by: Craig Peterson
“Stop saying you understand. You don’t. You have no idea how I feel.”
My daughter’s words stopped me in my tracks. Had I assumed too much? Had I overreached and appeared insensitive? Did I re-traumatize her in the process?
Probably shades of all three.
You see, my daughter is black. I’m white. She also has an extensive history of sexual abuse.
Although I tried to be sensitive to the differences inherent with many adoptions– be they race, ethnicity, age, gender, ability, religion, sexual orientation or trauma, I sometimes stumbled.
Not what I intended when striving to build a connection.
Since reading To Kill A Mockingbird in junior high, I subscribed to the Atticus Finch way of thinking, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
In other words, I believed in the power of listening. I accepted people at their place in time – never forcing my views while patiently waiting to influence at a later date. For years the approach worked well in both my personal and professional life.
When my daughter came to my home at the age of 10, she was “over” therapy.
“Never again,” she said! Repeatedly bearing her soul for the benefit of others inhibited healing. Feeling blame for her behavior created additional shame. And being told to move on did just the opposite.
We reached a compromise. I wouldn’t mandate therapy – at least for now, if she confided in me.
She openly shared. I acknowledged and probed. Although the progress in our relationship was evident, I didn’t have every answer. I freely admitted it – because I knew she could see right through the camouflage. Yet I remained accessible. Whenever she needed to talk, we did.
One factor became crystal clear. Her healing didn’t fit neatly into a schedule.
At the same time, the hours of dialogue reinforced our differences – especially in terms of race.
My daughter “perceived” me as a smart, successful, well-to-do white man rather than simply her father. She placed me on a pedestal and called my life perfect – in spite of the ups and downs of parenting children with early trauma.
In her adolescent mind, how could I possibly understand?
Thinking back, one significant issue was at play on top of her trauma – her racially-mixed middle school. It was both a blessing and a curse. Although several African-American teachers took my daughter under their wing, a handful of peers invited dissension.
“How can he be your father?”
“Is he trying to make you white?”
“Wouldn’t you be happier in a black family?”
“Why don’t you act like us?”
Ironically, the questions rarely revolved her past. Nearly all focused on race – diminishing her self-worth and making her feel unsafe.
As a young adult, my daughter finally gave me an earful – sharing the truth I failed to glean a decade earlier.
Lessons learned – wishing I had another chance.