The Dominant Culture and Questions
Children try to make sense of their situation as they confront definitions of families and life experiences their adoptive mothers can’t control, although mothers are prepared to ease the difference. The experiences their children face are not always ones that their adoptive mothers know firsthand. White mothers have not experienced the same racial discrimination that their child of color faces, nor have most of these mothers experienced the absence of a father. Therefore, the mother’s social construction of the family’s everyday experiences is insufficient to address and anticipate the child’s questions. While all mothers face this in varying ways (from differences in history, generation, social class, etc.), the creation of transracial families makes family members more obviously not blood kin. Later, the challenge is to answer the child’s questions about things the mother has never experienced.
These women’s experiences point to both the continued hegemony of the nuclear family and the racial assumptions about its members. The most telling – rendition of the power of the hegemonic family comes from Gina’s experiences as she tried to protect her daughter. She realized that her work exposure to African American colleagues, supervisors, and clients might give her insight, but it was no substitute for the actual experience of race that her daughter might have. She found race to be more complex than she had imagined. She lived with a double lens: trying to imagine her child’s everyday racial experience while sharing the cultural privilege of her own whiteness.
Gina heard a certain amount of inquisitiveness in the voices of acquaintances when they remarked that her daughter was beautiful. She interpreted their comment about her daughter’s beauty as a question about the child’s father and her own tie to a man: “People will say, ‘Your daughter is beautiful.’ It isn’t, ‘Oh, is she biracial?’ ” Some mothers when they are alone with their adopted children— particularly those of biracial children—report that they sometimes find it easier to pass as their child’s biological mother, particularly if the person asking is a stranger. The mother conveys the impression of a biological family in order to minimize any negative repercussions that might lie behind a stranger’s comments. Interestingly, Gina believed that her own appearance contributed to a mother – daughter match:
I’ve been told over and over again that most people who are meeting me think I might be part African American. I guess I am not aware of this. The overwhelming assumption seeing Isabelle and me—of course they think we look alike—is that I am married to someone of color, or I was in a relationship and she is my biological child.
Without the other parent present to complete the family picture, the assumption is often that this is a biracial biological family. The presence of a man is presumed, as is that the child is the product of the small percentage of biracial marriages in the United States. In public the mother can hide behind the hegemony of the nuclear family and blood ties as the basis for kin.
Similarly, Janica, African American with two African American daughters, rarely told anyone that her daughters were adopted. She preferred to blend in, as if her children were biologically hers. But without the presence of a dad at various school functions, she too was unable to mimic the nuclear family template. She recalled that when her children were in middle school other parents would ask, “Where’s your husband?” Or they would say to her daughters, “Where’s your dad?” Even though she adopted her daughters in her thirties, she felt as if she was usually being judged on the basis of a stereotype, in the same way as a teenager who “accidentally” became pregnant—no man in the picture. She did not dispel this stereotype of herself because she felt it was her teenage daughters’ right to tell or not tell friends they were adopted. She was willing to live with other people’s bias about single black women rather than expose her daughters as adopted.
Therefore, one day she developed the strategy of telling acquaintances, “We don’t blow where he is.” This response silenced them, and as she told me, “It is the truth. I don’t know where their birth fathers are.” Even close friends were surprised to learn that her children—who are biologically related to each other— were adopted. The power of the biological nuclear family, with two opposite-sex parents of the same race, shaped her belief that her children’s privacy about their birth origins was not a topic she wanted to discuss openly. These were her daughters, and that was all people outside of her immediate family circle needed to know.
Yet when their children’s own self-awareness grows and they begin to ask questions about how they fit in with the family, the mothers deflect the difference by separating out blood ties from social ones and by absorbing the void through fantasy talk. When Isabelle was seven years old, she and her mom were driving home from an extended-family vacation that included grandparents, aunts and uncles, and first cousins. Suddenly, Isabelle who had had a wonderful time, asked her mom: “Is there no one in my family with brown skin? And I was the only one of my cousins that didn’t have a dad.” When I asked Gina how she responded, she told me:
Well, I would say right now that the single part is a little more prominent. Sometimes we go with a fantasy. “What would you like about that [having a dad]?” We’ve done a lot with that and that’s given her some outlet. Sometimes we’ll go with a reality check about whether that’s likely to happen, under what circumstances it would happen. I can’t do anything about that. The way we talk about it is that she does have a father, her birth father. She has pictures. She doesn’t have a forever dad. And that’s because I’m not married. It’s clearly trying to completely keep the focus. So, it’s like, “Get yourself married. I want a dad.”
But it was one thing to fantasize when Gina and Isabelle were alone together and quite another to have a playmate raise this absence, however innocently:
The only time it ever came up was with another child—the second year of preschool, wiiere I walked in and overheard a child wdio said, “Does Isabelle have a dad?” And there is my daughter. And wdiat came out of my mouth was, “Isabelle has a birth dad. She doesn’t have an everyday dad. I’m not married.” Then another question, “What do you mean, a birth dad?” I didn’t answer her further. The first question she asked was enough. I tried to validate that [Isabelle has a dad]; it was the best I could do. I wasn’t going to say no, and I wasn’t going to say yes to something that wasn’t true. Basically, for what she was asking me, the answrer was no. But I thought it was important to say that first part.
Even though a four-year-old playmate does not understand, the teacher standing nearby certainly does. Gina’s words spilled out as she answered for her daughter. She did not want her daughter blamed or, – worse yet, teased for something that was Gina’s “fault”—not having an “everyday dad” certainly wasn’t Isabelle’s doing. Yet Gina realized how guilty she felt for not even recently attempting to find a man who would become an “everyday dad,” that is; a man who would be a consistent presence in their lives.
During preschool Isabelle tried to figure out how she could have two parents like the other children in her group. She made the following equation:
When she was learning in the second year of pre-school about Gay and Lesbian Pride Day and they read Heather’ Has Two Mommies, first she said, “Well, that’s like us. I have two moms.” True, but we’re talking birth mom and adopted mom, not two everyday moms. But then she said, “If I can’t get a dad, I’d rather have two moms.” I said, “I wish it were that easy to just change overnight!” And that’s when I thought, “You know, some of this is about having another person.”
When Gina told her friends this story, they assured her that Isabelle missed having another person around, and that was why she placed her birth mother as the other parent in her life. It was not a confusion about the separation of kinds of mothers in her life; but the wish to be like other children in two-parent families— even a gay family would do. Gina, like most of the mothers I interviewed, admitted to me that to some extent it was true that it would be nice for both of them to have another person around to give Isabelle attention even though they had a rich life of friends and family.