Monday 24 January 2011


When I was little, I loved music. I still love music, but back then I really loved music. And nobody ever said that it was because of the colour of my skin.

A white kid who is good at music (and lots of white kids are good at music) is never told that it's a racial characteristic. People never said to my mother 'oh well of course little Claudia loves to sing! She's white! It comes totally naturally to her!'

I think you can see where this is going.

Lately I've been thinking about complexity. I don't like the fact that sometimes, people think they know about my kids, when they don't know my kids. From what people say to me, sometimes I get the feeling that white kids are allowed to be complicated, and infinitely variable. Black kids, on the other hand, are expected to be good at music. And running.

And guess what? I think that my kids are pretty musical. And maybe it's genetic, but there's also a good chance that it's because I make sure that the three of us spend time singing and dancing together every. single. day. Probably, it's some combination of the two and there's no way of unpicking how much belongs to nature, and how much to nurture. If they do have this talent, I want to celebrate it because this talent will be part of what makes them who they are: what makes Blue, Blue, what makes Pink, Pink. Not because Blue and Pink are black.

I have no idea, yet, whether they will be good at running; they are still at the drunk zombie stage of walking. If it turns out that they can run quickly, I can tell you now that will be nothing to do with me. That will be because their mother or their father could run quickly. Or, maybe it skipped a generation and it was one of the grandmothers who had this skill and passed it down. But if it happens, it's going to be something that came from their family, not from their race. I think there is such a big difference. And so I don't want anybody assuming anything about what they're going to be 'genetically' good at, unless that person knows their first family.

We humans have small brains, and we live in a big world. It's understandable that we want boxes to put our thoughts in, and use then use those boxes to put people into. But I think that one of the best ways we can show respect to other people is to allow that they are complicated. Even if our stereotypes are 'positive' stereotypes, I think stereotypes are always demeaning, because they stop us seeing a whole person and only let us see a cardboard cutout, and who wants to be a cardboard cutout? I think this goes for more than just race, although race is what is making me think about it.

I've said before that I think adoptive parents run the risk of talking about Ethiopia as if it is a theme park, and Ethiopians as if they are always a nation of beautiful, friendly, cheerful people. We certainly met beautiful, friendly, cheerful people while we were in Ethiopia. But we also met a few who were surly, a couple who were lazy and at least one who was deeply depressed. (We even met a guy who wasn't good looking. Shocking, I know). They certainly were not all singing and dancing, and I think some of them even wanted the latest consumer goods. It seemed to me that it was a country full of people just like me, really. Different from each other. And complicated.

And complicated is what I want people to expect of my Ethiopian children. Maybe, in some kind of grand cosmic joke at our expense, they will turn out to be musical and fast and that will be the sum of their talents. But maybe their youthful tunefulness will turn into tone-deaf caterwauling as they grow; maybe they will be as slow and uncoordinated on their feet as I am. More likely, they will be averagely musical, and averagely speedy, and the gifts their first parents have given them will turn out to be totally different: gifts for listening, for storytelling, for comedy, for chemistry, for climbing trees. We can't know now, and we don't need to. I want them to be able to develop into who they are, free of expectations.

I just want people to let my kids be complicated.

One more thing: I'm going on a blog break for the next month. I need to spend my writing time on this supposed book, and if I don't say here that I'm taking a break, my resolve will crumble. See you soon!

Monday 17 January 2011

It Starts With An M

So my children aren't talking yet. Both Pink and Blue can burble their way through an imaginary conversation on an imaginary telephone, complete with intonation and pauses. But as for actual words? Not so much.

I try not to think about this too much. I don't like how obsessive parents can get about milestones and percentiles - c'mon, lady, I know your child's weight is a number but it's not a score - I always want to say. Children develop at their own pace, right? I air this opinion loudly and often, more loudly and more often recently, as their age increases and their vocabulary does not.

It seems that lots of us have our own issues with these milestones. I mention that my kids aren't talking and am glad to find that I'm not the only one. It's the same for someone else, and her daughter. Yeah, that girl still isn't saying a word. 'Although obviously she's saying mama, of course' her mother tells me.

And I laugh - HA HA HA - and say well yes obviously she's saying mama and then I have to do a backwards ninja somersault and scale a wall so that I can slip away unnoticed, before this person says '... so are your children saying mama yet, Claudia?' because I don't want to tell her that they. absolutely. are. not.

