Brother From Another Mother

By: Wendy Rhein

“Who is THAT?”

“This is Nathan’s brother, Sam.”

“He isn’t Nathan’s real brother!  He doesn’t look anything like you.”

And so started my Friday evening.  Actually, let me back up.  My evening started when I dashed out of work for daycare pick up.  I walked into the happy and bright room and saw a handful of little people surrounding a daycare worker, a substitute, and together they were studying something orange and fuzzy.   I hung back, loving the look on Sam’s face when he sees me at the end of the day.  The biggest smile creeps over his face and he explodes with a running leap to me.

He saw me, smiled, and as he started his dash, the substitute daycare worker stepped in front of him.   She glared at me and asked who I was.  Meanwhile Sam is behind her yelling happily “Mama! Mama!”  I replied to her I am Mama.   She looked at Sam, wide eyed, and then looked at me with narrowing eyes.  And looked back at him.   He scooted around her legs and ran towards me but by this point my excitement over his excitement had been tarnished.  We proceeded to walk around the room and gather his end of the week things: a random art project, his red baseball cap.   The worker followed me around the room as I followed Sam.   I wondered if she thought she could catch me not knowing where things were or trapping him in the coat room.   I was tempted to say something but held back.  This isn’t the first time my parenting link with Sam has been questioned by an African American  woman, just as I have written before about Caucasian people raising a questioning eye.  It goes both ways, folks.

Just in the moment that I wanted to remind her that there were four other 2-year-olds that could use her attention, one of the regular class leaders came in and greeted me by name.  Immediately the watchful woman hung back and sat down.   I admit I felt a little smug in the moment.  Sad but smug.  Is that possible?

Once we were home, I was greeted by the conversation above from a 7-year-old playmate of Nathan’s.   Within a minute of the comment his parent arrived to take him home and none too soon.  My mom went on to tell me of the other things that had been said that day, judgments flying as soon as he walked in our home.  The most hurtful of which involved Nathan not having a father (the kid’s words, not mine) and that Nathan could never be a Jedi or a ninja (the two most sought after career options of 7-year-old boys) because only dads can teach those skills, not moms.   Nathan, bless him, countered with the simple statement that his mom is an incredible Sensei and a Jedi Master (which I am) and his training has been excellent.

His training in self respect and self restraint is clearly excellent.

His Master and Sensi, however, needs a refresher.

I waited for several hours and let the comments fester.  I reached out to a single mom friend of mine with a multiracial family and we discussed options.   I was frustrated and hurt and angry and yes, feeling lacking as a parent to not be able to prevent these kinds of lobs of divisiveness that still surprise me.   More often than not I expect it from adults – the mean spirited comments, the looks, the “he doesn’t belong to you” stares.  I expect more of children.  I have seen so many of them ask questions out of curiosity and wonder, accepting the answers that we give about fathers and colors as if they make perfect sense.  Because they do make perfect sense.   Families are all different and it is love that makes a family.   Or, as Nathan said about his friend’s comment on his brother:  he was born to a different mother, so what?  He’s my brother no matter what.

In the end, I wrote the parents of the child a cordial and careful email, explaining that comments were made that caused some hurt and I hoped they would work with me to address them because our kids have a special bond and I would hate for these things to get in the way.   I monitored myself very carefully.  I chose my words to make my point and not to give life to the rant that was ping ponging around my brain.   In their response the parents were horrified and apologetic.  They swore they didn’t understand where that language and thought was coming from, and I believe them.   They would speak to him.  They would work it out.

In the day that followed my email Nathan had all but forgotten the comments made.  He had dismissed the no dad/no ninja comment as some silly and uninformed quip.    He knew better, he said.  And yet, he remained upset by the comment about Sam.  A full 24 hours later he said that he was so glad that Sam was little and couldn’t understand what was said because he knew it would hurt him more than it hurt Nathan, and that was already a lot of hurt.   What better demonstration of a brother’s love could anyone want?

Two days later Nathan and I went to see them to have a quick chat – after multiple attempts the child remembered he needed to apologize for saying ‘something’ that hurt Nathan’s feelings.   Was I satisfied?  Not really.  Am I expecting change?  Unlikely.   Am I incredibly thankful for the loving and courageous friends of all races, family compositions, ages and genders who are raising inquisitive and caring children for whom something different is not something wrong?  Absolutely.   All y’all know who you are.   Thank you.

