mothering bodies ~ adoption ~ alt.gender ~ parenting ~ work/life balance

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Crossroads

I hit the Crossroads twice in one day recently. It may not be a new record, but I had not been to the Crossroads in a while, so twice in one day seemed like a lot.

I used to hit the Crossroads nearly every time I left the house when my two sons were babies. Do I live near a major intersection? Not exactly. Perhaps you should settle in with a nice glass of Chardonnay and let me break it down for you. First, let's rewind a bit.

"Must Look Like Me."
Photo: Bryan Brown

Typically, when a woman appears in public with a baby or small toddler racially similar to herself, most onlookers assume that the child is her biological offspring. Many onlookers are curious about certain of the mother's intimate bodily details to which, because she presents publicly with a child, they presume welcomed access. Perhaps many hold this presumption because, statistically speaking, a woman in the United States that has given birth to a child has exposed her genitals, breasts, uterus, baby, and placenta to an impressive number of medical professionals. The general public also has a basic working knowledge of pregnancy and hospital birth, so it assumes access to certain facts about a mother's pregnancy and birthing experiences based on that knowledge. Thus, when a complete stranger asked me in Wal-Mart if I breastfed my then-two-month-old infant, she did not intend to breach my privacy. Instead, she assumed a cultural understanding of my biological relationship with my son, possibly predicated on her own biological relationship(s) with her own child(ren). In other words, she assumed that I had been pregnant with and subsequently delivered my child.

I was asked a much, much longer list of presumptively intimate questions about my babies; however, nobody has ever asked my husband whether he has taught his sons how to pee while standing, if they are all circumcised, or anything even remotely intimately connected to his body or his bodily connections to our sons. 

How does he avoid the third degree? Because he is the father. Babies come out of mothers' bodies, so the public is interested in their bodily experiences. Nobody else's bodies have anything to do with children. Right?

Not exactly.

Remember way back at the beginning of this post when I mentioned that these kinds of questions land me squarely in the middle of the Crossroads?

That's because, as an adoptive mother, my babies did not spring forth from my own loins. In that sense, I am living the prediction of a dear friend who enthused when I told her we planned to adopt: "You'll be like the father!"

It is true: my sons and I are not biologically related. This is not to say, however, that my relationship with them is not bodily. I breastfed Cole and have bathed with them both. I have suckled them, napped with them, worn them in slings, been doused in every bodily substance they produce, and kissed nearly every single boo boo better. I have both nursed and caught their colds and viruses, fed them, and changed their clothes and diapers. I know by touch whether they have a fever and how serious it is. And, yet, every single time someone I barely or do not know asks a question about some biological aspect of our relationship, I feel myself being pulled into the Crossroads of Choice: should I reveal my status as an adoptive mother or lie? The answer is not so easy.

Which Story, Which Path?
Photo: Cole Brown
If I tell the truth to strangers, then I am trafficking in my children's personal information without their consent.

But, if I lie, I feel amoral.

I almost always tell the truth, but even that choice does not always feel correct to me--even if it feels better than lying.

When a woman on the beach asked me how I had lost my baby weight soon after Cole was born, I answered that I had not been pregnant and so had not lost any weight. I considered replying that I had done lots of abdominal work, but that answer felt disingenuous and mean. This woman had asked me that question because I was a thin woman holding a baby who looked like me. She had assumed that I had been pregnant with that baby and had then lost all of the weight gained during pregnancy. She did not consider the possibility that I had adopted my baby and, thus, had retained my pre-baby physique. Struggling to lose her own baby weight, she hoped that I had a magic weight-loss secret and would be willing to share. How could I lie to her about how to reclaim her very self image? 

I did try lying. Once.

When Cole was still a baby, I treated myself to a good haircut with a new stylist, Claire. By way of explaining why my hair looked like a baby had cut it, I mentioned that I had a young son. "Oh!" she exclaimed and peered more closely at my scalp. "Do you breastfeed?"

"Yes!" I almost shouted with relief. I had this one.

"Huh," Claire said, "your hair looks really healthy for a breastfeeding woman. Usually, the baby leaches nutrients from the follicles."

I did not know that. "Really," I hedged, "I drink lots of milk."

I did breastfeed, but not the way Claire--or most other women--mean when they discuss it. Because I had not been pregnant, I had induced lactation through pumping and taking herbal supplements for several months, but I did not produce enough milk to feed Cole fully. He took in mostly formula through a tiny tube that I taped to my breast to supplement my milk. This whole topic is fascinating but it's really a different post, so stay tuned.

I had been blindsided into the Crossroads! Dammit, I did not want to explain adoptive breastfeeding to Claire. I was supposed to be treating myself to some overdue self-care and had hoped that a good haircut would boost a self image deflated by red-eyed sleep deprivation and wearing pajama pants to Target.

