JENNIFER NEWSOM + TOM CARRUTHERS

Dark Matter

a mixture of the unknown and the tangible - by Jennifer Newsom

This is my Baby

I was reading through parenting blogs today, and I found a few voices that really resonated with me. Even though I live in Brooklyn, a borough with a baffling array of international cultures, interracial couples, and cosmopolitan liberalism, I still get The Question. "Is that your baby?" As you can probably guess by the other posts on this blog, I am Black. What you may not have surmised is that my husband is not. Our son is a sweet, generous, funny, and kind "curly top" (as I like to call the B&W kids in our neighborhood - seriously, a cadre exists), and the love of my life.  It bothers me when people ask me if he is mine, especially since he looks quite a lot like a lighter version of me. The opportunity for inquiry arises often since I work from home most days and am out with my son in the park/museum/cafe during traditional work hours. But, oddly enough, when walking through Park Slope or the Upper East Side, the exposure I feel is not one of differentiation. I feel the deadening and mute anonymity of "the help", those figures who, while trusted with a most difficult and valuable task, still operate under the social radar, cloaked in the shadow of their professions.

Exhibit A: Once, when in Barnes and Noble with my son and a friend, we ran into one of my friends's acquaintances. This woman completely ignored me as she asked my friend, "Oh, is this yours?!" referring to the child that I, presumably as the nanny, was pushing around the store at my (White) friend's behest. When my childless friend answered with a definite "No," there was a breezy continuation of the conversation and no acknowledgement of the error that had occurred. The interloper continued to chat away and ignore my presence, perhaps continuing to think that I was just aimlessly pushing someone else's baby, that I wasn't a real person who lived and breathed and had opinions. There certainly was no concern that I might have been hurt by her assumptions.

This is a complicated issue that makes me tackle my own prejudices about the role nannies and babysitters play in raising our children. I get upset because when people think you are the nanny, often you are invisible, as though there is no "there" there. The change in attitude is palpable once they realize you're the mom. So, maybe what this is really about class, although it gets couched in racial terms. Why do I feel the need to cry out, "This is my son! I am (insert: educated, middle class, someone who listens to Florence + The Machine, etc) just like you!" Silly, but I feel that impetus nonetheless.

Then there are people who are well-meaning, or at least as well-meaning as I can give someone who makes a whole host of assumptions about me, my kid, and our family. Maybe there really isn't anything that they think is malicious about the question, or they simply don't realize how rude and annoying it is to ask.

Exhibit B: I was at a baby clay class with my son recently, and all of the mothers were sitting around playing with clay and their kids. Friends and I had been having a lengthy conversation, during which the instructor of the class referred to me as my son's mother a few times. One of the new moms in the class then asked off-handedly, "Oh, is he yours?" Later, she told me that she was (before she had children) a college level professor who taught courses about, as she called it, "the -isms": racism, sexism, classism, etc. Funny that, despite her academic interests, socially she was still spouting some pre-Loving assumptions. Oh and did I mention that she was White, her own husband was Black, and her kid was mixed-race? Oh lord. . .

Exhibit C: While walking on the street pushing my son in his stroller, a man gave me a cat call of "Hey, Babysitter!" Perhaps what he lacked in sexiness he hoped to make up in familial accuracy. Nope, wrong on both accounts. . .

Most disturbingly, there is the constant reminder that somehow the love I have for my husband and my son is an anomaly, some aberration of nature that shouldn't have, but somehow miraculously occured. This hurts, especially when the question comes from other Black people, with disbelief and surprise in their tone. When I smile and say "YES," I can feel the sting of their assumptions. Aren't we past the point where I could be seen as a traitor to my race?

I could go on with Exhibits D, E, F, G... so I suppose I'm wrong about that last one. Dang. I hope I can have the gumption and resolve to ask my questioner, "Yes he's my son - why do you ask?" the next time I'm presented with this frequent query. Every so often, I tell myself that I'm going to do it. But each time it happens, I'm still caught off guard.

PersonalJennifer Carruthers