For a Different Kind of Family, We Are Really Just the Same
By: Stacy Clark
I am a 44-year-old mother of two daughters. One daughter shares my genes, reflects my blue eyes and wheat-colored hair (though I pay for my golden highlights now). The other exquisitely Asian daughter was adopted from China and shares my heart. When our family, which includes my blue-eyed husband from Connecticut, goes out and about in our suburban Florida neighborhood, we cause ripples in the ordinary. Ours is an adoptive, biological, multicultural, biracial family—and it shows.
Or something like that. The truth is, we may look visibly different, but we are a family same as any. Our family did not set out to represent any label. I’m not even sure what those terms really mean. But the truth also is, our family embodies a uniqueness that never ceases to surprise, sometimes sadden, and often delight us.
Not long ago we had one of those multicultural family moments. My daughter, Hanna, and I sat at the coffee table doing her first-grade homework. One of the assignments was to write down where her ancestors are from, if known. Hanna tapped her pencil in thought, her straight black hair falling over her face. While I wondered which ancestors she’d choose, Hanna was working out how to spell China.
“Oh, wait, I know how to spell China,” she said. “It’s on my lunchbox… even on my underwear! Look!” Hanna squirmed around, tugging the panties out of her jeans.
For the record, the panties were from Thailand. But we found that the lunchbox, a pair of socks and a toy guitar were Made in China. “Just like me!” Hanna squealed.
Technically Hanna was “made” in China. This is what we were told: Our daughter was born in a village in a southeastern province of China on a winter night. By the next morning, she was found outside the gates of a social welfare institute. She was taken in, given a name meaning “winter mushroom”, and placed into foster care, until my husband, older daughter, and I came along nine and a half months later.
Suddenly, in adopting this baby girl, our family of three Caucasians became four Americans —one of whom is also Asian. We are one family now made of two races and two cultures. She became a part of our world, but we also became a part of hers. Now we think about things we hadn’t before, such as where we buy our underwear.
In the months after we brought our daughter home from China, our family evoked glances and whispers whenever we went places together. The four of us were like a walking poster family for international adoption. Honestly, I did not mind. I was so sleep-deprived and fluent in baby talk then, I appreciated the adult conversation.
Besides, people were usually polite, always kind, and occasionally told us stories about their children who had been adopted, too. More than once a teary-eyed woman tapped me on the shoulder at the grocery store wanting to know about my adoption experience, usually because she was considering adopting a child herself. The markedly visible differences between Hanna and me gave rise to some beautiful conversations —and I hope some even more beautiful mother-child relationships.
Either the glances have faded, or I have stopped noticing, because I often forget there is anything unusual about our family. These days, some six years after adopting our daughter from China, our everyday lives are much like any family living in our palm-lined neighborhood about an hour inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Our kids go to school and theater, dance class and piano lessons, riding the minivan shuttle up and down the main boulevard. Like the other moms, I drive my kids to and fro, racing upstairs to my office to work while they’re in school. Months will go by while I am making lunches and meeting deadlines and trying to be a somewhat balanced, mostly showered human being. Then, a school assignment about a “Family Tree” or a whispered question at the club pool will remind me how different we are.
“Is she your mom?” a child will ask Hanna. “How come she does not look like you?” Or Kathryn, the daughter who does look like me, will introduce her little sister, and the person’s face will wrinkle in confusion. Sometimes people will say, “Who is her real mom?” and I will cringe and breathe. It’s in a moment like this I will pull out those terms “birthmother” and “adoptive mother” that I otherwise don’t like so much. They beat the alternative: being Kathryn’s “real” mother and Hanna’s “unreal” one.
Anyone who has adopted a child, or knows someone who has, surely knows there is nothing unreal about being an adoptive parent. We give real hugs and put real Band-Aids on real skinned knees. Our love and worry for our children is as real as it gets. On the other hand, there are some real differences, too.
I wish I could tell those women who tapped my shoulder in the grocery store all I have learned about being a biological and adoptive mother in a multicultural, biracial family of four. It sounds ridiculous, even to me. Yet, strip the cumbersome labels away and it’s who I am.
All I wanted to do was have a second child. When I ended up adopting her from another country, I entered another world. Unwittingly, I became an ambassador to this new place and a translator of these odd terms that now describe my family. I know about things now such as an adjustment period (translate to three months’ of hair-raising crying –mostly Hanna, some me) and the attachment process (beginning in a moonlit moment when Hanna stopped crying and, instead of straining away, nuzzled close). Now, along with birthdays and Christmas and the Fourth of July, I celebrate occasions such as “Gotcha Day” and Chinese New Year. I have made moon cakes and Chinese lanterns, and a million mistakes.
I never know quite how to respond when people say awkward or insensitive things to me about adoption. Even innocent things such as, Hanna is “lucky” to have been adopted. I know who the lucky one is (me) and about the sad layers of unluckiness surrounding Hanna’s birth and abandonment. Sometimes I’m patient and brilliant, but often I say nothing right or everything wrong.
I am in lifelong boot camp training for parenthood and learning as I go.
On the fly, I have explained to a three-year-old why my eyes are sky blue and hers are chocolate brown. I’ve told a four-year-old why she was born in another mother’s tummy. I’ve looked a five-year-old deep in her brown eyes and said I understand your sense of longing for a woman you have not seen since birth. I once tried to explain to a six-year-old, “No I did not buy you in China.” And when I inadvertently said she was priceless, she shouted, “They had a price list?!” Oh yes. I’ve held the hand of a seven-year-old tightly as she told me her face is round and the other kids at school have oval faces. And, I know the harder conversations are still to come.
Nope, I never expected how different life would be after adopting a child from the other side of the skies. Going in, having birthed a child and raised her for seven years, I thought I knew something about parenting. Adopting a second child taught me how much I would never know.
Maybe because I have both a birthed a child and adopted one, I can see how much biological and adoptive parenting is exactly alike, and not at all the same. Issues arise when parenting. Sometimes I can tell what is adoption-related and what is just a kid thing. Sometimes I can’t. One thing I am absolutely sure of from this dual vantage point is this: though I may love each child differently, there is no difference in how much I love my children.
I also know I would not have my different kind of family be any other way. Different also means not the same. I remember my husband and I trying to explain who we were in an interview during the adoption process. We are not the same people we were back then. We are far more giving and open-minded, loving and patient and real than we had ever thought. Likewise, our daughter Kathryn had to surrender her only-child status to a disarmingly adorable Asian sister and along the way deepened her generosity and compassion.
That’s the thing about becoming something out of the ordinary. By standing apart, we can look back and see how much we have changed. By embracing differences in race and culture in our family, we can look out and see the world newly. Still, we do not see ourselves as multicultural, adoptive or different. We’re just us.
Once, a year or so ago, I asked Hanna to describe our family. She said it better than I ever could. “That’s easy, Mommy. We are group of people who love each other.”
Stacy Clark is a writer and mother of two daughters, by birth and adoption. She writes on The Yin and the Yang: Life After International Adoption and blogs about life in an adoptive family at This Side of the Skies.
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