Thursday, June 16, 2011

It doesn't get old

          So, as the heading of my blog indicates, there was a reason we up and moved from Portland, Maine (one of the most beautiful places on the planet) to Columbus, Ohio (where everyone asks me: why did you move here?).  And, as indicated above, it’s a long story that could be a short story, but in any case: it’s a story.  And oddly, it’s a story I haven’t been all that forthright about on these pages.  Partly because I know some of my readers are folks back in Portland: people I care about, people who are parenting across race like we are, people who share my values, people who have made a different decision.  And the one thing I know about parenting alongside people who share your values is this: it feels reeeeeeally good when you make similar decisions; and reeeeeeally bad when you don’t.  That’s when it starts to feel a little less like camaraderie and a little more like the j-word.  Judgment.
          And I don’t want to be that person.  I don’t want to be the person who makes a major parenting decision that’s maybe bigger, and maybe more dramatic, and maybe more splashy than all those good folks I care about, who are intentional, kind, loving parents in their own right and who don’t need to hear me going on and on about our move and how glad I am that we did it.  So I’ve shied away from this part of the story, told it in little bits here and there, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes by making hyperbolic remarks about Portland in ways that, I am gently told, hurt those back home.
          So instead of being shy (because let’s face it, there’s no room for shy in the blogosphere), and instead of making little comments like: there are more African Americans working at the DMV than there are living in all of Portland, Maine … Instead of all that, maybe I’ll try to tell a medium-sized version of the story.
          Here goes.
          I guess the story starts when we checked the box next to African American on our adoption application, because that’s when I knew we would someday leave Portland, Maine.  I knew this even though my desk at Learning Works looked out onto an elementary school playground where more than half the students climbing up the ladder to the slide were children of color.  Collectively those students spoke more than forty languages.  They were from Somalia, and Sudan, and the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam, and Cambodia.  And a few of them were African American.  But not many.
          And I knew it again when the kids came over to Learning Works after school, and the visiting artist went around the room and asked each kid to name their culture or ethnicity, and they, each in turn, said, “Somali,” or “Congolese,” or “Croatian,” except when we got to the biracial girl, a fifth grader raised by her white father, who paused in confusion before answering: “English, I guess.”  It was clear to me that in a school where most of the children of color spent their time in ESL classes, culture, ethnicity, and race were defined by language.  So who are you if you have brown skin and were raised to speak English?
          But we weren’t ready yet.  Even once baby Hot Shot arrived and we became adoring first time parents flashing her picture eight times each minute, we weren’t quite ready to move.  We imagined Boston would be our destination and we knew it would take a different kind of lifestyle to afford it.  Long hours.  Maybe lengthy commutes.  How could we?  We wanted to spend our days gazing into that little girl’s eyes.  Steadying her when she faltered.  Stimulating her with contrasting colors, and Sweet Honey In The Rock, and good old fashioned love.  So we decided to wait.  Until Darling Virgo finished her nursing degree, maybe.  Until Hot Shot was ready to start public school, maybe.  Until we were ready.
          But I thought about it all the time.  I thought about it when I scanned the checkout lines at the grocery store, looking to see if there were any brown-skinned cashiers or baggers.  I thought about it when I picked those lines, even when they were the longest, even though I had a disgruntled toddler in tow, because I wanted my kid to see a couple of brown faces this week.  I thought about it when I wheeled the grocery cart out to the car and kicked myself for not getting the phone number of that friendly Congolese bagger who might have made a good babysitter.
          And I thought about it again when I listened to the stories of the people around me who were parenting a generation ahead.  People who had raised their brown skinned children in Maine.  People whose kids were (can I say this?) messed up: drug addicted, mentally unstable, unable to parent children they’d given birth to, dead.  Dead!  People whose children had attempted to take their own lives and, in some cases, had.  Say what you will about the stakes as I felt them.  Call them dramatic, call them exaggerated, call them weighted by fear, but don’t say they don’t get your attention.  Don’t say they don’t make you think maybe you might want to move someplace where your kids would fit in a little bit more.  Like when you weigh the options you don’t wonder if uprooting--moving, leaving behind your family and your community, and the people who know you and forgive you and want the best for you--if all that might not be so much of a sacrifice.  Not when you compare it to the alternatives.  
          And I knew Portland was changing.  That it was browner than it had been twenty years ago.  But I knew that all the searching and all the counting and all the stalking and all the desperate attempts at friendship would never add up to what I wanted for my family.  I wanted us to have black neighbors without having to strategize about which block on which street we had to move to in order to achieve it.  I wanted my kids to have African American playmates, African American teachers, African American doctors, African American firefighters, African American mail carriers, even African American bureaucrats at the DMV.  And I looked out the window at that playground and I thought, really?  Am I really saying to my Somali neighbors, “you are not black enough for my black daughter.”  Because of course I wanted my kid to go to that elementary school and grow up among the cultures of the world.  Knowing the smell of Somali cooking, recognizing the intricate braids in the Sudanese girls’ hair.  Of course.  But the one thing I had in common with those kids’ parents was that neither of us could be African American for Hot Shot.  Though we each knew our own oppression, none of us knew what it was to be descended from the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
