Adventures in Babysitting

The funniest thing I’d seen as of 1987

I was a mere ten years old when the movie Adventures in Babysitting came out, and I remember thinking it was the most hilarious things I’d ever seen.  After my mom took me to see it, I begged her to take me again and I quoted lines from the film on the playground with my friends.  Little did I know that more than twenty years later, I’d be at the helm of my own little babysitting adventure.

My husband and I both leave for work very early.  Both of our high schools start at 7:30 am, and our kids’ elementary school doesn’t start until 8:45 am, which means we are without childcare for a good two hours every morning.  We don’t have any family members in the area and the before-school care starts at 7:30, so we’ve had to hire a morning sitter each day.  We have several friends that have gone this route, so when we started our search in the summer of 2012 when our daughter was about to start Kindergarten, we anticipated a quick and easy process.

We listed an ad on a few childcare service websites, and the responses started flooding in.  While we stated explicitly in the ad that we were a two-dad multiracial family and were actively seeking candidates of a diverse background, all of the applicants were white women.  It was difficult to discern who to respond to and which ones to interview, so we selected a few, based primarily on the ridiculous criteria of cute photos on their profile page and a low number of grammatical errors in their initial email.  By mid-July, we had conducted about a half dozen interviews, checked references, and selected a woman in her forties who seemed to strike an immediate rapport with our kids, so we headed off for our family vacation thinking things were all set for the fall.

About a week later, the woman quit.  She had found a full-time gig that wouldn’t allow her to work for us from 6:45-8:45 in the morning.  We hadn’t been particularly bowled over by any of the other women we had interviewed, but we decided to go with our second choice, a twenty-one year old girl I’ll call Miss A from a nearby working class town who had grown up in her mother’s home daycare and presented as one of the most professional of the potential sitters we met with.

School started, and we set about the business of acquainting Miss A with both our home and our children.  Our kids are really pretty easy going in the morning; they get out of bed without complaint at a reasonable time, they get themselves dressed with very little assistance, and they eat just about anything for breakfast.  Right away though, we started to see some signs that perhaps we had been a little too hasty in our hiring practices.

Why do I have to wear underwear to school if Britney doesn’t?

My husband takes the kids to gymnastics straight from pick up on Tuesdays, and more than once, he noticed that our daughter had followed the path of several Hollywood starlets and gone commando to school.  I mentioned this to Miss A, and asked that she simply make sure the kids had proper undergarments on.  The undies usually made their way to school on our daughter’s rear after that.

Then my kids started getting up really early.  They usually wake up between 7:00 and 7:30, well after my 6:45 departure, and they were getting out of bed around 6:30.  I tried sending them back to bed, and then one of them let slip that when they got up too early, Miss A let them watch TV.  Our kids definitely get their fair share of television, but we had specifically asked Miss A not to use the TV as a childcare tool.  Her explanation was that she just didn’t know what to do with them when they woke up early.  I gave her several options, including telling them, “Go back to bed.”

A few days later, my son who was in preschool up the street from our house said that they had been running late one day and Miss A put them both in her car and drove them to school.  Without car seats.  We were pretty much beside ourselves, but Miss A explained that she had driven them the one block to school but that she had used the car seats she had in her car for her afternoon nannying job.  After a close inspection of her locked car before I left for school that day, her story sounded feasible.

Then about three weeks into the school year, we noticed our daughter’s hair getting more and more ragged.  In case you are someone who is reading this blog for the first time, our daughter is black and has beautiful thick, coarse African American hair, the type of hair that requires a lot of care and time.  My white husband is the primary hair stylist in our family, and the morning includes a fairly minimal hair care routine.  Miss A simply wasn’t willing or capable of following the simple instructions of spraying a bit of detangler in our daughter’s hair and rubbing some grease on her scalp.  Our daughter’s school picture that year is an embarrassment for us as adoptive parents, the type of thing that is Exhibit A in the trial to deny non-black parents from adopting black children.

Then in late September, Miss A texted me one morning at 6:00 am to say that her little brother had accidentally put her keys in her mom’s purse and her mother had taken her keys to work.  She was stranded at home with no way to get to us.  I scrambled to get coverage for my first class, and got the kids to school myself.  Miss A became a serial texter, sending at least one a week that said something like, “stuck behind a bus, may be a few min late” or “there is an accident and it’s held me back about 15 min.”

With all this going on, we still weren’t sure whether we could go through firing Miss A and finding a replacement during the school year.  She was nice to the kids at least, and we definitely wanted someone who would make sure our kids felt cared for.  And we were total newbies to the nannying world.  Maybe this was what all nannies were like?

