Tuesday, June 21, 2011

secrets and mystery

(I was going through old drafts and found this, something I wrote and didn't publish last year. It's still relevant, so I'm sharing it now.)

It was the first day of my first class of the quarter. First days of class are a lot alike. Eventually they all blur together and rarely do they hold content that is any way memorable down the road. So before this one fades into the blur of memory and is obscured by last week and next week and the overall arch of learning that is just starting to curve its way upwards there is one thing I want to write down, to remember.

"Take about five minutes" the professor said, "and introduce yourself to as many people as you can." I could see her casting about internally for a way to make this different than the other hundreds of get-to-know-you exercises her students had most certainly experienced. She gave up. "Why don't you just say your name, your denomination, and...whatever, one thing about yourself you feel comfortable sharing." My school strives to be sensitive and aware, and this class especially addresses issues of ethics, safety, and diversity. So, you see, she couldn't as us to share anything "exciting," "unusual," for risk of the request coming across as offensive. I was smiling on the inside.

So I chose to say this: "I'm Alissa, I am an Episcopalian, and I have a new baby daughter who is five months old."

It seems pretty straightforward, right? Simple.

But it was honestly hard for me to just say it and leave it at that. Afterwards I was processing the class with my good friend and fellow classmate and realized what it was that made me feel so uncomfortable as I introduced myself to my classmates. I felt dishonest to just state the fact - I have a five month old daughter - without further explanation. There was a part of me that felt like a liar because I knew without a doubt as I said it that each person who received my statement with various oohs and ahhhs and wise "are you getting any sleep, then?" questions was operating under false assumptions. Namely, that I gave birth five months ago and am mothering a child who likely looks a lot like me. These are normal, if incorrect, assumptions. But what an odd thing for a simple statement of something true to feel so much like keeping a secret.

I think most of us have some sort of hidden thing that people can't tell about us by looking. You know, that unexpected surprise about your past or preferences that you can choose when to reveal, that might cause new friends or acquaintances to think again about the impressions they had of you. When I was a freshman in college my mysterious thing, the thing that I felt really set me apart from my peers, was the time I had spent living in Russia as a foreign exchange student. In fact at the tender age of 18 it was the only thing that I really found interesting about myself, so I talked about it sort of constantly. It wasn't until one day when a prettier and more socially successful girl in my dorm introduced me by saying "this is Alissa and she's been to Russia which is all she ever talks about" that I realized how I was coming across. I felt deflated and shut down. That was supposed to be my ace in the hole! I started to wonder about the value of keeping the things that I thought were special about me a little bit quiet, safe from those who might not be so careful.

It's been over a decade since that moment but I still struggle with how much of myself and my story people need to know in order for me to be authentic in the world. The older I get, the less I feel the need to tell the story of who I am to new people and the more fun it is for me to let them discover it over time, as friendships form. But motherhood is a little different. I am still figuring out where that line is, with this.

I told a story today in a small group during an evening of reflection that is a required part of our program. I was answering a question pertaining to something that is spiritually renewing for me. I talked about Godly Play and how at the beginning, when I started teaching it and running the program at St. Paul's I really didn't want to do it. "My husband and I were trying to start a family," I said, "and it wasn't going all that smoothly." At first it was a little painful for me to choose to spend every Sunday morning with other people's kids. But that changed and it became quite literally the best and most spiritually renewing part of my week, and remains that way now that I am a parent.

When I mentioned that I now have a daughter, one of the women in my group visibly relaxed. "Oh good," she said. "I was worried that your story would have a sad ending, that it would turn out you couldn't have kids!"

Huh. I couldn't help thinking. I wonder if she's going to feel bad now, if I say that my daughter is adopted. Will she interpret that to mean I can't have kids? I really hadn't wanted to go into my how of becoming a parent. But now here I was again, feeling like a secret keeper.

Someday, I think, J will feel this way too. She will grow up and move out into the world and maybe it will be a relief for her to be places without us, where it isn't just obvious by looking that she is adopted and her adoptive parents are white. But then she will have to find her own boundaries, experimenting with when to just live with the false assumptions people will make about her family and origins and when to speak up so that she is able to be authentic and known.

My strategy, for the moment, is to be curious about my own responses to situations like these, when I am speaking about my life without Andrew and J there with me. When am I feeling uncomfortable because I am worried that someone else might feel bad? What do I like about it, this unexpected(for others) and invisible(to others)thing about who I am? Why? When do I tell and feel good about telling? When do I tell and end up wishing that I had just kept my mouth shut?

I know one thing - this isn't about trying to conform. I don't leave it at "I have a daughter" instead of clarifying that she is adopted, etc. etc. because I am in any way ashamed of how my family is formed or trying to appear as if we are traditional. I think that is part of my hesitation to keep the "secret." I love and believe in my family. I wouldn't have it any other way.


  1. I experience something similar to this when I tell people--clients, for example--that "we" (referring to myself and my partner Andrew) are going on vacation, or something. They sometimes ask, "Oh! Where do you and your wife like to go?" Often enough I don't correct them. I'm out, and I don't choose not to correct them because of shame or because I'm not proud of my marriage with my male spouse. But there are times when I just don't feel like going there. Part of it might be that when I came out in 1991, I got similar feedback that you got about Russia: "All Stephen does is talk about being gay!" And part of it I suppose is just the ordinary process of discerning where and when to confront others with the truth about myself, the truth that they innocently did not expect.

  2. I love you Stephen Crippen!!