I took my daughter to school again this September and glowed with joy and felt sad at the same time. She is growing into a vibrant and loving kid at seven years old. It is an age where she is changing from a "little girl" to a young person. It is a funny age. She wants to wear shorts under her party dresses so the boys can't see her panties at the playground. She is growing up and away as she should.
I remember the day we first saw her in a hotel room in Guatemala. The day we had the privilege of adopting her. The day we were handed a glorious gift, our child.
I was ambivalent about motherhood until my miscarriage. After trying pills and potions for a year, the doctors told me I would probably never give birth. Then I became fierce and determined to have a child, to be a mother. My husband and I worked hard to adopt our daughter. We experienced the difficult and emotional period of waiting and all the frustrations of the adoption process. We had inept lawyers and three months in a hotel in Guatemala City with no kitchen and lots of bottles to clean. Finally in the spring of 1991, I flew home with our wonderful baby girl. She was six months old, bouncy and gorgeous, happy and healthy, and ours.
Now at the steps of her school seven years later, I look at her ebony black hair, coffee brown skin, and distinctly Indian features and I wonder how she will feel about her looks. Although her school is integrated, she is still the minority. I worry that the prejudice people carry about skin color will be an obstacle to her self-esteem, a barometer of her acceptance in the world, which is now only a playground. I look at her and see an exquisite face and perfect skin. But I am her mother. What else could I see?
I remember a day when she was three years old and we were visiting my closest friend and her two sons. Over dinner my friend's five-year old announced that my daughter had a "dirty face." I knew what he was getting at, but I couldn't actually believe it. "What do you mean dirty?" I said, testing him a bit. "Her skin is brown and people with brown skin are dirty. They are garbage." My shock was quickly followed by overwhelming sadness that this was only the beginning of words that could hurt her. She did not understand what was said, she was only three. The boy was dragged to the bedroom by his horrified mother to be reprimanded.
I am white and will never know how my daughter will feel when she encounters prejudice. I can only imagine.
We have brown Barbies, the brown American Girl Doll, and the adorable brown baby twins dolls. She chooses the brown dolls. She likes the brown dolls. No one has taught her not to like them. No one has ever called them "garbage."
What will my daughter learn at school this year? These solid doors open and she runs in ahead of me, confident and happy.
This year she will learn another level of math and reading. What will she learn about her culture and heritage that is hundreds of years old and filled with mystery and beauty? Will she learn to be proud of her heritage or reject it as "stupid," her new expression for anything she doesn't understand. Will her classmates accept her background and help her to feel proud or will she learn the difficult lesson of being left out because she is not like them?
She hugs an old friend from last year and they giggle together. I look at her big toothy grin. She does not ask many questions about adoption or where she came from, as some other adoptive children her age do. She has an immaturity that is heartwarming.
We have many conversations in front of us. For now, it is a story that we tell her often. A lovely story about how we dreamed of her, waiting for her, and finally were with her. We tell her how she was meant to be our little girl forever. We talk about the airplane ride, the nice people who took care of her, and how cute she was the first time we held her. We tell her about the woman who body she was born from. She does not ask about the woman who gave her life, a woman who had to make a very difficult and painful choice. This is a person she will never know and yet gave us what we wanted most in our lives. She doesn't understand yet there is another side to this story.
I know this year the deeper questions will come from her. There will be questions about the other woman who must have loved her also. Questions about why a woman would choose to give her child a different life. Questions I do not have the answers for. Questions that sit at the bottom of my heart.
I think this new year at school she will realize that most children do not have the story of adoption as part of their lives. The story of how we became a family is different than that of most of her classmates. Will she accept that every family is not the same and that her story is a real as everyone else's? When she is asked one more time "Is that your real mother?" will she still take it as a curious question or will she learn to feel her safety threatened? Will this be the year she will ask me why anyone could think I'm not her real mother? What will she learn at school this year?
I watch her disappear into her new classroom and the door closes. "Bye, Mom," she whispers. I look at my daughter so strong and self-assured and I wish, as each mother does, that I could protect her from harm or bad feelings. I cannot. I can only send her through these doors armed with my love and the truth. I hope that what she learns this year about herself will add to her beauty and strength. I hope she learn that who she is on the inside and the outside is someone to love.
Karen Katz is a writer and the mother of a girl adopted from Guatemala. She has published two picture books for children, "Over the Moon, An Adoption Tale" and "The Colors of Us."