Care and Feeding

My Child’s Birth Caused a Shocking Revelation About Who I Am

Where do we go from here?

Someone holds up the book Corduroy in front of their face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by dima_sidelnikov/Getty Images Plus and Reehl Litho Corp.

Slate Plus members get extra parenting advice each week from our Care and Feeding columnists. For today’s column, we’re sharing a few choice letters from recent months with all our readers. Curious for more? Consider joining Slate Plus today! 

Dear Care and Feeding,

I (32 F) was adopted at birth by a white family, and grew up with the understanding that my birth parents were Italian American. I have dark hair and eyes, and olive skin. I now have a 1-year-old daughter who has pretty clearly darker skin than I do (my husband is on the pale end of white, so it didn’t come from him). If you were to see her with zero context, I think most people would assume she is mixed with a Black parent.

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After a pretty tumultuous first months of motherhood, dealing with some PPD and my husband questioning if our daughter was really his (she is and we now have the DNA test to prove it). I decided that I wanted to do a 23 and Me test to hopefully track some biological relatives and find out more about my ancestry. I hit a dead end (at least so far) in terms of family members, but according to the results about a quarter of my background is from Africa. It feels inappropriate claiming heritage based on DNA results, but my daughter is not white-passing the way I am, so I feel like I need to raise her to appreciate/understand her roots, as well as with an awareness of what it means to be Black in America.

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Obviously, there are people such as adoptive parents that raise kids of different races, but this feels different to me. Am I Black? It feels like it’s wrong to claim it, I wasn’t raised Black, and do not face the issues that Black people face in America. But if I don’t claim it, it feels like I am telling my daughter that being Black is something to be avoided, or that I am trying to distance myself from that part of her.

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My family and husband think I am overreacting and that we can just claim she is “Italian” as well (even though just months ago she looked so dark everyone thought I was cheating). Honestly, their insistence that I drop this and that we can continue the line about being Italian makes me wonder if my parents knew I had mixed ancestry all along and just thought it would be easier to claim I was white. They say the information about my birth parents came from the adoption agency, but I’ve never seen any forms or anything that back it up.

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I just have no idea where to go from here. Any time I try to talk about this with my family, it’s seen as this unhealthy obsession I have, and that I am going to raise my daughter to have a complex. It’s gotten to the point that even things that in my mind have nothing to do with her being Black or white are made out to be me going overboard and PC. I was reading her Corduroy the other day, and it turned into a huge fight about if I was only going to read her “Black books” now, which is crazy to me because it’s not like the book centers or even mentions race. I don’t know where this is all coming from because before this I never would have thought of my family as racist, but I don’t recognize the things they are saying anymore.

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I want my husband and I to go to counseling or talk to a therapist, but apparently that’s another sign that I’m blowing this all out of proportion. It feels like I’m living in this alternate reality from everyone else. What do I do?

— Who Am I?

Dear Who Am I?,

Before you can discuss racial identity with your daughter, you have to process the recent discoveries you’ve made about your own racial identity. Give yourself space to feel a full spectrum of emotion around finding out that what you’ve been told about your own ancestry isn’t accurate. You deserve time to work through that. It isn’t an obsession or an unhealthy fixation; it’s new information that is already impacting your marriage, your experience of parenting, and your interactions with those closest to you. It will continue to impact you from here on out. Right now, you need a network of support, not a Greek chorus of gaslighters. Your spouse and family may think they’re being helpful by trying to convince you that nothing significant has changed, but you already know that that isn’t true. Everything’s changed. Set out on a path toward reconciling that, whether your husband does or not.

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You’re right to recognize that your daughter’s experience as a browner-skinned person will be different from yours. Before she’s even old enough to be aware of her skin color, her complexion has already resulted in contested paternity. It’s thrown her mother’s fidelity into question. It will continue to be a point of conversation for her, as the child of two white-looking parents. You say that if anyone were to see her with “zero context,” they’d assume she had a Black parent, and many will. But first and foremost, let her know that she isn’t obligated to answer questions about why she’s darker-skinned than her parents. No one is owed that information. Except her.

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When she’s old enough, explain to her that, though you grew up believing you were white with Italian ancestry, you learned after her birth that you weren’t. In fact, her birth is what led you to discover it. Black ancestry is something the two of you share; it gives you a unique and independent opportunity to bond. Be honest about how being raised by white parents and navigating the world as an adopted white woman for most of your life makes it challenging for you to give her guidance on how to show up in the world as a Black girl. Figure out together how you want to proceed, in terms of cultural education. Give your daughter the honesty you were denied, but don’t expect to teach her how to be someone you weren’t raised to be. Find resources and communities that can be instructive for both of you. You’re learning about this for the first time together.

