It’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in the land where you were born, Alea, and one thought keeps running through my head: My favorite moons are the perfect crescents your eyes make when you are happy and your face crinkles with joy. You are beautiful, child, inside and out — pure light, like the fullest of moons on the darkest of nights. When I see you, with your raven-black hair and porcelain skin and moon-shaped eyes, I see perfection.
But I can’t make you see that. And suddenly what you seem to notice more than anything is your difference. In a room full of Chinese people yesterday, you made it clear you didn’t think you were one of them, and my heart shattered into a million little pieces.
Have I failed to explain that your Chinese DNA is part of what makes you precious to me?
That I see a reflection of my heart in the gentle moon of your eyes?
We really do look like one another, darling… how do I help you see the truth of yourself?
To see your beauty?
It’s tricky, this road we are all on. Yesterday Cora’s friend made a passing comment in innocence — not cruelty — but it still stung: “She’s not your real sister,” the girl said, her own experience based on a stair-step of little brothers who mirror her own face right down to their tussled blonde hair and sweet curved noses. When we got home, Cora said it made her feel angry and sad to hear that, and she didn’t know what to say. And I realized it isn’t the first time she’s experienced this sort of thing; just the first time I’ve found out.
We talked about what makes a sister real and how some people don’t understand because they’ve only known one way of becoming a family. But it still hurts, I know; and hurt so often slips to shame…
Cora, when we signed you up to have a sister of a different race, it meant you were thrown into new and unusual situations for which there isn’t a clear playbook. My brave and tender-hearted girl, how do I help you learn how to play this game with dignity, compassion, and confidence?
It turns out four years old is old enough to notice you don’t match your family and six years old is old enough to understand that what happens before an adoption isn’t usually beautiful and happy, and what happens in its aftermath isn’t always either. It turns out four and six year olds can weep with sorrow at injustice and brokenness and ache to belong. And a mama can feel turned inside out.
This is when it all gets messy, my girls, and I don’t feel strong enough or wise enough for this journey we’re on together. There’s so much I don’t know. I don’t know how to help either of you navigate the road ahead.
Alea, I don’t know how to make you feel proud of the curve of your eyes, the shape of your nose, the hue of your hair. I confess I wonder if, as a white woman, I have what it takes to raise a confident, comfortable-in-her-skin Asian woman.
And Cora, I don’t have the answers to your questions about why Jesus allows babies to be broken apart from their first mamas; why they are sometimes left in “boxes in the rain” as you say you saw on a TV show once.
“And since I know adoption is real, Mama, I know that must be real, too,” you sobbed as the rain pounded against the bedroom window.
“Was Alea left in the rain, Mama? Was she?!? It’s scary!”
Your voice cracked in half, equal parts terror and sorrow, and I couldn’t hold back the tears myself… both because it hurts to watch your innocent heart get split plumb open, and because I don’t know the answer.
And it feels like, as your Mama, I ought to know more about that day. Though it makes no sense to say, it feels like I ought to have been there on that day. I want to tell both of you that everything’s going to be ok, but the story of our lives coming together means you both already realize sometimes it isn’t.
I can’t be there in all the broken moments. Cora, I can’t be by your side to speak up every time someone calls the legitimacy of your relationship with your sister into question or mocks her for the ways in which she is different. Alea, I can’t be with you to help you hold your head high the first time a child stretches her eyes thin on a playground and laughs in your face. I can’t protect you from the sting of racism.
I know every mother wants to shield her children from pain and sorrow, and every mother must reckon with the reality that she cannot. I’m no different.
Here’s all I have to give you… When the Autumn moon is high and round, it’s a time to reconnect with family and celebrate connection. And this family of ours? It’s as “real” as real can get. It is messy and sometimes we have tears in our eyes and broken pieces in our hands, but we are a family.
We are patchwork and once-broken-but-now-glued-together vases, and it’s beautiful in its own way. Perhaps we don’t fit very well… we aren’t quite “traditional white American,” and we certainly don’t pass for Chinese, and so I think we all have to get comfortable with always being just a little different. But we are in it together, and that’s all I know to give you. In the end though, I also think it’s the only thing that really carries any of us through. This togetherness, with-ness bearing witness in the middle of the mess.
So for Mid-Autumn festival, we made mooncakes. Not in the traditional way, because I neither have the skill nor the taste for them. But we made them in a way that reflects our family hodgepodge. Thanks to a tip from another adoptive mom, we made shortbread; a western cookie pressed and formed into beautiful Chinese molds… a little bit of two different worlds but still perfectly us.
And Alea, I want you to know we don’t do this because I think you need to absorb a different legacy from the rest of us. Of course, I want you to treasure and understand the history and culture of the land woven into your blood. But that’s not why I do this. If it’s in your blood, it’s in my own, and we do this because this is now our family legacy. It’s part of the story of us, and we celebrate not for your sake but for all of our sakes. This is the shape of our family now, and I believe that deserves remembering and celebrating and honoring.
This life is messy, my girls. When you’re figuring out the shape of yourself, you’ll end up with plenty of flour on your hands and in your hair, and sometimes you’ll feel fragile and not quite ready for the world yet. Sometimes your wing might get bent or a piece might get broken. In their rush to make you fit a mold, someone might crush a little part of you.
But come on home when that happens. It’s safe here, and you’ll always belong. I’ll do my best to help you mend. I know a thing or two about taking broken pieces and gluing them back together to make a family. I know a thing or two about finding beauty in scars and strength in the once-fractured places. I believe we can be stronger in the mended places and more beautiful for having been broken.
We may not look like the other families around us; it may not feel like you fit the mold very well and it hurts to be on the outside, I know. But we are in this together, and this family of ours is exactly the shape God intended us to be when He put the broken pieces back together, and that’s as real as real can be.
We will find our way together in the darkness, under the light of an enormously bright Mid-Autumn Moon.
(And if nothing else, we can always make cookies.)