By Kelly Jeske
This is an excerpt from Performing Motherhood: Artistic, Activist and Everyday Enactments, edited by Amber Kinser, Kryn Freehling-Burton, and Terri Hawkes (Demeter Press, December 2014)
“Does she have an ethnicity?” Standing near the door of our apartment, the neighbor looks at my sleeping newborn. I am stunned silent. Later, my partner and I grunt out bursts of incredulous laughter as we try on retorts: “Do you have an ethnicity?” “We’re not sure yet? Can you usually tell by now?” “Well, of course she does! And so do you!” My neighbor noted difference and asked me to quantify it. This tiny creature, just becoming, must belong to some discrete category. Same or different? Like you or not?
On the street, black men comment on the likeness they see between my daughter and me. “Aw, she looks just like her mama!” they say, usually smiling big. Our brown eyes and full lips, her light skin, build the possibility of our relation by blood. In those moments, I find myself at once flattered by the comparison of myself to this child, and uncomfortable with the erasure of her first mother. I scramble for footing, trying to figure out if I can insert her into the space between myself and my daughter, into the conversation with this stranger. I have the keen sense that I owe it to my daughter to make her first mom real in this moment—that accepting credit for our likeness communicates disregard for their kinship. But some days, I also just want to be recognized as her mama.
Because she has very light skin, I often fear that my daughter won’t be read as a person of color. I ache with the knowledge that, as a white person, I cannot give my daughter racial identity. There’s so much that she won’t get from her white parents. We won’t pass on a cadence of speech that might be recognized as black; we can’t give her the ease of shared history and generations of family experience; we can’t build our own family culture of blackness; we can’t offer an embodied sense of what it means to be a person of color.
When she was smaller and had little hair, we adorned it with colorful barrettes, and styled it into puffs and nubs of braids. We used her first and middle name in tandem—her middle name more identifiably African American. We moved to a neighborhood with more black folks and a racially diverse childcare center. We learned to braid and bead her hair. I felt the tug of dissonance as I created visual contrast between myself and my child, while working at the same time to foster our emotional connection.
During our most recent visit with our daughter’s first mom, we had professional photos taken together. I looked on, through tears, as we captured images of mother and daughter together. Huddled around a computer screen, picking photos from proofs, the three of us exclaimed over expressions they share and features that are mirrored on their faces. We joked about the little girl with her three mothers and chose the shots that flatter all of us the most. I was eager to adorn our home with pictures of our daughter and her mother, pulling in another way to make their relationship more tangible to our four-year-old. I was excited to show the photos to friends and family, concretizing my daughter’s connection to her first mom in a way my words can’t manage. Their deep brown eyes, their widow’s peaks at the top of their foreheads, the kiss of toast that colors our daughter’s skin—to me, their likeness is obvious, irrefutable, beautiful. My favorite pose is with our daughter in her mother’s lap, my partner and me kneeling behind them. Our group is centered by our daughter’s mother, with all of us connected to and surrounding her—just as our smaller family has been brought to life through her body and choices.
When I share the photos from our visit, I’m astounded by a repeated refrain: “Now, do you see a likeness? I don’t really see it.” Several times over, individuals profess that my daughter doesn’t look like her first mother. They don’t say so with disdain or contempt, the people who utter sentiments like this. But they say it with a resolute certainty that makes me think they’re saying something different altogether. Something more like: She doesn’t really look black. Or something like: She looks like she’s really yours, so don’t be worried that she’s not. Or maybe even: I can almost pretend this weird open adoption thing doesn’t exist if I see how much this kid looks like you. Families claim members by discussing physical likeness; they keep departed beloved close by seeing their characteristics in subsequent generations. When newfangled families come along—mixing up race and gender and blood and circumstance—this comfort in appearance gets shaken. When we keep our daughter’s first mother in the picture, we’re demanding that a new lens be used—one the recreates possibilities for familial relationship.
I recently watched a video clip of our one-year-old daughter being held by her first mom. They’re gazing at each other and she’s saying: “Where’d you get those eyes, baby, huh? Who gave you those eyes?” Their eyes are locked as she asks again: “Who gave you those eyes?” My own eyes fill at her tenderness, at this claiming of their connection. As our daughter grows—even primarily apart from her first mom—I watch as her face takes on expressions I’ve seen cross her first mother’s face. I hear tones in her voice, ways that she expresses her thoughts, rhythms in her sentences that remind me of her mother.
When her three mothers talk about this beautiful child, we refer to her as “our daughter.” She is my ex-partner’s and mine, as we move through our days, navigating parenthood, love, and family. She is her first mom’s, once part of her body and living in skin, heart, brain, and cells that are informed by this lineage. As she walks through this world, crafts her own identities, and refines her allegiances, she’ll exist in the borderlands—the overlapping places where relationship is complex and origins aren’t obvious. My daughter’s brown eyes may be similar to my own, but it isn’t me who gave them to her. Pushing her into the world, placing her into my arms, holding onto her after she said goodbye, our daughter’s first mother shifted tides and created a harbor. By blood and by soul, we navigate in love.