The perfect way to quit a job

Then on Columbus Day, about five weeks into the school year, Miss A sent me a text: “I have some unfortunate news.  I will actually be leaving.  My aunt, who is a single mother just had twins & she really is sick and needs help with the babies, so I was asked to move in and help.  I am so sorry.  My last day will be Friday.”  So not only was Miss A giving barely four days’ notice, she was doing so VIA TEXT.  I wrote back, “Wow…We’re sorry to hear that.  We’re obviously scrambling here to get a replacement.  If there’s any way you could give us more than four days’ notice that would be awesome.  We can talk in the morning.”  Little did I know it at the time, but her penultimate communication with us was her texted response: “I’m so sorry for this.  If it wasn’t family, I wouldn’t be doing this because I honestly feel so horrible.  I’m so sorry for the inconvenience.  We can talk more in the morning, but I really don’t think I can give any more time.  I’m all she really has.  I don’t expect you to understand, but please know that I am terribly sorry.”

I immediately began my damage control, re-opening our ad online and pouring through the responses we had received the previous summer, particularly the ones that had come in after we had hired Miss A.  I sent an email to a few of these late applicants, and one–Miss D–responded immediately.  I spoke with her on the phone and she told me that since I needed someone so quickly she was happy to come by that same night.

To the rescue

When we first set eyes on Miss D, we were agog.  The car pulled up and out stepped a beautiful black woman in her late twenties with a gorgeous smile and perfect naturally braided hair.  I remember thinking, “Please let her be perfect.  Please let her be perfect.”  And she was.  Miss D had recently moved to the area from Brooklyn because her boyfriend had a job up here.  She had grown up in St. Lucia, and her infectiously optimistic demeanor was accentuated by the lovely lilt of her accent.  We literally felt as thought the Caribbean Mary Poppins had just walked through our door and into our lives.  We checked her references and hired her later that night; I was to speak with Miss A the next morning and then Miss D would transition in (as Miss A transitioned out) the following day.

The next morning, I readied myself for work, and 6:45 came and went.  At 6:55, I texted Miss A: You’re on your way right?  No response.  At 7:05, I called her.  No answer.  I quickly made arrangements with a good friend to cover my first block class.  Several more attempts to call Miss A went straight to voice mail.  When the kids woke up around 7:30, it was pretty clear that she wasn’t showing up.  I got the kids off to school, and headed in to school to teach.

Miss D was ready to go the following day, so I called Miss A to tell her that I was trying one last time to reach her, that I was concerned about her but that we had made arrangements with another caregiver.  We also paid a few hundred bucks to change the locks on the house since Miss A still had a key.

Miss D started, and we immediately recognized what we had been missing.  She genuinely cared for our kids but demanded their respect.  She laughed with them and kept them well fed.  She even asked my husband to take our daughter’s hair out so she could restyle it from time to time, creating beautiful new hairdos that taught my husband a thing or two about making our daughter feel as beautiful as we know she is.

About two days later, I wrote a scathing review of Miss A that I planned to post on the caregiver website where she had first learned of our position.  I sent a draft of it to her via email and told her that if I didn’t hear from her in 24 hours that I would be posting the review online.  Shortly afterward, I heard from her for the last time.

In a long and lamenting email, she described how the story about her aunt and the twins was all a big lie.  She said that an ex-boyfriend had been stalking her for weeks and she quit our job because she feared he was following her to our home and that our kids were in danger.  The morning she didn’t show up, she claimed he had actually kidnapped her and held her in his home against her will, taking away her keys and her cell phone.  She had only just recently escaped his evil clutches.  My husband and I did the only thing possible in that situation.  We responded with a thank you for touching base and wishing her well in her continued safety.  We never heard from her again.

The rest of the school year was a dream.  Miss D couldn’t have been better for our kids.  If she had taken our kids on magical flights of fancy singing “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” all the way, we wouldn’t have been surprised.  At the end of the school year when I went on a nine-day business trip, she even moved into our guest room to provide round-the-clock support for my husband.

Miss D moved to Bridgeport this summer with her boyfriend and she’s expecting her own bundle of joy this fall.  We’re heading down for the baby shower in a few weeks, and we could only be happier for her if she was still local and able to care for our kids in the morning.  This all of course meant that we had to re-open our ad and find a new sitter this summer.

