"Isaiah, your Mommy is here!" yelled one of my son's friends.
As I waited in the hallway for Isaiah to say goodbye to his after school buddies, one of his classmates came out of the room to put something in her cubbie. She saw me, sized me up and said, "Are you really Isaiah's Mommy?"
"Yes, I am," I said with a smile.
"Oh," she said.
Then she proceeded to tell me her name and how her older brother would be turning 8 soon and she would be turning 6.
My son's classmate asked me a simple question, and I gave her a simple answer. Children are very straightforward. They often expect simple, direct answers to questions that can make most people feel uncomfortable or just plain angry. But this particular social exchange really wasn't as simple as black and white, especially since my dark brown skin is the same color as many of the caretakers who arrive at my son's school every afternoon to pick up other people's children.
My three children have many of the same features as my husband and I do. Isaiah, the oldest, and Joey, one of the twins, have my high cheekbones, big smile and broad nose and their father's thick eyebrows. Nina also has my big smile, as well as her father's long eyelashes and prominent forehead. The fact that their skin color isn't dark brown like mine or pale like their father's continues to draw looks of confusion on the faces of strangers. But the real truth is that if my economically diverse Brooklyn neighborhood hadn't recently become nanny nation, strangers probably wouldn't be so bold in their inquiry of whether or not my children are indeed mine.
Black nannies and white children have become a common sight in my neighborhood. Many nannies are from the Caribbean, as am I. I look just like them. So, on the surface, I suppose I can understand why some people might assume that I'm a nanny when I'm walking down the street with my own children. But my tolerance level steadily decreases with each furtive look and furrowed brow of strangers as they stare at me, then into the double stroller to view the mysterious occupants.
"Socially inappropriate behavior" is a term I've been hearing a lot lately during my daughter Nina's occupational therapy sessions. Nina is fascinated with long hair. Whenever she sees a stranger with long hair, she will go right up to them and run her fingers through their hair. We've been trying to show her that it's OK to point to someone's hair and say "nice," or "pretty," but she really shouldn't touch their hair. Nina is 3 years old, so it's been slow going. But she is starting to understand the difference between social behavior that is right and wrong. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of adults who continue to make inappropriate comments to strangers.
When someone approaches me on the playground and asks "Are they yours?" as I happily push my children on the swings, coax them down the slide or feed them snacks, my desire and patience to teach them the socially appropriate way to approach someone all but disappears.
For some reason, not only do people assume a woman with dark skin who is with light-skinned children equals nanny, they also think that it's appropriate to question that woman about the children in her care. But it's not. Some of these women may be nannies, and some of them, like me, may not be nannies. Regardless, neither party deserves to be interrogated or judged by strangers solely because their skin is black.
I don't judge nannies for their decision to support their families in this way. My aunt was a nanny for over 10 years when she first moved to Boston from Guyana. While she lived with and worked for the family, she was able to get her citizenship so she could bring her two children from Guyana to the United States.
Today, many nannies are in the same position my aunt found herself in over 28 years ago. The economic playing field for a woman of color relocating to the United States from other countries hasn't improved, and neither has one's perceptions of these hardworking caregivers. On top of that, Black nannies have to deal with criticism from others in the Black community because of their professional choices. I have talked with many nannies that have gotten looks of disdain and perplexed stares from other African-Americans when they see them at the park with their charges. For nannies that are also parents, perhaps their pain is even deeper. They work all day with charges in order to provide for their own children, only to come home and struggle to make up quality time with their family. And strangers are constantly judging them for their economically necessary decision.
But the root of my pain comes from the fact that strangers can't see, or refuse to see, the strong bond between my children and me. If strangers looked beyond skin color, they would never question a mother's love. When I'm on any given outing with my children, I feel that if strangers really looked closely, they would see that I am the parent. I wipe my children's faces a certain way, I caress their knees or elbows in a certain way when they fall down and I scold them in a way that only a parent can. I know many nannies love and care deeply for the children they care for, but a mother's love is so very different. It pains and offends me that strangers can't tell by my actions and the love on my face that I am the parent.
My defenses automatically go up whenever a stranger questions my parental lineage. But maybe like children, they too just want a simple answer to a simple question. Some adults just need to be taught like I am teaching my daughter that saying, "beautiful children," or, "her curls are so pretty," what is a socially appropriate way to start a conversation with a stranger. By talking to me, and not at me, strangers will quickly come to realize that the cute, curly-haired, light-skinned children running around the playground are my own flesh and blood.
I know I can't prevent people who are Black, white, young or old from asking me inappropriate questions about my relationship to the children who are attached to my hip at the playground. But I can control my responses. I never snap at people when they ask me these questions. Instead, I answer calmly with a smile. "Yes, they are mine." Inside I may cringe, grit my teeth and wonder why they would even ask. But outwardly, I'm going to be a role model for my children and show them the important qualities of tolerance and understanding, even in the face of questions that are inappropriate at best, and racially biased at worst. It's never too early to teach your children about patience and acceptance, and I have to believe that it's also never too late to teach complete strangers the same.
The loving gestures from me to my children, and from them to me should satisfy inquiring minds. If not, hearing them say "Mama" should answer any questions. At least until another lesson needs to be taught on another day.