When I was at Hampton University doing my undergrad, I had classes with a student named Jemilla, an entity so powerful that at 18 she could only be described as more woman than girl. In the entirety of my (by then) very short life, I had never encountered a peer with a firmer grip on reality or with a more undealized view of reality. She was wise beyond her freshman years.
Jemilla and I weren’t friends, but we were friendly with one another. She asked about the origins of my lengthy name, which I cautiously shared with her. African Americans have not always been kind with moniker, but her query was not fueled by malice – just curiosity of the purist form. Eventually we discussed heritage and parentage. She told me matter-of-factly that she did know who her father was, that she’d never met him. This shocked my bourgeoisie West African background sensibilities. Yes, I had a few friends who did not “have fathers”, but they at least the absent figure had an identity (some of which we are only now discovering were fictional). Eventually, I asked Jemilla who was primarily raised by her grandmother how she got to be so wise about the world.
“Wasn’t your mother afraid to tell you about your dad?”
“She probably was,” she said reflectively. “But my grandmother told my mom ‘that if the child was old enough to ask questions, she’s old enough to get answers.’”
The idea that any adult could/would communicate with a child with such honesty shocked my West African sensibilities further. Infantilizing and bullying children – even into adulthood – is de rigueur for our culture.
I believe that most people in this life grow up with an idealized version of what they want their life to look like at its conclusion; a fantasy which dictates and directs their responses and reactions to stimuli with the hope of making that fantasy a reality. With regards to raising a family, mine has always been very simple: A house built and big enough to accommodate us all, 3-4 children who adored me and whom I dote on in return, sired by the same father.
Yes. Really, that’s it.
I had seen what growing up with a step-parent had done to those aforementioned friends, and though my own nuclear family wasn’t perfect, at least that peculiar sense of alienation was not one of our concerns. I held on to that idea for all of my adolescence and into my young adult life.
Instead, my reality turned out to be something very different, with the thing that I’d hoped for the least coming to bear. The first child I ever conceived and bore was out of wedlock to a man who greeted the news of that conception with hostility and vexation. There would be no “perfect family” for me or that child, or the husband I would eventually marry. There could only be this reality: the one that we live in now. The one that God has given us grace to endure and enjoy, however we see fit. I explained this to my daughter the other day when she came to me tearful, uncertain and confused about her identity. How could she fit in this family if she was not 100% a part of it? If she did not share the same DNA with her three siblings? What was her place, truly?
Though I have never met Jemilla’s grandmother, I have always been guided by her principle with regard to answering my children’s questions. If they are old enough to ask, they are old enough to get answers. The perception that my children are “intelligent” is only for this reason. We give them facts to explain events, rather than edicts and they in turn are able to regurgitate those facts. It is a fact in our home that Big Sister has a different dad and has a different last name, but is no different in the ways that actually matter.
So we talked about it and our conclusion was this: In a perfect world, no one’s parents would die or get divorced. Everyone would live in a house with a white picket fence and neighbors that came over to BBQ on weekends. That’s not our reality and we don’t live in our version of a perfect world. In our reality, mom and dad were two people that were unmarried and had a kid. He works abroad, we live in South Africa, and you are loved very much by all.
The summation of our chat gives the façade that this was a very straightforward conversation, but it wasn’t. There were tears. And there was hesitation on my part about how direct I ought to be. The temptation to lie to a child – or at least omit certain facts – is often motivated by the desire to protect them from the pain that raw truth can bring. And honestly, sometimes that motivation stems from a desire to remain a hero in their eyes. To paraphrase my friend Lydia Forson who put it succinctly: Our parents are just ‘big kids’ trying to overcome their own childhood traumas.
None of us escapes this life without doing something that we are ashamed of, something for which we think those closest to us would be ashamed of as well. I have gotten over my feelings of guilt and shame surrounding the circumstances of my daughter’s birth, and early on. That recovery was only possible because I accepted my reality – as did the people whose connections are most meaningful to me. It’s a process, and it’s one that I have to guide my daughter through. I am not ashamed of her, but above all else, it’s my most intense desire that she develops pride in her complicated, unconventional heritage.
Final thoughts: I know it’s difficult, but as much as you can and as often as you can, find the courage to tell your kids the truth. We as parents owe them that far more than we deserve convenience.