The book opens in 1985 as Rebecca, an aspiring poet, is giving birth to her first child, Jacob. Weighed down by the responsibilities of new motherhood and struggling to nurse, she meets Priscilla Johnson, a lactation consultant. The women bond over a shared admiration for Princess Di, and Priscilla helps Rebecca nurse Jacob for the first time. Overwhelmed by her infant son, unsure whether her breast milk — and her love — can nurture him, and craving time to write, Rebecca persuades Priscilla to come and work for her as Jacob’s nanny.
As they discuss the propriety of leaving the hospital job that her daughter Cheryl, a nurse, went to some trouble to arrange for her, Priscilla drops hints about her life, but Rebecca is too preoccupied with getting what she wants to engage her as an equal: “It wasn’t about Priscilla needing money, though Rebecca assumed she did; it was that she needed Priscilla […] Rebecca wanted to have her way. Hadn’t it been thus, her whole life? She wanted, and she received.”
And so the pattern is set, not only for her relationship with Priscilla but with everyone with whom she interacts. Rebecca gets what she wants while telling herself that what she wants is also good for other people.
While Priscilla takes care of Jacob, Rebecca retreats to her office:
[N]othing happened there but you pretended and it seemed like something might […] Rebecca wasn’t writing, but everything felt different and better. Perhaps she’d been struggling not with the baby but with the loneliness of spending all her time with someone who could not talk to her.
Still, she can’t bring herself to ask Priscilla the personal questions one would ask in a friendship, and most of the daily chitchat revolves around Rebecca.
Soon, Jacob is two, Rebecca has won a prestigious poetry prize, and Priscilla is pregnant. Rebecca and her husband, Christopher, argue over whether Priscilla will continue to be their nanny after she has her own baby — Rebecca cannot fathom giving up Priscilla, who not only has made it possible for her to write but has also become the closest thing she has to a friend. The debate becomes moot when Priscilla dies in childbirth. Expecting her own baby, Cheryl agrees when Rebecca offers to take baby Andrew home while they figure things out: “You had to believe the deus would emerge from the machina […] It seemed, suddenly, quite clear, that Rebecca could be that deus.”
In transracial adoption circles, this is called a white savior complex. A black baby needs saving, a white woman sees herself as the savior, and, notwithstanding a forceful statement in 1972 from the National Association of Black Social Workers “against the placement of Black children in white homes for any reason,” the adoption system is rigged in her favor.
While it’s clear that Rebecca is woefully ill-equipped to prepare Andrew for the racism that he will face as a black man in the United States, Alam deftly presents the knotty quandary of transracial adoption: Andrew’s mother is dead. No father has come to claim him. His sister has her own family and can’t take care of him. Isn’t it better that Rebecca adopt him, giving him a life of unconditional love and all the privileges that go to the son of a wealthy white family, rather than let him languish in foster care while he waits for a black family to adopt him?
Though it roils her marriage, Rebecca resolves to keep Andrew, telling herself it’s “a debt owed” to Priscilla. Christopher agrees in the end, but he quite reasonably accuses Rebecca of thinking only of herself while ignoring the potential repercussions of adopting a black child.
As they go through the adoption proceedings, Rebecca frets that Andrew’s unknown father will return to claim the baby. The adoption lawyer reassures her, saying, “Rebecca, there is not a judge in this state who is going to privilege the objections of a black man over those of a white woman. Not one.” Six months after his birth, and a little less than halfway through the novel, Andrew officially becomes a Stone. Christopher, the sole heir to his parents’ fortune, even writes Andrew into his will.
Up to this point, I had been struggling to connect to the story. The abundant dialogue is wooden and awkward. Every character speaks in elegant but dispassionate sentences, and they all — her British husband, her black nanny, even her tweener son — sound like Rebecca. The conversational flow is frequently interrupted by her inner monologue as she reacts to what someone has just said with a random memory or impression that always brings the spotlight back to her. And though Alam grew up in the area, there is a Google Maps quality to his descriptions of Washington, DC, and its environs — a mention of Woodley Park here, Greenbelt there, but no real feeling of place.
The biggest obstacle, however, is Rebecca herself. Swaddled in her life of white privilege, Rebecca is selfish, self-centered, and, as she admits, uninterested in other people. Big events, such as Priscilla’s death, are over in a page or two, and they’re followed by long passages of Rebecca flitting through her daily life, holding one-sided conversations, musing on the success of her writing career, and countering the gloomy thoughts of others with her best-of-all-possible-worlds positivism. She brushes off Christopher’s professional woes and remains blissfully unconcerned even as he worries about the possibility of going to jail in the BCCI scandal. She parries Cheryl’s observations about the dire state of race relations with her determined optimism.
Finally, it hits me: That Kind of Mother is not about transracial adoption at all. It’s about white privilege.
