School Nightmares

For some reason, my husband and I lucked out with our kids in the sleep department.  They’ve always been great sleepers; typically they’ll sleep a good twelve hours no matter what time we put them to bed, and they rarely wake up with bad dreams (although our son had several sleepless nights after seeing Cats; Mr. Mistoffelees was just too much for him to handle…or maybe it was the hackneyed music).  In the past few months though, our daughter has woken up in the middle of the night with school-related nightmares.

A month or two ago, I had a trying day at school.  My kids will likely go to the school where I’m currently teaching, and feeling downtrodden on that particular day, I sarcastically broached a touchy subject over dinner.

“How would you guys feel if we moved?  You could go to a new school!”  The kids gave me a double take, and my husband rolled his eyes.  “Whatever…it was just a thought.”

Later that night, our daughter woke up inconsolably crying, and when my husband went to check on her, she told him through her sobs that she had a nightmare about going to a new school and missing all of her friends.  I’m sure he was really happy with me at that moment, but I can’t know for sure because I had already gone back to sleep.

Last night, she woke up from another nightmare, this one not quite as powerful but enough to produce some saddened moans that stirred me when I went in to turn off her night light.  I rubbed her back, and she slowly opened her eyes.

“Daddy, I had a nightmare.”

“What happened honey?”

“I dreamed that I was at school and every class I went to I was the only black kid.”

This is of course nearly a reality for her living in our mostly white suburban town.  Our daughter just turned eight, and she’s been showing more and more interest in her racial identity, which couldn’t make me prouder while at the same time making me very nervous.  I want to make sure we’re providing a sound foundation for her, and I’m constantly worrying that what we’re doing isn’t enough.

“That’s unfortunately going to be pretty close to what your experience will have to be going to school in this town because there aren’t very many black people who live here.”  Had this been a daytime conversation, I certainly would have given her a little age-appropriate lesson on redlining, but it was late and I was just about to head to bed myself.  “You know that because we live where we do, Daddy and Poppy try hard to make sure you have black people in your life.”  I named a few key individuals, including two friends who had attended her birthday party who are kids of color and also have gay parents.

“But they don’t have skin as dark as me.”  Another teachable moment on the realities of colorism, but again, it was late.

“No, but black people come in all different shades, and they’re still going to be identified as black; they’ll be great friends that you can turn to as you all grow up because you’ll each know what it’s like to be in a different kind of family like ours.”  I could tell she was starting to come around; I decided to remind her of last year’s classroom teacher.  “And you know what?  I’m sure Ms. H. would be happy to talk to you any time.  You know she’s the only black teacher in your school, so she knows kind of what you’re going through.  I’m sure if you just stopped by before school, she’d find time to talk to you.”  She smiled a bit remembering that connection.  “And as you get older, there will be a few more black kids that join you.  When you get to middle school, there will be a few from each of the elementary schools in town that will all go to school together, and then more when you get to high school.  And then for college, you might decide you want to go to an all-black college.”

“They have those?” she asked, her eyes widening.

“Yup, and that’s why learning everything you can in school is important because it will give you options down the road.”

“I want to go to one of those schools.”  I was suddenly reminded of a video I show in professional development courses I teach where a black Boston student attending school in the white suburbs describes her impending shift to a historic black college.  She says that she had felt like an exchange student her whole life, and she was excited about finally getting the chance to relax that aspect of herself in college.

“Well that’s totally up to you.  If at some point before college, you decide that being around other people that look like you is important, then we’ll talk about you going to a different school, but right now, I think you’d rather stay with your friends right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but if that ever changes, you let us know.”

I kissed her good night, and as she drifted back to sleep, I did what every great parent does: I questioned every decision we’ve ever made on behalf of our kids and hoped for the thousandth time that it would all turn out alright.

In Our Dreams

Today should have been my first day of teaching in 2015.  My kids should have been returning to their elementary classrooms with tales of holiday gatherings and showing off their wearable holiday gifts.  Instead, we were 3000 miles from home saying goodbye to my grandfather who passed away the week before Christmas.

The death wasn’t a surprise.  I wrote about his failing health last November.  And the last two weeks have really been a combined family reunion-vacation-funeral trip.  The majority of my very large family is in California, and we get out her so seldom that even when we’re here for a difficult event like this, there are many new memories to be made at the same time.  And of course my children are just six and seven years old; two weeks of grieving just isn’t in the cards given their youth.

