A few summers ago, during our annual vacation week at the beach, my daughter Peyton and I spent considerable time each day playing in the waves. We would wade into the water until it reached my waist and since Peyton was a short six-year-old, the water was about chest-high for her. We would face the ocean and wait for the waves to roll over us. When we saw a big one coming our way we would brace ourselves for impact. Sometimes, if the wave looked really ominous, Peyton would jump into my arms and we would cling together as the wave crashed around us. As long as we knew the wave was coming, we could keep our balance and remain standing. But invariably we would turn our backs to the ocean to look at a kite, a squealing kid or barking dog. And when we turned our backs, the waves would knock us off balance and we would end up with eyes and mouths full of salt water. Once we regained our footing, we would look at each other and proclaim: “You did NOT respect the wave!” Then we would laugh and turn around once more.
I feel like this about race. As long as I keep vigilant watch, the issues surrounding our transracial family don’t knock me off balance. But if I relax, if I linger at some diversion as simple as a kite, I get knocked down and thrown off balance.
The core of our jobs as parents is to give our kids the tools necessary for living a full life. I’m not talking about financial success or educational achievement. I am talking about success as humans. I could write a book on what I hope for my kids: that they know love; that they know God; that they know how to be kind and generous; that they know how to laugh at a really funny situation; that they know how to be independent and also how to rely on others. Included in that list would be the knowledge of how to move in the world. But what if I don’t know how to move in the world they will face?
Later that summer, as I pulled into the parking lot to drop off Peyton at day camp, she begged me to stay in the car and let her sign herself in. Now from the time Peyton was physically able to hold her own bottle she has been the poster child for “do it myself” so this wasn’t a big shock. I laughed her off and explained that the rules said I had to sign her in and that wasn’t negotiable. Her pleading became more insistent. We went back and forth until I had lost patience and yelled at her to tell me why. Peyton and I walk a razor thin tightrope together concerning her independence. I love her self-confidence but I want her to display it in my full view. I encouraged her to ride a two-wheeler and yet I wouldn’t let her ride it out of my sight. I get a kick out of her social skills but I want a hand in picking her friends. I’m a mom. And my oldest daughter wants the sweet taste of freedom.
In the battle of wills I usually win when I pull out the punishment card. If you don’t X, your punishment will be Y. I had lost patience and I threatened her with some loss of privilege. Sullen, arms crossed, eyes cast downward, her words came tumbling out. Not well-formed, not manipulative, not rehearsed. “Mama, I’m embarrassed by you.” Long pause. “I’m brown and you’re not. The older kids at camp say it’s weird.” And I was knocked down by a wave six years in the making.
I opened the van doors, hastily put on a pair sunglasses and fought tears. Peyton bounded out of the van and ran to the congregating crowd of kids. I walked to the sign-in desk and scribbled something resembling my name.
As I walked back to the van I had burning salt in my eyes and the taste of tears on my lips. It didn’t taste like the beach. I hadn’t respected the wave. I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t cry because my feelings were hurt. My daughter, the absolute love and joy of my life was handling a situation and it was a world I didn’t know. Jumping into my arms would not help her ride out this wave.
My kids know their story of adoption. We celebrate their birthdays and their “gothcha’ day”–the day we got them from the adoption agency’s nursery. They understand why, at least factually, we don’t have the same skin color or hair. Sometimes the factual answers don’t say enough.
When a big wave came barreling toward us at the beach I taught my daughter to ride out the churning water by jumping into my arms. I loved feeling that my strong embrace could protect her from anything. It’s time I teach her to keep her feet and roll with the water on her own. From now on we will jump the waves, side by side, while holding hands. That seems like a better way.
Andrea Denney is a middle-aged, mini-van driving, Sunday school teaching, softball-coaching mother of three (Peyton-9, Bennett-6 ½ and Emerson-3) who lives in the south suburbs of Chicago. When she isn’t extracting petrified chicken nuggets and fermented juice boxes from the back of her van, she is the Vice President of Operations and Finance for a qualitative market research company. In her spare time she is pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree from Chicago Theological Seminary and falls into bed each night hoping to muster just enough energy to recap the day with Beth, her partner of 23 years.