. She's not going to have a problem." Well hooray for that, y'all, beauty trumps the indignity of race. And of course this normally intelligent, good woman would die if she could hear those words played back for her, but yet they were said. And I said nothing back to her, because I didn't want her to feel bad or stupid, though a part of me thinks what I should have said is "My daughter's not beautiful despite the fact that she's black, she's beautiful because of it you fucking bitch. Now get out of her house."

I was in a muddy conversation about race with some white friends once during which a woman expressed how deeply embarrassed she'd been when her young son had loudly pointed out the color of a black child in another shopping cart at Costco. She was mortified that her child had singled out his color and that the mother had heard him and it was all so uncomfortable and, she asked me, what should she have done? But I didn't understand what the problem was. Well, another friend said, maybe it'd be like if your child pointed out someone's handicap, you'd just feel uncomfortable? But a) being black isn't a handicap and b) it doesn't sound like the child was speaking with any judgment. Maybe it was my friend who was attaching judgment to the word "black"? My friend could sense my growing impatience with the conversation and she said "You know what, I'm clueless on this. Educate me." I wanted to buy her a drink, I was so grateful for her admission of ignorance and her interest in listening.

So here's what I wish I would've said to the woman at this recent party, who made me feel defensive for trying to transfer my girl out of a great school just so she wouldn't be "the only" in a room:

*I don't think it behooves any child to be as conspicuous as mine looked that morning of kindergarten round-up.

*When my child learns about America's ugly history in its treatment of black people I want there to be other kids in the room, hell, maybe even the the teacher, with skin like hers.

*I don't want sweet, goofy, careless children always petting on my daughter's kinky hair because they've never seen curls like that before. (Poor mother at the all-white gymnastics spring break camp whose daughter pointed at my daughter and said "Look at how fluffy her hair is!" The mother looked like she was going to have a stroke trying to smooth away her kid's words. "But remember how much you said you loved it?!" she hysterically demanded of her daughter. "I didn't say that," said the girl. "Yes you did, of course you did!" "I said it was fluffy and cute." All the while Ava and I just stood there waiting them out until there was a break in the conversation and we could back away slowly.)

*I don't want my daughter to ask me if she can straighten her hair because she wants to look like everyone else she sees around her.

*When people speak of my daughter, they need to be comfortable speaking of her race too. If we're all so evolved and color-blind how come most of my white friends still can't help hushing their voice when they say the word "black"? We are terrified of talking about race, we are desperate not to be thought of as racist that we daily deny our own fear and prejudice. (I include my dumb ass in this as well. I remember back in my 20s I was trying to describe Eriq LaSalle's character on E.R. and I was all "He's the aloof doctor. Pretty serious. Mustache. Um, really tall. Kinda hot but a little too uptight." He was the black guy, you idiot 20 year old self. Say it!)

*I just assume make some more friends with my daughter's friends' parents who are black. I want her to have lots of black adult role models. That matters because she doesn't get that in her immediate family and that's who she's going to grow up to be. That matters also because I like to keep interesting company. That often adds up to getting to hear new stories. I wrote a book about people living in a small town, and had rituals and traditions and daily lives nothing like mine. Getting to be the ignorant, curious person in the room is a good thing.

*Some adult adoptees have written really persuasive testaments as to why this matters. It's probably worth listening to them.

*I have a young black friend who was the only child of color in her high school. When she graduated and moved to the city she admitted that she felt some anxiety, fear even, around large groups of black people. That's tragic to me.

All of this might not matter to your family. I respect that. But this matters to mine. Please afford that some respect as well. If you don't get it, be cool when trying to have a conversation and don't tease me about these efforts, rolling your eyes at me or joking that I don't count Asians or Indians or Hispanics as diversity. That's insulting. Don't lead with skepticism or dismissiveness. I'm okay being anxious about creating diverse spaces for my daughter and you don't need to talk me out of that sense of urgency. I also don't think we're infecting our child with our concern. Be careful with your words, just as I hope to be with mine, and probably fail at often, when encountering people walking different roads than mine. (Vegetarian? Homeschooler? Christian? Republican?) When all else fails, admit ignorance and we can have a drink and talk.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Charlie & Lila

I consider it dumb luck that we never really dealt with the more intense attachment issues we were told to expect as adoptive parents. I do remember some very awkward mornings early on at a music class when mothers would sit in a circle with their babies on their laps. Ava would watch the children closely, as if studying their ways, and take cues from them. Sometimes that meant she would sit on this old gal's lap, but usually she trusted her peers' judgment and would elbow her way into some other already chosen mother's lap. That stung a little as I sat there alone badly singing "Hell-ooo everybody, so glad to see you!"—but as long as it didn't provoke a territorial fit in another child and the mother seemed suitably enamored of her unexpected load who was I to demand my baby on my lap. After a couple of months she stopped going to other women and we became her people and never has there been a more loving, affectionate, expressive 4-year-old child. 