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— Stacia Brown

Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently torpedoed my close family when the topic of my cousin’s wedding came up. My cousin is getting married in a foreign country at a five-star, all-inclusive resort. Guests are required to stay a minimum of three nights. My family wouldn’t normally choose a very expensive all-inclusive hotel as our vacation of choice, so we asked if we could either stay at an Airbnb off-site, or simply fly in for the wedding itself, but not stay for three nights. We were told no. The couple wants the family there for the full three days.

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I think the conversation would have been tense, but not catastrophic, if the topic of the wedding costs hadn’t come up. My cousin was explaining that her out-of-pocket costs were going to be around $500 (because all food is included at an all-inclusive, and I guess she is getting the venue for free), and I said that it sounded like the guests were subsidizing the wedding and that the way it was presented to us, it was a really expensive ask of their guests. The conversation exploded. They accused us of being cheapskates. We accused them of trying to get a wedding for free off the backs of their guests. It was ugly. Now no one is talking to each other, and it’s getting to where we’re talking of canceling upcoming family events just so we can avoid each other. Despite how all of this went down, this is close family, and I don’t want this to be a permanent rift. How do we heal after this?

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— Atomic All-Inclusive

Dear Atomic,

I hope there’s more to the story than what you’ve laid out here. If not, then your cousin and her future spouse could be two of the most self-centered people I’ve come across in a long while. Who plans a wedding in a foreign country in the middle of a global pandemic? Who makes guests stay for a minimum of three nights at an expensive resort in said foreign country? Who is dumb enough to brag about spending $500 for this while pushing the rest of the expenses to the guests? My head feels like it’s going to explode.

When people show you who they are, believe them. It’s beyond unreasonable to ask this of anyone even in “normal” times, but certainly not now. Your cousin is showing a blatant disregard for your well-being and your financial situation by not taking a shred of ownership in this debacle, and that’s extremely telling. I’m not saying that you should cut all ties with her, but you may want to ask yourself if that kind of person is someone you’d want to have a close relationship with. I know I wouldn’t.

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As for how to “fix” this: You could apologize for saying hurtful things to her, and mention that you’re willing to attend the wedding, but stand firm on the fact that you’re unwilling to spend money to stay at the resort. Hopefully she would be reasonable enough to compromise in order to save your relationship. If not, then this could be a clear illustration that you don’t matter as much to her as she does to you.

Also, I can’t believe that you’re the only one who feels this way about the wedding. Maybe if you found others who felt the same way you do, you could approach her together in an effort to prove that you’re not the lone party pooper. In any case, I think it’s important to stand up for yourself and not give in to ridiculous requests. Hopefully, she’ll see the error in her ways, but if not, you have to be at peace that you did what you believe was right for you and your family.

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— Doyin Richards

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

· If you missed Tuesday’s column, read it here.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

My almost 5-year-old FaceTimes with their retired aunt every day. They have a very close relationship, but don’t live close enough for frequent visits. Their aunt LOVES these daily calls. They play imaginary games and listen to music and generally my child leads the conversation and directs the play. My concern is the things my child says: I know they are just testing boundaries, seeing what will happen. But they say things like: “I hate you” (very jovially! It’s basically a game), they tell their aunt to be quiet or that she can’t say anything. During whatever pretend game is being played, my child will declare that their aunt has died, or that they have died, and insist that the game stay that route. My child also makes up stories, tells lies about their day, and generally just says really crazy stuff. Their aunt seems completely unfazed by this type of play. She gives a little pushback about the dying aspects, but completely plays along and is even outwardly submissive and apologetic when my child is being super bossy or mean—playing along to the n-th degree, if you will.

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On the one hand, I feel like this is a safe person for my child to work through these boundaries and this type of play with. On the other hand, WTF is my child doing? I have talked to my child about how words can hurt people’s feelings, we have wondered together how saying “I hate you” makes their aunt feel, even when they are joking. I am not sure what I should be doing or saying. This has been going on for a long time. I listen from the other room, but almost never interject. Their aunt and I have never talked about the content of their FaceTime chats. When they play with friends their own age, they only present a small fraction of this type of behavior; they like to lead the play, but I have never heard them being mean or saying “I hate you” or making them pretend someone is dead. I generally don’t like to interfere in my child’s play unless someone is getting hurt, but I am not sure what to do in this situation. Do I leave this alone? Talk to their aunt? Talk to my child and forbid this type of play? I don’t want them to become secretive.

