“Oh I’m so sorry….I didn’t know.” It was a brilliant day, at least as far as the weather was concerned. My husband John and I had decided to take our young children to their favorite playground called “Castle Park” in a nearby town. The park was crowded with other mothers and fathers who, like us, were pretending to be enjoying the Sunday afternoon together. But reality sets in when you are playing zone defense at a crowded public space with three children under the age of eight, each running in different directions.
While John ran off trailing our two sons, Ethan and Charlie, toward the slide, I had just waived my single right finger, high in the air as if to say, “I have her,” pointing to the monkey bars where our three-year-old daughter had set her sights.
The remark came from another mother standing by me, watching her own daughter flip around one of the metal bars, as she responded to my sharing that Savanna was adopted from birth. The woman’s hair was a divine red, and I noticed her young daughter’s own mane matched perfectly.
Moments beforehand, she’d questioned me while pointing at Savanna, “Where in the world did she get that blonde hair?” It hadn’t been the first time I’d been asked. The mother that inquired immediately acted apologetically, as if she had just forced me to reveal some dark family secret. In similar past situations, I’d tried out generic responses such as, “It’s somewhere in the genes.” But that day in the park I felt reluctant to repeat the misleading comment. In reality, I was proud of our beautiful truth.
“Oh I’m so sorry. I didn’t know…” I looked up at the woman I had just met, a mom also of three invited to a large end of summer barbeque at a mutual friend’s house. As our children either played outside in the backyard or downstairs in the basement, all the moms were in the kitchen, preparing to bring the food out. Savanna had just walked in carrying our friend’s adorable dog, pleading me to get one for her forthcoming 10th birthday. The other mother had just said all too familiarly, “Oh my goodness! Is that your daughter? Where did she ever get that blonde……?” In that moment as I stared at my own daughter’s practically glowing light hair, a couple of things occurred to me. Sure, these outbursts seem to always happen end of summer’ish, after Savanna’s hair has undergone a couple of months of sun bleaching. Yet there is something particularly amusing to me that a person speaking to a one-fingered woman she’s never met chooses to ask about hair.
This summer, however, had me reflecting a lot about the subject of adoption. For example, during my Don’t Hide It Flaunt It presentation to campers in July at Eisner camp, I referenced my own family’s differences. All three of my kids were in the audience sitting with their camp friends. While Ethan, Charlie and I wear our difference literally on our sleeve, I broadened the talk to include “invisible” differences because we all have “something” different about us and the broader definition allowed all the campers to put themselves, even momentarily, in our shoes. I mentioned that John was born with only three instead of four bottom teeth (not much of a difference, we all admitted). And then of course, there was Savanna. It was easy to talk candidly about her severe allergy to nuts and having asthma. But I hesitated about adding the fact that she was adopted. While there is no question adoption has been an open and positive topic in our household, it occurred to me that she would be in the audience that day. Although we had raised her to accept unconditionally everything that makes her, her, I wondered if her adoption was my news to share while she sat on a bench with her friends listening to me speak?
The same month, the subject of adoption came up with respect to the Olympics in Rio. Savanna and I were excited to watch the games, especially women’s gymnastics. Savanna had made a local team to compete at the state level this year in New Jersey. Now she couldn’t wait to watch the US team strut its stuff, especially the rising star, Simone Biles. Little did we know that Savanna and Simone had more in common than just their love of gymnastics. Simone was adopted too. Unfortunately I learned this fact from Olympics commentator Al Trautwig. Referring to Ron and Nellie Biles, Trautwig stated on live television that they weren’t really her parents. He said, “[Biles] was raised by her grandfather and his wife and she calls them mom and dad.” In fact, both Biles and sister were adopted by their maternal grandfather, Ron Biles, and his wife, Nellie, in 2000. When a woman told Trautwig via Twitter he should call them Simone’s parents, Trautwig doubled down and tweeted back, “They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents.” Eventually Trautwig deleted the tweet and apologized publicly.
I have learned from experience that unless someone’s life has been touched in some way personally by adoption, it is all too easy for a person to make uniformed comments. Old habits and learned attitudes die hard and even today, many people perceive adoption as something of a taboo, even a source of shame. I was mostly interested to see how Simone Biles herself reacted to Trautwig’s view. Given this girl’s drive and dedication leading her to winning gold four times in Rio, and knowing behind every great gymnast are devoted parents, I waited for Biles’ response. She said, “I personally don’t have a comment. My parents are my parents and that’s it.” And that was the simple truth. In our family, we actually don’t even think about Savanna’s adoption, unless someone reminds us. And come to think of it, that’s how our boys and I feel about having fewer fingers and toes.
As for the Eisner speech, when I was practicing aloud the night before, struggling to decide whether to include the subject of Savanna’s adoption, she came in to watch. After I was finished, our girl looked at me confused. “But Mommy, you mentioned my allergies but why didn’t you mention that I was adopted? That’s my difference too.” I turned to her partly amused, partly feeling guilty– not wanting her to misinterpret the omission. It tickled me to be reminded that in our house being different is a really good thing. I replied, “Oh honey, I thought about it but figured that was your news to share since your friends are going to be there.” And then came the best response. “Of course they already knew. I told them I am adopted the day you moved me into my bunk. How else would I explain why your hair is so much darker than mine?” I looked over at her grinning. In Savanna’s response about her adoption story I knew we had achieved something beautiful. Her heart had matched the hue of her hair. And if we remain lucky, both would stay gold.