"Michalene, go back to bed!" I scolded without looking up. Even a full day of camping couldn't wear out my intrepid 6-year-old, but I was not going to have her waking up her younger siblings. When Michalene didn't move, I looked up and noticed the tears rolling down her face. OK, this was bigger than one overtired little girl.
As I gathered her in my arms she managed to gasp, "The other kids [sob] on the playground [sniff] said Danny [sob] wasn't my little brother."
I sighed. This was going to be complicated.
Even in our ethnically diverse hometown, our family is used to stares from strangers. Michalene and her brother Danny are particularly prone to questions, as they are only eight months apart in age, but opposite in appearance. Michalene is African American, while Danny, our only biological child, is Caucasian. In the campgrounds of the Midwest, our family sticks out like a sore thumb.
"I'm so sorry," I began. "How does that make you feel?"
"I feel awful," Michalene said through her tears. "Danny is my little brother."
"Of course Danny's your brother," I affirmed. "I know it's frustrating. But remember, we've talked about how some people aren't used to seeing families who don't look the same."
Michalene rolled her watery eyes at me. "Mom, it's not that. They said Danny is taller than me, so I must be littler and he must be my big brother. But it's not true! We're both 6 right now, but I'm almost 7!"
I had missed the mark. It wasn't my kids' racial disparity that caused comment, it was their size disparity. I quickly calmed Michalene by reminding her that my own "baby brother" was taller than me by the time I was 10. Consoled, Michalene settled down once again in her little camper bed.
For a few minutes, I gazed at my sleeping children, gloating over the unique beauty of my multiracial family. Then I ventured outside, told the whole story to my husband, and finally allowed myself to laugh at my own stupidity. I was acting like such a grown-up!
My husband and I both have noticed the pattern. It's always the grown-ups-trying so hard to be polite and pretend they aren't curious-who can't stop talking about our children's race and adoption stories. Kids ask questions so blunt that their parents literally squirm, but once those questions are answered, they just move on.
Perhaps we grown-ups should take a cue from the kids and learn to focus on what's really important. Transracial, adoptive, "artificial twins"? Whatever. Little brother two inches taller than big sister? Now that's a big deal.
Erin Ruggaber Howard is an Aurora mom.