And therein lies the quiet brilliance of this novel. It is not an earnest condemnation of Rebecca, or a heart-rending screed on racism in our society, or a sentimental tale of nature versus nurture. Rather, it’s the portrait of one woman who blithely adopts a black child because, to quote another adopter, “the heart wants what it wants.” Little by little, through Rebecca’s daily interactions and private thoughts, Alam subtly reveals her enormous egotism, showing rather than telling what kind of person she is.
While she hates that a fellow mom presumes that Andrew is a crack baby, Rebecca enjoys the buzz she’s caused among the other mothers at his day care:
[She] was a legend. Word of what they had done had spread, metastasized. This was a sort of fame and Rebecca thought of Diana, a midlength skirt, the red-headed prince at her hip. Everyone loved Diana and everyone admired Rebecca.
Diana, that glamorous hugger of AIDS babies, is Rebecca’s role model of perfect womanhood. Her attachment is so abiding that when Diana and Charles divorce she deems her marriage to Christopher over. Seeking a version of Princess Di for Andrew, she fixates on The Cosby Show: “This is the man I want you to be, Rebecca was telling him. I want you to be Bill Cosby.” When she reminisces about watching the final episode of the show, Cheryl mentions that she was watching news reports on the L.A. riots instead. As usual, Rebecca passes up the opportunity to discuss the painful realities of race relations and continues to wax rhapsodic about The Cosby Show as incontrovertible evidence of social progress.
Alam sows these subversive seeds throughout the narrative with glancing references to people and events that seemed admirable back in the 20th century but have since been revealed as pernicious, even criminal.
It’s not that Rebecca doesn’t know racism exists. Early in her relationship with Priscilla, she even recognizes it in herself: “Rebecca worried about her tendency to think of Priscilla as some impossible-to-solve mystery: at worst it was some misguided sense that her blackness rendered her other, instead of human.” But once she adopts Andrew, her gift for optimism takes over. If she acts as if color doesn’t matter, then it won’t. She’s always gotten her way in life, so why not in this little matter of race, too?
After Cheryl’s husband is pulled over and humiliated by the police for Driving While Black, he and Cheryl urge Rebecca to have “the talk” with Andrew, but she protests that he’s still too young and denies that it is needed:
They had transcended that stuff. Bill Clinton was the first black president! Rebecca had given Andrew — and Jacob, too, both of them — Bill Cosby, and Michael Jackson, and Michael Jordan, and Thurgood Marshall, and Oprah Winfrey. They had a picture book about Martin Luther King.
Rebecca thinks she’s done enough by “giving” Andrew these examples of black excellence, of what America lets you become no matter the color of your skin. It never occurs to her that by not having the talk with Andrew, she is endangering his life.
Alam leaves Rebecca and her patchwork family on the precipice of the new millennium. Andrew has yet to enter adolescence, 9/11 is two years away, Trayvon Martin is four years old. Rebecca has just won an important poetry award, and, naturally, her confidence in the future is boundless: “I believe we will do history proud. I believe we will heal the hole in the sky. I believe we’ll create a world in which my black son and my white son will be judged equals.”
Ah, and that dream seemed so tantalizingly close. The United States did elect its first truly black president, and during the Obama years Rebecca must have felt fully vindicated. Here was proof that all “that stuff” had been transcended — and all she had had to do was want it hard enough.
Unless, of course, Andrew didn’t survive into the Obama years, or survived but just barely, or became estranged from his white mother in order to survive. I grew up on those same suburban streets of white privilege, the only Asian in the room, on my street, at the party, in my friend group. I know how wearing and draining the microaggressions and casual racism can be, even (especially) when they come from friends and family. I know what’s coming for Andrew: the steady erosion of self-confidence, the identity issues, the alienation even from those to whom you are most closely “related” (already he’s heard his brother say, “He’s not even a part of our family”), the eventual reckoning with the trauma of adoption.
If Rebecca still lives in Bethesda, where transracial adoption is now commonplace, she no doubt sees herself as some sort of brave trendsetter, a proud pioneer who refused to see color and only saw love. I am sure that many readers of this powerful and thought-provoking novel will agree with her. But from the other side of the adoption relationship, I see something darker: a self-serving act in the guise of a good deed.
Transracial adoption is enjoying a certain vogue in publishing these days, but most recent novels on the subject have eschewed nuance for self-righteous moralizing and cheap sentimentality. With That Kind of Mother, Rumaan Alam has written a thoughtful tale of transracial adoption that lays bare the good, the bad, and the ugly without clobbering the reader over the head. It’s a story of family relations, yes, but also of race relations, and even though the story ends in 1999, it has a lot to tell us about the state of our country today.
Alice Stephens’s debut novel, Famous Adopted People, will be published by Unnamed Press October 16.