Last weekend, my dad and his wife hosted a small gathering of friends, including some of my high school friends.  They’ll typically do this during our visits so we can see a bunch of friends and family at once.  During the festivities while I was catching up with friends, one of my dad’s neighbors leaned over to me and said, “Does anyone even miss your grandfather?”  I was a little taken aback by the comment, and after a deep breath, I assured him that my grandfather was missed deeply.  The neighbor just shrugged his shoulders and gestured to the room, as if to suggest that he certainly couldn’t tell given the context.

Today, a few dozen family and friends gathered at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery for veterans where my grandfather’s ashes are being interred.  As my immediate family of four headed toward the outdoor pavilion where the military send off would take place, I fought back the tears and held my son tightly to my shoulders.  My daughter was walking with my husband, and after looking at me, she said to my husband, “Poppy, why aren’t you sad?”

“I am sad,” he told her.

“You don’t look sad,” she replied.

“People show sadness in different ways.  You can’t always tell how people feel based on the way they look,” he explained.

And this was definitely a sad occasion.  My grandfather as a great and amazing man, and I’m so proud to have been a part of his family and a benefactor of his parenting–both directly and through his son, my dad.  Prior to the ceremony, my kids were fighting like normal, which means just shy of bodily harm.  I counted to ten and dropped down to their level.

“This is a really hard day for Daddy, and I really need you and Poppy here with me.  If you can’t behave, Poppy will have to take you out, and I can’t do this by myself.  I’m really sad and having the three of you near me helps me feel better.  Do you understand?”  They nodded silently, and a few minutes later in the car, my daughter was complaining that her brother was looking at her funny.  I wasn’t sure they’d make it, and I worried I wouldn’t be ready to forgive them for being so young any time soon.

Then during the ceremony, my daughter clung to me while the volley shots were fired, and she brought my hand to her face lovingly while “Taps” was played.  When we were seated for the few short words shared about my grandfather’s life, my son climbed into my lap and hugged me as tightly as he ever has.  The entire thing was overwhelming for me–saying goodbye to my grandfather, hearing some of the wonderful memories about him, the majesty of a military funeral, and feeling the loving pressure of my family so close to me.  When it was over, I turned to my son with tears in my eyes and saw my emotional state mirrored in his own.  Through his own tears, he said, “I’m just so sad Daddy.”  We held each other and just cried for a bit before he shared some of his tiny hugs with his great-grandmother and my dad.

My aunt had printed up my grandfather’s obituary with a few color photos on it.  My daughter noticed something she thought might cheer up her brother: “That’s you in the picture!”  We looked, and sure enough, the photo of my grandad had been cropped from a photo with my son.  We could just make out the corner of my son’s short afro in the bottom of the frame.  He smiled, proud to feel so permanently connected his great-grandfather.

In the car, we all talked a bit about our feelings.  My son told us, “I’m just so sad because I used to dream about my great-grandfather all the time, and now I can’t do that any more.”

“Of course you can buddy.  That’s where he’ll live forever.  When you miss him and you want to see him, you can do it in your dreams.”  This apparently made an impression on him, because during the reception he mustered the strength to get up in front of the crowd and say so into the microphone.

I can count the number of times my son met my grandfather on one hand, yet he feels connected to him in this totally tangible way.  I’m sure it’s got something to do with his status as an adoptee, like he’s subconsciously clinging to the things that validate his permanence in this family.  And that’s something that my grandfather did for him.  The two of them are separated by 82 years in age, but it’s comforting to see the impact his presence had on the next generation of this family.

It’s something I’m sure I’ll talk over with my grandpa in my dreams tonight.

NaBloPoMo Ultimo

With this post, I meet my goal of posting every day for the month of November in honor of NaBloPoMo!  Woo-hoo!

As I close out the month of daily posts, I’m thankful for the ways in which stopping each day to take stock of our family’s daily life has helped put things into perspective, both from the personal meditation and reflection this forced upon me and from the commentary and feedback I’ve received from friends, followers, and fellow bloggers.  When I start to freak out because things in my life are spinning out of control, and I’m screaming at my family like an unmedicated bipolar alcoholic, at least I can look forward to decompressing a few hours later and processing it all through writing.

I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to read these posts themselves; I anticipate some interesting and difficult conversations will arise, and I look forward to the challenge.  With that in mind, I’ll continue to blog…but I’m definitely going to give myself a few nights off this week!

Thank You Ptown

About a thousand years ago, I first experienced Provincetown at the very tip of Cape Cod when my husband brought me to visit his childhood music teachers.  These teachers were a couple, two men who my husband refers to as “why I teach” and “how I teach,” respectively, who owned a house in Ptown where they would spend every school vacation until they moved here upon retirement.

I must have been barely twenty years old when I first came here, and as a young gay man, I found tremendous possibility in the acceptance and equity of this beautiful town by the sea.  I think it was a combination of seeing men walking down the street hand in hand without fear and the opportunity of getting to know these two influential teachers from my husband’s past that showed me the potential for happiness that lay in my future as a fledgling Gaysian.

Nearly two decades later, my husband and I were married with children, and we visited Provincetown during Family Week, a week-long celebration of LGBT-parented families.  Before that, Ptown was a place of sanctuary from our regular lives where living openly as gay men felt like constant work; now with kids, it still represented that and it took on additional meaning.  The town embraced our kids as lovingly as it had us so many times before.

At the end of that first Family Week, my husband and I were looking at property, trying to figure out how we might swing a second home in town so that our kids could get to know this wonderful place more intimately as they grew older.  When we walk down the street in Ptown, there are other families that look just like ours; when we go to the playground, there are other kids of color with two dads, and nobody awkwardly asks where their mother is.

For the past fours years, we’ve enjoyed getting to know the town in a new way, this time with kids in tow, and it’s been incredible.  Our kids smile from ear to ear when we pack the car up and make the circuitous drive to the end of Cape Cod, and as they walk through town, they love waving hello to the people they know.

Tonight, we bundled up in our heaviest winter gear and headed into town for the lighting of the lobster trap Christmas Tree.  As I stood in the crowd, fighting a potential hernia to hoist my daughter into the air so she could watch a crane lower the giant tree topper made of tinseled fishing buoys, I glanced up at her face.  She was beaming with joy.  She was so excited to be experiencing this moment with the crowds, and she was probably thinking ahead to dinner at her favorite restaurant where one of the bartenders is a black woman that shares her name who always gives her the biggest hug when she comes in.  In spite of the freezing cold and the pain creeping into my muscles from holding aloft our ninety pound daughter and our hyperactive son doing cartwheels around us with snot running down his face, it was a moment I wanted to savor and one that I look forward to repeating in many ways as our kids grow older.

Family Adjustments

Our kids are only sixteen months apart in age.  We tried as hard as we could to plan out that ideal two year age difference, but it just didn’t work out.  Our daughter came to us at birth, and since that was our only experience working with the foster care system, we started the process of adopting our second child when she was about twenty months old, thinking that the roughly six-month process of updating our home study and all would bring us a second baby at just the right time and age.

There had been a change in leadership at the Department of Children and Families since our first adoption though, and concurrent placements weren’t really the norm any more.  When our daughter was born, the agency allowed social workers to make a decision whether or not to place a child in concurrent planning, which means that the professionals involved could work both for reunification with the biological family and eventual adoption.  They could concurrently plan for both outcomes.  Our daughter came into care immediately at birth because she was born with cocaine in her system and her birthmother admitted to drinking during pregnancy.  Shortly after giving birth, her mother left the hospital, leaving her baby girl behind.  On paper, the goal of the Department of Children and Families for this baby was reunification with the biological family.  Based on the circumstances, as well as the birthmother’s history of incarceration, struggles with substance abuse, and losing custody of two children already, the social workers made the decision to place our daughter in a pre-adoptive foster care home, our home, because they believed that the likelihood of this mother maintaining her parental rights was pretty limited.  Things worked out like the agency believed they would, and seventeen months later we legally adopted our daughter.  Little did we know at the time that our son was already a month old and living with a foster family about an hour away.