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Comments

  1. says

    I think in this day and age it is sad that this has to be even a discussion but it does. I think you handled it wonderfully but Nathan even better by thinking about it and dismissing it for himself but worried about his brother. I love your parenting skills and I know you will always come up with something that lessons the pain but still makes people accountable for their actions towards your kids. It is all about education. Here in LA, my grand kids accept it all as they see it all in their classrooms. I talk about all different kinds of families because this is what I do.:)

  2. Mark Hagland says

    Hi, Wendy–

    I just wanted to lend you my support, and perhaps a few insights. My name is Mark, and I’m 51, and a gay man who is the non-custodial father of a biological child, my beautiful 10-year-old daughter. I was born in South Korea and adopted, along with my twin brother, by white Americans of northern European heritage in Wisconsin in the 1960s and 1970s. What you are experiencing over and over is what I experienced growing up (and still experience sometimes as an adult), and that is what has been called the “narrative burden” of transracial adoptees, bi- and multiracial individuals, and multiracial families–in short, the constant need to explain ourselves to others. Imagine how it was for me in Wisconsin in the 1960s and 1970s, with a tall Norwegian-American father, a stocky German-American mother, and two tiny crewcut-headed Korean boys, as a family. No one EVER thought we were a family. People constantly asked my parents, “Whose children are those???” The “best” we got was, to our parents, “Are those your grandchildren?” As a result, I grew up with a tremendous sense of insecurity around my physical self-image, particularly my face, which I retain to this day, though thankfully, decades later, I’ve been able to transmogrify that into something positive, as I speak every year at the KAAN Conference for Korean adoptees, adoptive families, etc. I would be very glad to dialogue with you about strategies going forward with your sons in terms of how to handle the narrative burden. Just e-mail me at mhagland@aol.com anytime. Meanwhile, I think you handled the situation you described here, beautifully. But you know, of course, that it will come up all the time, for many years. It’s just what you and your sons and I and all the other people who don’t easily fit into categories will always have to deal with. Best wishes to you! –Mark Hagland

  3. says

    Thanks Marks for your wonderful contribution. Please feel free to add your dialogue to any of our stories. Please check out our other adoption writers.

  4. says

    Wendy,

    This happens to me ALL the time but in a different way. My husband is black and I am white. Our daughter is 17 and from the time she was a baby until now, if I am with her by myself there is ALWAYS confusion. I have been asked by little children why we are different colors, I have been questioned by people as to my authority when it comes to her, I have been asked if she is adopted and on and on. I am so used to it now it doesn’t surprise me at all when it happens. When innocent children make comments I tend to say, “that is just how God made us.” They tend to say, “oh, okay” and go about their business. When adults make comments, depending on the situation. I either use it as a teaching moment or I just clarify very clearly that we are mama and daughter. We have a long way to go as a society when it comes to being open-minded and ending racism. You are doing all the right things by communicating clearly to your kiddos with love and honesty and also by taking care of issues in a kind way when they arise. Keep doing what you are doing. It won’t end but it will get better and easier. It’s families like ours that are part of the change. This is a good thing!

    Amy Wise
    Interracial Fams

  5. Tony Brown says

    Hi Wendy. As I’m getting older I’m realizing that can settle in and know that everything is all good. How stupid did I feel as me, my 11 year old son, and a friend of his went to the grocery store. My son said “Dad, I feel like the friend instead of the son” because his friend was a little darker skinned than me and my son is bi-racial. I started to be hurt knowing that I’ve been here for him for his whole life but I paused. I dismissed it like a raindrop and my son will probably never remember saying it in the future.

    Now as I progress my perspective is changing. I’m learning that many adults are worried about saying something received as an ignorant or racist comment. I was in a McDonald’s a few days ago and a 40+ year old white male was in the restaurant at 6am with what might have been his teenaged adoptive daughter. I kept feeling her looking at me. I was so perplexed. “Was this a sign of distress?” I thought. “Was she looking at me in an attempt to get my attention?” I was so torn as I waited for my food. But she’s a teenager so I can’t say anything to her or else I risk looking like a middle-aged pervert my damned self. So I made a decision to memorize all the clothing both of them were wearing and keep it in mind while watching the news over the next months. It was soooo stressful trying not to look racist but wanting to talk so I could get a name or two. See, I wanted to protect the young lady and assess whether the man was a threat, yet I wondered how many stares that they endure daily from people who might not understand. While she looked at me, I could not for the life of me get the man to make eye contact with me just so I could give a simple greeting of the day. Since I could not comfortably exchange pleasantries with either the teen girl or the dad, I just went about my way praying that I didn’t leave the young lady feeling forlorn or helpless.

    So I’ve determined that I’ll continue walking around with my son totally oblivious of what people might think as to whether he’s mine or not. The more comfortable I appear, the less likely I am to end up being detained by police officers because of concerned, well-intending fellow citizens. Living life as a black man is enough of a challenge without worrying about what folks think. But then again, we’re not very well known in America for taking other people’s children either. LOL. It also helps that my son talks a lot and most sentences start with “Dada…”

    I do fear for daycare workers though. I remember having friends who worked at a daycare center and the pressure is on them to keep control of things. Most of the workers fear letting a child out of their area to possibly be taken by a distant relative, angry other parent, or worse. Only you would know the attitude of the woman at the center. Jenn and I went through numerous daycare facilities over the years and nearly every time there was a period of discomfort with different daycare workers. We just made sure to always make ourselves known by everybody that we could. Once the introductions are made, it always smoothes out in the end. So keep your head up. Your family is more unique than most, but I remember each time we moved how the folks would compare my 3 sons and try to figure out how we had a rainbow colored children from almost white, to very bright, and very tan. Enjoy the ride and humor yourself along the way. Once you show your comfort level most of the world tends to relax also.

    Much love to you all.

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