Head of Household
“No, no, honey….Your family is in this car.”
I’m still not sure if the speaker was a railroad employee or just another passenger dressed in blue. My daughter and I were trying to board the Lake Shore Limited in Chicago. She was in front with her little pink backpack. I followed her with our small mound of blankets, bags, and one suitcase. Hoisting these items up the steel staircase, even with help, was taking a little time, and my 7-year-old was anxious to get into the car, out of the bitter cold. “Go to the left,” I had encouraged her, suspecting that car to have more seat-pairs than the one to the right, where most of the previous passengers had gone. “Wait for me, there, just inside the door, okay?” Obediently, she punched the black bar to open the car door on the left. And that is when the woman grabbed her arm and tried to shuttle her in the opposite direction.
I guess the woman hadn’t heard me. Or if she had, hadn’t connected the dots. She saw an African American family head right and assumed that my beautiful daughter belonged with them. She was trying to shepherd my child to safety, I guess.
“That’s not my family,” I heard my daughter say, just as I was shouting “she’s mine,” from the noisy platform.
The bags formed a barrier between my daughter and me, making it impossible for me to hold this conversation face to face. “You’re not alone, are you?” the blue-clad lady asked.
“No. Mommy is my family,” she said, pointing to me.
“She’s mine,” I repeated. This time I was heard.
The woman flapped about a bit and left. I got my luggage and my child into the car, found a seat and we quietly settled in for the long ride. The suitcase went on the rack overhead, along with our two coats. I place the pink cooler under her feet for easy access, while she dressed her doll in blue penguin pajamas. She hadn’t said a word to me. I knew she was still thinking about it.
“You okay, baby?”
“She didn’t know.”
“We’re a little family,” I said, beginning the words we’ve said so often that they’ve become a litany.
“But a good family,” she answered. I tucked the green fleece blanket around her shoulders, nestled her doll close beside, and began reading to her as the Chicago lights winked their goodbyes beside us.
When her eyelids began to droop, I closed the book, and we rode clickety-clack on, toward Indiana, toward Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, home. I thought she’d drifted off, but then she mumbled, “Our skins don’t match,” Our other litany. I finished it for her, “but we love each other the most.”
I kissed her smooth forehead and she smiled, and then fell asleep.
This is not the first time this has come up, of course, and it wouldn’t be the last. Despite how dizzyingly diverse our country has become, families like mine— anything outside of typical—always seem to confuse people. The multi-racial piece is, of course the most frequently mentioned, in our case. Selam’s classmates have asked about it since she was in pre-school. “How come she’s Black?” they say, accosting me in the hallway before school, little gap-toothed inquisitors.
I have rehearsed answers for this, of course. One of the more helpful pre-adoption classes that I took was one called, “Conspicuous Families” which prepared me to think through answers to questions about our unexpected family makeup. When I first took the class, I had no idea how frequently I—no, we—would be approached with questions ranging from innocent to offensive.
Particularly when she was very small, we seemed to attract questions everywhere—grocery stores and churches, doctor’s offices and airports. The course gave me examples of how to respond in ways that could be informational, humorous or privacy guarding. I ordinarily respond with quick facts, especially with children. Selam prefers to joke about it. “My mommy liked chocolate milk when she was pregnant,” she’ll say, or just deadpan, “I don’t know what you mean. We look exactly alike.”
Still, this does take a toll. Selam doesn’t mind the questions about how we came to be a family or about race, but the comments that imply that we aren’t a family—those sting. Selam hadn’t done the “our skins don’t match” exchange for at least a year, but it was clearly on her mind. I wish there were a way I could inoculate her from these comments. All I can do, though, is prepare her to respond, give her a pillow for landing, a harbor, a home.
I wish there had been a pre-adoption class on Conspicuous Singleness. I’ve been single all my life, and never felt that this was a particularly important descriptor of me. Sure, most people that I interacted with probably knew that I was unmarried, but it wasn’t a major identity of mine until I added it to the other word—mother. Once my tax status switched from single to head of household, I became something different in the eyes of many—the single mother—object of scorn, of pity, able to raise the ire of politicians and political commentators.
I feel quite certain that I’ve heard derogatory comments about single mothers all my life, but since I’ve become one, I seem to hear them all the time. I even found one in an older sermon of mine, from another time where I could freely throw “single mother” around as a monolithic term.
In some ways, it’s not a surprise that my family is atypical. I guess I’ve always been drawn to the biblical stories of women in non-traditional families. Ruth and Naomi captured my imagination from early on. Hagar was a single parent under impossible conditions, and yet made a life for herself and her child. And then there’s Rahab, heading a household of parents and siblings, seemingly the only one of her kin to earn a living. She boldly brokers a deal to preserve her family from harm—and is taken seriously as head of household. These women captivate me. Each of them does the things that I do, in a time with far less public support or acceptance. Each takes on non-traditional responsibility, and each has to accept help in order to protect her family, to serve as that family’s head.
I’m drawn to the stories, but it is not always easy to live into their messages. Before Selam, I was able to be awfully independent. I seldom needed help, and when I did, I went to family or just hired someone to do whatever it is that I needed. I traveled with the smallest of bags; I opened my own doors, got myself to the airport, and reached my own high shelves. I was so proud of my independence, so proud of my ability to do it all myself. I was self-sufficient, a small island.
I can’t do that anymore. I have to accept offers of help where they come. You want to invite my daughter on the third play-date in a row that I haven’t yet reciprocated? I’ll agree. You have boxes of hand-me-downs to mail me from Texas? I’m in. You want to help me drag my overwhelming luggage from the train, help me shovel out my buried car from snow, watch my cart while I race to the restroom with a not-quite-potty- trained child? Thank you. Thank you. I have swallowed pride, given up on precise reciprocity, and let others help. It is not easy for me.
I have learned, too, to ask for help. I’ve applied for financial aid for pre-school and for choir school. It killed me to do it, but I did it, because I knew that the benefits for my daughter far outweighed my embarrassment in forking over tax returns and asking for aid. When all the girls in the neighborhood were already in car pools for choir and I couldn’t get off work to drive her, I grew a backbone and asked a family with a nanny if they might be willing to let my daughter ride along.
I actually thought about all these things as the train hurtled through the starless night. It was the first long period of alone time that I’d had in ages. I remembered an earlier train trip back when I was a college chaplain—riding with a gaggle of students, laughing and joking and even praying together in the wee hours. I used to pray in binges, like that, skipping days and then spending an hour or more. I can’t do that anymore, or more accurately, I don’t want to.
Every day now is punctuated by tiny snippets, tiny wisps of steam rising. “Keep her safe,” I pray 40 times a day, it seems. For I know that I’m not really a single parent in this regard. I may be the head of the household, but my heavenly creator has a guiding hand in her life that I will not come close to replicating. “Praise God,” rises up regularly, too—with every new gasp of awe, every lost tooth, and every found friend— all shared with the only other Parent in her life. The I RS calls me the Head of Household, but I know better. I’m not the head, not the life force. I’m the shepherd maybe, keeping my little family from self-destruction, the best I can with the help of a herd of others on my heels. Our family sticks out, but it’s not that much different than any other family. We’re all just doing what we can, brokering the deals we can with the leverage we can find, trusting God and each other, and holding the wee ones from the brink.
Somewhere near the Ohio border, I got up to fill my water bottle. I passed rows of drowsing families of all kinds. There was a sweet-faced older couple whose gentle snores were in unison, a set of brothers in matching pajamas, piled like puppies on one bench. I passed a pairing of grandmother and grandson, and two shiny newlyweds.
Right next to the water fountain was a family I had noticed earlier, an Amish family with four stair-step daughters and a son. The sisters were all asleep. The father was gone for the moment, but the mother was stretched out in her seat, holding her young son tightly around the waist, his face to the window, and her back turned to the aisle. His tiny body curved into hers, enjoying, in sleep, the protection she offered.
It’s a pose I’ve struck a thousand times, in those nights when Selam cannot sleep, in those nights when the thunder rolls or the monsters threaten. In the fever times, the loud firecrackers outside times, the lonesome for something she cannot yet name times, we curl up together, with her small form tucked into the curve of my body, anchored by my arm.
We’re a little family but a good family, and my arm is big enough, strong enough, just enough to hold her tight.
Susan Olson, a teaching elder (pastor) in the Presbyterian Church, USA, is assistant dean of students at Yale Divinity School. (back to top)
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