What to Do When Your Child Is Nothing Like You
Megan and Michael have a deaf child. After his birth, they met opposition. At one point, a Deaf activist told them, "The best thing would be to give your child to a Deaf family and let them raise him."
Their story, retold by Nathan Heller in a recent New Yorker piece, was immediately familiar to me. As the Caucasian mother of two black children I hear sentiments along these lines frequently.
On the day that we took our second son to court to finalize his adoption in our state, the judge solemnly read through the scripted questions about adoption, signed the legal paperwork, then turned to us and said, "But what will you do about their hair?"
The subtext seemed to be that our adoption was legally in order but culturally in question.
For trans-racial families, both dirty looks and sincere reservations are familiar. But Heller's article, reviewing and expanding on a new book by journalist Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, opened my eyes to other kinds of families who face the same challenge.
In his book, Solomon examines a variety of families where the child is distinctly different from his or her parents. Solomon tells the stories of children with dwarfism; children with autism; children who are criminals; children who are transgender. These children's characteristics diverge from the family pattern and, often, that of the surrounding community.
(Of course, not all of these situations are created equal. Autism is a different kind of challenge than race. Nor is criminal behavior the same as being deaf. But each circumstance creates a unique family relationship.)
There is application here for all parents. Many of us have children who are, in some way, different from us. My friend who is a linguist whose child is dyslexic, for example. Or my left-brained, uber-organized friend and her creative, scattered musician son.
Where do such children find their identity?
According to Solomon, they actually have two kinds of identity. First, a vertical identity—their identification with the characteristics they share with their parents; and second, a horizontal identity—their identification with peers who share the same challenges. So Megan and Michael's son will base his vertical identity on shared appearance and interests with his parents, but his horizontal identity on shared experiences with other deaf people.
The New Yorker article ultimately suggests that parents create a shared identity with their child as they enter into their child's unique culture. Megan and Michael, for example, connected with their son by learning sign language and befriending other deaf people.
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