Kindly, Stop Asking if My Children Are Mine

It’s sad, really. The majority of off-colour, poor-taste comments aren’t even malicious. People just don’t think. They don’t think about the power their words hold. They don’t know when it’s the fifth time that day that I’ve been asked if my beautiful babies are mine… but they don’t take that split second to catch themselves.

It started when my oldest daughter (now 2.5) was about 4 months old. During the day, I’d take her out to the mall or grocery shopping or for a meal, just the two of us, and I began to notice a pattern. People liked to stop me and comment on how cute, or chubby, or stoic she was, and 80% of the time, white people, women in particular, would follow it up with, “Is she yours?” I didn’t think much of it at first – maybe they think I’m her babysitter, it’s an easy mistake… right? I assumed it happened to everyone.


Once she was in a forward-facing stroller, looking out at the world, the questions and comments started getting more brazen.


“She’s beautiful, is she yours?”


“Yes.”


– “Oh, I just love mixed babies!” They wax poetic over how perfect “mixed skin” and “mixed hair” are, they tear down their own self-image, and they talk about their own children who weren’t as fortunate in those areas. It’s bizarre, and wildly uncomfortable. I just smile and try to keep moving.


– “Wow, she’s SO white!” Yep. It’s magic… or, you know, genetics. I smile and say, “Yes, Daddy is very white.”


– “Oh, now I see, she looks just like you!” This is just proof that people don’t think before they speak. Objectively, both my daughters have many of the same facial features as I do, but people come up to us with their preconceived notions, make googly-eyes at the girls, and don’t bother to look up at the face of the black woman pushing them around. Once I confirm that yes, they are mine, they raise their gaze to verify, to find resemblance, something to prove I’m not lying. Then they find it, and they can move on. They’re actually pleased with themselves. They’re satisfied then, they got a cute baby fix, they’re going to move on with their day. And I ruminate.


I decided I had to start investigating outside of my own experiences. A few weeks ago, I asked my husband for the first time if he ever gets the, “Are they yours?” question. Nope, not once. Do they ever comment on how beautiful your “mixed babies” are? Not to him, because he’s white, and they’re just tan. They have a lot of his features too, so people who know us tell us how much they look like an equal blend both of us. I’ve had white friends and babysitters take them to the park and have other parents just immediately assume they were Mom though, so I get the impression people aren’t looking too closely.


A good friend of mine is in the opposite situation; both her girls got more of dad’s melanin, and she likes to describe herself as “as white as they come”. We’ve been friends since we were pregnant with our firsts, and since then she says she’s only been asked if they’re hers once, by a child, whose mother was mortified and made her apologize. “I told the mom it was totally fine, then I talked to the little girl about how I’m their mom, and it might be confusing because we have different colored skin, so it’s ok to wonder. Her mom was pretty upset, so I told the little girl, ‘Ok, maybe your mom has a point. Next time, if you have a question about a family, you can ask mom first, and then ask the mom or dad.'”


“Wow.” I said. “Why do you think you never get asked?”


“Honestly? Because I’m white.”


“I guess, with two decades of getting used to white people adopting black kids, yeah, it’s been normalized.” That I know about all too well, unfortunately. I wonder if she’ll eventually start getting the, “So, where are they from?” question.


It’s sad, really. The majority of off-colour, poor-taste comments aren’t even malicious. People just don’t think. They don’t think about the power their words hold. They don’t know when it’s the fifth time that day that I’ve been asked if my beautiful babies are mine… but they don’t take that split second to catch themselves.


I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t scare me, too. With racial tensions ramping up around the country, I’ve heard more and more stories of multiracial families being harassed in public. I heard a story about a black woman out shopping with her young, lighter children, when a woman stopped her to tell her that the kids were cute, but that she’d soon be deported, being their black nanny and all. In the back of my mind, I wonder what might happen when one of my kids decides they don’t want to leave somewhere and turns into a screaming, spaghetti-limbed goblin, as some kids do, requiring me to pick her up mid-flail and carry her to the car. Will people see a black woman carrying a hysterical white child and think, “Is she hers?” And what could that lead to?


I think the easiest way to avoid putting someone in an awkward situation is to just not ask about parentage. There are so many different family structures, it seems ridiculous to demand someone explain theirs on the street to you, right then and there, while they’re trying to go about their day. What happens when the answer is, “Oh, I’m their older cousin. I just had to drop out of college to look after them because their parents died last weekend.”? How mortifying would that be? But truly, multi-racial, gay, adoptive, trans, single-parent, poly, foster, guardianship, military, three-parent IVF  – there are numerous types of family structures that may not be “conventional”, all of which are still valid and full of love. When you press someone to explain their family, you could be pushing on a very sensitive issue.