It seems that everyone else's children are pretty much knocking on the wall of the uterus and shouting mama to announce that it's time to go for the twenty week sonogram. Not mine. I flip flop from day to day about why I think this is. Is this a developmental thing, or an attachment thing? And which would be worse? I know they can make the sounds that make up that word. And they've been saying Dah! Dee! (just like that, in two halves) for months, when their father walks into the room.

In the interests of accuracy I should probably point out that they also occasionally say Dah! Dee! to the cat. And J assures me that he has heard them say mamamamamama when they are crying. I've heard them do this too - and it is as likely to be directed at J as at me. They never use it as a label, just as a random word when they are really upset. J reports back to me after one particularly bad episode and says 'I'm pretty sure they just think that mama means pain'. 'I'll show you some pain, sunshine' I say, but then I start to cry because they are eighteen months old and why won't they say my name?

As Christine has said before me, I want to tie a ribbon on this and make some kind of point, but I don't have one. Just throwing this one out there.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

When The Problem Is Me

I've been thinking about racism again lately. More specifically, I've been thinking about what I wrote six months or so ago. If you haven't read that, I'm going to summarise it for you, to save you some time: basically, other people are idiots and sometimes they say dumb things about my kids.

So far, so good. But I talked to my sister about it afterwards, and in the way that only a sister can, she told me I'd better watch myself and my own attitude. She was right, of course - she usually is. In the months since, I've had a few conversations with people that have really challenged me. I keep finding myself thinking: okay, these conversations are undoubtedly tough, and people certainly say some crazy things. Even the smallest bit of racism is ugly, and I hate that we have to learn to deal with it. But what about my attitude in these conversations and afterwards? My kids are watching me, and soon they will be able to understand more and more. What should my priorities be as I negotiate these issues? What do I want my children to learn from these interactions?

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. James 1 : 19

I want my children to learn that we should be slow to anger. Not to never become angry, but not to become angry too soon. Would they learn this from my interactions with people about race? Sometimes I am angry because someone has said something inexcusable, something they should not have said, something that makes my eyes widen and makes me long to put my hands over my children's ears. But honestly? Sometimes I am too quick to anger because my life is dull, and feeling self-righteously angry at the possibly-racist-stranger I met just makes the day a bit more interesting. Sometimes dissecting a family member's words for the wrong kind of nuances just gives me something to talk about in the car on the way home.

I don't think I'm the only one.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 1 Corinthians 13:6

And sometimes, I wonder if I am overly anxious to dissect and identify racism because it helps me bond to people - either my children, or other adoptive families. It puts those of us who are trying to be actively anti-racist on one side of a line, and everybody else, from the uninterested and the ignorant through to the downright racist, on the other side. Actively trying to combat racism is a good thing, unquestionably. But how would I feel if the fight was over? Would I be happy, or would I miss having something to see as a common enemy?

I guess the question to ask here is: If nobody ever said a racist thing, ever again, would I feel nothing but uncontaminated joy? Or do I secretly value the way it gives me a chance to see the world as us-and-them? I must not be rejoicing in evil. I do want my kids to know that I am always, always on their side. But I should be careful not to create sides where it's not necessary, and I should be glad if the need for 'sides' was gone.

I think that this sounds easier than it is.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7: 3-5

And being clued up about race (in my little white-girl way) can give me an excuse to feel superior to my white-girl friends. Suddenly, it seems that their eyes are full of sawdust (racist sawdust! I guess you probably wash that out using racist soap) and I just wish they would get rid of it. And yes, of course they should, but I'm sitting here with my own vision clouded by those feelings of superiority. And I'm also conveniently ignoring that there are probably issues that are important to them that I'm no expert on: disability rights, access to education.... ummmmmm, other stuff, too, that I can't remember because it's not important to me.

Which is the point, I guess.

I know and I care about anti-racism. It's important to me, and this is a good thing. But it doesn't make me a better person than whoever it is I'm talking to. If I slip into thinking that it does, I'm just a hypocrite.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you Matthew 7:12

And I need to face the fact that I am a white girl. I'm carrying around a great big armload of white privilege, whether I want to or not. I'm part of a transracial family, but I don't actually know what it's like to go to school, apply for a job or date as a non-white person. So no matter how much I try to understand, and say the right thing, I'm going to mess up when I talk about this stuff. I'm going to make mistakes. I'm going to say things that offend my black friends, and I'm probably going to end up saying things that will offend my black children, much as I hope that will never happen. And how do I want others to deal with me, when I mess up?

