I was recently at a medical appointment, my toddler daughter in tow. The doctor was running late. Like an hour-and-half-late. My daughter, out of snacks and out of patience, was doing what we call “noodleing.” Basically, she had willed her body to become a wet noodle, and nothing could appease her.
The doctor finally came in, and as we were talking, my daughter doing what toddlers do, I said jokingly, “I know you can fix my orthopedic issue, but do you have anything for tired moms?”
And the doctor’s reply? She was totally serious and said, “Why did you have so many kids?”
I was shocked. But I shouldn’t have been.
Everywhere we go, especially during the summer when my four children are home, women (always women), usually over the age of sixty, come up to me and exclaim, “You have your hands full!”
Sometimes they speak in a kind tone, their voices heavy with empathy and experience. They might even offer me a gentle pat on the arm. But other times, there’s a condescending air, judgmental, snarky. I’m met with a frown.
I’m the first to admit, we are who we are: a big, loud, chaotic, opinionated group.
My three daughters and one son each have their own personalities and needs. One of my kids has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) making outings unpredictable. Some go surprisingly well, while other times, I’d call the experience an epic disaster.
And it’s not just that we’re this big, loud group, headed by a mostly deranged and exhausted looking mom (that’s me!) with her hair in a messy top-knot and stained workout clothes (um, minus the working-out part), but we’re also a multiracial family. My most-of-the-year creamy peach skin drastically contrasts my four children’s. It is glaringly obvious that my kids were adopted, which prompts even more attention, questions, assumptions, and second-glances.
The thing is, I’m proud of my beautiful family. And because my hands are so “full,” so is my heart.
I know what I must look like to the strangers who pause to look upon us.
I am the cliché tired mom, but I don’t usually mind being tired. Because my fatigue comes from cuddling a baby when she wakes up from a bad dream, or reading my son his favorite book for the fourth time that day, or telling my daughters another story from my own childhood a little too-far past their designated bedtime. It’s the never-ending laundry, the dishes, the meal prep, the phone calls. Being a mom is absolutely exhausting, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But it’s also incredibly rewarding and magical.
My opinionated kids, well, I raised them to be vocal. To speak up. To say what’s on their hearts and minds rather than stuff their feelings into a tidy envelope and seal it. Granted, this means I’m usually the recipient of four opinions on any given topic at any given time that can also descend into an argument over which flavor of ice cream is superior or who tells the better knock-knock joke. Their words can send my head spinning, but they also make me proud.
Our large family unit, one that often enamors and confuses people, can be hard for others to understand. They see me at the store, asking one child to run back to aisles to grab the crackers we forgot, while I’m scooping up the toddler before she knocks over a display of glass wine bottles, while also reminding my middle daughter to keep her hands to herself, and asking my son to stop attempting to ride on the shopping cart because he’s weighing it down to the point I cannot push it.
We’re a classic “hot mess,” and we’re also a beautiful mess.
It happens so often. So predictable. The older woman approaches us, eyes locked, then clears her throat and says the words we’re so familiar with: “Wow! You have your hands full.”
I usually just smile and say “yep” and continue doing what I’m doing. But sometimes the woman wants to add something else in, something like:
“Your kids are so lucky to have you as their mom.”
“Are they all yours?”
“Where did you adopt your kids from?”
“My cousin adopted her kids, too.”
“Are you fostering?”
“Their dad must have dark skin.”
“Were they born drug addicted?”
I have a come-back for every question or statement, given we’ve been part of the multiracial adoption community for over a decade now. My answers are always straight-forward, protective of my babies and their right to privacy, but also kind. I know my children are listening and learning from their mama, and I want to be sure that whatever I share honors them.
The truth is, this is what I signed up for. When we chose to adopt four kids and to be open to transracial adoption, we knew we’d be facing a lifetime of challenges and joys, some of which include being asked about our family by strangers.
What I wish these strangers could know and feel, is that our hands (as parents) are full. Very, very full. Bursting-at-the-seams full. But so are our hearts. These smart, silly, beautiful children are our “own” and “real” children, all of whom we were chosen to parent by their birth families. We love this honor, this privilege. We are so lucky to be our kids’ parents. Our cups runneth over.
I think adoption will always interest those who are outside of it. Families like mine will continue to stand under societal spotlights simply because we are different. And we’re OK with that. Because we will continue to do what we were chosen to do: parent our incredible children with relentless love. And strangers are lucky enough to stand by and watch.
Rachel Garlinghouse is the author of six books, including The Hopeful Mom’s Guide to Adoption: The Wit and Wisdom You Need for the Journey. Her experiences have been shared on CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and NPR. Rachel has written hundreds of articles and blog posts on race, adoption, and health. Rachel is a Christian, type 1 diabetic, and breast cancer survivor who has been married fifteen years to her Superman. She and her family, including her four “real” kids, live just outside St. Louis.