Last week I was talking with my friend Ayana, who is the mother of a little girl just a few months older than Ellie. Ayana is African-American, and is, by her own admission, obsessed with buying books for her daughter, particularly books that portray some diversity. Being the kind soul that she is, she periodically picks up some books for Ellie, too. Thanks to her, we're collecting our own little library of books featuring Asian, Latino and African-American characters.
Since Ayana's little one is a bit older than Ellie, I asked her if she thinks her daughter notices when a character in a book looks like her. She said she definitely sees the difference -- she even points to the African-American characters and says to her mom, "That's me." I said I don't think Ellie sees it yet -- she's partial to a particular book Ayana bought her that features an Asian little girl, but I don't think that's why she likes the book. I don't think she notices any difference yet between her appearance and that of the other kids around her.
Then, literally overnight, that changed. Ellie now gravitates toward the handful of books she has that feature Asian children, and I don't think that's an accident. She consistently points to the Asian characters and studies their faces, and even though she has not yet gone so far as to identify with them personally, I can tell she's noticing that these kids look different from others on the page, and that they look like her.
I know that this whole discovery process is a precursor to Ellie's first adoption questions, and I'm not prepared for that. I'm not ready to tackle those issues yet. In the classes I took during the adoption process, they told us to brace ourselves when our kids hit age four or so -- that's when we could expect the first questions about why they don't look like us. But I can already tell we're going to get there long before we reach age four. I thought I was ready -- I took all the right classes, and talked to my social worker about all the possible issues that could arise. But that was when this whole thing was abstract. Now we're talking about MY daughter, and whether my answers to her questions will be good enough. We're talking about her self-image, her well-being -- things that may rise and fall based on what I say and whether I say it right. And I'm not ready.
A friend of mine is the mother of a three-year-old from Guatemala, and she told me a story the other day that scared me to death. Her beautiful daughter asked her, "Mommy, did you paint me brown?" Dawn told her that of course her parents hadn't painted her -- that she was born with her gorgeous brown skin, and that she's beautiful just as she is. Her daughter's comment was, "I wish I had white skin like you." This, of course, broke Dawn's heart, and broke mine, too, as I stood there listening to her talk about it. Dawn's baby is only three and they're already dealing with this.
I am NOT READY for my daughter's questions about her appearance. I am not ready for other kids to ask her why she doesn't look like her mom. I am not ready to see the look on her little face when she realizes that strangers sometimes ask questions about her based solely on her appearance. I took all the right classes, I read all the right books. I knew the day would come when I'd have to deal with this and other adoption-related issues. But not yet. I'm not ready yet. I need just a little more time before reality sets in. Just a little more time, and then I'll brace myself to deal with these things with as much honesty and love as I can find in my heart. I'll face the responsibility of holding my daughter's self-esteem in my hands, and I'll meet the challenge and do my best to say the right things to her.
But not yet.