To everyone that is except her dolls and stuffed animals. When Ava would get into her crib at night she would look aggressively at her "friends" and start picking them off one by one. "Get outta here!" she'd say like a bouncer in a dock bar as she sent each sailing across the room. "I'm tryin' to sleep." Tough love! We encouraged her to name them—"Truck?" she offered once for a little stuffed elephant in a very bored voice—and to give them a pretend life but nothing took. In May we went to my best friend's wedding in Los Angeles and stayed at a very fancy hotel. Upon check-in the concierge gifted Ava with a stuffed koala bear and she surprised us by naming it ("koala") and every couple of weeks or so would hold it fondly for a few seconds. 

A couple of weeks ago Tim and Ava were getting ready to visit his folks in Florida. Before they left Ava bundled up a little fleece blanket and told me that it was her baby. Wasn't I excited to be a Grandma! 

The baby's name was Charlie Ava told me, which is also her class hamster's name. Charlie too was adopted from Ethiopia when she was 11 months old. She misses her uncle very much but the baby loves Mum Mums and she likes to be sung lullabies as she falls asleep and she needs a bottle and would I promise to feed her and sing to her and change her diaper and tell her how loved she was while Ava was away. I solemnly promised to do all this and weirdly did find myself poking my head into Ava's room each night to make sure the blanket was still happily stuffed on top of her dresser like she had left it. I flirted with the idea of putting a diaper on it as a gag for Ava when she got home but then remembered I was 38.

Here's what a Daddy-Daughter trip looks like by the way. Hold on to your face Ava.

On their way home Tim called from the airport to say that Ava sobbed for her beloved Grandma all through security. When he put her on the phone she was in a state of grand distress. She was excited to come home to see me she wailed, but she also wanted to stay with her Grandma, and now she didn't know what to doooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! 

When they got home later that night Ava unpacked all of her new treasures from her Grandmother. A princess book, number and word flash cards, a new stuffed animal I pictured ripped to shreds by the puppy within days. Her Grandma had won her a pink walrus from Legoland and Ava told me her name was Lila and and that she loved her loved her loved her. That night Ava surprised me by tucking Lila into bed next to her and telling Lila to be quiet during the book in a firm but loving voice.

The next morning Ava remembered Charlie and told me that I had done well by the blanket. Then she proceeded to tuck Lila in for a nap in the sun. Lucky Lila, Lucky Charlie. 

Our little girl—no longer a sociopath to the stuffed community.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Olivia and the Fairy Princess

We love Olivia in our house, always have. When Ava was little she used to ride in a green seat attached to the front of my bike on our daily trips to the splash pad. Along the route we would always pass a tagged section of bridge. Whomever spotted the graffiti first would yell "Time Out!" in honor of Oliva getting in trouble for recreating a Jackson Pollock on the wall after visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oh precocious Olivia, pig of a thousand outfit changes, whatever will you get up to next?

So wasn't I tickled when I spotted a new Olivia down at the bookstore. 

Poor, smug Olivia finds it so incredibly boring that all the girls, and some of the boys, want to dress up as princesses. She's the badass who instead scares everyone at Halloween in her gnarly warthog costume. And why does everyone insist on being pink princesses in crinoline and jeweled crowns instead of an Indian or African or Chinese princess? Where's the vote of confidence and validation for a pig like Olivia who wants to be a little different? Ha ha ha, I thought to myself, what a clever way for me to stretch Ava out of her tedious princess idealization without being the bad cop.

(Ava on Christmas morning in a ridiculous $5.99 set of Princess Kate-inspired jewels. New York, represent.) 

This was shaping up to be the best good night reading ever! And then we got to the end of the book when Olivia started flirting with other possible future identities for herself.  She could be a nurse and devote herself to caring for the sick and elderly? Go Olivia! Or maybe she could adopt all the orphans in the world? meep Or she could become a reporter and expose corporate malfeasance.

"What's an orphan?" asked Ava. An orphan is somebody without a Mommy or Daddy. "Was I an orphan?" Yes you were, and then we became a family. There was a pause. "What's corporate malfeasance?"

