“You mean Eli is adopted, too?”
It took me a few seconds to process what I heard Charlie say. I must have looked like I was having processing issues because his mildly surprised and quizzical look quickly changed to one of concern. “Daddy, are you ok?” he asked. “You are looking at me like a dog looking at a wristband.”
“That’s a ‘hog looking at a wristwatch’ buddy,” I corrected him. “I’m looking at you like a hog looking at a wristwatch.” As a child raised in rural areas, I take great pride in my barnyard analogies. The thought was ludicrous . . . a dog would never quizzically look at a wristband with a peculiar look on its face. A hog and a wristwatch however . . . totally different.
“Whatever,” he said, sounding an alarming bit like his mom. “Are you ok?”
“Uh, yeah,” I stammered. “I guess.” I blinked a few times. Eli was standing next to Charlie in our kitchen and both of their looks were starting to show the mild amusement they have when Dad is flustered. “What did you just say to me?”
Charlie looked slightly self-conscious and glanced around. “I said I didn’t know Eli was adopted.”
I let it wash over me again. Seriously? We are maybe the most open adoptive family you will meet. We discuss it openly and frankly. Charlie knows about his “tummy mommy”, the term that his birthmother agreed to. We belong to groups for adoptive families. We even went to a camp last summer that was occasionally referred to as “adoption camp”. How could he not know that his little brother was adopted?
I was formulating something witty, yet sincere to say. Wise father-speak at its best was about to issue forth from my mouth. “Really?” was all that came out. “How could you not know?” Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed with the oratory.
“How was I supposed to know?” he said.
“Well, we told you we were adopting a new baby,” I told him. “Then we all got on an airplane and went to Kansas to adopt the baby. Then we adopted him. Don’t you remember that?”
“I remember,” he said. “We got on an airplane and went on vacation and you and mommy said we were getting a new baby.”
I nodded. “OK, so then what happened?”
“You took mommy to the hospital and came back with a baby.”
I blinked again. We went to the hospital and came back with a baby . . . just like every other couple in his life that had babies.
He seemed very old and very young at the same time as he explained as best he could. In Charlie’s view, that is how babies who are not adopted are integrated into the household . . . go to the hospital and come back with a baby. He was using a simple misguided mental algebra. Our friends went to the hospital and came back with a baby that wasn’t adopted. That’s how Eli came to us so Eli must not be adopted. To Charlie it added up.
“Plus,” Charlie added. “He looks like you and mommy.”
I realize now how much of our parenting of Charlie is based on assumptions. Charlie is African American. We noticed, or thought we noticed, at about the 24 month point that Charlie would look at us then look at himself in the mirror. He would hold his hand against us as if comparing the different tones. We openly discussed adoption with him. We were completely honest. We assumed he got it.
This particular conversation started because I was pondering how Eli would handle finding out he is adopted. Eli doesn’t know yet . . . not the way Charlie understood at 4 years old. As Charlie observed, Eli, who is bi-racial, is very light skinned and has blue eyes. He looks kind of like me, only cuter. I was curious about the process of realization, so I asked Charlie if he always understood that he was adopted.
“No,” he said. “You said I was adopted but I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand what you and mommy meant until you showed me a picture of my tummy mommy. . . then I knew what adopted meant.”
I nodded. “I think it is going to be tough on Eli because he doesn’t know he is adopted. Charlie blinked then dropped his bomb. Now it made sense. We showed Charlie pictures of his birth mother, at his request, after we got Eli. Mommy and Daddy went to the hospital and got a new baby that didn’t look much like him. Eli must not be adopted. I could see where a 5 year old could form that thought and carry it until he was 8.
I looked at him and smiled. “We told you we were adopting Eli, right?”
“But since we went to a hospital and came with a baby, you thought he wasn’t adopted?”
“So did you think we changed our mind and just decided to have our own baby?”
Charlie smiled and shrugged. “I have no idea what you people are doing sometimes.” I had to laugh a little at that.
“You know that’s how we picked you up, right?”
Charlie shook his head.
“When we adopted you, we got on an airplane then went to a hospital and picked you up,” I explained. “Just like Eli.”
I looked over at Eli. “I don’t think he knows, do you?”
“He doesn’t have a clue,” Charlie observed. Eli was playing quietly in a corner up to this point. He walked over and joined us.
“Well, when it comes time for him to find out, we are going to need your help,” I told Charlie.
“No problem,” Charlie said.
He took his brother into the family room to play with trains. He stood watching Eli for a few moments then came back in the kitchen.
“Dad,” Charlie said. “He doesn’t know and I don’t think he cares.” He looked back at his baby brother. “Maybe we should wait until he cares.”
That sounds like a good plan to me.
Thanks for reading. We’ll talk again soon on This Side of the Diaper.