We went through the same rigamarole of the previous year, although this time stated more plainly in our ad that we hoped to find someone who had experience with African American hair; this elicited a bevy of responses from well-meaning white women who claimed that although they didn’t have any experience with black hair, they did know how to French braid!  We realized that we needed to do everything we could to find a woman of color to care for our kids in the morning, not only for the obvious hair-care reasons, but also because Miss D had been such a daily reminder to our kids in this homogeneously white town that adult women of color can be beautiful and happy and all around amazing.  By the end of the summer, we had three candidates of color: two older women who would have to travel nearly an hour for our two-hour job, and a senior in college whose future goals included opening a preschool.  We opted for the latter, and Miss T became our new morning sitter.

Miss T was fine, but we quickly realized everyone who followed Miss D was going to seem pathetic.  Miss T was capable, but wasn’t familiar enough with cooking to know she didn’t need the heavy-duty Kitchen-aid mixer to whip up some Bisquick pancakes.  Our daughter went to school in underwear, but a few times they were backwards.  Miss T seemed to enjoy our kids, but she wasn’t overly warm with them.  Our kids talked about how she was nice, but they hard a hard time remembering her name.

Then in week three of the school year, Miss T gave her notice via email.  She said she needed to focus on her nascent career and get a full-time preschool job.  She was giving us a generous four weeks’ notice, but we were still upset.  Are we doomed to lose a babysitter every fall?

We’ve reopened our ad and set up a few interviews, but again we’re struggling with the lack of racial diversity in the applicant pool.  This summer, I literally scrolled through every profile page on the caregiver website we are using and sending emails out to anyone who looked vaguely ethnic.  I know that hiring a white sitter will not be the end of the world and that it’s possible we could find a nurturing person who understands the specific needs of our kids that are owed to the color of their skin.  At the same time, it’s difficult to find out who those people are because the minute we bring up race in these interviews, the women are well-schooled enough by our society to immediately interrupt and let us know–usually implicitly–that race doesn’t matter to them.  And that’s the problem, race should matter to them, and it should matter most to those who are a part of the majority.  We’re often too busy educating our neighbors and strangers to also have to train the person who is responsible for our children’s daily well-being.  We’re already doing that yearly with our children’s teachers, most of whom are already well-versed in racial identity development theories thanks to the uber-educated expectations of this suburban town in which we live.

Hop aboard…please!

At this point, we have three more weeks to find someone to replace Miss T.  I know that we’ll likely never find another Miss D, but I’m hopeful that she might still be out there, waiting to ride the breeze to our front door via her parrot-headed umbrella.  After all, parrots are kind of Caribbean right?


Hateful Pasta

Serving up pasta with hatred since 2013

My friend over at The Larsens Live Here alerted me to some disturbing pasta-related news.  Apparently CEO Guido Barilla took a little break from churning out his namesake pasta to express his personal feelings of apathetic homophobia with a dash of misogyny to Italian radio.  Here are a few highlights:

I would never do (a commercial) with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect but because we don’t agree with them. Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role.

[If gays] like our pasta and our advertising, they’ll eat our pasta, if they don’t like it then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand.

Everyone has the right to do what they want without disturbing those around them.

I have no respect for adoption by gay families because this concerns a person who is not able to choose.

Thank you Mr. Barilla!  I never thought about it that way.  Children of heterosexual families, especially adopted ones, always get to choose who their parents are, and it’s simply unfair that my children didn’t have that opportunity!

Come to think of it, maybe Jewish parents shouldn’t be allowed to adopt.  After all, the potential adoptee might opt for a more mainstream Christian existence.  Single women shouldn’t adopt either; it’s not fair that the little tykes can’t choose a life of sexism.  And why stop there?  Black people should be prohibited from adopting non-black children because the child might decide to be a racist.

The world needs more forward-thinking altruists like Mr. Barilla.  Since my husband and I are pure evil for helping prohibit the democratic choice of infants to select their parents, for now we’ll have to bide our time by purchasing De Cecco or Ronzoni pasta at the supermarket.

Our new best friends

It’s Not Me, It’s You

Last year, when I was feeling particularly stressed, I came up with a mantra: “No, thank you.”  It worked in nearly every situation.  My husband asks if I can make dinner tonight because he’s tired.  No, thank you.  The kids are begging to play Wii.  No, thank you.  A colleague tells me not to forget there’s a faculty meeting after school.  No, thank you.

With some of the interactions I’ve had over my name change, I think it’s time for a new mantra: “It’s not me, it’s you.”

Gay-friendly customer service is nice.