Claire was growing more perplexed. She lifted a hank of my hair higher, closer to the light. "And pregnancy usually makes you lose some hair, but yours is thick. Did you have any hair loss?"

I was now three questions into a lie which I had not instigated. I had been dropped, blind, into the Crossroads and streaked left before realizing that I could open my eyes.

I could have stopped it. I should have stopped it. But, for once, I wanted to just answer the questions about the presumed pregnancy I'd had never had. For once, I didn't want to have to derail the conversational trajectory because my situation was different. For once, I just wanted to be normal.

But I have never done normal . . . well, normally.

Perversely, I answered every one of Claire's questions about my fictional pregnancy. For the record: I had terrible morning sickness but declined the epidural. I like my fictional births natural. Sassy haircut notwithstanding, I never returned to that salon.

The other day, while chatting with my neighbor after returning her children from a play date at my house, she asked me whether I have stretch marks. After three hours with four children, the most stretched thing on me was patience. "No," I replied. She arched an eyebrow. Did she not believe me? I wondered. I felt that familiar rip-tide pull toward the Crossroads.

Being fairly new to the neighborhood, our family is slowly making new friends. (And, by "slowly," I refer to Bryan and me. The kids had new lifelong BFFs within minutes of the moving van's departure.) As we share our histories with this new set of people, however, questions naturally arise about family structures and dynamics. I don't resent such questions, but I sometimes forget about adoption in general and, when I do, I don't anticipate obvious conversational tangents that lead back to it.

My neighbor and I stood behind her couch, our four children wrestling on the floor in front of the television not five feet away. I considered evading the question for a split second but, as usual, simply told her the truth: "I was never pregnant." Her eyebrow rose nearly to her hairline. "Cole and Connor are adopted," I explained in a low voice.

"Really? I never would have known!" She was surprised. "But they look so much like you. How is that possible?" So I explained how we came to be a family. When I had a similar conversation later that evening with a mother on my street, she revealed that adoption is part of her life as well and thanked me for sharing my story.

I learned something about the Crossroads, having spent so much time there that day: it's not a bad place, but it is a difficult place. The Crossroads is, for me, that site at which I am continually forced to confront my vulnerability as a mother and as a human being. The choices with which I wrestle there are rooted in my twin desires to both protect and be a role model for my children. Being an adoptive mother is not about lying or truth telling, but it does entail being a responsible steward of my children's identities.

When my children were younger and sleep deprivation had addled my logical mind, I resented questions from people who did not already know my family's adoption stories. Those questions forced me to acknowledge the ways in which my family does not perfectly match the American cultural image of "family," that is: two heterosexual, married parents of two to three children begat biologically, all of whom are racially similar. But, then, statistically speaking, the vast majority of American families don't fit that definition either. I wanted to shed the onus of responsibility to help build a more tolerant world, so I wanted strangers and new acquaintances to consider the possibility of adoption rather than assume biology when addressing me. I wanted to avoid the Crossroads altogether, to simply sail down conversational roads without ever stopping short to wonder which normal to present, mine or someone else's. But that will never happen because Cole and Connor look just like Bryan and me. (No, we did not check the "Must Look Like Me" box on the adoption application.) Based on our appearance alone, those who do not already know otherwise will naturally assume that our adoptive family is biological. I am not ashamed of adoption; in fact, I consider myself an advocate. Nor do I wish that my children had come to me in any other way. But if you are not an adoptive parent, know this: dropping the A-bomb always elicits more questions. I sometimes did not have the stamina to answer them. Usually, though, I enjoy sharing our family's adoption stories with people I trust. It's one way I believe I advocate for the beauty and joy of adoption as a way to grow families.

I like the idea of viewing these explanation moments as educational rather than taxing, but it's also important to realize the symbiosis in them: new friends and curious, cootchy-cootchy-coo strangers at Wal-Mart often initiate these exchanges as a way of welcoming me (and Bryan) into The Parent Club. Members held the Kroger door open for me when I struggled to maneuver a heavy shopping cart over a bump while wearing Connor in a sling. They smiled sympathetically at me when both boys screamed in protest at my candy denial in the Target checkout aisle. The acquisition of children, round-the-clock childcare, and sleep deprivation are a few of the hazing experiences we parents share--and upon which these exchanges are often based. Whether my acquisition of children was "like the father" or not, the fact that I parent two of them grants me entry into one of the largest, empathic clubs in humankind.

Realizing commonalities like this dilutes some of the anxiety I feel about my trips to the Crossroads. In fact, it helps me to understand that each parent has his or her own Crossroads. I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone.