Yes, I'm brown. No, I'm not the nanny

UP WITH THE KIDS, by Robyn Wilder
Illustration by Naomi Wilkinson • Originally published in The Pool, 2016

I am in Waterstones, pushing my son in his pram. We are on the hunt for an indestructible book, because my son has destroyed all his books so completely he might be a book-Terminator sent back from some anti-book future. 

Suddenly, a woman comes up and asks how much I charge. 

“Charge for what?” I ask, confused. 

The woman casts an eye over my son’s blue eyes and blond hair, then lets her gaze linger on my beige skin and (slightly unkempt) black hair. When she next speaks, her voice is slow and deliberate. “Your English is very good. How long have you been au pairing in this country?” 

My insides shrivel. As a beige person, I’m used to the odd idiot coming up, assuming I’m straight off the boat (even if I was born in rural Sussex), and asking where I’m “really” from. 

This is the first time it’s happened since I became a mother, though. I want this woman to go away. I want to curl up protectively around my son. Instead, I laugh.

'This little boy is my son.' I start to move past her, but she stops me, aghast. 'Your son?' She gasps. 'Your natural son? From your own egg? Was it IVF?'

“What a compliment!” I tell her. “I’m far too aged to be an au pair, so this has made my day. And this little boy is my son.” I start to move past her, but she stops me, aghast. “Your son?” She gasps. “Your natural son? From your own egg? Was it IVF?” 

Everything’s happening too quickly for me to realise how inappropriate these questions are, so I answer them. Yes, my own son. Yes, my own egg. No IVF. 

“Well,” the woman concludes, clearly flabbergasted. “Well, I must say. He doesn’t look black at all.” Then she walks away. 

And she’s right. My son doesn’t look black. Neither do I. That’s because neither of us is black. I’m a sort of indistinct beige, the result of mixed European and Asian parentage, and my son is blond, like his father.

IMAGE: Stuart Heritage 

Mentally, I chalk this odd exchange up as one of those things but, in reality, it affects me deeply. 

Suddenly, my senses are alive to every gaze in the street that flicks between my son and me more than once. Every stare that lands on my family when we’re all out together. 

I tense up when people get in-between my husband and me on an escalator. Or, if we queue for something altogether, and I’m asked separately for my order. Or even when friends and family look musingly on my son’s yellow curls and say, “It’s so weird, because you’re so dark.” 

I realise I’m being unfair. My son and I do look different, even if, according to my husband, we “have the same exact face”. Lots of people look different from their children and I’m sure they’re not all as twitchy in public as I am. 

And yet. I’m drinking a coffee on a park bench one afternoon, my son napping in his pram beside me. “Oh, look,” a nearby woman says to her friend. “That baby’s been left alone.” 

And yet. An old lady on the bus, apropos of nothing, congratulates me on being kind enough to “take the little boy out and give his mummy a break”. 

A man comes up in the supermarket, points at my son and baldly asks, “Adopted?” 

And the standing joke among some of the women at a local playgroup is that they’ll “check the hospital records” because my son and I look so unalike. One day, when I feel this joke has gone on too long, something inside me snaps. “Actually,” I laugh, “I swapped him for another lady’s baby at birth.” I laugh, but no one else does. 

My son, though, doesn’t mind the difference. He grins at beige-skinned people in the street and, if he sees a woman with long, dark hair like mine, he will smile shyly at her and show her his dimples. 

I am in a park, watching my toddler son trying to scramble up the slide the wrong way. A little girl approaches and asks if he is my baby. I tell her he is and her tiny brow furrows. “But he has blond hair and white skin,” she says slowly. “And you have black hair and browny skin.” 

“Yes,” I reply. “And my little boy’s daddy has blond hair and white skin, and so did my daddy. Sometimes, when you mix up colours like that, you get grown-ups like me and babies like him.” 

The little girl considers this, then shrugs: “OK. I can do roly-polies. Want to see?” “Yes, please,” I tell her. Because people will always notice the difference between my son and me. Some will point this out; some will take the uneducated view that the difference means that mischief is afoot. 

All I can do is tell people the facts and then let them tie themselves in knots if they are determined to. 

Up With The Kids was Robyn Wilder's parenting column that ran on from 2015 to 2019, when the site closed, and Robyn founded this Patreon.

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