Monday, June 8, 2009

How I Failed My Son in One Simple Question

"Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see."

I remember those words being uttered throughout my childhood by my dad. I thought he was the coolest, wisest guy in the world (still do) -- where did he get these little gems to live by? He always had words of wisdom handy, like he kept them in his back pocket just waiting for one of his 13 kids to need it. It was not 'til years later I realized that statement is from the mouth of Ben Franklin and not Bob Morgan. Whatever - he's still cool in my book.

That sentence has never rung more true than now. You see, words that were written -- typed at my computer by my very own fingers -- have left me as the focus, perhaps even a target, in a number posts and comments on the Internet, creating opinions of me that couldn't be further from the truth. But I can't even blame them.

A year ago, I wrote a piece for momlogic, entitled "Mommy, Why is Her Face Brown." I told the story of how 3-year-old Jacob, on a visit to my office, asked that very question while chatting with a co-worker in my office. I wondered whether I should even write it... worrying about every word, questioning myself through every step of getting it up on the site. I didn't once reveal the real me in it, instead opting to tell the story in a soft and delicate way -- tying it all up in a pretty little bow at the end like it was a special episode of "Blossom."

But that wasn't my biggest mistake.

When Jacob asked that now infamous question, I turned to my co-worker to field it. A move that makes me cringe when I think about it, one of those moments I replay in my mind, continually feeling ashamed at the cowardly way I handled my own son wanting his mommy to help him work through something in his head. I dropped the ball entirely. My co-worker playfully addressed the question, talking about her gorgeous skin being a "shade of peanut butter," something that would come up every afternoon during lunch when Jacob would bite into his PB&J sandwich.

But there were other things going on that day. I'm disappointed in myself that I didn't share the complicated feelings swirling around in my head and heart. Expressing them and asking important questions could possibly have created conversation and not just evoked judgment and anger.

But I didn't.

As anyone who knows us or has read my blog recently can tell you, Jacob was certainly not a kid who asked "why" very often. In fact, to this day, he has used that word less than a handful of times. You know those kids who are all, "why, why, why"? He's not one of them. It's one of the very things we go to early intervention for, clearly stated on his goals -- "W questions." And a year ago, I can honestly say he had not once uttered that word, his ability to express himself not sophisticated enough to communicate those thoughts.

When Jacob asked us why her face was brown, Jeff and I were dumbfounded. We can both recall wondering simultaneously "are you kidding us -- where the hell did that come from?" There were so many reasons we were stunned, in addition to developmentally. We were in the process of waiting for Lucy to come home from Taiwan, something we discussed every single day in our house. We looked at pictures and talked about adoption and were lost in learning all there was about the Taiwanese culture. Jacob never uttered a word about his sister looking any different. We live in the LA area, we have friends and family members with different skin colors, backgrounds and nationalities. Never once was it something he mentioned and it's not like we were pointing out to a 3-year-old, "notice how so-and-so looks different from you." It wasn't something we were afraid of, we just hadn't arrived there yet.

During our adoption wait, I was obsessive. Not only were the attachment and bonding books devoured every night as they sat on my nightstand, I was doing everything I could to learn how to empathize with my daughter and some of the feelings she might have -- how she could certainly see herself as "different." I was emotionally raw and terrified to think my baby girl could be judged based on how she looked. Like any mother, I wanted to save her any pain, or at least minimize it. The way to do that (as much as I realistically could) was by educating myself. Prejudice and racism was at the front of my mind. I spent countless hours on adoptee blogs, reading articles and expert advice -- doing what I thought was right by my daughter.

I can remember that day in my office so clearly. I remember the feeling of nausea that swept through my entire body. My initial reaction, the thing that drove me, was the fear that my son -- my innocent, sweet, lovely son -- had hurt someone I worked with, someone I respected, someone I cared about. What I never realized was that it was I who hurt her.

I missed a teachable moment that day. But the person who needed to be taught wasn't Jacob. It was me. I was given the opportunity to provide my son his very first life lesson through conversation. I blew that chance. Because of this, those who have commented on momlogic have offered their own opinions of who I really am, wondering why my children are so isolated by the snooty white woman and kept from anyone who doesn't share my same skin color. They question what I teach my children. They assume I am racist.

