Thursday, January 8, 2015

Race, And How It Impacts My Family

*Disclaimer: I keep rewriting this and trying to make it more cohesive, but I give up.*

 Let's talk race. 
Did you wince? It's not a popular topic. It's a hush-hush kind of thing, the type of blog post that you grimace at and skip over, because you know that reading it will make you uncomfortable. 
Buckle your seatbelt. 
There are so many things I have been wanting to write about; so many thoughts I want to share....and almost everything is a hard topic. Taboo subjects and the effects that these realities have on our families. Adoption "secrets",  shoved away and hidden beneath smiles through gritted teeth, and tears washed down the shower drain. 

I have a whole list of half finished posts. Some of them I can't finish because it is too hard to form the words. Too painful. Some are worded too harshly, written in in anger at the injustice of the world, and at the people who choose to ignore it. Truth, but truth that needs to be spoken with love. Some posts are just a fragment of a thought; one paragraph that brings pages of memories with it. So. Many. Posts.  

But today, the topic that tugs on my heart, is race. And the ignorance that accompanies it. 

As parents, we want to protect our kids from being hurt. As adoptive parents (and then if there are "special needs" on top of that), I think the instinct to protect is even stronger, because our kids have already dealt with more hurt in their short lives than is even imaginable to most people. For me, all I want to do is fix everything for my kids; to take away their pain. I want to shield them from the world and its cruelty, from the ignorance. But I can't. Despite my best efforts, my kids are constantly hurting. Pain from their past life, and pain from the present. And when my kids hurt, I hurt. 

One wound,  an old sore that is constantly reopening and bleeding, is race. 

Yeah, I said it. SKIN COLOR. 

When we decided to adopt, we had originally started with Guatemala. My family is Latina, and Abe and I honestly knew that with how hard adoption is, one thing that might make it easier was having a child that *might* look a little bit like us. It's hard enough to have all the struggles of adoption and parenting, but when your family is multiple skin colors, people are quick to notice you. Stare at you. Make assumptions. Question your family's legitimacy.  

Think about it. When you see a white woman with a white child in public, you barely even notice them. But if you see a white woman with a brown child, or a brown woman with a white child, you may have to remind yourself not to stare. Your mind probably goes three places, and maybe even in this order: babysitting, adoption, or interracial marriage. 

Our family is the center of attention wherever we go. And skin color is the first thing that gets us noticed. When we go out in public, people stare. I think in their eyes, we are a walking circus. Four skin shades, three languages (we try our best to keep Z's we use ASL so that catches people's eye anyway). I get it. We look weird. And the looks of surprise that we get don't bother me. 

What DOES bother me is when people look down their noses at us. Whisper about us. When people wrinkle their noses or flat out refuse to look at us. When those things happen, it isn't about age, or language or gender. It's about the fact that I have "white" skin, and they have brown. And it makes me sick. I don't care if people are staring at me. But I ache for my KIDS. They see it. They feel it. And they know the root of it. And it hurts them. Crushes their pride, makes them feel inferior, burns them with shame. And I get enraged. And very, VERY protective. 

Along with the stares, we face ignorance. 
Everywhere we go, people assume that I am babysitting. I understand why it's peoples' first guess. Even though it is 2014, people can't wrap their minds around multi-race families as the first possibility of why the five of us are in public together. And Abe and I are probably in the top ten percent of the youngest parents with the oldest children ever. Levi and Abe are just ten years apart. I joke that Levi and I are like Mary and Jesus. But the real issue is the assumptions people make after I say that I'm the kids' mom. People never believe me, and then when I confirm that the kids are mine, they assume that the word "MINE" means I physically gave birth to them. And then they have assumed that I sleep around, because I am so young with multiple older kids. And have said as much to me. What is WRONG with people?!?!?! There are multiple other scenarios that could have happened. Of course, adoption. But what if I had been raped as a young teen and gotten pregnant??? What if my kids were my half-siblings that I was raising because of some tragedy? There are plenty of reasons why I could be raising big kids. And every time someone makes a thoughtless comment, I ache for the innocent people in those other scenarios, who are hurt by this ignorance. When people finally realize that "mine" means MY children, but not from my stomach, they label us. To them, we are not a "real" family. We are not blood relatives. We are illegitimate. 
So we get stared at, questioned, and dismissed because of physical characteristics. Skin color, and age. And once it is confirmed that my kids are adopted (half the time we just let people assume whatever they want, just to save ourselves the hassle) people feel like it's okay to make insensitive comments. For some reason, being an adoptive family makes people feel like they have the right to ask us whatever they want about us. Almost as if they are demanding an explanation and we are defending why our family looks different from theirs. They ask deeply personal questions about adoption, our lives, and my kids' backgrounds. They ask inappropriate things. And often, they ask these questions when my kids are standing RIGHT THERE.

And we hate it. 

It's not that we don't want to talk about adoption, or that we are in denial about how our family came to be. It's that we'd really just love to sometimes be able to go out in public, and be seen as a FAMILY. Without being questioned or stared at. Without being stopped and having people criticize or gush over us. Without complete strangers trying to touch my childrens' hair. (What if someone you didn't know walked up to YOUR child and started rubbing their head or pulling their hair????) 
They ask where my kids "real" parents are. If they are orphans. If my kids are happy. How much they cost. They ask my kids if they like their new "mommy" and "daddy". If I have heard about such-and-such adoption horror story. Why we didn't adopt domestically. 
I'm sorry. I didn't know you could approach perfect strangers (or even friends) and ask these kinds of questions. Especially,  especially when my kids are standing RIGHT THERE. Did you have sex with anyone last night? How much do you weigh? Why did your spouse leave you? How much money do you make and what do you spend it all on? Do you tithe? Pretty sure you'd be super offended if I asked you such invasive questions....but that's exactly what you're doing to us. 
But I don't say those things. Because I honestly believe people are not TRYING to hurt us; they are just ignorant and not thinking before they speak. And for the sake of them learning how to correctly converse with future adoptive families, and not be so unwittingly cruel, I smile and just say, "I'm their mom, thanks." If they persist, I tell them "I have an adoption blog....I'd love to share it with you. It might answer some of your questions," and then I give them the link. Sometimes I say, "That's not information I can share with you." If my kids aren't around, I might respond to the, "Are they orphans/where are their "real" parents" question with: "Each child's story is different. Kids are adopted for many different reasons....sometime because of death, or war, or inaccessabillity to resources for special needs. It varies for each child." I'm trying to educate them without getting specific. However, at this point, they typically cry out, "You're such an ANGEL! What a GOOD person you are, to take them and bring them here! They are SO lucky!!!" 

Reallly? REALLY??? Have you thought about what you're actually saying? How are my kids lucky? I know you mean because they are in our family, but all adoption comes from pain and brokenness. Adopted kids have been hurt beyond belief, lost their families, language, culture. They have been taken away from everything and everyone they have ever known, sent with complete strangers across the ocean to a foreign land, forced to accept a new language, culture, and family, permanently, and none of it was their choice. It doesn't matter if they are happy here or not; these kids are are not lucky. But I digress. 
Back to racism. 

Skin color has also been a hugely sensitive topic within the safety of our family. First off, my kids have all been upset that they don't look like us. The issue wasn't originally that they were brown and we were "white". It was that we didn't MATCH. That's painful. They wanted to look like us so we would LOOK like a family. So they could pretend that we had always been their parents. 
I look at my friend, a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, who adopted from Latin America. (Thanks for allowing me to use you as an example, babe.) Her daughter is three, and is dark-haired and dark-eyed. They LOOK like each other. And no one gives them a second glance when they are out and about (except to stare at their gorgeousness). No one thinks, "Oh, she must be ADOPTED," or "Where's her "real" mommy???" They don't approach her and ask if her daughter likes America, or how much she paid for her daughter, or if she has HIV. They don't step aside to avoid being near them in store aisle. 

Then you take the fact that my kids are coming from a country where being brown is the NORM. It IS the majority. And then they come to America, where they are suddenly the minority. Looked down on. Treated differently because of their skin. I am not kidding (I wish I were)....people have wrinkled their noses at my kids, at our family. Have stepped around us, turned away from us, whispered about us. Have shown preferential treatment to kids with paler skin colors. Have outright made comments TO MY CHILDREN. "I'm glad I don't have BLACK skin! I wouldn't want to be BLACK!" People, racism in America is far from dead. 