I hope they will forgive me. So I need to learn to forgive, too.

I feel cautious, as a white adoptive mother, saying that forgiveness is the right attitude to have when people say what they shouldn't about race. Firstly, because this is an issue that affects my children. Insult me and I'll do my best to have a sense of humour about it. But like all parents - insult my kids, and you wake the beast. And secondly, I'm cautious about claiming that right. I reject the idea that race is just 'something else that kids have to deal with' - that our kids need to accept racial teasing in the way that other kids get teased about their weight, or freckles, or having a funny voice. I don't think this is right at all - I think racism is much more serious than any of these other things, and we should treat it as such. But there is a danger, I think, for those of us who are white parents to black children. There is a danger that we won't expect them to live graciously, because we haven't had to do it ourselves. There is a danger that we will let our own white guilt convince us that we even have some kind of responsibility to encourage and nurture bitterness in our children here, where we wouldn't consider doing this in any other area of life. There is a danger that we will abdicate our responsibility to teach them how to deal graciously with insults and spite.

But despite the colour of my skin, they are my kids, and so I cannot abdicate this responsibility.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven" Matthew 18:21-22

And so I want them to learn to forgive. There's a very big difference between forgiving wrong and denying wrong. Denying wrong says 'oh honey, that's not important!' or 'let's not think about that' or 'I'm sure that's not what she meant' when actually, that's exactly what she did mean and you both know it. Denying that a wrong was done tells our kids that their feelings aren't important, that this issue isn't important, that we care more about smooth surfaces than what's going on underneath. Denying wrong says 'I wish you wouldn't get hung up on race'.

That's not what I'm talking about.

On the other hand, forgiving a wrong doesn't say racism is excusable. It starts with acknowledging that wrong was done. But it doesn't finish there. It says you did wrong... but I forgive you.

Ideally, forgiveness isn't something that you do in a vacuum. In the best cases, it involves talking to the person who has wronged you, explaining why you were hurt, and then listening to them give you a heartfelt apology. Um, yeah, that doesn't always happen. But it's never ever going to happen unless I take the initiative and start the conversation. "Uncle Nigel," I might say, "It bothered me how you said ____________. I hate to think of my children hearing comments like that. Can we talk about this?" I've been trying to do more of this - rather than holding an angry grudge, going in private to the person who has made the insane comment and asking to start a conversation.

It's definitely not foolproof. I've shed a lot of tears, and I'm just a beginner. Sometimes people surprise me with their humility; others shake their heads and write me off as the person who is always on about race. And then I have a choice: I can hold a grudge, or I can forgive them anyway*. I can fester and rage and enjoy sitting on my high horse, or I can forgive them anyway. I can pretend that I never do or say anything wrong, or I can forgive them anyway.

My working definition of forgiveness is that it is the opposite of holding a grudge. Forgiving them doesn't say they aren't wrong, it just says I'm not going to let resentment own me.

Racism is important. It's serious. But dealing with racism is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for turning into a bonehead, and I shouldn't teach my children by example that it is. When Jesus said we need to learn to forgive again and again and again and again, he didn't say 'unless you're part of a transracial adoptive family or an ethnic minority, because I hear that's a really tough gig'. The seventy times seven applies to us too, even when things would be easier if it didn't.

And so I do want my children to learn that I am always on their side. I also want them to learn that their parents take racial prejudice seriously. But I've been realising that race is one issue where I've been letting myself have a bit of a blind spot about the other lessons that my actions and reactions might be teaching. If I get angry, hold grudges, act like a hypocrite - what they will learn from me is that this is okay, and it's not.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters

Dr King

My children weren't born to me, and I can take no credit for their beautiful brown skin. I pray that as they grow up, the content of their characters will be just as beautiful.

And so I suppose I have to start with my own.


*I'm not talking about a person who is full of hate. There are definitely people whose company we have to protect our kids from. I'm talking about the more ordinary, ignorant, wrong-but-not-deliberately-malicious end of things - that's the end we see by far the most. And this whole thing is a spectrum, of course - sometimes it takes more wisdom than I've got to know where we are on the spectrum at a given point.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Mythical Crack Wh0res

Recently, I have come across a few variations on this complaint: "Why can't I get pregnant when the crack wh0re down the street has four babies?"

