This is my contribution to the topic of CONSPICUOUS. Have you linked to yours yet? LINK! And okay, this one doesn't get a cup-of-tea warning, it gets an entire kettle-of-tea warning. This topic was more complicated than I expected. Sorry.
I never used to be conspicuous
My appearance is almost aggressively average. White skin, mid-length brown hair, brown eyes, medium build. No piercings. When I'm on my own, people's eyes always slide right over me, and that's absolutely fine. That's the way I like it. And until I was thirty, I lived my life in a pleasant, safe bubble of anonymity. Being anonymous meant I could go back to the same shop twelve times in a week to stroke their handbags or try on clothes I couldn't afford or order complicated coffees and nobody would care because nobody would remember me. It was awesome. It was easy. And then we adopted Pink and Blue.
Suddenly I became very conspicuous
What I mean, of course, is that we all became conspicuous
But I can only talk with any authority about what it means for me. I have all kinds of theories about what it might mean for my children as they grow up, and of course this is issue that cramps up my heart the most. But this is pretty much all going to be about me because that's what I'm qualified to talk about.
I probably don't need to say
That your mileage may vary. You don't live where I live (otherwise, I wouldn't be so conspicuous. Ha). You're not introverted me. You may not have two kids. You may have some white kids, too. Thousands of things will different about your life and mine. But this is the way it is for me.
It's not about them, it's about us
We do not live in Whitesville, and I'm really glad of it. In our town, we have a lot of Black British and African immigrant families. If my kids had black parents, people would still gasp at their beauty (she said modestly) but I don't think they would remember them the way they do now. My children are not the only dark-skinned, curly-haired twins in town. But they are the only dark-skinned, curly-haired twins with a white mother and that means we get a lot of attention. This is especially true because we walk everywhere, so we are exposed. I rarely drive because our house is so central, so we don't have a car-bubble to keep the adoring public away.
The attention we face is because people wonder how we got together; they don't wonder why my dark-skinned children are here at all. This distinction feels important to me.
It's not all in my head
I'm definitely not imagining the attention. I know that people love to talk to women with children, and I can't calibrate my current experience against any other version of motherhood. But I go out with friends - white mothers with white babies - and strangers approach us and only talk to me and my kids, blanking everyone else in a way that defies all the normal rules of politeness. There's one coffee shop I go to regularly with my friend H and her little boy and the waitress always, always tells us how much she loves my twins and how BIG they are getting. I'm glad she loves them, and yes they are getting big, but little Oswald (not his real name! Fortunately!) is sitting right there and she just ignores him. Every time. It makes me squirm with embarrassment. And that kind of differentiated attention is the rule, not the exception.
It seems to me that
Being conspicuous turns any town into a small town. I have never wanted to live in a small town.
Overall, I find it draining
For me, the hardest thing about being conspicuous is that I can't switch it off. There are no days off from being That Family. Every time I am out with my children, we are noticeable. Not just when I'm in a good mood and the sun is shining and they are happily waving Hurrow! and Buh-bye! to everyone they meet, but also when we're running late and one of them is screaming and I want to sink into a deep, dark hole and never resurface. On those days, I do not want to have to interact with strangers who think that they know me because they have seen me around. Some days, being conspicuous is exhausting.
Sometimes when I'm out on my own without the children, I get an unexpected rush when the blood flows away from my muscles and I suddenly, unconsciously relax because I realise that nobody is looking at me. Most of the time I don't think about being on show, but my subconscious is aware of it even when it's not really on my mind.
Yes, I realise
That my children are going to have the same experience. One day they are going to wake up and realise that they will have an easier day if they go out without their white parents.
Sometimes nice things happen
The only person we have ever had come up to us out of the blue and speak Amharic to the children was a white guy. He politely greeted them in Amharic, told us that he used to live in Ethiopia , and then he was gone. The whole interaction was very quick, and absolutely pitch-perfect on his part. Not a word about adoption or luck or famine or families or anything. It was one of my two favourite stranger experiences.
