Making me a liar: responding to intrusive questions about my children

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Natasha Sky

I hear one question from strangers more often than any other: “Are they all yours?” The second most common question goes something like this, “Are some of your children adopted?” Long ago I stopped feeling that these types of questions are innocuous–they are the most common and some of the most intrusive. The first question’s more frequent, and easier to answer and walk away. (“Are they all yours?” “Yep.”) The second one is more problematic.

To begin with, asking me if some of my children are adopted belies the illusion the first question offers, that the questioner is simply curious because of the number of children I have. The second question also lets me know the asker is focused on the skin-tone variations in my children, because all other aspects of visual variety between my kids are too mixed to genetically distinguish (three pairs of brown eyes and one pair of hazel; straight hair, wavy hair, wavy hair, and curly hair; black hair, dark brown hair, light brown hair, and dark blonde hair). None of my four children physically resemble in the face, including the two who are biological siblings. Each of the children has their own unique hair, skin, and eye colors; hair texture; face shape; eye, nose and mouth shapes. (My oldest two children have the same wide foot shape and my oldest two girls have very similar body shapes, which makes hand-me-downs a dream.)

But back to my point. Asking if some of my children are adopted tells me the question asker already has in their mind which of my children are adopted, and they have made this judgment based on skin-color alone. I have more than enough friends who are currently (or formerly) interracially partnered and have biracial and multiracial children to know this question does not just come to me–it often comes to them as well. The “Are they adopted?” questions are more often asked of my White and White-appearing friends; none of us are spared the “Are they yours?” variety.

Here’s where I’ve started to falter with my answer to the adoption-status question. We are very open in our family; we have open adoptions. We talk about adoption all the time. I never want my kids to be ashamed of being adopted, to feel it is something to hide–but I also want them to to know it is not neccesarily everyone’s business. (I never want to say or do anything to dishonor my children’s birthparents or their places in my children’s hearts and lives.) But that question, “Are some of your children adopted?” is just the tip of the iceberg. What most of those questioners are really asking is this, “Are some of your children adopted or is your husband/boyfriend/ex Black?” They’re asking the half of the question that is polite enough to get out of their mouths (so they think), but think again–I hear the rest of the question continuing on in the background.

This is where we come to the lying. I don’t lie nearly as often as I should in my life, even to simply give myself and my family and friends a little more wiggle room. I rarely lie. Lying is a slippery slope; even a little lie leads to bigger lies to cover the tracks you didn’t think you were leaving. But when those overly-curious busybodies start in on the genetic origins of my children, ooh! I want to lie.

I’ve actually done it once, that I can remember, and that was just a little lie of omission. I was in the airport, traveling alone with my two oldest children (one adopted and one biological), who were both under two at the time. We were on our layover and they were strapped into the double stroller. As I stood in line at the counter to get a gate-check tag, this 60ish (White) woman leans over my children, looks back and forth at them and then at me. She asked the million dollar question, “Do they have the same father?” I thought for a moment about my husband who was coming to pick us up at the airport in just a few hours.

“Yep,” I answered.

“Aren’t genetics amazing?” she said.

And they are, because there are countless families that look like ours, families where all the children are genetically related.

There are so many scenarios that could create a family picture like ours: interracial marriage, one or two multiracial parents, full biological siblings, half biological siblings, blended family, step siblings, adoption, foster care, mother with her children fathered by four different men out with her new boyfriend, boyfriend and girlfriend out together with their kids from prior relationships . . . why does it matter how a multiracial family was formed? Why does anyone think it is their right, their business, to question somebody else about the origins of their family–usually in front of their family?

Then there is the opposite. The families who announce loudly (and repeatedly) at the beach that this is their Fresh Air child, just visiting from the city. The White adoptive parents who put clothing on their adopted child of color that announces he/she was adopted, that preemptively clarifies the underlying miscegenation question (as asked above). It is becoming more common in the world of transracial adoption to hear this all-too-appropriate comparison: If you wouldn’t marry someone who is Black, Asian, Latino, African American, Haitian, Chinese, or Guatemalan (for example), then you certainly should not adopt a child with that ancestry either.

But back to the lying. The way people ask this question. The different sets of assumptions and the treatment and looks our family gets when I am (a) out alone with all of the kids, and (b) out with my husband with the kids. These not-so-hidden guesses and beliefs, and how they affect the environment of my children–and the children of interracially partnered couples across our nation. These are the crazy-making false-notions that almost make me lie. Because the simplest answer to that second question (“Are some of your children adopted?”), which should make it the most likely conclusion, is “No”. Except if I said it, it would be a lie.

I’ve done at least one thing I wanted to do as a parent, and I’m not sure how: my kids automatically think groups of people where the adults appear to be caring for the children in any way (one or more adults, either gender, and any number of kids), my children view this group of people as a family. We’ll be back in the car and they’ll still be trying to puzzle out who the teenage girl was, and where her room in the family house must be, even when it was clear to me she was a babysitter.

If only we could all make our family viewfinder this broad.

Natasha Sky is a multiracial woman, a writer, an artist, and an activist—as well as the fulltime mother of four multiracial children all under the age of six. Two of Natasha’s children joined her family through open domestic adoption and two of her children joined her family through homebirth. Natasha created MultiracialSky.com, a website of resources for multiracial families. During naptime, Natasha writes about multiracial family life.

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