My kid is hyper.
Always has been, and I am guessing will be for some time to come. She comes by it quite naturally, as both my husband and I are small, frenetic people whose own parents used sports to try to wear us out back in the day before ritalin ran free in our nation's suburbs. To calm her down, I often use my voice. When she was a baby, I'd sing and talk non stop, which made me sound like a hybrid of Ethel Merman and Rainman. As the parent of a toddler, I've had to up my game and create scenarios where there is enough room for audience participation so she is kept occupied, but not so much that the lunatic gets to take over the asylum. One such game we play a lot is "I spy". We can do it over and over again and true to three year old form, it just does not get old. To her. I could probably claw my own eyes out after twenty minutes, but I'l do whatever it takes to make sure she calms down. Nicely, like a kid in a fifties movie.
So one day my daughter and I are playing I spy, which entails holding your fingers in front of one eye like a telescope, and she focuses her rounded fingers on me. Aww, I think, she's sees ME! "I spy with my little eye...something...BROWN!" And a little pin pricks me in my gut. This girl doesn't see ME! She sees brown and she smells trouble. Is this the beginning of talking about race or the start of her realizing we are not the same person, attached at the hip and, to a three year old, easily blended together the way other mommies and babies are.
My daughter is very light. Light enough that when I left the hospital with her tucked into our ubiquitous Grace Metrolite carseat, a woman actually pointed at my husband and me and yelled, I kid you not "THAT'S the FATHER! THAT is the FATHER!" as if she had just happily connected the dots between black mom, white dad, and not brown enough baby. My daughter is light enough that now when people ask me if she is mine I have the ability to cut off most further questioning with an icy "Yesssssss. She isssssss!"
So in a sense I have been armed for this moment for a very long time. However, my daughter's birth changed how I thought I was going to talk to my children about their cultural make up. When I was pregnant my husband and I talked about it a lot, the way many interracial couples who live in Harvard's backyard probably do: "She'll be BOTH!" we'd tell each other. "The brown one will be OURS!" we'd joke with (mostly my husband's) family about future family pictures. "No Barbies unless they're BLACK!" I'd tell my sisters, who were eager to be aunties.
But after a good eighteen hours of labor and one emergency c section I can admit here and have freely admitted to anyone who's listening (and I Will talk about my c section with anyone who's captive. I could seriously talk about babies with anyone who is not nailed down) that I was very, very surprised when they cleaned up my daughter and wrapped her in that striped blanket and sat her in my husband's arms while they stapled me shut. "Whose little white baby is this and where did these nurses hide mine?" Although, except for our own, my husband has professed his lukewarm feelings towards kids and babies, so I was pretty sure this one was not one he just happened to pick up in the nursery down the hall.
"She'll darken up," was what many white moms of interracial babies would say to me (and there are more than a few in our very diverse neighborhood here in West Medford, Mass). "You can tell by the ears!" This second refrain was more like a chorus from those moms and their counterparts, old black ladies in Target.
But she didn't. She is utterly beautiful and completely herself, but little brown Mixed child (don't get me started on that term. You "mix" breeds of dogs and cats. A kid is a kid is a human and is not a "mix" of anything) she is not.
And this made me have to rethink how I interact with the idea of "race". Cause as a child of a teacher who also grew up in Harvard's back yard, I was raised with some progressive for the time but possibly inappropriate for an interracial child sensibilities about "race". Black Barbies, Black books, Black Santas all over the house at Christmas time. (But Santa is GERMAN, my husband points out. As I pull a bunch of Kinte clothed santas out of storage bins. The same bins that hold all my Kwanzaa stuff that I have to look up the meanings of every year). My family was not racist. But the conscious decision to make sure our toys and our magazines and our value were held in the same esteem as our friends, who regularly saw themselves on TV, in movies, in books, was a thread laced tightly into our childhood. Throughout my pregnancy I thought I would do the same with my brown daughter.
I wasn't going to go completely academic, though. My sister babysat for a black professor and his white wife who insisted their kids refer to themselves as hyphenated Americans. "What are you?" their six year old asked my sister her first night. "Um, black?" my sister said nervously (I must add he had, at this point, climbed up to NURSE from his mom as she got dinner ready before going out. So that probably added to some of the skittishness, yes?). "I'm not!" He said. "I'm Rafi-American." Or whatever crazy first name his parents had created for him so he could truly exist as "both" in this world that often asks you to choose one or the other. Made up first name and "American" last name. Nutty earthy crunchies! I wasn't going to go crazy academic we shop at food coops so we're better than you in regards to race, because, I was certain, I would be raising a black kid. Did not Malcom X and Halle Berry and Obama for goodness sake teach me ANYthing? Black parent plus white parent equals one black kid.
With her fingers focused on me, my daughter smiled. Then laughed. "You mommy! You're BROWN!" I've read enough parentlng books to know you keep things cool and quiet when you want to keep them talking and not clam up and become some druggie cutter akin to a life time movie (the kind I used to get to watch before I had kids, happily, as I ate popcorn and jack and cokes for dinner without so much as a second thought to making my plate look like a "rainbow" or stopping my own consumption to repeatedly cut meat into tiny cubes or pick sippies off the floor). "Yep, mommy's brown," I said oozing calm.
"I am not brown!"
"Dad is not brown!"
"Nope. But every color is good. Whether you're black or brown--"
"Or white, like ME and DAD". She said it happily and with the ever so slight edge of a dare. The dare of the interracial kid, which has, underneath it, this: I've NOTICED some things around here and what I want to know is, have you all noticed it too? Or is this some kinda secret? That, by the way, I've NOTICED!
And therein lies the rub, here in America, no matter how many different shades walk around our neighborhood, scoping out newborn babies' ears, there is always a divide that those of who know there does not have to be a divide are filling and refilling in.
I watch it widen in my daughter's eyes when someone asks whose she is. And I fill it in hopefully as quickly as it does. At least I hope I do.
"Every color is good."
A giggle as she looks at me through her fingery telescope. I make my own fingery telescope.
"I spy with my little eye Katia Kai!"
And I do.
Because she is completely and utterly herself and that is my job as a parent. To make sure she stays that way.