My Harrowing TSA Experience Reminded Me What it Means to Have a Child Who Doesn't Look Like Me

My daughter and I had traveled several times before and never had an issue. But this trip proved to be very different.

Leah Campbell
Courtesy of Leah Campbell.

My daughter was 6 weeks old the first time I took her on a plane. She'd been with me since the day she was born, but the details of her adoption weren't yet finalized. As such, I felt the need to travel with everything—every ounce of paperwork I'd been given, including a handwritten letter from her birth mother granting me permission to take her on this trip—just in case we were questioned. We weren't.

Over the next two years, my daughter and I took more than a handful of trips together. And each and every time, I brought her adoption paperwork and amended birth certificate just in case I was ever asked to prove she was mine. I wasn't.

Still, the fear lingered in this weird way I don't imagine it does for most biological parents. The bond between my daughter and me is incredible, and I love her more than I ever even knew was possible. But she doesn't look like me. And when it came to dealing with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), I was always worried that some agent might take note of that fact and question the authenticity of our relationship. They never did.

Once my daughter was old enough to talk (and cling to me like a monkey, as toddlers and preschoolers are prone to do), I stopped traveling with all our important documents. I grew comfortable in the knowledge that others recognized us as a unit, even if we didn't physically look like one. The love between us was clear enough, there was no need to provide further proof. And for six years, that remained true.

Our First Harrowing TSA Experience

Then, a trip to New York with my daughter changed my belief—and reinforced why I had reason to fear in the first place. At 4:30 a.m., we wandered through the TSA PreCheck line, both our tickets in my hand. I handed them to the agent like I have so many times before, expecting her to look at my ID, take note of the extra steps I took to become TSA PreCheck certified, see the way my daughter was holding on to me, and send us on our way. That didn't happen this time.

The TSA agent we approached did not return my smile. She didn't respond at all when I made some off-handed quip about the early hour and needing my coffee. Instead, she looked back and forth between my daughter and me before holding eye contact with her and saying, "What's your name?" Just like that. Direct and abrupt.

My daughter, who was tired and overstimulated and more than a little unsure of this stranger who couldn't even crack a smile, cuddled into my side and barely whispered her response.

The agent wasn't satisfied. She continued to look from her face to mine before asking, "And who is this woman to you?" I'll admit it, I cringed. It felt like every fear I'd ever had about traveling with my daughter coming to the surface. My relationship with her was being questioned by a stranger. My daughter—who was only six at the time—froze. She offered no response at all, a total deer in the headlights look taking over her face.

After a few moments of silence, I laughed uncomfortably and said, "Baby, come on. Who am I?" She looked at me with genuine confusion before finally replying, "My mama?"

The agent looked between us again. I honestly couldn't tell what was going on. Our tickets had been booked separately since I was traveling for work. Was that what this was about? Or was it purely that my daughter doesn't look like she comes from me? The thought of that twisted my stomach.

"Just one more question," the TSA agent finally said. "Sweetheart?" There it was, at least a bit of softness in her tone as she spoke to my child. "Do you know where you're going today?"

Thankfully, she did because I'm horrible at surprises and talk to my child about pretty much everything. I felt visible relief when she was able to look up and whisper, "New York."

The woman seemed satisfied, but all I could think about was what if my little girl had remained silent? Or what if this had been a surprise trip, a destination she wouldn't have known even if she had been able to find the words? What would have come next? A question about her father (which would have caused a breakdown of tears by my little girl, whom I adopted as a single mother, and who is still processing the fact that her biological father passed away). Invasive questions about her adoption (which happened six years ago, and has always been her normal)? Something more? Nothing at all?

So I walked past that TSA agent a little rattled, uncomfortable, and even a bit sad—especially when my daughter looked up at me after and said, "Mama? Why did she ask who you are?"

My little girl, who is just recently starting to process what it means to be adopted and just beginning to realize that our family isn't necessarily like other families. To her, this was also an uncomfortable moment where our relationship was brought into question by a stranger.

What Other Parents Don't Understand

As soon as I got the chance, I posted about our experience on social media, mostly because I was still uncomfortable and just needed to get the words off my chest. I don't know what I expected, but it certainly wasn't the deluge of mothers telling me I shouldn't feel the way I do. "They're just protecting kids," many said. "You should be thankful."

Several parents mentioned their children had been asked their names and where they were traveling to in the past. Some wondered if we'd never been asked before perhaps because my daughter has a chronic health condition and is often traveling in her stroller with lots of meds. "Maybe they've just always thought she was too young to ask?"

All of this is, of course, a possibility. But none of the people commenting mentioned their children being asked to identify their relationship to them. That felt personal in this case.

In the end, we were fine. The entire ordeal lasted less than a minute. I understand and respect that it's about preventing children from being trafficked. But it just spoke to all my deepest fears surrounding my daughter's adoption—and all the ways I've worried others might question her connection to me over the years.

And what's worse, it forced her to realize for the first time that other people might not automatically know who we are to each other. It made her feel insecure in that connection, even if only for a moment. And I hate that for her.

I also hate the number of mothers with children they gave birth to who didn't take the time to recognize that their experiences, and perception of those experiences, might be different from ours. Instead of being told I was allowed to have feelings, I experienced white mothers of white children admonishing me for something they could never possibly understand.

They don't know what it means to face an extra level of scrutiny when you are raising a child of a different racial or ethnic background from your own. Instead of trying to understand the feelings tied up in that, especially in the face of having my relationship with her questioned, they chastised me for having feelings at all. And that was hard. Maybe even harder than the event itself.

Before we headed home, I prepped my daughter for the fact that she might be questioned again. But she wasn't. She bounced right through TSA without a second look. And I breathed a sigh of relief. All the while knowing I'll probably start traveling with our papers again. Just in case.

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