My children became the minority and recieved all the pain that comes with that, and then I had to explain to them about black history in America. And they were shocked and heartbroken. America was supposed to be this wonderful place of opportunity and freedom and SAFETY. Equality. And instead, my kids are hurt and betrayed to learn the truth.....that America has an ugly history regarding the pigment of your skin. In Ethiopia, my kids had been nothing but proud of who they were; now they became ashamed of their color. Their hair. Their physical features. 
I have spent countless hours telling them they are beautiful, that God made them unique and special, and that I think they are perfect. That people are ignorant and stupid. That they are not inferior because they are brown. I don't tell them "It's okay," because it's not. It's not okay that they are hurting and feel different just because of something that makes each people group unique and beautiful. It's not okay that Levi came to me just last week, because he identified being left out of something because of his skin. Normally, he would tell me he felt left out because he is deaf. But his poor heart was stricken because someone chose "every kid but me, and they were all white," and he was heartbroken and confused. And I was heartbroken for him. It's not okay that my child has lain on my stomach and said, "Mommy, I wish I came from your tummy so that I looked like you." It's not okay that in order to fit in (no matter how diverse our community and friend base is) that my one of my kids took some lotion and lathered it all over their body in an attempt to make their skin "white". 
Even within the safety of our house, there is occassional tension. 

Natalie's skin is very pale. In fact, she looks like she is half Ethiopian, half Caucasian. And that was an issue when she first came home. Not only is Natalie LIGHTER, but her skin looks like mine. Her hair is curly, but not in an afro way. And this put more strain on my other kids, because Natalie looks like she COULD be my biological daughter. And that brought its own pain to our household. 
My point with all this is, if you are a mixed race family, you are going to face all this. Stares. Ignorance. Racism. It's not easy. It's not fair. And it's not avoidable. I wish I had the answers; could tell you how to ease the pain for your kids. But I can't. All I can say is, ignore the stares. Or tell your kids it's because your family is cool, and everyone knows it. (Obviously my kids know that I am kidding when I say this, but we still laugh about our paparazzi.) I have to admit, I HAVE lost my cool with stares a couple times. Once, in a grocery store, a family of four was staring at us and FOLLOWING us. The teenage girl stuck her tongue out at Z and then she and the dad started laughing about it. I snapped. And turned right around, walked within ten feet, and started staring at them. And then I followed THEM around. With crazy eyes. They had no idea what to do. (I don't recommend this haha.) I've also heard of stories where a stranger comes up and touches an adopted kid's hair, and the parents walk up and touch the stranger's hair right back. I haven't done that yet. 
Anyway, laugh at the paparazzi. Confront the ignorance, but do it with kindness. I really think most people don't even realize how inappropriate they are being. I am a firm believer that if we gently and kindly correct/redirect rude questions, we can educate these people on how to properly address an adoptive family, or how to ask questions (and which ones NOT to ask!). As far as racism, and trust me, this one SUCKS the worst......I don't know. My kids and I have cried together. Talked about how all people, no matter what they look like, are designed  (typically) with the same physical shape (one head, two arms, two eyes, one nose, a heart...). We talk about forgiveness. We talk about our own stereotypes, and how to recognize and change them. And I have responded to verbal assault with calm words, and with one situation where I yelled. (Because when someone wounds her cub, a mama bear roars.) But nothing can erase or ease the hurt that racism is going to cause us. So mostly we just hold our heads high and smile proudly. Because we know the truth. Being a multi-race family is incredible and unique. And we love our family.  


Sunday, January 4, 2015

People Don't Want to Hear

I haven't blogged since before Nat came home.

I haven't written, because I've been busy. I've been sick. But mostly, because people don't want to listen to what I have to say. And I've never written a post like what you're about to read.  

When people ask me about my time in Ethiopia, they won't want to hear the truth. They want me to tell them it was wonderful and that I'm so glad I got to go. They want me to lie and say that everything was great. 

They don't want to hear about what I saw.
Please understand, this is NOT a generalization of all of Ethiopia. This is not me trying to portray Ethiopia as some horrible, evil place. These are facts from things I have seen in the places I have been. There are plenty of horrible, unthinkable things happening in America too. I am simply showing you with words what my eyes have seen in the areas I am involved in. What my children have experienced. 


When people ask me how Ethiopia was, the question is sincere. But they want to hear about marshmallows and rainbows. About the WONDERFUL time I spent there. The magical experience of bringing my daughter home forever. 

They don't want to hear about the babies that aren't at the orphanages anymore, because they died. 

Of a room full of toddlers, soaking in urine and crawling with lice, desperately scrambling to grab your legs and crying to be held, even for a second. 

Of a twelve-year old girl who hung onto my shirt for days, calling me "beautiful mom". When I looked for her this last trip, I learned she died of pneumonia. 

Of the children being raped and then silenced with threats, within the "safety" of Christian orphanage walls. 