Olivia! You know how tired I am at the end of the day and how badly I tend to muddle emotional conversations like these and then how I ache like a darted animal at the idea of my child in confusion or pain. I'm an inept woman in many areas, none more so than when allowing those I love the space to flounder or grieve.

Ava of course knows she is adopted. We talk about Ethiopia often. She delights in the long version of the story of our first meeting, how Daddy stopped breathing before she was brought into the room and how I felt drunk on helium, and how her new parents badly got our limbs tangled up trying to change her diaper and ended up dribbled in her pee, and how she slurped down that first bottle in my arms while the three of us gaped at each other like fish and then she wailed for hours until she fell asleep with a mum mum in one hand and toy keys in the other. We tell her about meeting her uncle, who I got such an extraordinary first impression of, and who held Ava in his lap during our two hours together and wrapped the side of his blazer over the side of her head after she fell asleep so she wouldn't catch a chill. He told us that he wanted Ava to get a good education, and maybe grow up to be a famous doctor, and God willing return to Ethiopia one day to reunite with her three sisters and brother.

About a year and a half ago we clumsily introduced the idea of her siblings who God willing still live with her uncle and aunt. What information for a young child to try to incorporate into her own story. She regularly informs children she's just met at the park of their existence, looking over to me for confirmation of their ages. When her Daddy takes food off her plate without asking or throws a napkin at her head she gets very prissy and tells him "My sisters and brother would never use such bad manners at the table. They always keep their napkins on the lap and take their dishes to the sink and they always get dessert."

It took me too long probably to exhale the words birth mother and birth father to my child. I don't know why exactly, though I imagine it has something to do with my own stunted grieving around the death of my mother and the projected anxiety that Ava would then worry we would die and good God I hope not too much of it revolved around any toxic sense of envy or survivor's guilt or fear of being replaced. But then came the first time we dropped casually into the conversation the fact that Ava had an Ethiopian mother and father and that they had died and that that was sad. And she took it in but did not pursue. And we did it again a couple of times, in equally non casual casual conversations. But she never seemed able or willing to process just what that might mean until last night at the end of Olivia and the Fairy Princess.

We'd returned home from a long day of celebrating Christmas with fine friends. I'd had wine. We weren't sure which of us had farted. It was her turn to pick the book. Olivia! After I read that same dreaded page Ava happily announced "I'm an orphan!" the way a child might identify as having brown eyes or being a certain age. "Well I used to be an orphan until you and Dad got there. When did you get there?" Lucky Tim in the kitchen doing the dishes! "We got there a few weeks before your 1st birthday, which really mattered to me for some reason. Do you remember your party at Vivian's house?" I'm pathetic "But I don't understand what I did when I was 0 to 1."

Were we doing this? We were doing this. And so began in earnest what will be most important ongoing conversation of our lives.

Ava, you lived with your mother and father—we can call them your birth mother and father, your Ethiopian mother and father, or just your Mom and Dad, whatever feels right as we go along—until you were four months old. They got very sick and died. I do not know how to answer the question of whether or not you saw them die and I'm sorry for that blank and a thousand other blanks. Your sisters and brother live with your uncle and aunt. From four months until—...

My four-and-a-half year old little girl then said she was feeling very sad and that her eyes felt like crying. I agreed it was very sad and I felt like crying too, and I didn't know what she was feeling but I know how sad and confused I felt when my mother died. This all was sad but if nothing else she could always trust the safety of being sad with us.

"I am sad that my birth mother and birth father died and I'm sad that your mother died too," she cried. (For the rest of my life I will be humbled by her generosity of spirit in that moment that made room for me.) "And Yellow!" (The cat). "I am so sad that they died but you and Daddy, not my birth mother and not my birth father, but you Mom and Dad Dad, are not dead." We are not dead, I agreed, and we are not going anywhere* and isn't it lucky that we all have so many people in our lives who love us and love us well.

We lay there for a bit and then Ava told me to go on and finish the story. And then she asked for Green Eggs and Ham (not a good book) and then we had a good laugh about one day tricking Daddy into eating green eggs for breakfast. Then she fell asleep on my chest and I kissed her dear face a few dozen times. Then I found Tim in our bedroom watching a show about zombies and I gasped "Did you hear any of that?" and he said "No, what?" and then I wanted to dump the laundry basket on his head.

Ava, be a princess if you want to be one. Be a doctor if you want to be one. Be sad when you're sad. Be a goofball when you feel goofy. Be you, all of it. And never, ever wonder if you are alone in this world.