          So, we talked about moving for years.  Boston had felt expensive as it was and then suddenly we had two more babies (that’s another long story) in addition to our school girl.  We started looking elsewhere.  Searched for gay-friendly cities and black-friendly cities and Jew-friendly cities.  We took Google Earth walks down virtual streets in Philly and Baltimore, Atlanta and Charlotte.  We courted Durham, North Carolina for while.  But jobs were as hard to find there as anywhere.  Even for a new nurse.  There’s a recession on, you know?  Hospitals were feeling it as much as anyone and had stopped hiring people who needed training.  And then Darling Virgo got an offer in Portland.  And it felt good to have some resolution.  It felt good that we didn’t have to leave our families and friends, people we had worked so hard to collect.
          But my biggest fear was that even though I wanted more than anything to leave, we never would.  There would always be something.  A job.  A new black friend.  A playground with a view of the ocean.  Always something that would seem too ideal, too hopeful, too irreplaceable to let go of.  And so we would never do it.  Year after year after year would go by and we would still be there.
          But we aren’t.  Something happened.  One June we decided not to up and move to Durham, and the next June we paid a security deposit on an apartment in Columbus.  It was resolve I guess.  And a realization that it was never, never, never going to feel easy.  And there were always, always, always going to be reasons to stay.  So we just needed to do it.  And Columbus?  Why not?  It showed up on all the right lists and we hadn’t researched it enough to know what we didn’t like about it.  And it was cheap.
          So, no job, three kids, and my dad in the hospital after heart surgery.  We said teary goodbyes to everyone we knew, and drove off in a truck bigger than any self-respecting minimalist would have looked twice at.
          And it’s been hard.  Some days really hard.  I’ve moved to new cities before.  But I was working and didn’t have children to take care of.  So meeting people was easy, and I didn’t need them as much as I do now.  I stare at my kids' emergency forms and wonder who I can possibly write in as a contact.  When I see an incoming call with the Columbus area code I rush to accept it thinking maybe it’s someone who wants to get to know me.  And a couple of times in ten months it has been.  But not usually.  Usually it’s the school nurse, (who, by the way, I like a lot and would happily befriend in a second).
          But you know what?  So what if it’s hard on me?  I’m the one who checked the damn box next to African American.  The burden of our mismatched skin should be on my back.  Not theirs.  In Portland it was them who got the attention.  Who felt people staring at them.  Who listened as passers by ogled at their hair or asked me where they came from and if they could speak English.  And here?  Here it is me they look at.  In the grocery store, on the sidewalk, waiting for the bus.  Friendly, more often than not, sometimes folks even thank and hug me, which I don’t really deserve or need, though I’ll take.  But when I tell the boys to stop and they keep running?  They aren’t the ones who get the looks, it’s the white lady who’s raising them.  And that’s how it should be.
          So even though the move’s been maybe harder than anything I’ve ever done, I cannot overstate how glad I am we did it.
          Because all the things that used to be hard, are now easy.  Because when neighbors come over to play, there’s no question but that they will be African American.  And when we carpool to Hot Shot’s school?  And when Moon Boy had to go to the hospital?  And when Ankle Biter needs to get out and run around?  That’s right.  I don’t have to call ahead and ask if there are any black nurses, or spend a lot of time figuring out which playground to walk to.
          And there are so many things I didn’t know.  Like marching bands.  My kids love marching bands.  Few days go by without a marching band drumming it’s way proudly through my kitchen.  They love bands because their god-like teenage cousins are in the marching band back in Massachusetts at my old high school.  But here in Columbus where the high school across the street from our apartment has a 97 percent black student population?  Marching band means something completely different than the one back home.  And I had no idea.  Because--shame on me--I’d never seen the movie Drumline.  Or watched Jackson State.  Or Howard University.  But the beauty of it is, I didn’t need to see Drumline.  I didn’t need to be the one who knew about black marching bands.  All I needed to do was move 700 miles from everything familiar, and suddenly I’m off the hook.  Suddenly, when my kids play marching band, they play black marching band.  Because they know what it is and they love it.
          And there is no feeling I like more than dropping off Hot Shot at double dutch practice or art camp--giving her a hug, turning around, and closing the door behind me--knowing that once I’m gone everyone in the room will be black.  It scares me a little that she was seven before she had this experience.  But I breathe deep and low when I think to myself, she will never have to do it for the first time again.  From here, it will only get more and more familiar.
          So I walk into the DMV and I think, “it doesn’t get old.”  And I walk into the grocery store, and I think, “nope, it doesn’t get old.”  And I watch my boys run next door to pester Mr. Chat, and he says, “come over here and play with my tools; if you play with tools you won’t have to play with guns,” and I think, “sure enough, it doesn’t get old.”  Because it doesn’t and it doesn’t and it doesn’t.
          I don’t believe there is just one way to be African American.  I don’t believe there are just ten ways to be African American.  But I do believe it’s my job to let my kids learn as many ways as they can, so that someday, when he is 5,  or she is 12, or he is 17, or she is 23, they will not find themselves in some situation where they feel completely out of place.  Maybe a little out of place.  Maybe a lot out of place.  But not completely.  And my job just got a whole lot easier.