Most people have been delightfully helpful with my name change.  The older Hispanic woman at Social Security smiled pleasantly and asked about my kids when I told her the three of us had taken my husband’s name. The Southern-accented lady in American Express customer service offered her congratulations as she told me how I could change our account information to reflect taking my husband’s name.  The woman at Chase Visa seemed giddy when I responded in the affirmative to her question about whether this was a marital name change.  I’m not sure if she suspected I took another man’s last name or if she thought I was some post-modern twenty-first century male who was shucking the misogynist power structure by taking a wife’s last name, but either way she seemed happy for me and it made the process a little easier.

The ignorant biznatch at Comcast wasn’t quite so welcoming.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a good Comcast customer service story, so here’s my addition to the never ending stockpile:

“How can I help you today?”

“I recently changed my last name, so I need to update my account information.”

She stifled a laugh, and then said, “We usually only do that for women.”

“How interesting.  I’m a man.”

Heavy sigh.  “Okay.”  She gathered my information and then placed me on hold.  When she came back, she said, “Okay, I’m just going to add your new name on to your old one, okay?”

“No, I’d rather my account information reflect my new legal name.”

Another sigh.  “Please hold.”

When she came back, she curtly told me I was all set, and I tried to remain calm as I thanked her for her time .  I happily didn’t succumb to my self-diagnosed Pre-TSD; instead I repeated my new mantra (internally of course, although it would have been nice to say it directly to her): It’s not me, it’s you.

A picture that needs no explanation.

The Name of A Man Who Loves Me

The past week has been a bit of a doozy; school is in full swing, as are the kids’ after school activities.  Then on Tuesday, a mere eleven days after dropping off the petition at the courthouse, our name change documents arrived.  We are officially a family with one last name!  I’ve spent the last few days juggling a full teaching schedule, including two sets of papers to grade from each of my students, prepping the kids for school every day, coordinating our afternoon carpool schedule to their various gigs, and beginning the slow process of changing the records of our life over to a new last name.

After spending three hours waiting for a five-minute appointment in the Social Security office, as well as countless hours on hold with credit card companies, utilities, and banks, I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate the effects of my new name.  While I’ve lived for 36 years with my original name, my spiritual ties to it are pretty tenuous.  A good friend–a blogger herself at The Larsens Live Here–gave me a great line from another friend of hers who had gone through a similar decision process.  This friend of a friend’s life also starred a deadbeat dad whose last name she had grown up with.  After deciding to take her husband’s last name, she determined, “If I have to have a man’s last name, it might as well be one who loves me.”  My slightly modified version is If I have to have another man’s last name, it might as well be one who loves me.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, my biological parents’ marriage was tarnished by my father’s alcoholism.  The marriage ended long before I have any memory of my parents together, and soon after, my mother was remarried to and took the name of the man who has been my father ever since.  At some point before my parents’ divorce was finalized, my bio dad kidnapped me and blazed a trail for Mexico.  The police told my mother they couldn’t do anything about it since she was still legally married to my dad, so it was only a troubled conscience that made him turn around a few weeks later and return me to my mom.  I was far too young to remember any of this of course, but between the kidnapping, the drinking, and the physical abuse, my mom wasn’t too keen on my dad being a part of our lives when the divorce came through.  The judge ordered my dad to pay $50 a month of child support, and my mom never pursued legal action when he neglected to pay her even a dime.

Not my dad, but I did have this mullet in middle school

After that, my interaction with my bio dad was limited to a couple of Christmas cards in my formative years, and I remember he once sent me a toy U-Haul truck that I used to sit on and roll down the driveway.  He was a nonentity in my life, and the only real indication I have in hindsight that I was troubled by his absence was my imaginary play where I regularly pretended that MacGyver was my biological father.  (Incidentally, I also pretended that the actor Marc Singer was my older brother; he was the star of the fabulous 80s sci-fi mini-series V, but I think my desire to know him was probably more due to his starring role in The Beastmaster, a cheesy movie where he played a character who could talk to animals while roaming the countryside in a loin cloth.)

Then in the early 90s when I was in my sophomore year of high school, my bio dad wrote me a letter.  It came in an envelope that had clearly been opened and then resealed, and the stationery was army issued propaganda for a war being fought in the desert.  My dad was part of the Army Reserves in Colorado, and he been sent to the Middle East to fight in Desert Storm.  Contemplating his own mortality, he had decided to finally reach out, about a dozen years after he’d last seen me.