Of the babies with thrush, lying on a dirty, threadbare mattress that you wouldn't touch with a stick. Of the bottles shoved in their mouths with the nipple cut open, to hurry the feeding process, because there are so many babies and so few bottles. Of the milk that splashes over these babies' mouths and to the ground, leaving them still hungry and choking. 

Of the deaf children, sitting in silence, being beaten and abused, because they cannot call for help. 

Of a little boy who is twisted into a mass of limbs, trapped in a dark and dirty room. When I walked in, he SMILED at me and began babbling, then rolled off the bed, slamming into the floor before I could stop him. Then he began writhing and sliding towards me across the dirt. And as I gathered him in my arms, I started sobbing. He just wanted me to hold him. And I just wanted to scoop him up and run far away. 

People don't want to listen to me tell them of the rows of babies, whose organs you can see pulsing beneath their tissue-paper skin, lying in wooden boxes. Wooden boxes like coffins, in windowless rooms, with no blankets or toys. 

Of the nannies, exhausted and underpaid, who work endlessly just trying to provide for basic needs.  


When I briefly mention some of these things, people gasp in offense. "How DARE they?!?! That's not right!!!" 

You're damn straight it's not. But how dare YOU??? You hear what I say but it doesn't touch you. You go about your life, blissfully ignorant of what I saw. You hear my words, but because you didn't see five-year olds fending for themselves and sleeping on the side of the road, you forget. Because you didn't see these tiny children begging for scraps of food, my words are only uncomfortable to you. You donate a few $$$ to ease your conscience or make me be quiet, or maybe just an "I'll be praying for you," (dearjesushelpthemamen) and feel like you have done your part, your share. 

Well you haven't. People are dying EVERY. DAY., and it's partially your fault. Can we save everyone? I don't care. Because the answer is, you can save one. Or two, or three, or four. YOU CAN HELP. You don't have to move to a foreign country. You don't have to adopt. You don't have to sell everything you have. You don't have to live on bread and water and spend every minute of your life praying. But you CAN sponsor a child, or a family. You can give to missionaries. You can give to adopting families. You can buy supplies to give as orphanage donations or send money for formula. You can get your church, or other friends and family involved. 

Giving from your excess is not hard, people.You think you have it tough; that money is tight, and you're struggling, but you probably really aren't. Your daily coffee run, eating out, buying extra Halloween candy, a new eyeshadow, a magazine, a toy. That's all $$$ that could be used to actually make a DIFFERENCE. I see people who tell me they can't sponsor a child, or give $10 to an adopting family, go to the store and buy a $55 bag of dog food (30lb) for their pet.....and while they are cashing out, a child is dying somewhere of starvation. They aren't statistics, people.They are humans, and their cries tear at me from oceans away. 

People tell me, "Well, I just can't help. I can't do it right now." CHRISTIANS!!!! Hello?!?!?! Did Jesus ever once say, "Excuse me, come back another time, I can't help you,"????? And please don't get this wrong; I'm not saying that I am perfect or that there isn't more I could do. But I'm TRYING. I understand money (or lack thereof). Trust me. We don't have any. Literally. And I'm sure you're thinking, "Well, Marissa, what ARE you doing to help?" Okay, we have three kids home from Ethiopia. We have three more in process. We sponsor a child in Ethiopia. We also sponsor an Ethiopian family. We send donations every chance we can. We donate to hunger programs and food drives here. We help other families get through adoption processes and paperwork. We are involved in the domestic adoption scene. We give to organizations in Uganda. We give to organizations helping sex trafficking victims in the U.S. I'm not just preaching at you. I'm not bragging about what we do. I'm just trying to say, YOU CAN HELP. 

Do you really want to stand before Jesus and when He asks what you did with your life, you look and see thousands, no, MILLIONS of beautiful people in front of you, and  then Jesus asks, "Why didn't you help them???"

Just HELP. It doesn't even have to be adoption related, or in a foreign country. What about helping with sex trafficking victims here in the U.S.? Abuse cases in America? Whatever. Just HELP. I'm not telling you to go all crazy in debt. To do something you may not be called to (packing up and moving to Africa, adopting, whatever). But people, we are called to help other people. To love them. To care for children. So I don't want to hear any of your excuses. Sign up and sponsor a kid, or start giving. $30 a month will not make you go broke. I don't care what Dave Ramsey says. You sit in your comfortable, safe world, and another child's body lies ravaged in the dirt, and that's on YOU.