Suddenly, my big tall boy, who’s always looked so much older than his few years, had shrunk. I watched him through the blurred filter of tears I knew he mustn’t see. Attention focused on the task of tying his shoelaces, he wore the face of one who understands the burden of responsibility. Heavy black shoes and long baggy shorts emphasised his thin brown legs.
I resisted stepping in to help him. With the task completed to his satisfaction, he looked up and beamed. Such a familiar smile. The one he’d worn the first time we saw him. The one that enchanted everyone when we carried him proudly through those big Customs doors at the airport more than four years ago. The smile that makes my heart sing and his eyes disappear in his face.
My baby boy was ready to start school. And he was so proud.
For so long – understandably – we parents, mothers especially, focus on the desire for a baby and the delights that becoming a family can bring.
But those babies are with us for a blink.
Too soon they are independent people – off to make their own way in the world, facing experiences that do not involve us, trying to make sense of a life that so often has no reason at all. That’s what we want them to do. That’s what we raise them to do. But when they actually set off to do it, we feel a deep sense of sorrow, even loss. We cannot protect them from any hurt they may face in their school lives.
My son Fraser was adopted from South Korea. For our inter-country adopted children – children who do not look like us, children who often do not look like many others in the school, children who already have a complicated story in their little lives – the school world can be even more confusing than it is for others.
Choosing a school that suits a child is not easy. And for me, it seemed even harder for Fraser than it had been for our other son, Luke, many years ago. There is 14 years between the boys. Granted, my memory may have faded a little, but Luke has blonde hair. He looks like the other kids. He looks like his parents. Why did it worry me so much that Fraser would be one of very few Asian kids – and even fewer Korean kids – at the school? He is bright. He is confident. He makes friends easily. And he has a strong sense of pride in being Korean.
At kindergarten, we had special sessions about each of the children’s cultures. Fraser and I shared his adoption story openly and willingly. The teacher read the book I have written about his beginnings and we involved all the children by having them wear podaegis – the wraps Korean women use to carry babies on their backs. Fraser and I sang Korean nursery rhymes and wrote greetings in Korean to be posted on the door. We played Korean drums together and dressed the other children in borrowed hanboks, the national costume of his Motherland. We coloured maps, cut out flags, made fans and ate Korean food. They were special days. It was positive and affirming. So why was I so worried about school?
I think it was more than just the knowledge that now I would not be there to guide and shelter him. It was a number of factors – the need to choose a place that would suit his energetic nature, that would nurture his love of the natural world, that might tap into his personal interests and traits – like any child starting school.
But my fear truly had something to do with the way other people remember our family, a family that doesn’t match. It had to do with the way everyone seems to know Fraser’s name first. And it had to do with the fact that something about his personal life is on show in a way that it is not for birth children. People notice him. People remember him. He will never be able to disappear into the crowd of blondish heads. He will never be the anonymous one. That’s a pressure that so many of us can avoid if we wish.
So, in the end, we decided that the best thing would be to settle for the school chosen by most of the families in his kindergarten class. Transition should be easiest for all of us if Fraser stayed with a group that already knew his story, a group that already accepted that he doesn’t look like his mum or dad. Luckily for us, that is the nearest school. We can walk there. So within a few weeks, we can become part of the tribe of kids of various ages who walk and ride their scooters along the same streets, with mums, prams, toddlers and dogs trailing behind.
It makes my throat constrict and my heart pound whenever I have to wave goodbye and head back home on those days when Fraser has trouble disengaging from me.
But this is only the beginning. We have a long way to go. I’ll get over it. But that big Fraser smile at pick-up time, the one that makes my heart sing and takes me back to a hot afternoon in Seoul, I’ll never get over that.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem