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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005 02:43 am

Work in progress

With parenting, the most important tests are the pop quizzes

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This time last year, I devoted a column to my son Evan. Actually, I spent the first four paragraphs hemming and hawing, apologizing in advance for delivering mush when you have every right to expect something spicier in this space. My excuse was the convergence of three signs: that November is National Adoption Awareness Month (Evan is adopted), that it’s Thanksgiving (my gratitude for Evan flows from every corner of my heart), and besides, it’s Evan’s birthday (he turned 5 this week). Writing about someone I love so intensely turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. I put it off until the last minute, then wrote eight different versions, trying to choose exactly the right words. By the time I finished, birds were announcing sunrise outside my  window. This year, I am tempted to write about an easier topic, one more in keeping with my usual shtick. There’s a certain community leader who has done something so silly and self-serving, he practically begs to be trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey and served to you on a silver platter. But he’ll keep; I have a feeling he’ll never stop being self-serving and silly. My converging trio of excuses to write about Evan comes around only once a year. You may have seen him — this being Springpatch. He’s hard to miss if you’re anywhere within 100 feet. He’s the kind of kid who insists on befriending everybody in the supermarket by taking their vital statistics: name, age, and favorite color. We also stand out in a crowd because, unlike most families, we’re not color-coordinated. We’re white; Evan is African-American. This incongruity occasionally causes strangers’ heads to snap, and makes well-meaning people fumble for a polite way to ask the kind of questions we knew we’d get when we decided to adopt Evan. I can handle those questions, because most grown-ups have some basic understanding of adoption. The trickier questions come from Evan himself. He has been with us since the day he was born, so I’m the only mom he knows. I tell him about his birthmother, Samantha; I show him pictures of her and encourage him to talk to her on the phone. But to Evan, she remains a sort of abstract character. At this time last year, he was still in a lovely, ephemeral stage where he hadn’t yet noticed, or at least didn’t care, about the peculiarities of pigmentation. He was just starting to pick up ethnic lingo from his daycare playmates and preschool friends, calling himself “brown” and his big brother Milo “a pink,” describing another kid who rides his bus as a “white boy.” This year, though, Evan has noticed and cared. In fact, there have been moments where he has cared so deeply I thought my heart would break.
“Where did we get this house?” he asked me one afternoon. I told him our house is more than 100 years old, that it was here long before we were born. “But why is everybody in it pink and I’m the only brown one?” he wailed, throwing himself on the couch in tears. Then there was the night when — prompted by the comments of his little friends — he asked me how I could be his mom since we don’t look the same. Of course, I thought I was prepared for such questions, and I could probably answer them adequately if they appeared on a final exam at the end of a course on cross-cultural adoption. That’s not how it works with kids, though. The questions bubble up in a twinkling, as you’re loading them into the bathtub or the minivan or hustling them off the playground. And with parenting, the most important tests are the pop quizzes. So far, I’ve been able to divert Evan’s queries with questions of my own. Do you feel like I’m your mother? Do you think I could possibly love you more if you were pink? Would you love me more if I were brown? Does it really matter if we match on the outside? I scoured the Internet for books that could help, and for a few months, A Mother for Choco and Todd Parr’s Family Book were Evan’s most requested bedtime stories. He has also come up with a solution of his own. It’s not uncommon for kids his age to have an imaginary friend; Evan — perhaps because I’ve always told him he has two mothers, two dads, and siblings in other cities — has invented an entire imaginary family. The patriarch, named TT, is brown, according to Evan. But TT’s 19(!) babies are pink, except for one, who’s brown.
We’re a work in progress — Evan, me, Samantha, our whole family. The questions will get tougher. Please wish us luck. And maybe check back here next year.
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