‘My youngest was called the n-word in kindergarten. He’s been told his skin is the color of poop.’: Adoptive mom addresses the ‘wide mouthed, gaping stares’ her mixed-race family gets from strangers

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“It is difficult to pinpoint what attracts the most stares to our family. We tend to draw glances which then tend to elicit questions for which I’ve yet to find answers that feel either adequate or appropriate. The history of our family is a communal one, but also one built of deeply personal and independent stories which puts me in a bind: How do we live our truth and strength boldly while also protecting those same narratives which built us in the first place? How do we navigate life as a family in a society which consistently reminds us we don’t add up?

Courtesy of Sara Stockinger

It makes the most sense to begin before the beginning. I’m a teacher, and I’ve always worked in schools with high trauma. It meant a lot of learning curves for me as a white, middle class woman raised in a white, middle class town. By the time my husband and I got married in 2008, I felt less naive, but was still unprepared for the shift that was to come as we began the process of domestically adopting while simultaneously undergoing fertility treatments for undiagnosed infertility. Somewhere along the process, right around the time we needed to start making our book to present to birth families, we stopped and changed course to become foster parents. There wasn’t a moment I can recall as the catalyst; it was more of a slow realization: ‘Why aren’t we just fostering? We can do this.’ I’d been teaching long enough to see the need and had loved enough kids with trauma-induced challenges to feel at least somewhat equipped. A few months after having been licensed, we became foster parents to a 2-year-old boy.

Nicole Marie Foster Photography

Fostering is beautiful and heart-wrenching and complicated and rewarding and personal and invasive. Becoming instant parents was overwhelming. (I remember calling a friend with kids to ask, ‘What do you even feed a 2 year old?!’) Raising a child of a different race was overwhelming. We learned to ask for LOTS of help in regards to caring for a Black child as white parents. (I hate to even admit how I once accidentally shaved his toddler head bald before desperately seeking out a Black barber whom we’ve now seen every other week for nearly 8 years.) Navigating relationships with our son’s birth family was an entirely different level of overwhelm. Foster care is uniquely devastating to everyone involved.

Nicole Marie Foster Photography

But slowly, we learned what products worked on his skin and hair. We stepped out of our comfort zone more and more. We worked hard to listen well. And with cautious affection, authentic, familial love and admiration grew between our son’s birth family and us. My husband and I adopted him at age 3 and our families kept choosing one another. They have taught me more about living out grace than any other relationship. It is a gift to watch our son age as one large, extended family.

Our family grew again when our son was 6. What began as intermittent volunteering through a refugee resettlement agency in a boys’ home for independently resettled minors turned into welcoming two 17-year-old boys into our family, one Afghani and one Eritrean. It was a gradual, mutual development built on trust and patience. Now both 20, we cannot imagine our family without them.

Courtesy of Sara Stockinger

Each of our boys have histories and families that are intricate and personal- stories which are not mine to tell, but many of which I get the honor of holding. There is a level of strength our boys harbor that evokes in me a deep admiration, one which stems from knowing so much of where and who they are is a result of their own inner resilience and tenacity. It is an honor of the highest form to watch them mature.

And yet, because we are a family of multiple ethnicities, nationalities, and religions, who hold an eternity of personal and collective stories, we receive frequent questions and looks for which responses are always fraught with hazards. There are so many natural questions that arise after even the most basic of explanations. When I share how I have two 20-year-old’s and a 10-year-old, people ask if the 20-year-old’s are twins, or they comment on the age gap between them and our youngest, or they squint as they try to figure out how old I’d have been to have 20 year old children. (I’m 38, my husband is 36.) Even using adoption as an explanation is complicated because bringing up foster care can evoke pity and prying, and the older boys aren’t technically adopted as legal terms go.

Courtesy of Sara Stockinger

To be clear, we should be asking questions! Questions are important. They expand our understanding and build community. It’s also just as important to build awareness around those questions in regards to family and lifestyle because even well intended interest can wear on the recipient. Starting with, ‘It’s okay if you are uncomfortable with/unable to answer this…’ can go a long way, as can accepting without internalizing offense if it can’t. Being mindful of how many questions are posed is also a great and respectful step to consider.

Though I’m not ashamed of any of our journeys, there is always a part of me wishing it were possible for us to be seen without being reduced to the broad strokes of ‘foster care,’ ‘adoption,’ ‘refugee.’ These descriptors are necessary for truly seeing us, (just as our races are), but they’re also terribly one-dimensional and loaded with preconceived notions. It begs the question: how do any of us who live and love within unconventional families learn to ride the waves of the innocently questioning eyes and the wide mouthed, gaping stares?

What I do know is this: In the 8 years I’ve been a mother, I’ve grown exponentially in my understanding of the realities of bias and racism by being on the receiving end of those stares both as a family unit or through the lived experiences of our sons. My youngest was called the n-word in kindergarten. He’s been told his skin is the color of poop on multiple occasions. Once, someone yelled a racial epithet at us from a truck as the 5 of us walked down a street. I know my older two keep things from me. I worry about the safety of all three of them all of the time. I have a lot of thoughts on the privileged concept of being able to maintain a child’s innocence because I was never afforded that option with mine; It was decided for me based on the ways society has responded to my boys.

So as adoptive white parents to sons of color, I am forever indebted to the adult adoptees, birth mothers, and people of color who’ve shared their experiences and lives publicly and privately to equip me to better meet the needs of our boys – needs for which I will never be fully adequate. I rely heavily on our extended community to step into the places I cannot. There is just so much I can never know about the coming of age of my boys, and too much I will never understand.

Unconventional parenting has taught me so much about listening and humility and sitting with discomfort. I have come to the realization that we owe no one justification for our family. Confusion, intrigue, disapproval, or fascination does not necessitate an offering of information, even if it was requested from a place of sincere and respectful wonderment. Our existence does not require proof of validity. It can be awkward to respond with, ‘That’s not my story to tell,’ but awkward doesn’t make it untrue.

For those moments when I’m just tired of life in the fish bowl, or the times I’m cornered into responding, (see: doctor’s offices, school paperwork, really any paperwork requiring family history or health information), I take courage and comfort in knowing we are part of a larger collective, a community built of those of us walking similar paths, one unconventional family after another. The more we step out the less we’re seen as anomalies, as each of us takes ‘unconventional’ one step closer to ‘unsurprising,’ a feat which feels powerful and important because IT IS and WE ARE. It is what initially prompted me to begin sharing our story publicly, albeit with permission from my family because our stories are linked – they are not inherently mine.

My family is not one-dimensional. Unconventional families are not cliches, we are not oddities, and we do not owe explanations. We are everyday families built of intricate paths and there is pride to be found in that reminder every time we describe our beloveds (by whatever terms we choose), separately and collectively, uniquely and whole. Family requires no parameters.”

Courtesy of Sara Stockinger

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sara Stockinger of Michigan. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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