My other favourite was just as quick. I was pushing the too-heavy stroller up the small hill to the park in the middle of town, feeling cranky and tired and muddled and worn out. In the opposite direction came a black guy in about his mid-twenties, carrying a briefcase and wearing a pin-striped suit and looking sharp and professional and together and everything that I wasn't. Suddenly he flashed me a grin and said you have got two VERY good-looking children and before I could think I grinned back and said I know. And suddenly, I did know. I knew it because he said it and it made my day. And he never would have said it if he hadn't noticed us, if we weren't so blindingly conspicuous.
And sometimes weird things happen
Like the time a very loud (probably deaf) woman approached me in the library and shouted SO! ARE YOU MARRIED TO A BLACK MAN? in the middle of all the quiet. She wasn't having a go at me, she was just curious, and maybe a tiny bit insane. So I shouted back NO! MY HUSBAND IS WHITE! And then felt compelled to add BUT IT WOULD TOTALLY BE FINE IF HE WAS NOT! and then yes, I pretty much wanted the ground to swallow me up. Good work, mama.
Yeah, or the woman who thought that the child in the ergo (I had one in the stroller, too) was actually a doll. A life-sized doll. That I was carrying in an ergo. She didn't want to accept that it was a real child. Extremely freaky.
Generally, though, I would say 99% of our interactions with strangers are netural-to-positive
I don't find it easy being the centre of attention but I need to make it clear that at least 99% of our interactions are positive. People smile when they see us. They say kind things to us. They regularly tell me how beautiful my children are. I was really prepared for some overt hostility, for the need to justify who we are, but it just hasn't come. I suspect this may largely be a function of where we live. I am beginning to realise that I can acknowledge being conspicuous is difficult without having to think that these interactions are sinister. It truly is exhausting to be the celebrities around town, but that doesn't mean the people who are noticing us are doing anything wrong.
Despite all the positivity, or perhaps because of it:
Sometimes, after the fiftieth white person has told me 'your kids are so beautiful!' I get a bit prickly and think 'I wish people would stop objectifying my children and treating them like exotic pets!' But then someone who shares their brown skin and spirally hair tells me exactly the same thing - 'your kids are so beautiful!' and I think 'what a nice lady!' Which is incredibly inconsistent of me. I've also realised that I cut black strangers a LOT of slack for saying crazy adoption-related stuff that would offend me hugely if it came from a white stranger. I assume the best. Which is good, but I need to extend that benefit of the doubt to the crazy white people too, surely? Why the distinction? Sometimes I suspect that I feel a need to be finding covert racism in every interaction – or at least a fair number of them – in order to be approve of myself as a good transracial mother. This is a terrible attitude and I need to sort myself out about it.
(On the other hand
I have come to realise that there is no relationship – none at all – between how much people adore my children's 'beautiful brown skin' and how willing they are to really grapple with issues of race in society. This shouldn't surprise me, but it does. Some of the people who are most enamoured of my children's beautiful skin – and they aren't faking it, I'm certain – are the least willing to examine what it will mean for these kids to go through life wearing it).
Hardly any strangers have tried to touch my children's hair.
We are much more conspicuous if our whole family goes out together. When only one parent is there, there are lots of reasons why one of us might have brown kids. When we are both there, people are much more confused. I'd say we get more attention, but fewer people approach us.
As I write this paragraph, I'm in a coffee shop on my own. Sitting in the bay window on a pair of coffee sacks are a mother and teenage daughter (I think) who are brown and white, like my daughter and me. I keep sneaking glances at them while they read their books, but I'm trying to stop myself because I don't want to become the story that they go home and tell, you know? The crazy racist staring lady. It makes me wonder how many people who look at me have a reason for doing it. Maybe they are looking into their own future like I am right now; maybe they are looking at their past.
My favourite part about being conspicuous
I love being acknowledged by older black women around town. I have lost count of the number of times an older woman, passing us, has given me the eye-contact-head-dip-slight-smile that feels like it's saying keep up the good work. The presence of these older women around me is my main motivator for paying attention to my children's hair.
