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Field Notes from an Adoptive Mother: “Enjoying Your Summer?”

Posted by | September 21, 2010 | CONSPICUOUS | 20 Comments

notes from an adoptive mother

One day recently, at the very tail end of the summer, I took all three kids to McDonalds for lunch as a special treat for behaving (relatively) well while running errands with me that morning. We were there right at noon, in the midst of the lunch rush, and the place was packed. There were three lines leading to three registers that were all jam-packed-full and we were in the middle line. I was holding Meera on my hip and I had Kyle and Owen standing right close with  me (I had threatened them, before we even got out of the car, that if they were to even think about running off into the playspace before I was done ordering our food then we would leave immediately… so they were sticking real close). Upon settling in for the long wait in line, I pretty quickly noticed that a woman in the line to our left was staring at us unabashedly. People always stare at us (in fairness, I should say, "people often stare at us," but in truth, it usually feels like always), so we are accustomed to that, but this woman was going above and beyond. I try to ignore this kind of thing, but she was standing literally less than three feet away from us, just gawking, so it was virtually impossible.  Owen got up on his tippy toes, pulled my head closer to his, and whispered in my ear: "That lady right there is STARING at us." In such situations I tend  to either blow it off entirely, or to try to nip it in the bud by pointedly taking a moment to look right directly at the person, give them a huge big ‘ole smile, and then keep on with our business. This usually does it and the person quickly and awkwardly smiles back (or blatantly doesn’t), and then, either way, feels self-conscious enough to quit staring. So, I nodded at Owen, whispered, "Yeah, I know!" and then did my deliberate ‘kill-’em-with-kindness-mind-your-own-business’-smile at her. With this woman, though, it had the opposite effect, and instead of looking away, in response to my smile she took a step closer to us, looked right down at the boys, and said, "Are you two boys enjoying your summer?"

She seemed like a really nice woman. I get vibes, and I pride myself in having good intuition at reading people. My immediate sense was that she was a well-meaning, sweet person who self-identified as "Liberal" (capital ‘L; she was wearing an organic-cotton-looking t-shirt with a nature print silk-screened onto it and her accessories and shoes  and hair cut were screaming ‘funky’/’hip’/’green’ etc., etc., etc…..  just trust me: she was looking very "I voted-for-Obama-and-I-recycle-and-I-LOVE-DIVERSITY"-ish. Don’t get me wrong: most of the people we associate with are these types, and I myself voted for Obama, recycle, and love diversity too…  this is no slam against her whatsoever). She looked like she was about my mom’s age and reminded me of many people that we know and love. My initial thought was, ‘She’s just trying to be super friendly and act super supportive of our inter-racial adoptive family’…. and honestly, at that point, I was thinking, ‘she’s probably about to tell me that her grandchildren are bi-racial or something.’ This happens sometimes, and as awkward as it can be, I actually like those sorts of interactions with people because –quite frankly– they feel a lot better than some other (less kind) ones, and I’ve come to believe that it is best to just be up front about it all whenever humanly possible. It turned out, though, that this interaction was not going where I thought it was going.

As soon as she said, "Are you two boys enjoying your summer?" Owen looked right up at her and said, "Yes, we are enjoying our summer! Are you enjoying your summer?" She was exuberantly delighted with him and responded right away, "Oh! Why, yes! I am, thank you! What good manners you have talking so nicely with a grown-up!" It was semi-condescending, but I was getting really close to the register at this point and was starting to get distracted by what to order. I then heard her say, "So what have you boys been doing out here?" Out here??? Kyle and Owen were slightly confused, but Owen said, "We’ve been shopping." "Oh," she said, "how nice for you!" (She then looked right at me and winked, and I really started to feel like something was not totally clear here).  Trying to do friendly reciprocation, Kyle  said to her, "So, what have you been doing here?"  "Oh!," she laughed, tossing her head back with delight, "Well, you see, I live here! Just like this nice lady here!" (motioning toward me). At this point the boys were lost in translation  (as was I), and surely all three of our facial expressions showed it. Still, she went on, "It must be nice for you two boys to be out here. How long are you two here for?" At this point the boys were completely disoriented. They looked up at me with bewildered looks. I looked down at them, my mind spinning fast, trying to get a grip on what she was talking about, searching for an understanding as to what was going on. And then it clicked: something that I had not yet encountered and had never really thought of—  but I knew  instantly that I was right— it pounded through my brain— she thinks they are Fresh Air Fund kids.

Ugh. I looked up from them, and across to her. Before I could speak she said to me, "They’re from the city, right? I am such a supporter of these kinds of programs! Kudos to you!!!" I felt my face flush. My mind was rushing. Meera was squirming in my arm. The McDonalds guy at the register was telling me it was my turn to order. Owen and Kyle were looking up at me, completely and totally confused with blank faces. The woman was looking me right in the eyes with her huge dramatically approving smile. And I felt like everyone within ear shot (which was easily a dozen people) were watching and listening to this whole scene unfold.

