We sat and stared at the questionnaire. 487 questions faced my husband and I, all requiring a yes or no answer. No maybes, no in-between. The baby in my belly is kicking away. This boy is happy and healthy and in a few weeks, I’ll get to see his sweet face. I’ve had ultrasounds, all looks good. “He’s big,” they said, with a great heartbeat. “You look great,” they said. No swelling, no high blood pressure, no maternal stress.
I’m pregnant and pursuing foster care at the same time. Acid reflux and papercuts, baby wipes and fire extinguishers, ultrasounds and home studies. Not exactly a typical start to parenthood, but then again when I decided to follow Jesus, I was told to expect the atypical. And really our faith in Jesus and our ever-increasing belief in our own adoption into his family is what got us to this point in the first place.
So there we were: physically pregnant and paper-pregnant at the same time.
My belly and the paper in front of me do not match, and it troubles me to no end. You see, on paper, I’m choosing amongst demographics, boxes of various in-utero drug exposures, lists of challenging behaviors like aggression, defiance, and violence and much, much more that I’m willing to allow into my home through foster care and/or adoption. I didn’t get to choose yes or no to most things about the human growing inside my body; I’d take him whatever way he was made. On this paper, I’m choosing. Conflicting and heart-wrenching, to say the least.
Any gender? Yes, of course. Any race? Yes, yes, of course. Several “no” answers, more “yes.”
Months later we got a phone call for a baby girl and exuberantly said “yes!” We picked her up, brought her home, and did our best to mother and father her well. Sleepless nights, medical appointments, court hearings, vanilla-scented pacifiers, tight swaddles, all the things. We wore her on our bodies skin-to-skin for most hours of the day, teaching her who we are, letting her hear the sound of our heartbeats instead of the one she’s heard for months in utero. We sang to her so she could learn and hopefully attach to our voices. We gave her every bottle face-to-face and hardly shared her with others in attempts to increase her attachment to us. This foster parent gig is hard. On many, many levels.
The biggest surprise? How humbling it was for us to parent a brown child well.
At first, it was the little and well-known things: namely, her skin and hair. I’m texting brown and black mommas I know for advice: “Do I wash her hair with every bath? Does this bow look okay? What about the darker brown spots on her bottom? Oh, Mongolian spots. I’ll Google that, thanks.” Less bathing, more moisture. Less brushing, more moisture. No mineral sunscreen for this girly—too ashy to be seen next to the brilliant brown and cinnamon hues at the swimming pool. I was learning how to look the part as mother-daughter.
But lately, it has been much, much deeper than hair and skin. Those matter, yes. But the things I’m learning and questioning these days have significantly more impact long-term. Is any doctor at her pediatrician office brown or black? Does she have classmates who are brown and black? What about the kids at the playground, the fathers she sees actively playing with their kids, the books we read, her baby dolls she plays with? Gosh, we live in a white-washed world. Changes are made to our environment. Progress, we think.
Then there are stereotypes we start to come against. There is history (actual, literal American history) we’re learning for the first time. Empathy builds. And so do the questions. How can we possibly set her up for success? How can we parent her with fierce determination to be fully herself while also realizing that there’s more risk for little black girls when they’re outspoken, assertive and smart? How do we train her and our boys in inclusion, to recognize the similarities in each other more than the differences? How does she feel when looking at family photos, immediate and extended family, and there is a stark visual of her differences? How can we affirm her identity as a Diller, fully and completely part of our family, while also honoring where she comes from? And she’s three, you guys.
“The reality is, it’s hard to be black in America. And she’s still a little black kid,” my neighbor and dear friend reminds me. “Keep learning. Keep asking questions.”
The truth is, this is a humbling experience. To constantly have my privilege revealed to me. To rely on so many other people to shape her and mold her because, in addition to us as her parents, she needs the influence of strong, compassionate men and women who look like her. True for all kids, yes, but exceptionally true in transracial adoption.
Just today I hopped on a video call with a sweet African American friend of ours, a college-aged girl who has lived with our family for over a year. She’s currently traveling abroad and we miss her dearly. Our daughter especially misses her friend. And I think about her brilliant and brown influence on our daughter and I’m profoundly thankful. Like my neighbor, this young lady has changed our perspective, given us difficult feedback, challenged our worldview, and loved and encouraged us as parents well. She’s made us better.
It’s now been over four years since we filled out that questionnaire, not blinking an eye while checking “yes” for each race listed. What do I know now that I didn’t know then? Transracial adoption is very humbling. It’s not “cute” like so many play it out to be or imagine it would be. It’s beautifully difficult. It brings a complexity worth honoring. It’s not a solo-family mission but requires diverse voices.
For every challenge and every single moment requiring humility, two things have happened.
First, our dependence on Jesus has grown exponentially. Jesus’s life on earth was marked by hospitality and compassion for people who weren’t like him. He’s the perfect model for how we want to live our lives today. And in the midst of challenge and our need to have our worldview shifted, Jesus has been a daily source of grace and mercy.
Second, we’ve learned to ask for help and to truly listen to a world experience outside of the only one we had previously known. I can’t help but wonder what our country would be like if many more people had this intimate of an experience with someone so wildly different from them. I believe it’d make us more humble, better listeners, and more compassionate to one another. Man, do I want that.
I can’t say what the right path is for everyone, but I do believe we all have a role in unifying our world. I believe that anyone who follows Jesus is called to care for orphans, widows, the under-resourced, the lonely, and more in some tangible way. The more relational and up-close, the better. I believe that the current cultural hype for diversity comes from the heart of God himself, and we can be incredible advocates.
Take a step to make your world more diverse. Although I’m personally biased towards foster care and adoption (and seriously, give the foster and adoptive parents you know some extra practical love!), there are so many ways to accomplish this.
Offer to babysit for families who do adopt or foster. Make friends with a coworker who doesn’t look like you. Say “hello” to your neighbor regularly and invite them to dinner around your table. Visit a nursing home to give the gift of active listening to someone whose life experience is different than yours. Choose the neighborhood public school and meet the parents of your kid’s friends. Celebrate differences, and let yourself be beautifully shaped by the other complexities of having diversity at your doorstep.