In all the time I've been blogging, I've most always been able to shake off negative comments, knowing that they come from others' anger or ignorance -- but I don't want to do that now.

Because this time, it's different. Some of them are actually right.

Recently, other blogs caught wind of the post and have written their own thoughts on it. While some are outright bashing me, others have created conversation. Anti-Racist Parent, a site I was introduced to while waiting for Lucy, is a place I have turned to on a number of occasions, reading posts and comments that have helped me through some of the challenges I've felt while waiting for and parenting my internationally adopted daughter. Now editor Tami Winfrey Harris was writing about me, expressing her feelings on my post, inviting four of ARP's columnists to weigh in.

And today it's Lisa Belkin of the NY Times using my experience as a topic of discussion, asking parents to share what they've taught their children about race.

I will be honest with you here. My first reaction to all of this was to curl up in the fetal position and feel sorry for myself. I wanted to beg momlogic to pull the post down. I wanted to pretend I never wrote it, hoping that the sites who linked to it would never get any hits. Then my feelings flipped and I wanted to comment on every single post, explaining that I'm not this evil person... I just made a mistake. Surely they couldn't believe that I would be the clueless priviledged white woman that's being judged all over the Web, could they?

I'm not going to do either of those things. I'm going to take ownership of the post and of my feelings. Because those who love me know who I really am and those who choose to see me as anything but my true self, I can't change that. But I have learned a few lessons here. I need to continue to write based on my real feelings, tapping into my own original thoughts, my insecurities and fears, never losing site of being authentic. I will write the truth (according to me) and not what I think others want. I am human. I am flawed. And I don't know about you but there's a good chance I will screw up again in my lifetime. But I will continue to acknowledge my mistakes and hopefully grow from them. Because that's all I can do.


Jessica R. said...

Let me preface this by saying that I haven't read the original post or any of the ensuing discussion. But I wanted to say that you need to stop beating yourself up over this.
Did you apologize to your friend for your comment? If yes, then put it behind you and consider it a lesson learned.
You've done a much better job than me. We live in a predominantly white/Asian area with sadly few other people of any color so my daughter has had precious little exposure. Last year we had a sitter who was black and after a while my daughter started saying she was scared of her and didn't want her to come over. Frankly she wasn't the best sitter and I had my own doubts, so it was easy to stop calling her, but I'm pretty sure I gave my daughter the wrong impression.
At least by opening the dialogue with your colleague you showed your son that it's not a taboo subject, and you can turn the fallout into another lesson.
Hugs to you as you weather the storm, just be proud that you offered so many people a great teachable moment of their own!

Marcom Mom said...

Jackie, I can't for the life of me figure out what's offensive about your original MomLogic article. I guess if you wanted to handle it perfectly, you could have tried to answer it yourself, saying something like, "Skin comes in all different colors (as she said). Our skin is one color, your sister's is another, my co-worker's is another, and they're all beautiful." If I put myself in your place, though, I can almost imagine being afraid that I wouldn't word my answer perfectly and might somehow offend my co-worker, so I can kind of understand how you decided to do the old hot-potato routine. Take yourself off the hook!

AndreaLeigh said...

just wanted to stop by and welcome you to SITS. It is a great way to network and make some new friends!

Sarah said...

Jackie, Yes it would have been best to have answered his question rather than turning to the coworker... but KIDS JUST SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS and just surprise you and throw you off guard sometimes. Sometimes we get tripped up in shock... and don't have 3 minutes to compose the PERFECT answer for our child. But... now that you're given all kinds of thought to this subject, you'll be ready next time... AND you've helped all kinds of other parents get their well thought out answers ready for when it happens to them.

Mercedes said...

I am so sorry! I read the hurtful things those people said and they were way out of line. I don't think it was offensive and if they felt offended they should have kindly explained what offended them and why. Attacking you and berrading you is not a way to communicate or educate.
Welcome to SITS. I have yet to see anything like that occur in the SITS environment. I am sure you will love it. Hope you have happy blogging from here on out.

meimei said...