The attention is definitely tapering
Lately I've noticed that people look at us a lot less than they did when the twins were tiny. There's some strange magnetic force that babies exert over people's attention that is dwindling a little as they become toddlers. People still tell us how utterly adorable they are, all the time. But when they were really little, people would actually stop and stare. Once I went through the train station with J, and he went on ahead to the platform while I stopped to buy tickets from the machine. This meant I was about 50 metres behind him, and as I walked towards him I heard the people he had passed all saying to each other 'did you see those twins?' I was half-horrified, half-proud. It was intense. Things are definitely less intense now. For which I am extremely grateful. I'm glad Pink and Blue won't remember being the object of that much attention.
But there's still quite a lot of it
Even though people are mostly well meaning and positive, we do get asked a lot of questions, and sometimes this wears me down. I get frustrated that I've gently educated on the same topic again and again and again and that makes me impatient with the next person who asks. But this new person hasn't actually asked me before, and there's very little transracial adoption in this country so it's likely we're the first transracial adoptive family they've met. And why should people know about adoption stuff, why should they be educated about a topic that they haven't had any prior exposure to? Nothing is really a dumb question if you're starting from zero. Even when the question itself isn't appropriate, I've been really impressed by how graciously individuals tend to back off when I've explained this. Being aggressive about it, or getting offended doesn't really do anybody any good. Not me, not the stranger, not my kids. Once upon a time, I didn't know those questions were intrusive, and people took the trouble to educate me. I'm sure I wasn't the first person they educated; I'm sure I wasn't the last. And now it's my turn.
After all, there is no such person as The Public. Telling one person doesn't make a blind bit of difference to the next. The public only find things out one person at a time. That's slow and frustrating for me, but that's just the way it works. Expecting the guy I meet today to know something because I talked to someone else about it yesterday? Unreasonable. I might have been educating people for two years, but this particular guy has been learning for about ten seconds.
That doesn't mean that I don't think some people are crazy
They are; there's no getting around it. And conspicuous people attract a lot more crazy because we attract a lot more of everything. Working out who is okay-crazy and who is run-away-quickly crazy can be a finely balanced thing. There should be some kind of warning device you can buy, but there's not.
Probably a lot of this seems obvious
But if I've learned one thing out of my experience of being conspicuous, it's that people feel a compulsion to comment on the very, very obvious - telling my six foot four husband that he's tall, as if he hadn't noticed - and people forget that the most obvious thing about the person they are talking to, whatever it is that they noticed first about that person, is also the most obvious thing to everyone else that person has ever met. That person has undoubtedly talked ad nauseam about whatever that is and probably doesn't need someone else to say Sooooo..... you're very tall / I see that you're wearing a pirate hat / I can't help noticing that you have a birthmark on your arm in the exact shape of a llama. Although if it is the one about the pirate hat, I suppose the person brought it upon themselves.
And it seems to me that people treat transracial adoption somewhere in between a pirate hat and a visible disability. Everyone notices it, most people want to talk about it, but people don't want to be the one to bring it up; they aren't quite sure if the topic is taboo. I've had very few strangers launch straight in with the so... where are they from? that I hear other adopters complaining about. Maybe it's a British thing, maybe we're all repressed. Here, in my experience, I have a lot of people asking me tangential questions that I think are aimed at leading me towards talking about adoption, towards sharing our story, but don't ask the question directly.
And of course I realise
That during all of these conversations, my children are sitting, watching, listening. That's what makes it so hard, of course. I tell myself that's why it makes me feel uncomfortable. It's not much fun thinking about how this kind of thing is going to affect our children, but I know that I have to be honest with myself and admit that when the weird things happen, not all my discomfort is because of the children. Its hard, but important, I think, to be excruciatingly honest here (as everywhere) and separate out what really is mama-bear defensiveness of my cubs, and what is pain that comes from my own past, my own stuff, my own junk. Being constantly reminded how different my family is has the tendency to stir up a mixture of feelings that isn't always easy. To be blunt - prospective adoptive parents - I think that if you would not be comfortable walking around with a placard that says 'please make assumptions about my fertility', you will probably personally struggle with the conspicuousness that comes from being a transracial family, and it's tempting to project all of that onto your kids. Even if you feel like that page has been turned, and you aren't struggling with significant grief about fertility stuff any more, that doesn't mean it's easy to talk about. When you're mother to kids who don't 'match', all the painful things that you never wanted to talk about are suddenly on show to the entire world, all the time.
(Oh, and that reminds me:
Those of you who did NOT have any struggles with fertility need to think very hard about how you will respond when people assume that you did. Please do it graciously and I beg you, don't be smug about your awesome lady parts. For the rest of us. Okay?)
I think where I'm going with that earlier point is here:
Honestly - I think a lot of the ire that comes out when people complain about the crazy things that people say to their families is really about us as parents, not our kids. If I feel insecure or have unresolved grief about not having biological kids, when people notice us and say crazy stuff to us it can sound like people are telling me that after everything we've been through, all the years of difficulty, I'm still not really a mother. And if that's what I'm hearing, then yeah, that's painful. For me. But it's not really about my kids, although making it sound like it's about my kids gives me a great excuse to get angry about it. You know that old saw about how adoption does not cure infertility? True dat. And when adoption makes your infertility conspicuous, it can sort of do the reverse. It's personally humiliating for me when people I've never met before want to tell me how I'll get pregnant next time, or say other things that stir up difficult and painful parts of my own life when all I wanted to do was take my kids for a walk. I think it can make us angry when people notice us, not because it's necessarily doing any actual harm to our kids, but because it's hard for us to be reminded that we are different. It's all jumbled up together, of course, but I think this is a risk worth being aware of. If I'm going to teach my kids anything about how to be comfortable with conspicuousness, I need to be honest enough to work through my own feelings about how it affects me.
Because after all
Who should we really be angry at, if we are angry? Who put our kids in this situation? We did. Let me say it again: WE DID. We chose this life for them. They didn't choose it, of course, but neither did the people at the supermarket. We chose this life for them, and then people notice us. Why shouldn't they? After all:
People are not stupid. People know how babies are made.
People know how babies are made. And when they look at two white parents with a brown baby, of course they know we didn't make that baby. I think that as adopters it's very easy to normalise adoption, to forget that it's actually a very strange thing that we're doing. It is not the norm for a child to have skin that is a different colour from both his parents, and no amount of positive adoption language will make that fact disappear. I don't think we do our kids any favours when we pretend that our unusual family structures is not unusual, or that people who notice it are necessarily ignorant or mean. Normal isn't the same as real. Seeing that we're not normal doesn't mean my family isn't real. And we are not normal. And I need to come to terms with that before I can help my children to do so.
(Unusual isn't the same as bad
Obviously. Normal would be nice, certainly, but I remain convinced that our family was the best of the available options for my kids).
But while I'm saying uncomfortable things, I might as well lob this one in:
I found that, especially when our children were newly home, I didn't want to go to very many mother-and-baby groups, or very much of anywhere. This was partly sleep deprivation and partly twin-shock, but it was at least slightly because it's exhausting meeting a group of strangers when you know everyone is going to be interested in your story. One of the ironies here is that the more uncomfortable you feel being conspicuous, the more likely you are to stay entrenched in a small circle of old friends who already know you and your kids and your story; where you won't have to explain yourself. If you're like me, this is probably a small circle of white friends. In this way, being a transracial, conspicuous family can actually make it less likely that you will get out there and make diverse group of new friends after your child is home, no matter what you told the social worker during the homestudy. Another risk that I hadn't thought about. I would encourage my fellow white mamas to be aware of it.
Speaking of fellow white mamas
It has crossed my mind that one day, Blue might marry someone with skin like mine. If that happens, and they have kids, I will have a daughter-in-law who has to do her own coming to terms with changing from an anonymous white girl to a conspicuous mother of a brown baby. That is a weird thought. If that happens, I hope that many fewer heads will turn than is the case today.
But when all is said and done
I may not ever like being conspicuous but I've got to be at peace with it if I'm going to be any kind of a good mother to these kids.
And a thousand times over
I would rather be conspicuous with my children than anonymous without them.