I have no idea where this myth comes from. Not from personal experience, surely? Because ladies: if there is someone in your street selling their body for drugs, it's probably time to move. But the myth of the pregnant crack wh0re is a persistent one in infertility and adoption circles; I've been hearing it for years and just to check I wasn't imagining it, I googled it. (Ummmm... some advice: don't do that. I may have to wipe my computer's search history. And that's why I've changed the o's to 0's - it turns out there are a whole lot of people out there on the internet that I do not want on my blog).

I've definitely had pregnancy envy, so I understand where this complaint comes from. But if I'm honest, this mythical pregnant crack wh0re doesn't bother me at all. In fact, she makes me feel much better about myself, and here's why.

When we were childless, I hated it - hated it - when people acted smug about their ability to produce children. Granted, I was extremely sensitive about it, and some of the comments that upset me were probably thoughtless rather than anything more sinister. But I do remember walking along beside a river with one particular woman. She was stroking her pregnant belly and talking about people who can't have children, and saying didn't I agree that they shouldn't have fertility treatments, because maybe if they couldn't have babies, it was because they weren't meant to be parents, that they weren't the right sort of people.

I was too taken aback to say anything coherent at the time. This woman is generally very nice, and now does know about our adoption, including why we chose to adopt. I doubt she felt bad about that conversation when she found out, because I doubt she remembered. I hope she would be kinder now. But while most people don't put things quite that bluntly, comments like this come from a pretty common attitude:

I totally deserve these children due to the power of my personal awesomeness. People with no children must therefore automatically be less awesome than me.

And we all hate that attitude, right? What I hate most about it is that even though I know how stupid it is, there's a teeny tiny voice inside saying: "but what if it's truuuuuuuuuuue? What if this really is happening because my body knows something about me that I don't? "

So that voice is coming from one side, but on the other side there's a voice shouting about how unfair it all is. If you've been through the adoption process, I'm sure there was at least a little part of you that resented being assessed for your fitness to parent. No matter how much we know about the importance of preparation, and how much we totally agree that none of us are entitled to parent someone else's children, it still STINKS that someone else has the power to decide whether or not you get to be a parent. Because we are good people, right? And surely this means that we deserve kids? At least, more than that pregnant crack wh0re down the street?

(And yes, it's never a good idea to make assumptions about someone else's worth. But let's assume, for argument's sake, that she really is both a bad person and a bad mother. Fortunately she's a myth (or at most a stereotype) so I don't think we're going to hurt her feelings).

But - when we say this, when we complain about the mythical crack wh0res, we're buying into the lie that getting pregnant has something to do with virtue. We're buying into the idea that women who are mothers must be better people than those who are not. We're buying into the myth that people who have kids can take some kind of credit for it. We might as well be standing at the delivery suite giving out halos as new mothers and fathers come out, because we are totally buying into the idea that parenthood is something that people deserve.

Whereas actually, what she shows us is that parenthood has got nothing to do with how much you deserve it. There are so many people out there who do a terrible job of raising their kids. Not necessarily abusive, just lazy, uninterested, not involved, treating their kids as accessories, whatever. We don't have to even agree on what bad parenting means to agree that there are a lot of bad parents in the world. Which is sad for their kids, but it does make me feel perversely happy. Bad biological parents in general make me feel really comforted - they prove, beyond all doubt, that failure to procreate isn't a punishment for being deficient. It's not an assessment of our value as people. And if being more fertile doesn't make you better, being less fertile doesn't make you worse. That first voice really is wrong after all.

I am really rather grateful to carry this knowledge with me through my middle class life. Women in my social group do tend to treat pregnancy as an achievement rather than a gift. This is very hard to deal with when it's something you will never achieve yourself. But now, while some of my friends are attributing their pregnancy successes to yoga, their organic diet or just generally being an all-around better person than me, I'll be thinking:

Stop being so smug about your pregnancy. Pregnancy is no indication of moral worth. Don't you know the crack wh0re down the street has four kids?

So thank you, mythical crack wh0re. I'm glad you don't live on my street. But I'll always be grateful.