I looked at the guy at the register and said, as clearly and as loudly as possible, "My two sons will each have a Happy Meal please. My son Kyle wants chicken nuggets, french fries, and chocolate milk. My son Owen wants chicken nuggets, apples, and chocolate milk…." and I proceeded to place the rest of our order. I’m sure my voice was trembling. I know I was breaking out in a sweat. I had no idea how I should be handling the situation. This was one that I hadn’t seen coming.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see that the lady was shocked at the revelation that they were my sons. She was blushing bright red and avoiding any and all eye contact.

While we waited for our order I whispered something to the boys about how she "thought we were from the city" and she was "very confused" or something like that. (They have no idea what the Fresh Air Fund is, nor do they need to learn about it in this context.) And then we were off to playing in the indoor playground and eating Happy Meals. They were entirely unfazed. But then again, they are just barely six. It won’t be long until they ‘get it’ more. And indeed, they are ‘getting it’ more and more all the time.

I watched them in the McDonald’s playspace with a perfect spectrum of earth-tone-colored kids. This particular McDonalds draws a very racially diverse group, and that day — like the other handful of times we’ve been there — it appeared that most skin tones were represented. That is, after all, one of the primary reasons I take us there. The boys made friends fast and a wild game of tag quickly got going. But as I looked around I was reminded that although there were lots of families represented there, even one with a black dad and a white mom and two beautiful bi-racial kids, there was not one other that actually looked like us.

And so it goes, as us, out there in the field of real life.


  • MorMor says:

    Never a dull moment for sure… I for one love the “look” of your family and love every one of you. xo

  • shannon says:

    We get the “Fresh Air Kids” questions alot up here too. And sadly- it is often in a very condescending manner.

  • Kathrin says:

    I am so sorry you had to experience that. Very nicely handled. The boys did great too.
    We too get starred at a lot but for different reasons (non gender confirm mom and special needs baby).

  • gtmccormick says:

    Beautifully handled. Who knows? Maybe she will have learned something from that, and think of the others around you who could hear what was said. You’re taking your educating work well beyond the campus.

  • monek says:

    As I read, I got an idea about how you must have felt, and I hated it. People are so stupid sometimes. :(

  • momof3 says:

    I haven’t gotten a fresh air fund comment…that is new and original. Many times, I am asked if I am the babysitter or a daycare teacher or something. Once or twice, I have had people stare angrily and try to ignore it.

    I have talked with the older 2 about how to handle comments and questions and we will continue to have those conversations.

    Throw in having 2 moms and the conversation gets even bigger. We are uniquely unique among adoptive, trans/ multiracial, lesbian headed families.

  • Denise says:

    So sorry. I actually had one guy say to me, “I keep telling my wife we should get one of those some summer.” I was completely baffled, and didn’t realize he was motioning to my son, until he said “you know, that fresh air thing!” I just looked right at him, and said “are you talking about my son?”

    It’s hard when a nice afternoon get’s thrown by someone’s ignorance.

  • Tracy R says:

    My daughters are a mix of hispanic, irish and native american so we’ll get the occasional double take, but in general we don’t get a lot of stares. In the summer they both get dark, gorgeous tans (I like to say that I get dark white, if I’m lucky.) So, this summer we were at Hershey Park and one of my daughters was walking about three feet away from me and a man with a couple of children walked towards her and asked her if she was lost. I had her hand in mine in a split second and said, “no, this is my daughter,” and he looked at me and then her, and then nodded and looked very, very embarrassed. It was very confusing for my daughter as it was the first time anything like this had happened and it left me flustered, too. I think you handled the McDonalds incident extremely well.

  • Lindsey Livingston Runell says:

    You and the boys handled that woman’s igornace superbly! Instead of getting upset and saying something inappropriate (which I probably would have been tempted to do), you stood up for your family by proudly informing everyone who was listening that Kyle and Owen are your sons. I think that was great!

  • Anna says:

    I’m sorry this happened and sorry O&K had to hear it and thankfully don’t know what the fresh air fund is.

    When my son first arrived in Italy, we would travel by bus to the hospital for his visits cause I had broken my elbow in Ethiopia while there to pick him up. I had a man ask me, Is that your son? after my Abe had called me Mamma. After I replied yes, he asked “is your husband black?”….this was a total stranger on a bus…I said no. He then asked, “he’s adopted???!” I said yes, his reply was…”Didn’t they have any white kids’??!!” I looked him straight in the eye and said, I WANTED A BLACK SON. Thankfully Abe still didn’t understand enough Italian and wasn’t affected…

  • Kristie says:

    I long for the day when people will not find families of mixed culture and race to be an oddity to them. I also long for a world in which children don’t have to separate from their birth families though my children are my joy.