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— Am I Raising a Jerk?

Dear Raising a Jerk,

You (probably!) aren’t raising a jerk, (most likely) just a kid who is experimenting with the world around them and, as you said, testing boundaries. You, as their parent, have a responsibility to create and enforce boundaries that reflect how you feel they should best engage with other people (such as adults, loved ones, and people who are both or neither alike), as well as that reflect the sort of values, ideals, and outlook you want to impress upon them. That said, it is not merely your right to say “It’s not cool to play a game where your aunt dies, stop otherwise (insert your personal way of dealing with the refusal of your child to abide by your rules), and I mean that”—it is basically your job.

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Meanwhile, is there perhaps some curiosity around death and dying that is worth acknowledging? Questions they may need to ask? Or a need for a conversation (or series thereof) that begins building the sort of relationship to death that you want them to have: Ostensibly, one in which it is not fodder for Fun Auntie Time?

Mind the line between weird kid play and “things we need to talk about,” and empower this aunt to both address unseemly or difficult topics as you feel most comfortable. You aren’t disrupting a relationship, you are the one in charge of raising your child and, thus, have oversight over their affairs and assertions. Parent it up, it’s fine; the aunt and the kid will understand.

— Jamilah Lemieux

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a mom of kids in elementary, middle, and high school. There is a woman who has kids in the same grades as mine, and our kids are in a lot of the same activities, so we see each other quite a bit. I was friendly with her but not particularly close to her. Well, she was recently caught embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from PTA groups, fundraisers, and extracurricular activities that she ran. This has been going on for almost five years. The fallout has been bad. The police were called, and her mug shot has been going around. Everyone has tried to keep the kids unaware, but that’s been a fruitless effort: All of the older kids and most of the younger kids in the community know what happened. My husband and I have talked to our kids about it, and have explained that they still need to be friendly and respectful to this woman’s kids. They seem to get it.

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But I am angry. We, like a lot of families in our community, went through a really tough time financially. I got a second job to help pay for my kids’ activities for this year, and I’m furious that this woman stole the money we paid. I know a lot of other families are in the same boat. Also, a lot of issues had been coming up related to activity budgets, which is what led to the investigation into the finances. There were many times where the kids were told they couldn’t get pizza after soccer games as a team anymore because it “wasn’t in the budget” or my kid had to play an instrument that was nearly rusted through because “new ones would cost too much” or the drama club couldn’t get a new speaker after the old one died because they “didn’t have enough money.” Come to find out, they did have enough money for all of these things, but this mother was taking it for herself. This hurt my kids, and they’re pretty upset that someone they considered to be a trustworthy and kind adult turned out not to be.

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I’m trying so hard to be compassionate, and to teach my kids to be compassionate. My older daughter says basically no one talks to this family anymore. But I’m so, so angry. Despite all of our financial troubles, I would never dream of stealing, especially from children and families in my community. How do I move past this, and how do I help my kids through this?

— Furious Parent

Dear Furious,

As parents, it’s one thing when another adult injures us in some way—but when you hurt or take something away from our kids, it can be much harder to move on from. If any of yours are struggling with their feelings about what this woman did—to them, to her own family, as well as to your community—I think it’s important to be there for them and listen, make sure they know they can always share with you, and try to focus on their reactions and emotions (though there is nothing wrong with acknowledging your own, of course, and it might help them to know you feel similarly). However, they or you are feeling right now, it’s valid.

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When I was a kid, an adult who volunteered for an organization I belonged to betrayed the trust my parents and others had in her. It took me years to stop being afraid of that person, but rebuilding my capacity to trust other adults in positions of power took even longer. I learned how important it was to think critically about adults and consider them one by one, as opposed to assuming all were automatically worthy of trust. And I learned that what happened wasn’t my fault, it was that person’s, and I didn’t want to let their actions destroy my ability to trust others. These were hard lessons, and it would have been better had I not had to learn them the way I did. But I think, sadly, these lessons are also part of growing up, and in the end I was very lucky compared with many kids.

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I know it’s hard when your faith in someone, and perhaps in the people or institutions that missed warning signs, is badly shaken. There’s nothing wrong with you or your kids being upset and angry; it’s completely justified in this case—and remember, the presence of anger doesn’t mean you aren’t also compassionate. I hope that your family gets the time and space you need to process what happened in your community, and acknowledge your very understandable feelings about it. And I also hope that, in time, your children will get to know many more people who never give them reason to doubt their trustworthiness.

— Nicole Chung

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