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Presumptive Motherhood

“She’s adorable. Where did you get her?”

That little gem was my first taste of what it’s like to be an adoptive mother to a child of color. I’m not, of course, but this is what I look like to the other parents when I carry Agotich to and from her preschool class. The AJ preschool community (Agotich goes to Adath Jeshurun) doesn’t know me, and no one could reasonably think she’s biologically mine. The very first day I carried Agotich down the hall to Ms. Barb’s toddler class, a fellow mother stopper in her tracks and asked me this before spitting out even a cursory greeting.

Even at KIP (Simon’s school), where I am well known, a few have assumed Agotich is mine. I had to bring her inside the building one day to pick up Simon, and more than one person did a double-take. A friendly acquaintance stopped in her tracks, smiled widely, and asked “Now when did this happen? And how did I miss it?” Another, an adoptive mother of a child from a different racial group herself, simply raised her eyebrows and said, “Do you have some news to share?” I just kept smiling and saying “No, no, she’s a friend’s daughter. I just have her on loan.” It was all friendly and benign.

And then I hit someone who knew me well enough to know that I had not added to my family. It started well enough.

“Now who’s this with you?”

“Oh, she’s a friend’s daughter. I have her twice a week because I take her to preschool.”

“Oh. [voice lowers to a hushed whisper] Is she adopted?”

That kind of took the wind out of my sails, betraying as it did the fact that where I live, it’s more likely I would have white friends who completed a trans-racial adoption than simply have African (or African-American) friends. Latent in that whisper was the 40-year effort—and failure—to integrate my hometown. What’s more, I am well aware that were I African or Latina and Agotich white, many of the parents I bump into would simply assume I was her nanny. The racial politics of adoption, real or presumed, is complicated and fraught.*

I’ve had enough of these encounters by now that I’ve created a ranking system for the questions and the askers. Top marks go to the mother who assumed Agotich was mine and asked no questions. She only betrayed her assumption when she said “I don’t have one in diapers any more” in a way that suggested I did. Top honors are shared with the mother who saw me carry Agotich in her classroom room, smiled hugely, and said, “Oh, I’m so glad to meet you! Little Braden [name changed] talks about Agotich all the time!”

I’m even OK with those who inquire, “Now where is your beautiful daughter from?” or the like. It’s nosy, I know, and many adoptive parents rankle at it, but it’s human nature to be curious and I’d probably ask, too. Actually, I did ask someone not too long ago, and we ended up having a very long and cordial chat about work, our cats (this was at the vet), and how he was one of the first Americans to adopt from Gambia. Also, I don’t get asked this question every day of my life, so I’m not worn out by it.

Somehow, though, “Where did you get her?” just rankles, as though a baby is some commodity for which you go shopping. A friend of mine, whose own adoptive daughter belongs to a different racial group and who hears this all the time, suggested a few responses. There was:


Which is elegant and gets the job done, but might be more in-your-face than I’d like. Then there was:

“Oh no—she’s mine. Her father is French.”

Which turns expectation on its head in a way I like, but requires a poker face that I lack. And then there was:

“I don’t know. Angelina turned her head and I just grabbed her.”

Which is on the clunky side, and is not my style at all.

It’s taken me two-and-a-half months, and the questions come less frequently now, but I have arrived at a new answer that is easy, natural, and reflective of how I am positioned in the family.

“I’m her Auntie.”

*Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog on the New York Times has run a terrific series on adoption, domestic and international, trans-racial and intra-racial. For anyone interested in the topic, I recommend it highly. There are also interesting posts from biological parents of biracial children. This is where I learned and absorbed the full meaning of the fact that when mom is brown, she’s presumed to be the baby-sitter, and when mom is white, she’s presumed to be an adoptive mother.

One Response to “Presumptive Motherhood”

  1. Amanda says:

    I like that! Short, sweet, accurate and to the point. And someone would have to be amazingly nosy to ask questions after that.

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