My youngest daughter was adopted from the Massachusetts foster care system. She’s a beautiful, African American girl with huge brown eyes that smile 90% of the time — except when she’s being sarcastic, and even then she makes me laugh.
I remember clearly the day she joined our family in 2003. The social worker told me that, whenever possible, the system tries to place children in homes where the parents are the same race as the child, as they believe that’s in the child’s best interest. My husband and I were open to whatever child fate sent our way.
And so, on a stormy November night, baby Ayla was delivered to our doorstep. Literally the power in our house flickered as the social worker rang our doorbell and dropped her off with just a small duffle bag containing four onesies that no longer fit and an empty canister of formula.
Although we had already raised two other children through the baby stage, the moment the doorbell rang, I felt weak inside. My confidence in our parenting abilities was only as strong as is typical of parents with young children (which is to say, it varied by the hour). That night I questioned my sanity, my capabilities as a mother and if this child would learn to love me — for at the moment she was a helpless baby who had no choice or ability to affect her circumstances.
(As a side note, I still get tears in my eyes when I think about how, within 24 hours, our friends threw a spontaneous baby shower and delivered everything we needed — from clothes to a car seat to an ExerSaucer — to our doorstep. We hadn’t anticipated that our foster child would be a baby, and so we no longer had those items on hand. This was before the days of Facebook and I’m amazed at how quickly word spread and people rallied to support us.)
While I loved Ayla from the moment I met her — as did all of our relatives, neighbors and random people in the grocery store, the girl is seriously adorable — I wondered as she got older how she would feel about being raised in a white family.
My fears were cast aside one day when Ayla was 5 years old. We were in the bathroom together, taking turns using the toilet. “Mom — your butt is white,” Ayla observed. “Yes,” I replied, wondering where this conversation was headed. “And my butt is brown,” she said. “Yes,” I replied again. I could see her brain processing this information.
It occurred to me that, even though she had been staring at my face every day for the past 5 years, until that moment, she never realized we were a different race. She never saw skin color looking in my eyes.
I held my breath as I waited for her next question. I began crafting long, philosophical conversations in my head about how I would simultaneously explain the birds and the bees, the construction of our family, and race relations in the United States.
“What time will Daddy be home? What’s for dinner?” she asked. That was it. She had moved on. Skin color was of no concern or consequence to this kindergartener.
Denis Leary famously said in 1992 (and then recently tweeted): “Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.”
As the confederate flag was lowered this month in South Carolina, I can’t help but reflect on Ayla joining our life. Fifteen years ago, my husband and I were living in Oregon. As we started having children, I had a strong desire to get back to the east coast to be within driving distance of our extended family. My husband interviewed for a job in Columbia, SC. Oddly enough, that year South Carolina was also considering the removal of the confederate flag. When we went to look at houses, this was the top news story and I remember seeing news vans everywhere.
Ultimately, my husband chose a job in Massachusetts. It’s crazy for me to think that, if we had moved to Columbia, Ayla wouldn’t have joined our lives. So many specific puzzle pieces had to fall into place for her to become my daughter — and they did. And now I know it was for a reason.
A quick Google News search on “foster children” shows that there continues to be a significant shortage in available homes for the more than 100,000 children currently in the system. There are also just as many (or more) instances of children being abused in foster care as there were so many years ago when my husband and I first decided we had heard enough and that we had the time and resources to provide for another child.
While my husband and I have shared our family story privately with friends over dinner, we’ve never before discussed it publicly. Now that Ayla is old enough to give her permission, I wanted to share the “butt” story in the hopes that it may inspire someone who has considered becoming a foster parent to take the next step.
While nature vs. nurture continues to be a hot debate in terms of what has the greatest impact on a child, I can tell you that Ayla has inherited my husband’s love of Star Wars, her brother’s love of soccer, her sister’s love of reading and my love of dogs. When I asked Ayla her thoughts on being adopted, she told me she likes that it makes her unique and it’s been a “strange, but cool experience.”
In a recent school project where she had to create her biography, she wrote “Ayla wonders what her birth parents are like, but she knows she would never love them as much as the ones she loves now. Ayla has so many dreams, she can’t list them all! In the future, she will move to Hollywood and take college courses in fashion and design.”
Whatever the future holds, I will be at her side.