The first time it happened, I was on my maiden voyage with my 4-month-old daughter, Daisy, flying alone with her to Minneapolis to show her off to my parents. I was sure I was prepared for the trip: My carry-on bulged with six changes of clothes, 20 diapers, an industrial-size box of wipes, a stack of baby books, three Whoozits, four puppets, two teddy bears and her favorite bunny rattle. I'd nursed her on takeoff to ease the pressure in her ears and planned to do the same on descent. For a first-time mom, I thought, I was doing pretty well.
Then, while I was jogging in place in the galley trying to lull Daisy into a nap (and, as a side effect, working off the pregnancy weight), another passenger noticed us. "What a beautiful baby," she cooed and, before I could even smile in acknowledgment, added, "Where did you get her?"
Let me be clear: Adoption is a wonderful thing, a great gift to both parents and children. But Daisy is not adopted (though the question would be equally ill worded if she were). She simply inherited the golden skin, dark hair, and eyelid fold of my Japanese-American husband, while I have blond ringlets, blue eyes, and a complexion the color of library paste.
"It's a natural question," my father said when I told him about it at the airport luggage carousel. "I mean, look at her. Look at you. People are just curious." Maybe. But why did that curiosity leave me feeling sucker-punched?
Over the next year, what I'd come to call The Question became a regular feature of my life as a mother. It took a variety of forms: "What a beautiful baby. Is she from China or Korea?" "Oh, how cute. Where is she from?" Once even: "How old was she when you adopted her?" I began to anticipate the reaction, tensing up when strangers approached us or prying eyes stared at us too long. I noticed that I was more relaxed, friendlier, when we were out all together as a family and Daisy's provenance was obvious.
I began to wonder: If I found the attention to our racial difference upsetting, how, someday, would she perceive it? And if I didn't know how to respond to it, how would she? After all, she'll probably spend a lifetime hearing, "Where are you from?" or "When were you adopted?" or "What are you?"
I'd often contemplated how to raise a daughter with a healthy sense of female identity, but I'd believed matters of race were my husband's job—he, after all, was the person of color. I was wrong. For my child's sake, and my own, I needed to understand what it meant to be a multicultural family in a world that doesn't always see the shades of gray among the shades of brown. I needed to know how to answer The Question.
Peggy Orenstein's memoir, Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother, was published in February by Bloomsbury USA.