This past Fourth of July, my family and I celebrated with friends and family just like millions of American families across the United States. We decided to watch the fireworks with another same-gender-parented family at a nearby lakefront beach.
My oldest son, who’s almost 8, and the other family’s little girl played along the beach, digging tunnels and building castles. An older boy, who was playing by himself, eventually introduced himself to the little group and the three of them played for almost two hours. I’ve always been proud that my son makes friends easily and often. He's oblivious to gender, race or socio-economic barriers and simply asks strangers, “do you want to play with us (me)?” If they answer “yes”, it’s on. If it’s “no”…well, he’s never received “no” as an answer.
As darkness approached, my son bounded up to me with a swagger that hinted of a request. I braced myself for whatever came next. Instead of asking for the one hundredth time if they could go swimming, my son asked, ”Dad, can you explain to my friend where my mom is?” The friend, whose accent seemed to be East African, looked bewildered at seeing me, my partner and our 6-month-old baby in my arms. To add to the little boy’s confusion, no one in my family has the same skin tone. We stretch from Northern European to African-American ancestry, with biracial and East Indian along the continuum.
I took a deep breath and explained, "He has a mom, but she doesn’t live with us. She chose our family. And we’re an adoptive family.” The boy’s English was broken but clear. “So he lives without a mom?” “Yes,” I replied, “but he has two dads.” With that, the boy seemed satisfied and walked away. They played for a little longer but then he went back to his family and the fireworks started. We didn’t see him again afterwards.
There are many other things I would like to have said to the little boy. For instance, his mother chose our family over lots of straight couples. In order to adopt, we went through a rigorous homestudy and countless hours of training. We waited and waited and waited some more. To adopt both our boys, we’ve spent a small fortune of our savings and even more emotionally. The list would be endless. However, sometimes kids just need the facts. Plain and simple. To know that our son is loved and treasured seemed enough for the little boy. And on a chilly Fourth of July night, it was enough for our son to hear.
However we respond to these types of questions, from children or adults, whether innocent or malicious, the one thing we need to keep in mind is this: our children are within earshot and this is how they learn to answer the same questions when they are posed to them. Modeling an informational, respectful, non-confrontational attitude is something we want to instill in our kids. We’ve learned that most people are interested about the adoption process or just curious. As long as the curiosity and interest are respectful, we usually opt to be informative rather that acerbic. Even when the line of questioning has veered to intrusiveness, we’ve guarded ourselves from witty or sarcastic retorts. We choose this path not because we’re passive or non-confrontational. Sometimes, it would feel appropriate and incredibly satisfying to (in the words of a dear friend) “get all Julia Sugarbaker on them,” a reference to the famously irascible character on the TV show "Designing Women." However, my son is listening and his adoption story is not the stuff of derision or quick jabs. His story is something we honor and respect. It’s one of love and blessing. It’s one he will own the rest of his life and I want him to treasure it as we do.
I’m not sure what, if any effect, my response had on the little boy. But I know that it reassured my son about his family’s love and respect for him. He didn’t say as much, but I could sense it when the fireworks began and he decided to curl up with me under a blanket against the chill of the beach. I know I cannot protect him from everything he’ll encounter in his life, but I can provide him with the tools to be self-assured and proud of his adoption story. In the end, the only people we have to “win over” are my sons and I think we’ve done a good job so far.