So, the next time you see a baby you want to compliment, tell the person caring for that baby that the baby looks happy, healthy, and cute. If they want to talk about their family, they will. They also may really have to pee, or get the grocery shopping done before epic baby meltdown occurs, so if they seem in a hurry, just let them go.

 

The Time I Lost a Friend Over Standardized Testing

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As a kid, I hated testing. I didn’t test well, either because I got lazy and didn’t study, I knew the material and psyched myself out, or I mismanaged my time on the test and didn’t answer all the questions. Regardless of the reasons, tests stressed me out so badly that I’d get sick. My stomach would twist itself into knots, like it was trying to wring itself out, my heart would pound, and I would get terrible headaches. It made me sick, and though it was “all in my head”, it manifested real symptoms in my body. I never had panic attacks though, so my anxiety was mostly dismissed. But I fucking hated tests.

Before I tell my story, here’s a little detail. Starting in Grade 3 (8-years-old), Ontario public school students undergo provincial and national standardized testing. Most of these tests are provided by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), “an independent agency that creates and administers large-scale assessments to measure Ontario students’ achievement in reading, writing and math…” This is repeated for various subjects in grades 6, and 9 (plus the OSSLT the same year, and others). The EQAO tells parents, teachers, and students that the tests are for accountability on the school district’s part (which, in Ontario, is separated by county), as a feedback tool for the administration, and for national comparisons. The idea is that it’s supposed to be used to improve the teaching methods and district policies, without affecting the individual student. Students and parents are told that the test absolutely does not count towards the student’s grade, but that it can be used in conjunction with their report cards and other tests “to help evaluate student learning and determine what additional support may be needed”. Ok.

So, in Grade 3, I took the test. The weeks of prepping, the intensity of the teachers, and the long, boring, silent, stressful test was just too much for me. I vowed to never do it again. When Grade 6 rolled around, I panicked. I knew the drill, and I managed to work myself up at the first mention of EQAO testing. This wasn’t a test you could study for, they told us. This is a test of your current knowledge, they told us. Don’t make us look stupid, they told us. Ok.

The more we prepped, the more stressed I got. Do these sample tests, they told us. “Why? If you’re teaching us what we should know, why do we have to take practice tests?” To know the type of questions they’re going to ask, they told us. It was boring, monotonous, bizarrely abstract material that we really didn’t cover throughout the year, but boy did we cram during the months leading up to the test. Endless worksheets. Ok.

My stomach started its slow twist, and eventually, I was writhing in pain. By the time the test came, I was a mess. “I can’t go, I’m sick!” I said, as I laid in bed. I missed the testing days (yes, multiple), and thought I was in the clear. Sadly, I was mistaken.

“All Grade 3 [6, and 9] students who attend publicly funded schools and who follow The Ontario Curriculum are required by The Education Quality and Accountability Office Act to write the Grade 3 [6, and 9] assessment.”

Uh Oh.

“If your child is absent on the days the Grade 6 assessment is administered, the school can make arrangements to have your child write the assessment when he or she returns, but only within the designated two-week assessment period.”

Well, fuck me.

As soon as I got back to school, they told me I had to sit in a separate room, and do each part of the test. “But I’ll miss regular class work,” I argued. They didn’t care. I had to do the test. They sat me in a room by myself, with a teacher to proctor. “I’m just one kid, does it really matter?” Yes. Do the test. “Can I just be back in class with the rest of my friends?” No. Here’s a bottle of water. Do the test. So, I refused. That was the kind of kid I was. It seemed entirely unfair that I had to be separated from my peers and miss class work (that I didn’t get excused from, and I’d have to catch up on) to take this mandated test that didn’t count for anything. I was right pissed. In the end, I doodled on the test – even though I knew the answers – purely out of defiance. My 11-year-old self was done with the administrative bullshit, but noncompliance doesn’t go over so well for an 11-year-old.

3 days later, when I finally got to spend time with my friends again, something had changed. They wouldn’t talk to me. For days, I tried to figure out why. Finally, one rainy morning, as we huddled under a vestibule to stay out of the rain during recess, I asked them, “Did I do something? I know I was gone for a few days… what did I miss?” They mumbled for a bit, then my best friend turned to me and said, “You didn’t take the test.” What?

“No, I did,” I said.

“No,” she said, “You doodled.” My heart jumped into my throat. How did she even know that? These tests are supposed to be private. “My mom said that she talked to Mrs. F. Do you know that without your high score, our whole school is going to get a worse grade? Thanks a lot.” They all looked to her for a cue, then it was back to the silent treatment. My high score? How does anyone know my scores on my assignments except… the teacher? She did not like my refusal to participate, and apparently made it known to my friends’ parents. When? How? At the time, I never thought parents and teachers co-mingled, but I knew after that. Teachers are human, who interact in the human world, with other humans. Nuts, right? Parents are also humans who interact in the human world, and sometimes, they meet teachers and have human conversations. Sometimes, those conversations involve their children/students. At any given time, both parents and teachers can be assholes. Needless to say, the rest of the year was hell for me, and then I moved schools.

