“Hey, mija, how’s it going with your new classroom and the third graders?” I ask Gina one night as we snuggle in my bed.
“O…K”, she says.
“Well, they keep asking me,” her body turns away from mine and her voice becomes high and mocking, “‘Why do you have two mamas?’”
“And you say…”
“I say I don’t know. I don’t want to answer them.”
Ouch. This unexpected jab goes from her heart into mine, and I reach out to gently stroke her silky brown hair. She recoils. Her guard is up, although the bridge across the moat to her corazón is not completely pulled shut.
My mind races to protect myself with the sword of logic. This is their fifth year in a school district hailed for its diversity and open-mindedness. What haven’t I done to prepare her and her twin brother to answer this “two mama” question?
“Lo siento, mi amor. I didn’t realize you would have to start from ground zero when I put you in George’s combined third and fourth grade class. I blew it. I should have asked for you to be with the fourth and fifth grade class who know your story…”
“I told you,” she says, “I told you I wanted to be with Ms. Krug and you didn’t listen.”
She’s right. I didn’t. Because of budget cuts, a bilingual teacher position was eliminated and they created a 3/4 and a 4/5 class. I disregarded her request and chose the teacher I trusted the most, as adults are allowed to do. In my bubble of denial, I also ignored that she is right there with me each day navigating the terrain of being the only two-mom family in her 3/4 class.
I stroke her head one more time and stare silently into the darkness of my bedroom, my inability to compensate for a society riddled with the dream of a ‘normal’ family filling my lungs with grief.
I inform her teacher George of Gina’s discomfort in having to answer the question raised by the third graders. He is surprised, as he always is when I raise this issue.
“She still finds this question upsetting?” He is accepting of our family and was supportive three years earlier when my partner and I ended our relationship. Like me, he expects too much from my daughter and from the other children all living within the hetero standard.
“Yes, she does. Remember that previous to the budget cuts, they were with their intact grade group who had met both moms since kindergarten, some even in pre-school.”
“So it’s the third graders.”
“Yes. What can we do?” I ask.
“I can show the video ‘That’s a family!’ in class. It will be the third time in four years I have shown it, but if you think it will help, I will do it.”
I am not reassured, but I agree because I have no better options. The daily experience of my family is not what people presume, and what I want is beyond the reach of any single intervention. The remnants of the legacy of adultism I received have prepared me for having my needs be invisible compared to those with more privilege.
I volunteer in the kids’ classroom on days they are taught in Spanish and feel the 3rd graders’ uncertainty about who I am, especially since my ex-partner sometimes volunteers on English-speaking days. My flimsy band-aid is to introduce myself and smile through their stares, get to know their names, and pretend that we are on on the same team. Gina’s comment reminds me I can’t live in a ‘normal’ bubble for long because for my family it pops all the time.
As Gina is putting away her matemáticas binder to get in line for their recreo, Donald asks: “Isn’t Cindy Gina’s mom?”
Like my daughter, I am weary of having to explain — or choosing not to, or choosing how much to say. “Yes,” I smile at him, “she has two moms.”
He nods slowly and turns to push his way into the line leaving the classroom. The next week I grudgingly attend the showing of the film at George’s request.
“We are going to watch a video about all different kinds of families and then talk about it,” he says before turning out the lights. Gina turns to look at me with her lips pursed before the darkness descends, sitting next to her twin Teo.
As I watch the video, I see, for the first time, my children are portrayed in 3 “different” family structures – they have two moms, they are in a multi-racial family, and while I was not married to Cindy, I am definitely divorced from her, and dating men. After the video, the children sit in a circle on the corner rug where they begin and end their days, shoving each other and giggling. Sitting in a small chair on the perimeter, near my twins, I push down the urge to grab them, run across our drawbridge, and shut it.
“What did everybody think about the video?” asks George.
“Did you notice families that you see here at school?” “Yes”, replies Carlos, “ I saw Alexandria when she was little.” They chuckle and poke some more, sneaking peeks at their classmate who was in one of the families in the video.
“That’s right,” George responds, “she lives with her grandparents.”
I sit still, watching the kids sneak glances at me.
Growing up, I was the child who fought being silenced, but became an adult who stopped asking questions when I experienced the negative impact of people with more power.
Say something, I urge myself. You’re a facilitator, you talk about this stuff all the time with adults, but I am suffused with sadness at the ways my children will never fit in the ‘normal’ box. I want to wail instead of accept the other side of adultism required of me – be the one who has all situations in hand. It is not in hand. Growing up, I was the child who fought being silenced, but became an adult who stopped asking questions when I experienced the negative impact of people with more power. Dragging myself back into the classroom, anger climbs over my sadness. The video does not give us a sturdier bubble. It starkly points out my twins’ challenges due to decisions their two moms made – to be parents, to choose a donor of a different race than me, to end our relationship.
“And you know Linda and Cindy, Gina and Teo’s moms”, George continues. Now the children have full permission to stare at me and they do.
“Feel free to talk to me if you ever have questions.” I barely keep my voice from shaking and the lunch bell mercifully rings. My twins run to the front of the line, ready to leave me and whatever feelings the video stirred up in their hearts.
I thank George and leave, a sense of hollowness inside. The bubble I thought adulthood would give me has proven as fragile as the wings of a butterfly. As I trudge up the sidewalk to my car, I sigh. I won’t continue the delusion that adulthood will give my twins safety or automatically gift them visibility and power. What I will offer them is my own faint trail in the woods where valuing children’s perspectives and truths is a conscious act of love. I was a beginner and am now an advanced beginner, the highest level possible.
I keep volunteering over the ensuing years to shoulder some of the weight of their differences with them, and use “bubble pops” to create a legacy where my children’s voices matter well before they cross the finish line to adulthood. I do not want them to think themselves better than their younger cousins or children they meet. They have heard me own my mistakes as an adult — reinforcing a legacy of their birthright to trust their truth despite the prevalence of an ‘adults always know best’ culture. As mothers, we desperately want to get it right to protect them, but we cannot repeat the damage done to us as children. We know best together. I continue to develop my deep listening as we encounter ‘normal’ bubbles again and again. Most important, I encourage respectful disagreements and refuse to allow their age or mine to be reasons to deny each other a fair hearing.
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