I love your honesty. Nobody is perfect all the time. We all make mistakes, at least I do. I lie awake at night, thinking about my mistakes, writing about it. And they feel HUGE. And then I realize; who is hurting me? I do. Nobody is perfect, let it go. Wake up the next day and do the best you can, everyday. Focus on what you want to learn and never ever let anyone hurt you because of it, 'cause they can pretend they are perfect, but they aren't and we all know that.

momwithfaithandhope said...

Life is about mistakes. Learning is about mistakes. And quite frankly, what about the saying, "THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK" - You recongized the situation as an opportunity to learn. You knew you wanted to teach your child right from wrong. You simply didn't have the words ready, especially on terms a young child could understand at the tip of your tongue. And you know what, that's just what happens with your oldest kid, right? Your Dad parented older siblings before you, YES?? Brady and Lucy will never pose this question to you and have it go unanswered. I didn't read the MomLogic post, but I do know you, and I know your heart. Best of intentions, highly educated, certainly not a racist or I couldn't call you my friend. You didn't fail your son. You were learning right along with him.

I'd bet there are many people out there who could have provided the politically correct answer and post about how "wonderful" of a teaching experience it was, and at the core, not truly believe the words spoken. I vote for silence with a true heart any day.


Stopping by to say hello and welcome to SITS!

dogwooddiarist said...

Jackie -- cannot believe that after a year people come to Momlogic and start bashing a post of yours which was clearly not remotely improper or racist as evidenced by the fact that it's on Momlogic.

Come on, have some self-confidence and perspective! Whether or not you were wrong, it was trivial, and you will have no dearth of teachable moments to come. In fact, this very situation presents itself as a rich opportunity, it seems to me.

And why have you misrepresented the original story and said that your colleague laughed it off with a peanut butter joke? That casts an entirely different light on t he story. As you originally told it, your colleague was given a great teachable moment, and it was the perfect lesson for your toddler.

JackieMacD said...

I don't see the correlation between a lack of self confidence and the ability to put myself in others' shoes. Unlike some blogs out there, my posts are not written with the intention of hurting others. I think it's important to take ownership of our words and actions. That's all I was doing.

Jaime said...

very interesting post. i am a little more forgiving of you then you are of yourself, but i think we are all harder on ourselves..i mean it's our kids and the choices/actions we take matter enough to warrant this kind of introspection

Donna said...

Hi Jackie,

Just wanted to chime in and say that I don't think you did anything wrong. I've been reading your blog for a long time and I have never "known" you to be anything but thoughtful and caring of others' feelings. To me, it seemed as if you didn't want to offend your co-worker, so in that particular situation, you were looking to her to answer the question. I'm sorry if others jumped on you and assumed things. I love that you are honest in your posts b/c not many people are. Just wanted to let you know that I think you are awesome and please try not to let these others make you feel otherwise.

northsidefour said...

Early on I realized that half of what I say could land my children in therapy for the bulk of their adult life. Children have an amazing ability to float above the madness, be honest and take it all in. Your place in that moment may have already been lost on your son, and you seem to be doing just all the right things to make it right for you. Don't you wish sometimes we could all be that honest? Looks like you are doing just that, best of luck.

Little Lady Cakes said...

I commend you for owning up to your mistakes. It truly shows that you care and know words can hurt others, no matter how trivial or unintentional.

Others should follow your lead as you seem like a very sincere person.

Rise. Fall. Never Quit said...

Dear Jackie,
I commend you for being so open about your feelings. Not everyone would be willing to accept their mistakes just like you did. That said, I still cannot see how you could have hurt your coworker for letting her answer the question. I've been living as a migrant for almost 20 years now. And to be honest, I would be more offended by the overreaction of people to this (actually) non-racist issue. Don't be too hard on yourself. You did not fail your son in any way. In my opinion, there was no need to apologize to your coworker either. If you were given a bit more time to answer the question, I am sure that you would have thought of an appropriate comment.