    Marc said the other day he misses the Walmart in the small town we lived in last year. I said I like going to our big Walmart because it’s a place in this little place that is welcoming to diverse pool of customers. Lil’ Miss M has stopped pointing out “Haitian” people whenever she sees a brown-skinned person. We still get looks though. Lots of them.

    p.s. We have a Haitian fellowship now here in our town. Most of our friends don’t speak English well or at all. We meet every Sunday and feast on Haitian food. If you’d like to bring your family down sometime, you’re always welcome to. It has been a huge happy place for D, A & M every week.

    Love to you all!

  • Stacey says:

    Wow. Well, Heather – my hope is that it was a learning opportunity for the fresh-faced liberal (you, not her đŸ˜‰ ). Well handled, trembling voice and all. xoxoxo

  • Heather,

    I’m actually laughing. Why? Oh, just amused at how ignorance continues to thrive in leaps and bounds. You handled it so well and were awfully nice to just let it die w/her avoidance of eye contact. I usually get the “are those your kids?” and once was asked about my oldest if I “take care” of any other children. I explained to the person that I would be “taking care of him” for the next 18 years. She got the point and the conversation ended right then. Over the years, I’ve become a lot nicer.

  • Beth says:

    I have 2 adopted kids. My son is black, my daughter is 1/2 hispanic 1/2 cauc. My daughter is also special needs and uses a wheelchair for distance. Throw in a service dog and we are a walking circus. We are stared at OFTEN and who even knows why they are looking… pick a reason. My son is quite spirited as your boys are.

    About 2 weeks ago we were at the store and I noticed a woman staring at us. I just went on, nothing new, right? My daughter (just turned 7 with her power chair and 2 long leg casts for serial casting) drives over to her and says “Why are you staring at me? Did you know its very RUDE to stare at people!” The woman stumbled and said “Oh honey I was looking at your very cool car.” My very outspoken 7 year old looks her in the face and says “Its called a power wheelchair. Its is very cool, I like it, but I don’t like people to stare at me… I think its rude” and she turned around and drove to me. As we walked off she said “Momma did you see that rude woman staring at me?” I said “Well honey I think she just was shocked to see your cool lights on your chair and your cool pink and blue casts.” “I don’t care it was rude and I told her so” I said “Well I think you did a good job telling her how it made you feel. I am proud of you for telling her you were uncomfortable” … On we went.

    Adults and kids alike can be rude….. I am not sure that she handled it well, but I certainly want her to know she can stand up for herself and let it be known when she feels uncomfortable.

    You handled it well!!!

  • Themia says:

    Boo. Hiss.

    Kudos to you though for handling it well.

    Haven’t heard Fresh Air Fund down here in the south, but I get the equivalent all the time. It’s tiresome and my son’s unfortunately beginning to figure it out, making him feel weird and uncomfortable. Me too.

  • Kate says:


    When things like this happen I am reminded that not everyone has the same level of conscientiousness and consideration of how their words will be received. Often people speak before they think. Whilst out with my mother and brother when I was 7 or 8 we were in Body Shop (one we frequent often and the sales assistants often greeted us warmly), one time a sales assistant boldly asked my mother if she was running an orphanage, to which she responded “No! I am their mother, they are my children”. She and I discussed what happened shortly afterwards and then a few years later. Well done on how you handled this Heather!

    Take care,

  • Em says:

    That lady gets an UGH and a REALLY? I just don’t get people sometimes. I dont think I would ever question a stranger to whether or not they are the parent of any random children. Unless your child is doing something that is generally frowned upon (lighting someone on fire, running into traffic etc) I am probably going to just smile at you, to acknowledge that you have some sort of relationship with the kids, but its not my business to inquire further.

  • Kohana says:

    I just wanted to sent a cyber hug and sigh. Those experiences suck, don’t they?

  • LMA says:

    Heather, this seriously brought hot, angry tears to my eyes… no lie. And, I must say, I have no idea if I would have had the presence of mind to react as you did, using their names and relationship in the ordering to sort her out.

    Malia and I don’t “stick out” to most people, but at the hospital , recently, a woman (after hearing Malia call me Mama I don’t know how many times!!) said, “She’s so sweet. Do you get to take care of her every day?”
    I misunderstood, and said that she was in j/k 4 days and with my parents on Fridays, but that from 3pm on it was just her and I . And that’s when she responded that it must be so nice for Malia’s parents to have us to watch her so much!!
    Um…. what???
    Luckily, Malia was goofing off with another little girl, or I am sure the conversation would have lead to some questions.

    I am glad the lady you ran into was embarrassed and hopefully those around got an education, too!

  • teena says:

    My Dad usually calls us kids son/daughter rather than or in addition to our names. I thought it was just a Dutch thing. Turns out he did it deliberately, absolutely because of this (so that people overhearing would know the relationships in our white/black family to cut down on this invasive exhanges), and it just became a habit.

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