I started writing my dad, keeping the content of our missives secret from my parents, although they knew we were in communication.  The letters were void of any real substance; he filled me in on his time in Kuwait (although not very accurately as I would come to find), peppering in some empty sentiments about his decade-long sobriety, and I told him about my classes in school.  We even spoke on the phone once about nothing in particular.  Then in one letter, he opened up and told me that he had recently seen me in person.  He has an older son from a marriage before my mom, a brother I’ve never met, and he had followed a similar pattern of absence in this young man’s life.  My half-brother lived in the same hometown as me, and my dad had written to him before me.  My brother wrote back, telling our dad that he wanted to see him, so during his next leave, my dad flew to California.  When my brother met him at the airport, he told our dad that he wanted to tell him to his face that he was a deadbeat and he never wanted to see him again.  Then he left him at the airport.  My dad called up an old friend of his, who just so happened to live around the corner from me, and this woman let him stay with her for a few days.  I don’t know who this person was, but she apparently knew me well enough to point me out to my dad.

Now this all sounded pretty creepy to me, and my mom got a little freaked out too.  My parents decided it was time to intervene, and they sent a letter to my dad stating that if he wanted to be a part of my life then he was going to have to pay the back child support he owed.  They cited my expensive college aspirations as their rationale for asking, and they mentioned that they had spoken to a lawyer.  A few weeks later we received a phone call from a woman who said she was my dad’s new wife.  This woman claimed my father had received the letter, fallen off the wagon, and beaten her up.  While he was punching her in the face, he kept screaming about how he was going to kill her, kill my mother, kill me, and go live with his Filipino wife.  She called the police, he spent the night in the drunk tank, and then he disappeared.  As one can imagine, this ended my short-lived epistolary relationship with my father.  We never heard about how my dad and his new wife patched things up, but I think they’re still together today.  We wrote off the Filipino wife talk as the crazy ravings of a mean drunk, and I headed off to college in Boston after graduation.

In the spring of 2004, my mom’s own alcoholism was starting to flare up, my husband and I were planning our wedding, and my bio dad’s mom died.  I had grown up knowing my dad’s parents; although we never spoke about my father, they drove to California in their Winnebago a few times during my childhood, and they always sent me a small Christmas gift.  When my grandmother died, I made arrangements to fly to Colorado where I would meet up with my mom at the airport so we could attend the funeral together.

Walking into that funeral home and seeing my father for the first time was an insane experience.  As I’ve blogged before, I look nothing like my dad.  Seeing this blond haired, blue eyed stranger who provided some useful DNA to my existence filled me with such confusion.  I was 27 years old, and I found myself trying to make polite small talk with my father on the occasion of his mother’s death.  After the funeral, we headed back to my grandpa’s house for an informal family gathering.  I barely remember this time at all, but I think most of it was spent worrying about how my mother was feeling and watching how much she was drinking.  Somehow, I left Colorado without interacting with my dad very much.

That summer, my husband and I had an amazing wedding and moved into our first house; the following fall, my dad’s father died, so I found myself making the trip out to Colorado to meet up with my mom again, a mere six months after we had already played out the same scene.  Things had changed with my mom though.  Her separation from my stepfather after more than twenty years of marriage had become a more permanent reality, and it was almost entirely due to her worsening alcohol addiction.  She had spent some time in rehab the previous winter and she had lied to me about going to an out patient program when she fell off the wagon shortly thereafter.  That summer was rough, and my husband and I worried about whether or not we should allow her to come to the wedding.  (She did, and she thankfully stayed sober.)

When she missed her flight to Colorado and I spent an extra hour waiting for her in the airport, I was pretty sure booze was involved.  She arrived and was passably sober.  We headed directly to the funeral, where we arrived late, and she remained by my side for the next few hours until we headed to the reception.  At this point, I knew she hadn’t been drinking while she was in Colorado, and when she nearly fainted a few hours later, my bio dad’s family attending to her needs as she squawked something about low blood sugar, my temper flared because I knew this was her body detoxing.  Because of this I could barely keep my mind on my dad when he tried to engage me in conversation:

“Losing both my parents has made me realize what I’ve missed with you.  I really want to get to know you, and I’m willing to whatever it takes.  If you want me to come to Boston, I’ll fly out there and we can get to know each other, or I’ll fly you to Colorado.”


“Let’s start now though.  Do you have a girlfriend?”

Let me be clear that I was wearing a wedding band on my left hand, and he wanted to know if I had a girlfriend.