*I may have whiffed it at this point and been unable to stop the words "And I'm never going to die!" from rushing out of my pathetic mouth. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

An Argument for Nature

Sunday marked the end of summer here in Austin. Which is odd, as it is 111 degrees out today. But our much beloved public pool down the street is now officially closed and that means we are without our go-to afternoon activity until next June. Lots of other people love the pool apparently as there seemed to be an entire cafeteria's worth of junior high kids dumped into the deep end yesterday. My word, there is nothing more awkward than a 12-year-old boy. Trust that you will grow into those limbs and noses young men! And I am completely perplexed by this generation of tweenagers' embrace of the bikini. When I was a kid—oh God, not one of these stories—we wore big old Hanes t-shirts in the pool over our unflattering one pieces. We crossed our arms over our goofy chests and worried if our thighs rubbed together. I'm not sure girls today strike me as any more confident or self-possessed but they do like to lead with their midriffs.

When one of Ava's gymnastic camp counselors showed up she proceeded to love on Ava for a bit. After one last hug she moved on to her own crowd where girlfriends engaged in a shrill chorus of Oh-my-God-your-shirt-is-so-cute-I-love-your-hair-I-missed-you-so-much catching up. Ava looked after the big kids longingly and finally asked if she could walk over to the benches by the deep end to say hi to Marie one last time. We said sure, but come back when Marie looks busy (read: over it) or gets in the water. So Ava strutted over to a group of about 30 high-pitched 8th graders and half awkwardly/half arrogantly assumed the middle. Papa Dog and I wondered aloud what was making her more nervous: The proximity of the deep end or the manic energy of an unfamiliar group. We should probably go get her, I said. But when we looked over again she'd appeared to have just finished a hilarious story and was giving everyone double high-fives.

Eventually Marie brought Ava back to us in the shallow end, where we'd been studiously trying to avoid getting roped into conversations with anyone our own age, especially the chatty Norwegian fellow and his gropey daughter. Poor Ava, already cool at 3 years old*, was once again marooned with her dud parents. Have mercy on your dear Dad in his riding-up bathing suit and a Mommy who thinks it's amusing to arrange a cape of wet hair over my face and put my sunglasses on over it and then ask the family about our goals for the year ahead.

*As if! You're the one who picked out those new Chubby Checker sunglasses and continues to fight with your father that it is now safe to look directly into the Texas sun. Also, remind me when you're 11 that every time you left the house as a child you insisted that we all put our hands in the middle and cheer "Sunglasses power activate!" ("Form of a nerd!" says Dad.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

An Argument for Nurture

What a happy and relaxed family of three, delighting in the butterfly exhibit. Nerds to the core, y'all.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Hair Story

Yesterday I took my girl to the hair salon. It was our first trip together, and the man who ran the shop came recommended by another local adoptive mom. Ava is fairly tender-headed—though she's developed some real endurance over the last two years—and I wasn't sure how she'd hold up with a stranger taking hold of her tresses. So I really talked up our visit to Mr. Greg and how fun it was going to be and what a big girl she was and that I would pack not one but two lollipops in my shorts pocket.

Neither of us really knew what to expect. I think Ava imagined a delightful afternoon of lollipops and simply another person in her life cooing over her beauty. I assumed I'd act a little awkward and high-pitched while trying to gracefully turn down any and all suggestions of relaxing treatments. An hour would pass; we'd emerge back into the sunlight with Ava's hair perhaps done in a far better set of box braids than I could've managed in three times the amount of time. Hooray! Rite of passage, check.

Mr. Greg was awfully nice, a big booming type of a guy prone to loud claps. I liked him immediately. He got Ava up on a cushioned plank placed on the arms of a stylist chair and started feeling her hair. Her scalp looked great, he determined. Her hair was terrifically healthy. Well wasn't I feeling like the cock of the walk. Then he pronounced that her coil pattern is simply too tight to justify the length of her hair. Her hair would always be prone to matting and tangling and eventual dreading and we really should cut it. Cut it? But her magnificent puffs!

Cut it. It wasn't fair to me or to her, Mr. Greg said, not to choose a hairstyle that worked with her hair. She was not meant to have long hair. But, I stammered, you said her hair was healthy and my understanding is that in his (our?) culture black girls with short hair are frowned upon and wasn't this what I signed up for when I became Ava's mother? Her hair might be high maintenance but that was part of the deal. It was my job to spend time each morning detangling and conditioning. It's my job to spend a few hours on Sunday attempting a new style that will hold nicely for a few days. He told me to get a new job.

