Most parents have had that horror movie experience when you awake suddenly at 2am to find a small person barely inches from your face, watching you sleep. That happened to me not too long ago, however this face was tear-streaked and full of worry.
“Are you my mummy?”
My heart broke, I wrapped him in my arms and assured him that I was. A worry like that should never cross a child’s mind, and I was filled with nothing but anger and disappointment at the woman who had caused it all.
The day before we had been waiting for a bus at 6.45am, unfortunately our usual time. I was on my way to drop the boys off with their childminder before making my way to work. An elderly woman approached the bus stop and humored the boys attempts to engage her in conversation as we waited for the bus. She was seemingly harmless, until she turned to me:
“Their parents expect you to look after them this early?”
“The children, you have to look after them so early. What do their parents do?”
“They’re my children.”
“Really? How can that be when they’re so fair and you’re well, you know, so dark.”
I was stunned, hurt and frozen. I didn’t know how to respond, I didn’t know how anybody could say something so thoughtless and then when presented with the facts, blame me? The comments that followed included blaming my appearance to not fit her expectations of what their mother should look like, accusing me of fabricating our relationship, trying to tell me what and who I was in relation to my own children.
I wish I could say this was a first but it wasn’t: I have been approached in museums by women giggling because they have a bet going as to whether I am ‘mum’ or ‘nanny’. I have been stopped in the street by strangers accusingly asking me what my relationship is to the children, what my background is to explain why these children who in their eyes are genetically black could almost seamlessly slip by unnoticed in a ‘white’ world. I have been approached by well-meaning mothers who are hoping to poach my childcare skills for their own children, and offer me large sums of money, mistaking my silence as a bargaining tool. I have been berated and threatened with being reported to the children’s mother because my youngest threw his shoes off so many times I had given up putting them back on, and was accused of neglect as a result. I have been the brunt of racial slurs, taunts and insults when it is assumed that I am the ‘foreign’ nanny. I have taken my children to medical appointments only to be met with “and where’s mum today?”
When I correct these people, they make no attempt to apologise for their mistake. It is my fault that the labels they assigned to us are wrong. This may be an attempt to cover up their embarrassment, when in fact they should be embracing it as an opportunity to be educated on the complexities of genetics and hereditary. W has my father’s facial structure, whereas B is the spit of my mum (minus the unfortunate 60s curtains material dress and glasses to match), they both have green eyes like my mother and they have my father’s facial expressions. They have a natural colour to their skin courtesy of my father, with a few freckles and very visible veins, also like my mother. From their own father they have inherited chubby cheeks, thick thighs and the Y chromosome.
Ever heard the saying “If you assume, you make an ass out of ‘u’ and me”?
Well the same applies in this case. They may be the nanny, an older sibling, a relative or the mother. They may be a woman who has chosen to become a mother via adoption, which I have no experience of but I can imagine would leave me even more distraught if it was my situation.
If you genuinely want to make conversation because you are curious, there are some Dos and Don’ts. Don’t assume the adult is not the mother and subsequently start talking to them in such a manner. Do compliment the children on their behaviour, what they are wearing etc. as this may illicit a response confirming the relationship. Don’t ask the adult if they’re sure, once you have been told they are the mother (I’m pretty sure I didn’t imagine pushing a 9lb 13oz human being out of my body just for fun!) Don’t tell somebody what you think their ethnicity is, when they have already told you how they identify themselves and their children.
Finally, do mind your own business, because does it really matter?