At the time, the agency had developed a more firm policy of not placing children in pre-adoptive homes until all biological avenues had been exhausted.  This philosophy makes logical sense.  It protects the sanctity of the biological relationship while also protecting pre-adoptive foster families from welcoming a child into their home that may in fact be returned at some point.  In practice however, many of these children will never be returned to their biological families, so the potential risk is probably outweighed by the security of placing these children in what might end up being forever families.  Still, the policy was in place and his mother gave birth in a prison hospital, our son spent the entire first year of his life in a temporary foster home.

The foster home was terrific, and we’re so glad that he had that stability early in his life; had he been placed with a pre-adoptive family, he never would have been placed with us, so things certainly work out the way they are supposed to.  At the same time, it made the bonding process difficult for everyone involved.  The handover process was swift and challenging.  I had time off from work and spent time with our son in his foster home, and then my husband joined us a few days into this process.  About a week in, we began the transition, which included introducing him to his new sister.  With the countdown to the big move at just three days, the three of us went to spend the day with him at his foster home, the last full day he would ever be there.  The following day, his foster family dropped him off at our house in the morning, and we brought him back that night.  The next day, we picked him up at his foster house, and he never returned.  This was two weeks after his first birthday and it was Father’s Day.

That first night as an official family of four living under the same roof, we decided to dine out.  We walked to a restaurant up the street.  After we sat down, our son immediately reminded us that his foster family let him throw his sippy cup when he was done with it by tossing it nearly into the laps of the family sitting next to us.  I retrieved the cup, apologized to the family, and returned to our table.  “We do not throw cups in this family,” I said in my sternest dad voice.  My son immediately started crying.

He didn’t sleep well, especially those first few nights after he officially moved in, and I’m sure he was wondering where the hell he was and why his family had been replaced by complete strangers.  He had been diagnosed with a speech delay and wasn’t speaking at all at this point, but we still talked to him regularly about his new family and how happy we were he’d joined us.  In the middle of the night though when he would wake screaming, it was incredibly challenging to keep my calm and not get angry.  I wasn’t always able to do either.

I know now that I struggled a lot with my fears that I wouldn’t get attached to this kid, at least not in the way that I had so immediately become inseparable from our infant daughter.  I can’t say when we all finally settled into one another, but I know it wasn’t immediate.  I wish now that someone had told me this might happen and that it’s okay.  My husband and I talked about it, but I remember being too afraid to actually admit that I wasn’t sure I felt like this boy’s dad yet.

The good thing is that it did happen eventually, and I think it’s good that I can’t actually pinpoint when it happened.  I know that he is my son, and I am his father.

I know some people will read this and think, “That’s why I could never adopt a child,” but I can tell you that it’s something you will quickly get over.  Before I wore contacts, I used to say, “I could never touch my eye every day like that!” but now I do it every day.  Maybe that’s not the best analogy, but I wore glasses and I was sick of having to deal with them.  I wanted to not wear glasses badly enough that I got over my initial fears of putting plastic on my eyeball, just like people who want to be parents badly enough–really want it–can get over their fears of attachment and welcome a child in need into their home, their family, and their hearts.

Guest Blogger: My Daughter

I was at a bit of a loss for what to write about for Day 20 of NaBloPoMo, so I asked my daughter if she wanted to be a guest blogger today.  She dictated, while I typed, and she kept a very watchful eye on what was going up on the screen to make sure I wasn’t editing her words!  I asked her to talk a little bit about what it’s like living in our family as a black girl with two dads and a Latino brother.  Here’s what she came up with:

I like being with my family and I love my family and I think it’s my favorite family I have ever been in.  I still love my mom and grandma too.  I love all of my friends and families and cousins.

I hope the world will change in a different way; I want the guys that don’t treat us well to treat us well, even the girls too.  I should say women.  Because I know some people are really mean to us because that’s the people they are and they know that they’re doing that to us, the ones who are doing bad.  They should learn how to treat us in a better way.  But we should treat them the way we treat ourselves because the ones who are doing bad deserve some goodness so they can learn from us.

Me and my brother, we are both black-skinned.  And I like it that way because I’m who I am.  And I love myself.  I’m going to talk about being black.  It’s kind of cool having different colored skin because when you have black skin, it’s kind of different that the white people.  You can see that it’s really dark.  I have brown skin, but they call it black skin; I don’t know why, but that’s a silly name.  My brother has lighter skin, but it’s not really that black; it’s kind of like a peanut butter color.

