My Harrowing TSA Experience Reminded Me What it Means to Have a Child Who Doesn't Look Like Me
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 course of 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 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 scary TSA experience
My daughter and I recently took a trip to New York that called all that into question. 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 I 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 woman 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 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 woman 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. Thankfully, I'm horrible at surprises and talk to my child about pretty much everything. Thankfully, 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, who I adopted as a single mother, and who is still processing the fact that her biological father died last year). Invasive questions about her adoption (which happened six years ago, and has always been her normal)? Something more? Nothing at all?
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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 recently starting 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.
Dealing with other parents' insensitivity
As soon as I got the chance, I posted about our experience to 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 relationships 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—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, white mothers of white children admonished 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.
I truly understand your feelings. We adopted our 3 from Russia. All the paperwork was in Russian, with English translations. I always worried about authorities not accepting our paperwork. One of our children has autism. He is high-functioning and verbal, but definitely would not have answered if questioned by a stranger. They are all adults now, so I no longer have those anxieties. But I do remember those days.Read More
I know the feeling of being “accused” by border control and how scared you were and my biological children look like me! My son was asked “Does your dad where you are going?” when he was about six. Jet lagged and confused by the question, he didn’t answer. I then asked him “Who drove us to the airport?” And he said “Daddy.”
The way they ask kids is very intimidating so kids are scared to answer… I absolutely know why you are upset.
In my case, Certain times, especially after one parental kidnapping, officers are told to be vigilant. But to avoid problems, Divorced friends have a affidavit from their ex-spouse giving travel consent. From then on, I have a signed letter from my husband with a copy of his passport photo verifying his signature because I often just take the kids away earlier. Never asked after that incident… Biracial kids are ALWAYS questioned too… Better to be prepared than be hassled.
As an adoptive mom of 3 kids who are of mixed race I certainly understand your feelings about this. And you are as entitled to those feelings and to vent about them as anyone else. However, I also understand the concerns of the TSA agent. Obviously she should have been more sensitive to the situation and perhaps approached it in a softer way, but honestly more people should be questioning this in a time when so many kids are being trafficked. I recently read somewhere that children where allowed to travel without being asked for any type of identifying paperwork and was very concerned about this. I obviously don’t travel much by plane (since I didn’t know this) but on the only flight I have every taken with my biological child I took her passport for ID not realizing it wouldn’t even be glanced at. I thought it was strange at the time but didn’t over analyze the situation then. I really think kids should be asked for some type of identifying information just like adults for their protection. Doing that might actually save a lot of children, and as a mother who constantly worries about my children being snatched due to rising cases of kidnappings, knowing that security is tightening up with regard to this would only make me feel better. Again I understand your feelings, but I do think now that the moment has passed and the emotions have calmed down, you might want to reconsider the reasons this happened and why it is actually a good thing that they are being more cautious. And yes always bring that birth certificate with you when you travel.Read More
I'm so sorry you went through this. As an adopted child with a mixed child who doesn't ethnically look like me, I know exactly how terrifying this could be. I understand the commenters trying to defend the TSA agent as perhaps they were trying to make you feel better that you weren't getting singled out, but that was not at all what you needed, and not that helpful. Anytime our status (or skills) as a parent come into question, it feels like a personal attack. And to put your child through that makes you heart ache for them because you worry that they don't have a normal childhood and it's difficult for them to understand and the thought that they might be treated differently because of it is terrifying. I feel you. As an adult who was adopted, I can only say, keep your head up and just keep loving and talking to your daughter. My parents showed me I was loved and it didn't matter what anybody said, or what anybody else thought. I knew who my mom and dad were and that they loved me no matter what. As I'm sure your daughter does as well. You're doing everything right. Hang in there, mom!Read More