  1. What a wonderfully honest story. You moved your family for all the right reasons, to do what you feel is best for your kids and to help them feel like they belong. The feeling of belonging is a feeling of safety, security and contentment. Something we all deserve. =)T

  2. I can't figure out how to say what I want to say other than you have a white girl in Oakland who is so shocked and happy and warm-hearted to know another white girl is thinking about race as much and in the same ways as she is. I often have big feelings about trans-racial adoption, as I'm guessing you have had, and it makes me so so so so so so so happy that your kids have parents like you.


  3. My parents were the first to transracially adopt legally in the state of FL. They naively thought that all it takes is love as my mom says. You have discovered it takes so much more. I love VT and will probably retire there but will not subject my kids to being raised in such a white state. I live in Boston. I hate the city, my son hates the city, but I know it is the best place for me to raise a lesbian multi-racial family. It is the best place for my daughter who is dark skinned. Not only do my kids see all types of children, they also see all types of families. My son has six classmates from same sex families. We are legally protected as a couple in MA so therefore our family is. So we compromise and spend our summers in VT. I hope many more people who have transracially adopted read your words. You are right on. Thank you for taking the risk of honesty.

  4. this essay should be published in one trillion different places. you are a fantastic mama and a fascinating thinker and a really really great writer. and also, im about to adopt across races, and this post scares the crap out of me, in all the right ways.
    good job, mama and new friend.

  5. Oh Liz. I'm so proud to be your friend. You are an inspiration. I'll be spreading your words as wide and far as I can.

  6. This is beautiful, and you are so so right.

  7. Thanks women. This is hard stuff to talk about because it can be polarizing in ways I don't intend. AND (because there's only so much room in one post) it leaves out the biggest challenge of all this (for the kids and for us): culture shock. Some things are instantly easier, but we each spend part of every day teetering on a learning edge. Sometimes that means a first grader who comes home from school and can do nothing but cry. Because change is stressful. But I feel pretty sure we're on the right track. Thanks again for your support and for passing this on. And Happy Juneteenth!

  8. Liz, you can write us in as emergency contacts anytime.

    Are you going to the Juneteenth festival in your backyard? Or rather, is there any time this weekend you won't be there?