Me and my brother have the same hair.  My hair can do really awesome stuff, like you could braid it, and then you could put beads in it, and then you could wrap it around like a pony tail, or you could put little buns on the sides or one in the middle.  There’s lots of things you can do with my hair that other people can’t do with their hair.  My hair is awesome.  I love it.

My destiny is the best I can think of because I love my destiny.  My destiny is everybody’s whole life because I care about everybody.  And everybody deserves that.

My fathers are from different states and have different colored skin too.  All of us have different skin and different destinies.  I have two cats.  They are very special to me and I love my house.  It’s cool to have what I have in my family.  It’s kind of cool having two dads (or two moms) because you get two of the same type of person, like dads.  These dads are really important to me because they are in my family and I love them.  And they belong to me and I belong to them.

 

Gay Rights, or Civil Rights Expedited

While I was out visiting my aging grandparents this past weekend, both of them mentioned something that we’ve talked about a lot in the years since my husband and I adopted our two children.  We each believe that what really changes the racial dialogue is loving someone of another race.  My grandparents, who are both in their 80s, beam with a certain amount of pride that they now have two great-grandchildren of color–even my grandfather who is very sick and at times barely mentally present mentioned it to me.

This isn’t a new idea.  Sharon Rush’s book Loving Across the Color Lines is more than a decade old, and in it she details how the adoption of her black daughter changed her views on how race works in America.  As a white woman, she questioned the validity of certain racial minorities to claim race was at play in any given situation.  Once she loved, truly loved, a black child, she realized that her perspective had been flawed for many years.

Peggy McIntosh

I’ve found this to be true myself.  My late development of racial identity as an Asian man coincided directly with the birth of my daughter.  I’d read Peggy McIntosh’s article on white privilege in graduate school and used similar concepts to drive my teaching of certain issues of social justice in the classroom, but it never really became as imperative a concept as it is for me now until my husband and I brought home this tiny defenseless African American child.  When I became a parent, I discovered what most parents do: I wanted to make sure this little being was protected and sheltered until she could stand up on her own two feet and face the world head on.  And in thinking about how we could do that for this little girl, I came to fully embrace the ways in which her experiences will be different from my own as a biracial Asian man, and vastly different from my white husband’s.

Yoruba Richen

As evidence of this line of thought, I’ve always used equality for the gay community as an example.  Yoruba Richen has a great TED Talk where she outlines the rapidity of the gay rights movement in relation to the Civil Rights movement.  The former has began less than fifty years ago and true legal equality is just around the corner.  The latter needed approximately three hundred years to achieve legislated equality.  There’s certainly something to be said about the ways in which the diaspora of the gay community is spread across socio-economic groups equally, and that provides the group with a certain amount of power and clout to speed things along.  However, I think loving a gay family member is what has truly quickened the pace.

Contrary to what some people believe, people are born gay.  No one can dictate whether a baby will be gay or not, so when a parent spends 10-12 years loving a child so immensely, and then that child comes out of the closet post-puberty, odds are good that that parent is going to continue loving that child.  Of course there are lots of families where this isn’t the case, and I don’t mean to minimize the crazy numbers of LGBT youth who are thrown out on the streets.  However, the ones that are accepted by their families are the ones that are changing minds for the better.  They are the ones who are getting heterosexual allies to take a stand, write their congress people, call out their friends, attend rallies.

Of course no one can dictate whether a baby will be born black or Asian or Latino either.  It’s just highly unlikely that a parent wouldn’t know ahead of time that those options are possibilities before the baby is born.  Adoption agencies, even ones that work through the foster care system, typically allow parents to specify what racial background parents are willing to accept.  The odds of a parent having a baby of a racial background different from his/her own is far fewer than a heterosexual parent having a gay child.  And thus, the racial dialogue in this country is stymied and slowed by the inability of one group to truly empathize with another.

We’re seeing progress, and I’m happy about that.  At times it feels like with every step forward in relieving the racial tensions in America we take two steps back.  My husband and I though will continue to act as vocal allies for the black and brown kids out there like our own, supporting them as best we can even after they have the strength and independence to do it on their own.