Adoption and Devotion

“Where is your trench?” she asked.  

I understood what Jen was getting at. She was asking about my pain, the place I hurt the deepest. She knows this kind of pain. She wakes up missing her son, Eli, every day. Five months after welcoming him into this world, she buried his impossibly tiny casket. I know her, not in the way I know most of my friends: I know her by her loss. I friended Jen for her bravery.  

So here it is. Here’s my pain.

Fear and Shame

When it comes to our adoption story, do you want my son’s birth story or our now-story? Do you want to know how he was a twinkle in our eyes before we held him in our arms on a Sunday afternoon in that extremely hot, noisy orphanage in Ethiopia? Or do you want to know how I wake up with fear clawing at my stomach every morning—fear that my beautiful, brown son may not come home safe today?

I’m terrified the next story of a brown-skinned boy lying lifeless in the street will be about my son, because violence plays for keeps. I’m tortured that one day I will be forced to taste the same bitter pain shared by the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice.

I don’t know how to walk this road.

My heart knows what my head refuses to admit: I’m powerless to protect my son’s beautiful, brown body from senseless acts of violence—from the systemic racism stalking his every step.

The day he was called "n*gger," history broke in on me. The voice speaking this racial epithet may have been from a 7-year-old child, but make no mistake: it wasn’t just his voice. An entire legacy of racism spoke through this little boy, right here in "post-racial America." It was not this little boy’s independent idea, not his own original hate. History fed into his disgust at my brown son’s existence.

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The quiet was eerie in the house after the bus delivered my two sons that day. Shame followed them into our home. Neither was eager to be the first to tattle.

Finally, my older son, voice shaking, repeated what was said to his younger brother on the playground. My youngest stayed hidden in his room. Why? I said to myself. Isn’t he too young to be wounded by the violence and hate that word carries?

He did his best to duck and dodge, but he couldn’t escape the shame aimed right at his soul. That day, he was labeled "less than," a label he’d never had to wear before.

Until then, being brown-skinned just meant different. But now, brown carried shame. It meant bigger people on the playground could divide and separate my son from his classmates. It meant he was alone at school.

Brown now meant bad.

The Good One, the Bad One

Don’t think these words leave a mark? Then why do 15 out of 21 brown-skinned children choose the white doll over the brown doll when given a choice? The study I’m referring to was first conducted in the 1940s during segregation, then again in 2005 by documentary filmmaker Kiri Davis: “In Davis' test, 15 of the 21 children said that the white doll was good and pretty, and that the black doll bad.”

Davis’s conclusion: prejudice and discrimination caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority.

According to Davis, the children in her study did not hesitate when asked to choose between the dolls:

It was just, boom, which is the good doll. They said because the white one is the good one, the black one is the bad one. They internalize these stereotypes that are out there.

"People don't realize at such a young age these children really get it," Davis said. "Many [parents] didn't want to believe that's what's still going on."

The Relentless Chant of Racism

My heart beat itself bloody the day my youngest came home from school. Fear seeped to the marrow of my mothering. The hand that rested on my son’s shoulder lacked the unconscious affection it usually carried. I could feel my protective instincts kicking in, silently challenging anyone to demean my son again. I wished my hand on his shoulder could protect him from the experience of being viewed as a soon-to-be criminal or as a second-class citizen.

I can’t protect him from that. It tears at my soul—not being able to shield his soul from the relentless chant of racism. Our lives are shaped by its rhythms, but those of us who are white don’t notice because it doesn’t affect us. You don’t recognize the song unless generations of your family have been shaped by its trauma and fear. Detecting the beat of racism is a survival skill handed down in marginalized communities.

As I stood there with my son, without even realizing it, my soul resurrected my old soldier skills from my days fighting in the Iraq War: planning ahead about who we would allow ourselves to be around; deciding not to let him go into a gas station bathroom by himself; taking the NERF™ gun out of his hands while he played in our own yard; telling him to take the hoodie off his head because today it’s just a Superman hoodie, but a few years from now it could endanger his life; panicking when a police car stops when he’s across the street from me; worrying that 100 feet may be too far away for me to protect him.

How in the world could I spare my son from wondering, What’s wrong with me? Why did they talk to me like that? Why does my brother get teased for having a black brother?  

My son is a masterpiece. His laughter, his artist’s eye, his grin that cracks every stern moment. The greatest gift I could share with the world is all of him.

But now, instead of sharing him with the world around me, I have to protect him from the world. 

Adoption is born out of a broken family story, a story carrying wounds of incredible loss. I grieve that—for my son, for his birth mother, and for every child not in a home where their one precious life is honored and protected.

Children deserve a parent who will take on the world for them, a parent who will do anything to remind them they are completely worthy. Someone to lift up their chin, look them in the eyes and say, "I’m with you, no matter what."

The rock bottom rule of parenting is, at the very least, keep them alive so they can play another day. Not knowing I can protect my son’s life feels like I am an utter failure as a mother—like a real failure, not an over-achieving-Pinterest-mom kind of failure. What kind of mother am I if don’t even know how to keep my son safe? 

Racism is killing my son’s only precious, wild childhood. It’s robbing him of a fearless boyhood. And it’s killing me a little more everyday.


No Matter What

Our adoption story goes like this...

His eyes found mine over the ten other crying babies, stacked orphanage-style and three cribs high. His hand touched my face. He was home. I was home. Cradling him in my arms for the first time was cotton candy and moonbeams. Pure magic.

Our adoption story is beautiful, isn’t it?

What about my son’s life story?

Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming of patting his hand at his 35th birthday party—telling him middle age isn’t so bad, everybody gains a few pounds and, yes, watching Netflix is a real hobby. 

I’m not going to stop saying Black Lives Matter, because I’m committed to the rest of his life story. My reality is I can’t protect my own son. I can't protect my son from the racism swirling all around him.

But I can lift up his chin, look him in the eyes, and say, “I'm with you, no matter what.”

That’s our adoption story.

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*This article was first posted by Stories From The Trenches. The original post can be read here.

parentingDiana Oestreich