What It’s Like When People Assume My Children Aren’t Mine
No, I’m not the nanny of my own children
My daughter was three months old the first time a stranger assumed one of my children wasn’t mine.
I was out shopping when a woman leaned her blotchy pink face into my baby’s. She asked my child directly in a way that seemed to anticipate a response from the three-month-old herself, “Are you with your babysitter?”
At that moment, the question disarmed me. I corrected the woman with more politeness than I had reason to use, but I replayed the encounter in my mind long after.
We live in London. When my daughter was one, we met a friend and her children for lunch in a nearby town. I remember boarding a train and holding my daughter on my lap when a white man with salt and pepper hair, a rotund belly, and kind eyes sat opposite us. Salt-and-pepper Man beamed as he told me that his son and daughter-in-law had recently adopted a child. I searched his face for a note of context, but he didn’t say anything else. I don’t remember exactly how I responded, but I remember being confused. I suppose I probably just nodded and smiled — maybe he was just sharing his happy news? The penny dropped when he added, “How old was she when you adopted her?” I learned that he had just attended an adoption conference. Having seen us and the difference in our skin tone and hair texture, he assumed I must have gone, too. My heart sank into my stomach.
It’s taken me nearly four years, but I think I’ve finally found my voice and figured out a way to respond in a way that puts the responsibility back on the asker to examine their bias.
I have two young children. My daughter is three (soon to be four), and my son is now 15 months old. I am white, and their paternal heritage is Nigerian. My son has spent most of his life in and out of Covid-19 lockdowns, so we’ve experienced fewer incidences. But they persist nevertheless.
It’s relevant to note that my daughter had straight hair when she was born. Her texture began to change after a few months. In contrast, my son was born with black curly hair and darker skin than his sister. Ultimately, my daughter could have “passed” as an olive-skinned white baby for the first couple of months of her life. Her brother could not have.
A driver for a supermarket delivered groceries to my house at the beginning of last year. My son was a newborn, asleep in a sling on my chest when I answered the door. So when I answered the door with my tiny brown baby wrapped in my chest and my bouncing two-year-old daughter not far behind us once she heard the doorbell, the delivery driver asked if I was sure they were mine because they were “so brown.”
When my daughter was younger, I didn’t then understand how harmful these microaggressions were. I regret now that I didn’t take the opportunity to challenge the biases. It’s difficult to express how it feels. As I’ve done more introspection and anti-racism work, and as I reflect more on the ways that racism and, in particular, anti-Blackness, show up in our lives, I’m less inclined to label these things the result of harmless curiosity. I don’t believe it’s harmless. It’s less about novelty and more about the entitlement of (mostly white) people to label and “other” people who don’t look like them.
A few months ago, on a walk home, I held my three-year-old by the hand, and the baby sat quietly in his carrier as we walked. My daughter spotted an ice cream van and asked if we could buy something. It was autumn and raining. But as a parent during a pandemic, if my kid wants a frozen treat in cold weather and thinks it will bring her joy, she can absolutely have one. The man handed over our order. We chatted for a few minutes because his card machine glitched as I attempted to pay him. Casting his glance between my face and the children’s faces, he asked me how long I’d been nannying for my own children. I corrected him with considerably less politeness than I did to the woman I encountered a few years before. He clumsily apologised and explained that he’d just assumed I was a nanny “because they’re Black.”
The default response from many people might be to consider that these people didn’t mean any harm with their comments. And that may be true, but I’m far more concerned with impact than intent. My children deserve not to be “othered,” especially alongside their own family. It’s taken me nearly four years, but I think I’ve finally found my voice and figured out a way to respond in a way that puts the responsibility back on the asker to examine their bias.
The most recent incident involved a trip to the doctor for my daughter. The screen flashed her name, and we walked into the doctor’s office. It was a doctor I hadn’t seen before, and she greeted me before staring behind me at the open doorway. “Where’s mum?” the doctor asked, craning her neck as if to look for a mother who looked more like my daughter than I did.
I looked back at her, smiled, and replied, “What makes you think I’m not her mother?”