I didn't know what to think when I saw my son's skin tone, which was many shades lighter than mine and my husband's. My son's birth made me question everything about where I came from.

By MK Menon
Updated December 10, 2019
The author with her baby after delivery.
Courtesy of MK Menon

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. None of it was in the birth plan. My husband speeding down the highway as blood gushed out of me. Not a soul was in sight when my husband pulled the car up to the hospital entrance, so I gingerly exited the car not wanting to call for assistance. Waddling as though I was wearing a full diaper, I made my way to labor and delivery. Before I knew it, my pants were stripped off, and I was draped with a hospital gown and hooked up to an array of beeping and buzzing machines. The panic I thought I had put at bay sprung up as the nurse handed me blood transfusion papers to sign right after examining the growing pool of blood under me.

My husband walked in, looking as worried as I felt. One of the veteran nurses kept her hand on my shoulder as she explained that the rapid loss of blood was depressing my baby's heart rate and mine. Minutes later my OB-GYN walked in and broke the news that my son needed to come out immediately at 35 weeks via C-section. Both my son and I were at risk for fatal complications.

Soon after, the doctors whisked me into surgery. John Lennon’s voice filled the operating room as the doctors and nurses’ casual chatter transported me to another world. The spinal block took effect in minutes, numbing the lower half of my body. My husband sat on a stool next to me, giving me the play-by-play of what was happening as a curtain was positioned over my chest to block my view of the delivery. It wasn't long before I felt tugging and pressure on my abdomen right before a cry pierced the air. The doctor called my husband over to cut the cord. I caught a glimpse of my son before he was placed on the scale, not breaking his steady cry. Despite weighing less than 6 pounds, my first thoughts were, "How did that enormous baby come out of me?" and "Why is he so white?"

For months, leading up to the birth of my son, I heard birth stories filled with tears of joy, screams of pain, and bursting hearts of love. What I never heard about was what I experienced: complete confusion. I couldn't understand how my husband and I made this squirmy vanilla-white bub.

As my husband, a dark-complexioned Kenyan, carried my son over to me, their contrasting skin tones looked even more striking. For so many reasons, I couldn't comprehend how this wriggly newborn laying on my milk-chocolate chest was mine. I never imagined myself as a mother and even at that moment, it wasn't sinking in. Nonetheless, I found myself washed over with love for this tiny being. My son didn't realize it, but his existence represented a gift no other person on the planet could give me. He was the first and only relationship I had with a biological relative. Adopted as an infant from India with no solid knowledge or contact with my biological parents, my son represented the first branch of my known family tree.

The nurses snapped a few family photos before taking him away for a few tests. My husband trailed the nurse as the doctor explained the various tissues he was stitching up. Confusion over the color of my son crept into the foreground. For a split-second, I questioned whether I had slept with anyone else and forgot or perhaps was drugged and raped? These fleeting thoughts left as quickly as they entered as I knew such possibilities didn't exist. There was an undeniable, though whiter, resemblance to my husband. I, on the other hand, couldn't see any of myself in my son, which was only exacerbated by his ghost white tone.

The author and her family in the hospital.
Courtesy of MK Menon

After being stitched up and rolled into my maternity room, my husband updated me on the health of my son, who was being kept in the NICU for monitoring. Overall, our son was doing well. My husband joked, "Is there something you'd like to tell me?"

I knew he was trying to lighten the mood, now that the chaos of the delivery was behind us, but his comment didn't comfort me. Throughout the day, we commented about the coloring of our son in the presence of the medical staff, hoping they would interject and put our minds at ease. It was too uncomfortable to ask point-blank, "Why was our son white?" An entire day went by with this hanging cloud of uncertainty over us. Google searches revealed various explanations like vernix, a white, greasy substance that can be found on a baby's skin after birth. Or it could be due to the lack of melanin in the skin, the pigment that dictates coloring, which will eventually develop over time and upon exposure to sunlight. Of course, the complexity of genetics paired with the possibility of a fair skinned relative somewhere in one of our pasts could also explain the baby's coloring and this is what I kept circling.

I continued to question my own ethnicity. At 35, is this how I'm going to find out I'm half white? While for some, this seemed like a crazy explanation, for me, this was a valid question. Being part of a closed adoption meant I had no understanding of the circumstances surrounding my birth or even the ethnicity of my parents. I could only assume I was fully Indian. I have certainly considered turning to a genealogy company like Ancestry to see what it might uncover, but I keep vacillating on whether or not to do it. Aside from what the results might show, I am not sure it would really change how I relate to the world or how the world relates to me. But my nebulous past has crept into my present, time and time again like each time a doctor asked me about my family medical history. And on this already emotionally heavy day, I felt weighed down by my past to the point of suffocation.

When people talk about adoption, it's often in the context of a hopeful couple wanting to start or expand their family. They dote over the new addition to their family, a shiny new cherub, who has fulfilled their dreams and become a permanent fixture of their home. But what people forget is that this child will one day become an adult and forever carry around the baggage of adoption, shapeshifting in each unique situation. As an adoptee, I go through periods of intentional denial, wanting to rid myself of this thing that makes me different. Other times, I embrace my unique history, knowing it's inescapable. But, acknowledging this history doesn't immunize me from being distraught each time an adoption related issues sneak up on me, like on the day I gave birth to my son.

The author and her family in present day.
Courtesy of MK Menon

A few years have passed since that delivery day and despite my anxiety that my son wouldn't inherit any physical features of mine, each time I look at our clasped hands, I see tiny chubby fingers, indistinguishable in coloring from mine. My husband managed to capture my son and I belly-laughing on camera, displaying small dimples indenting both of our upper cheeks, which reflexively makes me smile each time I look at the photo.

On one hand, a small burden has been removed in that I can look at my son and know we are connected not only by love but through blood. On the other hand, it shocked me how badly I wanted to bear a miniature version of myself as if those shared physical features were a trophy to be won. But most importantly, I will be able to nourish this relationship for decades to come as I watch this tiny twig sprout into a strong branch from a trunk he will call Mom. His presence doesn't erase all the questions I have about my past, but it does give me confidence about understanding my future.

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