At this point I was really flummoxed and I could tell Mr. Greg was starting to tire of my hand-wringing. I hate it when people think I'm nuts. (And yet it happens so often!) He had me look at a bunch of pictures of black women with short hair (and I mean to the scalp short). Did I not think they were beautiful? Well of course I do, I said, but they're grown women who've made a style choice for themselves, not because their nervous white mama made them go short, and they've also chosen to pair their look with makeup and big jewelry. Well pierce her ears, said Mr. Greg. Pierced ears would cut down on people calling her a boy or teasing her or questioning her sexuality. At this point in the afternoon I may have been quivering as I watched Mr. Greg put two little marker dots on Ava's ears and take out his hydrogen peroxide and piercing kit. I stupidly telegraphed my discomfort by telling Ava that this was going to pinch. Well that really made Greg shake his head in disapproval. So now Greg was growing weary, Ava scared and I'm ashamed to admit that I was on the brink of tears.

"I really think I should talk to Ava's Dad about all this before I do anything," I said. He handed me the phone. I left poor Tim a message and sent him a text, hoping that he'd get a break on set in time to see my SOS. Just as Mr. Greg was about to shoot the gun into Ava's ear/my heart I managed to catch my breath and call cut.

Mr. Greg allowed himself a little groan of exasperation. It's just that I expected my job that day to be advocating for kind treatment of her beautiful, natural hair, I tried to explain. But somehow I found myself arguing the other position, while this black man was encouraging me to broaden my concept of beauty, culture be damned. Poor Mr. Greg, trying to do the right thing. I'm so grateful to him for disavowing relaxers and banning them from his salon. I'm so impressed by his determination to run a shop whose mission is to reteach a culture how to love and respect their natural beauty. He was tired of black women thinking of their hair as the enemy. When he stopped relaxing hair at his salon he said most of his clients were not just mad, they came to think of him as the AntiChrist. Now he specializes in Sisterlocks. Yes to all of this!

And yet what to do with my three year old girl? Girls have long hair. Black girls especially, or so was my impression. Shouldn't Ava have braids or twists or rows, no matter the cost or, I don't mean this, do I?, the demands put on her patience and pain threshold. And if I'm being brutally honest with myself, is my hesitation really just because I think A) she won't look as pretty with short hair and I get an inordinate amount of pleasure at the number of people who remark on her adorableness and B) black women will look disapprovingly at me for cutting her hair. Hmm, A and B aren't really about Ava at all, are they? I'm such a dick.

I paid my $25 consultation fee and promised Mr. Greg we'd be in touch again. I'm at such a loss of what to do.

Tim was so happy he didn't come home to his little girl with gold posts in her ears.

How I do love that puff.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

First trip to the emergency room

Last night Tim and Ava took Tulip for a walk after dinner. I decided to stay back at home so I could stumble around the internet in peace. One friend's status update bemoaned her child's vomiting; another her boy's broken arm. And literally just as I was thinking how we'd been spared any real scares I heard a siren-like wail crash up into the house. Tim was yelling for me, saying that Ava had taken a header on the street and that it was very bad. My body went dark and I shut my eyes very tight. No, no, no. But there she was in Tim's arms, sobbing for me, a golf ball sized lump already shiny on her forehead. "I want to go to the doctor," I remember groaning, my voice like a cat about to fight. "I want to go to the doctor, I want to go to the doctor."

Tim grabbed a pack of frozen peas, I put a popsicle in Ava's little hand ("open it for her," Tim had to remind me). The emergency room is just a two minute drive and during that time Ava became rather pleased with her popsicle and intrigued about our adventure. There was no line in the waiting room and we were sitting on a hospital bed within five minutes of arrival.* The nurses were lovely; the doctor a reassuring mix of stoic and good-humored as he checked for neurological damage and gave her a full body scan. Ava, magnificent child, was alert and focussed and curious. Doc pronounced her in good shape, though warned her lump would appear worse over the next 48 hours and her dinged up eye would most likely look like that of a fighter's in the morning. As we left she spelled out the bright red letters of EMERGENCY which made my eyes sting.

She slept in our bed so we could rouse her every 2-4 hours. I, a terrible sleeper on good nights, didn't sleep at all.

Somebody shoot me up nice with a horse tranquilizer because my heart just can't bear it.

The Morning After. (Lump is happily all but gone!)

A Day of Leisure and Rest.

*Only once did I seriously come close to losing it--when the lock-jawed, idiot-face receptionist who typed with one finger wouldn't tell my child her name. "What's your name?" Ava asked her. "What's yours?" she said. "Ava, what's yours?" my baby whispered. "What's yours?" the woman said a few more times. Lady, tell her your god damned name or this clipboard goes down your throat.