“Well, what do you like to do for fun?  Do you hunt?  Do you fish?”

“I sing musical theater in the car.”

That shut him up long enough for me to say our goodbyes and escort my mom back to the hotel where she slept off her tremors until she got on the plane early the next morning.

When I got back to Massachusetts, I decided to write my father a letter.  I sent him a long note stating that I was open to getting to know him, but he needed to know two things before moving forward.  First, I told him about my mother’s addiction.  Second, I told him I was gay and I had married my husband earlier that summer.  I even tucked in a wedding announcement and a wallet-sized photo of the two of us in suits.

That was last time I had any communication with my father.

My mom called a few weeks later to say that my dad had phoned her, screaming about how she let me be gay.  She told him she was proud that she had let me be gay, and I think the conversation ended pretty shortly thereafter.

That’s where I thought the tale would end, but then the following summer, I received a phone call from a woman speaking a heavily Asian-accented English:

“I am looking for…” she paused and said my father’s name, which until last week was my name too.

“This is he.”

“Oh good!  I found you!  I have your sister here!”

She handed the phone to a tweenage girl, who shouted, “Hello brother!  I love you!”

“Could you put your mother back on the phone?”

My Life (sort of)

Enter the Filipino wife with whom my dad was planning on reuniting after murdering his current wife, my mom, and me.  This woman claimed to be calling from Oregon where she lived with her new American husband, a man she said began abusing her after bringing her and her daughter over from the Philippines.  Interestingly enough though, she wasn’t calling to tell me about her problematic marriage; her daughter had recently started asking questions about her biological father, a man her mother had met in the Middle East while she had been working there temporarily during Desert Storm.  This man, my father, had apparently had a wild affair with her, gotten her pregnant, and then headed back to the States.  While I was sort of titillated by the fact that I seemed to have been cast in a real-life version of Miss Saigon, I was also wary that this woman could be scamming me.  She said she had called my dad at the phone number I knew to be his, and a woman had told her that she had dialed the wrong number.

“I’m not sure what to tell you,” I said.  “That’s my dad’s phone number, and I just don’t think he’s a very good person.”

The woman had found me because my dad and I shared the same name, and now she wanted to forge a relationship between her daughter and me.  I told her the young girl was welcome to write to me, but that was all.  I received one short letter from this girl, as well as copies of her Passport, report cards, and other identifying information that her mother felt necessary to send to me.  I wrote back one letter, and then the new American husband called to tell me that his stepdaughter had boarded a plane to visit her Filipino grandparents and never returned.  He was wondering if I had heard from her.  I told him no, and so far that has been the end of that part of the story.

Now, I can take a certain solace in saying goodbye to this name that carries with it so many ties to a man who does all he can to live up to the title Deadbeat Dad.  My father is a horrible human being, and I am so grateful he wasn’t physically around to create more of an impact on my life.  He certainly has had an influence on my identity though; his absence has shaped me in ways that have made me more thoughtful about parenting, and his sordid role in my life has provided me a way to speak with my children about their own difficult bio parent relationships.  For that, I can thank my father.  I hope that in leaving his name behind, I can more fully embrace my family life with my husband, a man who truly loves me.

By the way, here’s the Beast Master

Good Theater Makes for Good Parents

In an effort to remind ourselves why we got married in the first place, my husband and I make it a point to regularly leave the children at home with a sitter and get out of the house.  We typically will have dinner and catch a show in Boston, and last night, we enjoyed a production of Nina Raine’s play Tribes at Speakeasy Stage Company.  The show isn’t a musical, so I feel it brings no shame to our showmo cred to say that we didn’t know anything about the show when we set foot in the theater.

Go see this play

Here’s what we didn’t know going in:

Born deaf into an argumentative academic family, Billy was pushed to assimilate into the hearing world as best he could by reading lips and staying out of the way. But when a young woman introduces him to the Deaf community, Billy decides it is time his family learns to communicate with him on his terms.

(That’s from the Speakeasy website.)

We really enjoyed the show, although it wasn’t without its flaws, particularly the way some of the peripheral characters are drawn.  Still, the play’s exploration of how affinity groups (aka “tribes”) can provide both comfort and strength in ways that friends and family external to those groups ever can gave us a lot to think and talk about.

In the play, Billy’s parents chose to raise him without sign language, teaching him to read lips and speak an passable version of English instead.  At one point, his father tells him, “Look, the reason we didn’t learn sign wasn’t because we couldn’t be bothered, it was out of principle.  Out of principle, we didn’t want to make you part of a minority world.”  What the characters come to learn of course is that membership in a minority world is rarely a matter of choice or good parenting.

