By RoiAnn Phillips
Children need a sense of community. They need to feel a part of something far beyond themselves. So do I really, if Iâ€™m being honest. Iâ€™ve known this forever. Itâ€™s why I work in non-profits, and itâ€™s why I write.
My partner and I and our closest friends have been very intentional about building community for our children. They have a web of cousins and aunties we celebrate holidays with, schedule play dates with and trips, people we call with the biggest news in our lives.
This fall, we celebrated the first birthday of Mr. One-derful, the newest addition to our little enclave. He was born last year while the rest of us were picking apples. At his birthday party, he ate cake for the first time. He didnâ€™t seem certain at first it was real, it was his, it was for eating, he could have more. Amazing! Cake? Cake. For me? Cake! How lucky we were to witness this moment, this First Sweet. So many cameras flashed. Dazzling. Delicious. Our boy is one! I felt a sense of pride. He is, of course, his mothersâ€™ son â€“ but he is ours, too, and this is amazing when you consider all four of his grandparents and an uncle, an aunt, numerous aunties and cousins were all in the room feeling proud.
Family pride comes in all shapes and sizes.
A friend of my daughterâ€™s approached me last week after school, to ask if my daughter and her schoolmate were cousins. He knows they both have lesbian moms and this has never caused him concern, but heâ€™s pretty sure none of the grown-ups are sisters, so the cousin thing didnâ€™t make any sense. While I empathized with his predicament, I had my girls to look out for, too. â€śYes, they are cousins,â€ť I told him. My niece grinned at him broadly, triumphantly perhaps, and my daughter lifted her head briefly to meet her cousinâ€™s eyes, then smiled into the blacktop beneath her feet.
Being cousins is important to our kids, and weâ€™ve never differentiated between these cousins in our community and those named cousins by our parents and siblings. â€śItâ€™s complicated,â€ť I said to the girls when their friend had stepped away, â€śexplaining how we define family.â€ť â€śIt is,â€ť my young niece agreed, but it didnâ€™t seem to bother her. She knows what is and what is not true.
Still, this isnâ€™t the only community our kids need â€“ this community we have created for them and for ourselves. They need family. They need history. They need ancestors. They need to see where they belong.
I know for my daughter, what weâ€™ve created is only part of what she needs.
Lately, she has expressed a deep sadness that she doesnâ€™t look like anyone else in her life â€“ not only in her family, but also in her classroom, in our neighborhood, or in her school. It isnâ€™t that she doesnâ€™t interact with brown people â€“ she has aunties and peers of many shades â€“ but none of them share her ancestry, or her particular shade of brown, her beautiful bold eyes, her full lips. She read a bedtime story this week by Leslea Newman, about a girl born in Guatemala adopted by lesbian moms in the U.S. She read it over and over again. â€śI have black silky hair,â€ť she said, after these words in the book were used to describe the young girl, â€śand I have big brown eyes!â€ť
Then she asked, â€śWhy do we have to spell my name the Spanish way?â€ť
â€śBecause youâ€™ve had it since you were born and we wanted you to keep it forever,â€ť I tell her. She was not convinced. I have to wonder what sheâ€™ll call herself when sheâ€™s older, how sheâ€™ll spell it, what sheâ€™ll say when she introduces herself to a new friend.
I have conversations in my head with her, sometimes for years, where I work out what I want to say on complicated topics. Adoption. Queer families. Same-sex marriage. World peace. Guatemala. Birthparents. Poverty. Some of it sticks, and I get to say in the real world the words Iâ€™ve carefully chosen. Some of it does not, and Iâ€™m left fumbling.
We are planning a trip to Guatemala next summer. Some of the grandparents may come. It isnâ€™t enough, but itâ€™s a start. This may give her what she needs. Or maybe it wonâ€™t. I donâ€™t know. I canâ€™t know. But we have to go. At the very least, we will witness together a beautiful land, a homeland Iâ€™m confident sheâ€™ll someday be proud of.
Iâ€™ve already begun practicing what I might say. Something about cousins, I think. Something about poverty and impossible choices.
Something about two moms and a baby already born. Something about quetzals. Maybe Iâ€™ll start with quetzals.