You think I’d be used to it by now. The ignorance. The hate. But then again, do you ever get used to that sort of thing?
It stings most when it happens in a place you thought you’d be safe. Like the other day, for example—in the viewing room of my son’s swim school.
I was seated in a plastic chair, the baby carrier by my side. My son and husband stood in the pool on the other side of the glass, following the instructions of an energetic teacher. Suddenly, the baby began to stir. Like always, I retrieved him and offered loving reassurance.
From the moment I sat down, I knew the man next to me was trouble. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the signs.
See, this baby is different in one meaningless (but noticeable) way: his skin tone is darker than ours. Of course, he doesn’t wear a shirt labeling him a foster child—which leaves others to make their own assumptions.
Sure enough, the man to my right turned to his wife and quipped (purposely loud enough for me to hear):
“If that’s her baby, who’s the dad?”
The wife responded with an attempt to shush him. By now, several heads had turned in our direction. The man continued, impressed with his ability to draw a crowd:
“Isn’t that her man?” he pointed to my husband through the glass.
“Yes,” the woman whispered.
“Surely he knows he’s not the father,” he laughed. It was an acidic chuckle that burned my ears.
For the rest of class, this man craned his neck to look at us. He glared at the innocent baby in my arms. He looked down his nose at me. I could feel my cheeks burning, my heart pounding. What I wanted to do was correct him. I wanted to tell him our story. I wanted to make him apologize in front of everyone.
But, I remained quiet. There were children around, and I knew the second I opened my mouth, a string of expletives would follow.
Now, I’m ashamed I didn’t speak up. So if could go back in time, here’s what I would say:
Yes. That’s his father.
That man out there—the one guiding his energetic toddler through the water, encouraging and praising him—is more of a father than I can assume you’ll ever be.
While you’re sitting out here, comfortably judging strangers, he’s chest-deep in a pool with a bunch of splashing toddlers. He’s smiling, telling my son he’s okay, ensuring he feels safe.
When this class is over, you’ll stretch your legs and give a few “attaboys” to your kid. Meanwhile, my husband will dry off, drive us home, and help with our children’s increasingly long bedtime routine.
He’ll kiss this baby in my arms no less than 100 times throughout the course of putting him to bed.
He’ll wake up in the middle of the night to help make a bottle, just as he’s done every night.
In the morning, he’ll go to work so he can provide for us. He’ll continue learning, because he wants to do more. He wants to be more. He can. And, he will.
After work, he will sit on the floor of my son’s bedroom, surrounded by four children who all want his attention at the same time. He will play with each of them—blocks crashing to the floor, tambourines clanging in his ear, little voices calling his name.
He will bandage owies, brush teeth, wash hair, clean messes, read bedtime stories, fill cups, and give hugs.
And while I may stress about all the things we do, he will handle it with grace. Patience. Understanding. Love.
I’m sure you love your son, Mr. Loudmouth. But, would you be able to love a stranger’s child as much as your own? Because that man out there can. And, he does. Every. Single. Day.
He made the choice to be a parent. Not just for our son, but for this baby, and for all the children who come through our door needing a home.