I’m reminding of a good friend who asked me years ago if I wanted my kids to be gay.  I told her that I wanted them to be whatever they are.  She said, “It’s just such a hard life.  I’m not sure I would want my kids to be gay.”  This is surely a common sentiment from parents about their children, and who can argue that being a member of any minority isn’t more difficult than being part of the dominant group?  What parents really fear I think is their children being a part of a minority group of which they themselves do not belong.

I know there will come a time when my children will think that their parents just don’t understand–and we won’t.  We can do little more than empathize with our kids when it comes to their racial identities, and the same is true of our daughter’s gender.  In those times of need, only friends who share that same aspect of their identity can offer them the support they need.  As one character in Tribes says, “It’s a scary universe out there.  If you’re part of a group it’s easier.”  All we can do as parents is provide our children with the safe space to find those groups, and then stand back and let them explore.  (This is actually a healthy part of the racial identity development models I mentioned in an earlier post.)

With sexuality though, we can’t presume our children’s membership to any one group until they are much older, and because of that, I feel it is a parent’s duty to leave that door open by establishing acceptance of the minorities.

I believe it’s in Dan Savage’s book The Commitment that he details his response to his young son about who he might want to marry when he grows up.  He basically tells him that he will probably grow up and want to marry a woman, but there’s a chance he might want to marry a man.  And while either one is okay, he stresses that he won’t really know until he’s older.

We’ve tried a similar route with our own kids.  As anyone with little kids knows, their brains can’t get much beyond the idea that being married to someone means that they get to live with them forever.  Our kids were constantly telling us they wanted to marry us, and we explained that when they got older, they would find someone that they loved so much that they will want to make them a part of their family.  Since we are already in a family together, we can’t marry one another.  This made sense to them, and they shifted their sights onto playground pals who might enjoy eating ice cream for every meal, which is their current idealized version of adulthood.

Nothing can truly alleviate the trauma of adolescence, but by accepting our kids for who they are, even if that means their lives will be harder, we might cushion the blow a little bit.  Believe me, I’d like nothing more than for my daughter to use her perfect pitch to become the next Audra McDonald, but if she decides she wants to do nothing more than hum along to her iPod while she makes a living sitting behind a desk, I’ll do my best to shut away my inner-Mama Rose and support her as best I can.

Of course, that won’t stop me from expecting she and her brother to perfectly harmonize “If Momma Was Married” from the backseat of the car before I belt out “Rose’s Turn.”   (Read up on Gypsy you non-showmos!)

Gay Soccer

“Would it be too gay if I brought my sewing?”

I’m not sure if my husband was joking or not, but I laughed mildly and said yes.

The big day has arrived

The big day has arrived

Today began the soccer season.  Our son could barely sleep last night, his anticipation was so great, and this morning he was beside himself donning his puffy shin guards, sleek black shorts, and official town soccer jersey.  Our daughter had a practice earlier this week, so the excitement for her first game today wasn’t quite as great as her younger brother, who would be practicing with his team for the thirty minutes prior to the big game.

We live only a few blocks away from the soccer field, so we walked to the field, our son toting his cleats and water bottle in a tiny backpack that he complained was too heavy, my husband lugging a set of double-wide camping chairs, and my daughter and I carrying only our morning beverage, as we are both clearly the royalty in the family and can’t be bothered to break a sweat with anything even mildly burdensome.

We got to the field, laced up our son’s cleats, and off he went.  Several of his Kindergarten classmates are on his team, including one of his best friends, so he felt right at home.  Our daughter found an older sibling to play with, and my husband and I set up shop.  We found a prime piece of real estate near the end of the field, unfolded our chairs, and sunk in.

Soccer cocktails?

As I sat there so early in the morning, bright green J. Crew polo providing my children an easy beacon of sight, hair perfectly coiffed with gel, legs daintily crossed, sipping my homemade chai latte from a stylish black travel mug, I looked around at the other dads.  They were all wearing sweat pants and baseball caps, in faded t-shirts that read things like “Stinky Lobster,” and while none of us had shaved that morning, my stubbly face certainly looked like a choice of beauty regimen rather than a lack of effort.  I looked at my husband as we sat, two grown men, so snugly close in our double-seated folding chair and told him, “We look really gay.”

“Good for us,” he said, smiling.