Yes, I did do the following years of standardized testing. Yes, I got sick every time. No, I was never allowed to skip another test. Yes, I permanently lost a friend over a government-mandated test that counted for nothing, and which did exactly zilch to improve anything anywhere. Yes,”teach to test” is still a huge issue in the education-sphere worldwide. No, my children will not endure standardized testing if they continue with the current methods. The end.

Why Isn’t Teleparenting a Thing?

“We’re in the future, we just don’t act like it.” I said. He’s in tech, he knows this better than anyone. It’s true, though. Our phones, which we can control with our voices, are now our clocks, cameras, journals, grocery lists, baby monitors, news/sports/entertainment sources, GPSs, music players, primary mode of communication, calendars, banks, travel agents, debit/credit cards, translators (and the list goes on, and on, and on). Hospitals and doctors are doing telehealth appointments, you can telecommute to work, teleconference at work, you can get a tele-education from a real university (which is just an awkward way of saying online distance ed). WHY ON EARTH are we not using video chat daily, to communicate with the ones who are most important to us?

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America’s 40hr workweek isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. My husband’s 50+hr workweek isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. More and more parents are working longer and longer hours. Paid parental leave is ever-so s.l.o.w.l.y creeping in, but not fast enough, and with a fair amount of pushback. Parents are missing out on time with their children, and the kids can feel it.

I’ve rallied against the unsustainable workweek, I’ve fought for longer parental leave, I’ve tried convincing my husband that we should move to an off-grid commune (preferably nudist, so I have less laundry). Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t me giving up on those things; we can’t just roll over and accept that the American workweek is so long it’s becoming less productive, while slowly killing its workers. Solutions to these problems are certainly things we need to continue to push for, but what do we do in the meantime?

This morning, I had an idea. I sent my hubby a message:

“Why isn’t teleparenting a thing? Video chat is always advertised for long distance, like work trips, or family that lives out of state, but never for day-to-day. They give people smoke breaks, why not give them teleparenting breaks? It’s free! If you have wifi at work, it can be cheaper than a phone call.”

He seemed intrigued.

“We’re in the future, we just don’t act like it.” I said. He’s in tech, he knows this better than anyone. It’s true, though. Our phones, which we can control with our voices, are now our clocks, cameras, journals, grocery lists, baby monitors, news/sports/entertainment sources, GPSs, music players, primary mode of communication, calendars, banks, travel agents, debit/credit cards, translators (and the list goes on, and on, and on). Hospitals and doctors are doing telehealth appointments, you can telecommute to work, teleconference at work, you can get a tele-education from a real university (which is just an awkward way of saying online distance ed). WHY ON EARTH are we not using video chat daily, to communicate with the ones who are most important to us?

“Do you think Z is at a point where “[Google] hangouts with dada” would do any good?” He asked.

“Definitely.” I said. Over the last few years, researchers have been studying how babies interact with handheld technology (i.e. what’s good for them, what’s not, what they understand, what nuances are lost on them, what age is best, etc). We’ve learned that Baby Einstein et al were such a flop because children have a hard time learning new words and concepts from recordings. As much as a pre-recorded show or movie can pretend to interact, it just can’t. We’ve also discovered that kids learn better from live, interactive video than from recorded video. This starts younger than people think, with babies as young as 6-months-old being able to tell the difference between a recording and a live chat. So, while the focus doesn’t have to be “learning”, as much as just “bonding”, they’d still recognize your presence, and they’d definitely appreciate it.

“Just two or three minutes,” I said. “Check in, see faces, comfort mommy, back to work.”

At first blush, this seems more practical with one stay-at-home parent, than for the working parents with kids in daycare. He disagreed. “It could even be doable in daycare. Have some tablets or kiosks at the daycare, talk to your own kid.” This is true. It could be scheduled, or at either the child’s or the parent’s request. They might have to implement a limit, but it could prevent some daycare meltdowns. The more I thought about it, the more practical it seemed for everyone. They could have a tablet in every school nurse’s office, so that parents can talk to their sick kids without leaving work (if they don’t have to). Sometimes, just a minute talking to mom will save an afternoon.

