When Michael asked me to be a guest author on his blog about fathering, my first reaction was raised eyebrows and a shake of the head. Nope, I thought, No way. I’m too busy… I’m not a writer… I’m not even a parent. Why would he even ask me to write on his blog?
The problem is that Michael has graciously helped me – without complaint or protest – on more occasions than I can recall. So I find myself in a position of owing him a favor. Well…owing him several favors. Besides, he didn’t really offer much of a choice. To quote his email directly: “Don’t tell me ‘no’. Tell me ‘yes’ and that you’re already writing.”
Well, now that I’m finally “already writing”, let me give a brief introduction. My name is Alan. I’ve been married to my wife Sheila for almost ten years. She’s pretty great, and much more thoughtful and sensitive than me. And I’m not just saying that because she’ll be editing (and improving) everything I write in this post. Come to think of it, for the record, let’s upgrade from “great” to “awesome”. She’s pretty awesome.
Three years ago Sheila and I decided that we wanted to expand our family through adoption. I won’t go into much detail here, but the adoption process can be fairly daunting. There are background checks, fingerprinting, countless hours of training, and strangers talking to you and visiting your home for the express purpose of judging you. In reality, they are simply evaluating our competency as future parents, but it can still feel like a long and drawn out process. When we tell friends that have become parents in the more traditional way about our journey, a common response is, “That’s a lot of work, we could never do that.” But Sheila and I just think of the process as our Paper Pregnancy. Yes, we have to do many things that people becoming parents in the traditional way don’t. But we don’t have to deal with morning sickness, maternity clothes, doctor’s visits, or hormones. And all of the tiresome chores of the adoption process have really helped to mentally prepare us to become parents.
However, even with all of the classes and training, I still don’t really feel prepared for the practical aspects of taking care of a tiny human being. No one has shown us how to prepare a bottle, or discussed sleep schedules, or taught us how to swaddle a tired baby. I’m 42 years old, and I have changed exactly one diaper in my life. It was a year ago, and I was the only adult available at the end of a long list of people called for emergency babysitting services. Our friends Arwa and Jeremy were scrambling getting ready for a cross country move, and needed someone to watch their delightful three-year-old son Aziz for the afternoon. As Arwa ran down the list of responsibilities before leaving for the afternoon, she casually mentioned that after Aziz woke from his nap that I would probably have to change his diaper. Having never done such a horrific task, I remained impressively calm on the outside as I projected an air of quiet competence. But inside I was panicking, and immediately broke out in a mental cold sweat. As soon as Arwa walked out the door, I was online reading articles and watching YouTube videos on changing diapers. (You’d be surprised how many diaper-changing videos there are.) After Aziz woke from his nap and the time came to attend to my duty, it wasn’t the poo-mageddon that I had built up in my head. It was just a simple wet diaper, which I was able to manage with a dampened forehead and slightly shaking hands, like a demolitions expert diffusing a bomb that failed to detonate.
Regardless of my fears, the diaper experience has shown that we will probably be able to figure out most of the practical day-to-day requirements of parenting. People have been raising children and figuring this stuff out for a long time. We have resources. We have friends and family that will help. We have YouTube.
But I suspect that practical day-to-day issues like diaper changing and bottle feeding are really only the tip of the adoptive parent iceberg. There are the worries and concerns over the health of a baby when you’re not directly involved in their neo-natal care. There are the challenges of open adoption and the difficulties of cultivating a relationship with the birth parents. There is the inevitable hurt of the teenage accusation, “You’re not my real parents!” But the issue weighing heaviest on my mind these days revolves around race.
Sheila and I are white. And we have decided that we are open to transracial adoption. As a result – statistically speaking – there is a good chance that our child will be of a different racial background than ours. We did not make this decision lightly; we attended adoption classes focused on race, we sought counsel from wise friends, and spent many hours in discussion and thoughtful consideration. In the end, we decided that we want to share our love with a child, and that we were willing to accept the additional responsibility of raising a child from outside of our cultural heritage.
This decision has raised another whole set of worries and concerns beyond diapers and birth parents. How do we respond to being a conspicuous family (a term used at the adoption agency); the stares, the questions, the assumptions that arise when family members with different skin tones go out in public? How do we instill racial and cultural identity? How do we help our child to develop a sense of pride in their heritage, while at the same time a sense of belonging within our white extended family? We know that the United States was built on a foundation of white supremacy. How do we teach our child about the injustices inherent in our country, when as white people, we benefit from privileges in the same system?
I’m worried about teaching my child about systemic racism and discrimination. These are realities that, as a white man, I have never experienced. How much do we shelter and protect? How will we balance keeping our child safe while simultaneously promoting independence and self-confidence? How do I prepare my child for discrimination when I’ve never felt it? How do I prepare my child for the same realities that faced Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other young black men across the country? How can I teach our child to stand up for what is right without putting him/her in danger from those in positions of power? Or to simply exist without being in danger from those in positions of power?
There just aren’t that many YouTube videos on “How to Make Sure Your Child Is Not Shot by The Police Simply for Being Black”.
We feel absolutely unprepared to handle these concerns. And, like much of parenting, I’m not sure if it is possible for us to truly be prepared. But while I may not be able to look to YouTube for guidance, there are other resources. Most importantly, we have support. We attend a multi-racial church, where our child will see examples of loving men and women of many different cultures. We live in a diverse neighborhood, where our child will go to school with children from a variety of backgrounds. And we have truly gracious friends, like Dawn and Michael, that are willing to support us and our future child as we navigate the realities of being a transracially adoptive family. And lastly, as my awesome wife reminds me – we have a God that promises that he will make all things new, and will right all wrongs. It is with hope that we plunge into the next phase of our lives – parenting.
PS – We’re not necessarily choosing the child that we will adopt – instead, the birth parents are choosing us. Simply because we are open to transracial adoption doesn’t mean we are going to adopt transracially. There is also the possibility that we could end up adopting a white child. Regardless of the color of our child’s skin, we know that the topics of privilege, injustice, and race will be an essential topic of discussion in our family.