  9. Mama C sent me here, via Twitter - I can see why! Good for you for doing what is best for your kids.

  10. Thank you for this. I live in New Haven CT. I hate New Haven CT. I really, really would rather live someplace more rural, quiet. i want to see the stars at night. But all of those places would make my daughter stand out and me fit in, and for all the reasons you've stated already, that's not fair. So we live in New Haven, where there are 2 white girls and 3 white mommies in her kindergarten class, and that's the way it's supposed to be. Thank you for putting this in words!

  11. Wow - this is profoundly impactful to me as we have the same thoughts and conversations about whether or not to move. Thanks for sharing your process.

  12. Thanks Kristen. I'm so glad it feels meaningful to you. It's a hard subject to talk about with the full fervor of what I fear because we are all caught in this same bind. But ultimately our children are worth braving hard conversations for, right? Good luck to you!

  13. Hey Mama! You started it! There is a great conversation going on my newest post on Race, Ethnicity and Place and Making friends of color as adults- today. New folks are joining in which as you know always feels sooooo good. I also left a link to your blog over at Love Isn't Enough. I'd love to see them link to you. Have you sent them this piece?
    CAN'T WAIT to see you all, and cry and laugh and squish on each others spawn soon!

  14. Thank you for this post. I needed to read this today. I think we are in the "we want to do it, but it might never happen" stage of things here. We need to move, we talk about moving, but if we don't become more proactive, it will never happen.

  15. From one lesbian transracial adoptive parent to another: YOU ARE THE BEST! I have been waiting a long time to read something like this. We are fortunate that we already lived in a diverse city before we adopted our daughter (she's Latina, we are white.) Better yet, we have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage and international adoption in the country. We are blessed to send her to a dual-immersion Spanish public school, where the majority of the students, parents and staff look like her. Where we are in the minority and don't understand the language very well. Where she can look around and see lots of different ways to be a Latina in this culture. I am stunned by the number of adoptive families, however, who don't seem to understand how important this is to our kids and who minimize their need to have a space where they don't stick out as "different" all of the time. You are a refreshing and honest voice - keep writing!

  16. From a black lesbian, hoping to be an adoptive mama one day.... thanks!!! This was amazing. Even though my adoptions probably won't be trans-racial... as a black woman race and parenting are a big deal for me. While it took a lot for me to shake some of the stereotypes of "black people do..." and "black people don't"... created and maintained by other black folks, it still feels mostly easy and comfortable to talk about such things as spending hours at the hair salon, having my ears and neck burned by a hot comb, playing double dutch on the street, having to be home when the street lights come on, and where I was when the OJ verdict was read... regardless of how my beliefs and opinions have shifted about all of these since then... I still share a piece of collective cultural memory, a familiar "knowing" with many black women that many trans-racially adopted kids don't get. From that a strong identity was created, albeit influenced by many other life and cultural experiences it has a strong foundation rooted in my "blackness". Black/African American cultute is, I think, harder to expose kids to then- kids that have a specific country of origin to link back to. Black American culture while surely a real living thing in some regards, is also very ambiguous and amorphous and so rooted in the adaptions required for our ancestors to survive the slave trade, jim crow, and institutionalized racism. It can be a difficult process to uncover the what black culture is or isn't and to differentiate it from "American" or "Western" culture as well.

    Ok... a tirade... Kudos!!!

  17. We just moved to DC from Tulsa, OK for the same reason. I could have written this (though not as well, I'm sure). Thank you for something that resonated so deeply, esp the part about it being a very hard transition, but worth it.

  18. Your kids sound adorable. You sound like a great parent! Moving for your kids is amazing...I hope I'd be able to do those kinds of things for my children. I'd love to say that we should not consider race, but black children need extra nurturing. I hate using the word minority, but *we* don't see a whole lot of *us* in society and a lot of *us* don't represent all of *us*. The pink shoe post is a perfect lesson...some things we can't get perfectly "right" because there's not always a distinct right or wrong.

    Be prepared for when someone tells your child that they will be sent back to Africa (happened to me in elementary school) or or that they won't do well in math (happened to me in grad school). I survived these things intact, partly because my parents taught me the following: (1) life is not fair, (2) work hard, (3) get an education, (4) respect for elders is a big deal, and (6) stand up for your beliefs.