Scenario 1): You’re on the job site, when you get a call from the daycare. Your 2-year-old has been completely melting down for over an hour, and they have no idea why, so they request you come pick him up. You’re the only certified front-end loader operator on site, traffic is backed up for miles, rain has already pushed this job out a week, and there’s nobody to watch your toddler at home. It’s a meltdown, he’s not sick, he just wants… something. Instead of driving all the way there to figure out what that something is, the daycare attendant could say, “Do you want to talk to him?” You climb down, call your site manager over, and he gives you the work tablet. You open the app, make the call, and see his snot-covered, puffy-eyed, rosey-cheeked face. Your heart melts a little. “Hi sweetie, Daddy’s here, what’s up?” He says, “Dadaaaaaaa! I want goggy bop bop!” His daycare attendant pops her head into view, “We’ve been trying to figure out what he wants, we have no idea what ‘Googly bap bap’ is.” You shake your head. “It’s not ‘googly bap bap’, that’s nonsense. He said, ‘goggy bop bop’, which is ‘crocodile chomp chomp’, which means he wants his stuffed crocodile from his bag.” Obviously. You turn your attention back to him, “You want your crocodile, right?” He squeals with joy. “What does a crocodile say?” He gives you an enthusiastic, “BOP BOP BOP”, arms stretched out, chomping wildly. “Yay! Chomp chomp! I love you, buddy. Daddy’s gotta drive the big truck, but I’ll see you soon, ok? Have lots of fun, listen to your teachers, and play nice. Can you do that for me?” He can, and he says he will. The teacher mouths a thank you from behind him, and off they go. You hand the tablet back, and you’re back at it.

Scenario 2): You’re at the office, it’s 11:30am and a notification pops up on your screen. Time for your daily chat with your 9-year-old daughter, who has ASD. She starts off on a tangent about how one of her classmates didn’t get detention for talking out in class, and she got one for the same reason last month, which is entirely unfair. She’s fidgeting, and staring off into the distance. “I hear you. That does seem unfair. I need your eyes on me, please.” She looks into the camera. You talk softly. “You like Mrs. Jones. She is a good teacher, and she likes you. Can you repeat that for me?” She does. Ok. “Mrs. Jones is often very fair, right?” She nods. “What did that other student say when they spoke out?” Mrs. Jones was talking about trees, and Little Jonny jumped in to talk about how big the tress in his neighborhood were. Thanks for your contribution, Jonny. “Well, Little Jonny should not have spoken out, he should have raised his hand. Did his comment hurt anyone’s feelings?” No. “Did it make Mrs. Jones angry?” No. “Did you get in trouble for anything today?” No. “That’s great! Since Little Jonny’s words didn’t hurt anyone, or upset Mrs. Jones, we can let this one slide. I know, I know, it’s a slippery slope. It’s time for you to go back and join the class now. I love you. When I pick you up, we’ll go for a walk on the greenway, and you can tell me everything you’ve learned about trees today.” All is well, time for your Q2 meeting.

Scenario 3): You’re at work, and you get called to the front of the store. The preschool is on line 1, your son, who has severe food allergies, just threw up. The school is freaking out, ready to call the ambulance (as per your directives in his file). You ask your shift manager for a minute, run to the breakroom, and grab your cell. You open the app, and when you finally see his happy little face, you’re relieved, and confused. “What happened, buddy?” He smiles. He says he was spinning in big circles, and then he got dizzy, and then he fell down, but then he got up again, but then he fell down again, and then he threw up. Sounds like fun. “Did you eat anything bad?” Nope. He’s 4, he knows what he can and can’t eat, and this mythical, vigilant school is very strict about adhering to food allergy protocols. You can breathe again.

It seems pretty simple, and cost could be managed. The school nurse’s/counselor’s office would require, at most, half-a-dozen tablets. They (hopefully) already have a secure network for their laptops, and possibly already have tablets. A daycare could have 3 emergency/comfort call tablets, at $50 to $100 apiece. Or, they could have 12 tablet kiosks for one or two scheduled, 3-minute chats with mom or dad per day.

I’m an activist, but I’m a practical activist. As much as I want to push the work-life balance movement forward, I’m also looking for solutions to keep myself and my family happy and sane. I have to, if I want to actually have the strength and mental acuity required to keep being an activist, and a mother.

So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to use Google Hangouts (I’ve always found it faster, and it’s a smaller, easier-to-run app than Skype, and I have no ithings, so I have no idea how well Facetime works) for some scheduled Daddy time during the week. Join me! Try it! Tell me what you think! Obviously, the daycare/school solution isn’t an option yet, but that’s not to say it can’t be. Just 3 minutes (or more, if you want to and can swing it). Sing, ask about their day, tell them about your day, make silly faces, whatever. And if your employer isn’t having it (as I just learned that “FLSA does not require employers to give their employees any breaks from work for any reason”) tell them you have violent diarrhea, or a super-heavy period, and that you’ll stay in your chair if they really want you to, but you just need a few minutes. And then enjoy some smiley time with your kid.