My husband is usually the one telling me we should tone it down, and this momentary role reversal was comforting for me.  The other parents were perfectly nice to us, some we know from other activities, and I’d venture to say we might even be on the road to a real friendship with a few of them, so learning to embrace the differences that my family can’t avoid is a step in the right direction for all of us.  Because seriously, I am never setting foot outside the house in sweat pants and a baseball cap.

How Pseudo Am I?

Why am I only now hearing about this?

Tomorrow is the first ever New England Indonesian Festival, and I only just heard about it today from an uncle in California.  I’d really love to go, to take the kids and my husband, but I fear that attending will require some serious scheduling acrobatics.  There’s still hope, but it doesn’t look good.

My mom was born in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Her family was living there as part of the Dutch Colony that established roots there long before.  Shortly before she was born, the Indonesians fought for the independence, and my mother’s family had to make a decision between remaining in Indonesia where they had made their life, denouncing their Dutch citizenship, or leave Indonesia forever.  They chose the latter, heading to Holland for a few years before immigrating to the United States.  They moved here in the mid-twentieth century when assimilation was the only way for immigrants, especially nonwhite ones, to move up the social ladder.  So when I came on the scene a decade and a half later, my mom’s family was this amalgamation of Dutch-Indonesian-American culture.  They proudly claimed their Dutch heritage, spoke Dutch fluently, and made Dutch foods.  They also made Indonesian foods, looked more Asian than European, and laughed uproariously at my stepfather when he served them Uncle Ben’s rice (“He made Uncle Ben’s for Orientals!” they shouted between hysterical gasps of air).  Still, my mom had pretty much completely given in to white culture and married one white man (my biological father) and then another (my stepfather).  I grew up following my mom’s cultural lead.

Then as I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I started to explore my differences.  Recently, I wrote to my Oma–my grandmother–to ask her about our mixed racial ethnicity.  Here’s essentially what she told me:

First we have to go back a couple of hundred years, the time that the Kings of Europe were sending ships all over the world to bring back goods from far away places.  The first fleet of European ships that landed in Indonesia came from Portugal more than 300 years ago.  The Portuguese traded with the natives mostly for spices, and eventually one of their trading posts became the city where I family came from: Padang on the west coast of the big island of Sumatra.

Other countries had started to send their ships too, fighting with one another for power.  French and England took turns at the top, and finally the Dutch ruled the island, called Insulindia at the time.  The first [European with my Oma’s maiden name] came with one of those trading boats from Portugal, under admiral Vaso da Gama, via India to Sumatra; he was one of those Portuguese settlers, and he stayed through the French, the English, and finally the Dutch.

Settlers from all of those countries married one another; that’s why we have Portuguese, French and English names mixed in with the Dutch.  Eventually, the settlers received Dutch citizenship when the East Indies officially became a colony.

Indonesia today

My Oma and Opa were both born in Indonesia when it was the Dutch East Indies.  My Oma says that her grandfather (my great-great-grandfather) was Portuguese, English, and Dutch, while his wife was English, German, French, and Dutch.  Her grandmother’s father (my great-great-great-grandfather) was Dutch with a wife of “mixed nationality.”  Her mother’s father was primarily French with a mix of different nationalities and his mother was Chinese.

She went on in a future email to tell me that she didn’t believe there was much “native Indonesian blood” in our family because the native Indonesians in North and Middle Sumatra didn’t take too kindly to their colonizing rulers.  The colonists lived separate lives, attending European schools and interacting only with the natives when they employed them as servants.  Some of their close friends did have clear Indonesian relatives, but my Oma didn’t remember any in our family.

Still, the seven children in my mother’s family range in shades from extremely dark skinned to a yellowish tan, and I wonder how the varying degrees of melanin entered our gene pool.  The Dutch history of colonization in Indonesia is long and sordid (and recently even made headlines), and I can imagine any intermingling of the colonizers and the oppressed might be a touchy subject, even now decades later.

I’ve only started focusing on these questions about my background in the past few years, during my 30s, and although I don’t think I’ll ever have all the answers, I have a whole lot more than either of my kids will when they grow up.  I wonder how much they’ll feel they’re missing by not knowing even the mix of nationalities that made up their great-great-great grandparents.  In my daughter’s case, there’s the complete loss of any national origin since her ancestry is likely tied up in the awful business of the African slave trade (my son’s too for that matter with his biological ties to the Caribbean).  They will undoubtedly long to know about their distant genealogical past, and I wonder how the lack of answers will affect them.  I just hope the way we’re raising these kids will help cushion the blow when that time comes.