    I'm a black woman, but my life is nothing like what you see on TV. There is no such thing as 'talking black' and 'acting black' but a lot of people try really hard to prove how black they are. As long as your kids don't buy into this nonsense, they'll be fine. The concept of "keeping it real" is meaningless.

    It will happen, so prepare your kids for people to focus on skin color (light-skinned vs. dark-skinned), hair (good hair or nappy hair), designer clothing, and reading. It sounds crazy, but these are polarizing issues for many black people. Just listen to any urban radio station (or BET). We can love ourselves when we accept our differences. It's a very important thing to teach any black child.

  19. I can't speak to lesbian parenting or transracial adoptive kids, but I can speak about Columbus, Ohio, and what a great choice you made landing there.
    I grew up in Columbus, white and Jewish. To one side our neighbors were a white Catholic family with teenage boys who called me Maria because they wouldn't learn to pronounce my name (I was 7, I thought it was funny). On the other side was a black couple who were an engineer and a nurse. The black man who lived behind us was on the city council. When I encountered stereotypes of blacks in my teens and college years, I was flabbergasted. What people spewed out had nothing to do with the upper middle class people I knew.
    I can't put a value on the neighborhood in which I was raised, where I had friends of every stripe. Absolutely priceless. As a married adult, we sought out a town in NJ which had the same vibe. It wasn't easy, but I love where I live. My children go to Jewish day school, for which I'm grateful, but there is that trade off of not having as colorful a set of friends as I had.
    Good luck in Columbus. I haven't lived there in 20 years, but I miss it still.

  20. Thanks for writing this beautiful blog that brought tears to my eyes. I wish everyone felt this way. The world would be a much better place with people like you. I was fortunate enough to grow up with parents that taught me that what counts is on the inside of the person, not on the outside. My 23 year old daughter just emailed me a few months ago thanking me for teaching her this. She said she felt extremely frustrated when speaking with other kids in their 20's who were very close minded. I will continue to follow your blog.
    From SK of Eastern Massachusetts

  21. Thank hearing about Portland Maine from your perspective. Please please keep writing!

  22. I'm from central Ohio. I've lived North, South, East, West, and Central. Lewis Center, Galloway, Gahanna, Hilliard, and Columbus. I've also lived in Philly and small town West Virginia. I'm a happily married mother of two living the dream {my dream} of staying at home. All of my life, I have found an extreme passion for the rights of all who just happen to have a different lifestyle than I do. I may be living out the 50s family unit that the public views as "normal", but I never understood why my way had to be the right way. I come from a similar family, and my husbands family is similar as well. So why then, have I always felt so passionate about this subject. I have strong Christian beliefs, so deep rooted, that it hurts me, physically hurts me to see other Christians being hurtful to ANY OTHER HUMAN BEING. People who face the same daily challenges that that everyone else faces, being human. Why? I can't answer that. I wish I could but I simply can't.
    So this brings me to why I felt so compelled to write a response to your story. Because I think you just answered a lifelong question for me. One that I have repeatedly asked myself with no solid answer, besides: "It's the right thing to believe in." {Which isn't a bad answer, but it seems so simple, why is it even a question} Why do I feel so passionate about human rights? I'm not particular to the kind, although Gay and Lesbian rights seem such an easy way to exemplify how wrong it can be. So whether it be gay, lesbian, transsexual, biracial, obese, poor, female, or even white male. I believe in loving humans. Why? Because I'm human, and I was raised in a city that loves me for who I am. My city loves my gay neighbor, and my black neighbor, my Japanese neighbor, my single mother neighbor, my single father neighbor, my neighbor battling weight, and my neighbor struggling with anxiety. My city makes me proud, and I didn't even know it. I can't say that I worked hard for this, it came easy: To have the choice. My city gave that to me. Or, rather, my parents gave that to me, when they moved me from a small {not so racially diverse} town in West Virginia, to Columbus. A simple, loving city, where I had room to grow.
    So thank you for showing me why I am the way I am. And thank you for putting a good name on a city I love so much. I hope your children find growing up here to be as free of choices as I found it to be. And that one day {when they say "I've GOT to get out of Ohio", {Like everyone does} they quickly remember how important this city is, and how it has shaped them to be the loving people that they already are.