By Coco McCracken
After a long labor, my daughter was in my arms. She was so weightless I kept closing and opening my eyes to make sure she was really there. But yes – there she was, wriggling and cooing back at me with every blink of my disbelief.
I was exhausted, but filled with adrenaline. A staff administrator handed me a clipboard with more paperwork. As I passed my daughter to my husband, I tried to focus on the business side of birth. It took just a few moments to arrive at my least favorite part of any medical, government, or census form: “Select Your Race.”
My mother is Canadian, her mother was Irish, and her father was South African. My father is Canadian, his father and mother were Chinese. I am Canadian, and hopefully soon will be American. I didn’t see a box that encapsulated my identity. If I checked Caucasian or Asian, would I betray the other side of my family? Where does this information go? Who gets this information? Will I hear on the radio, down the line, some catch-all statistic that will become cocktail party fodder? Something like: “__% of Asian mothers give birth to babies with X, Y, or Z!” I wondered if I was contributing to a conversation so much bigger than myself, without really knowing it.
I jokingly asked the administrator, “What if I’m a couple of things? Can I partially shade in a few of these boxes here?” I started to look at the five boxes as a puzzle. Like a group project in school, or a mind bender puzzle: How can you turn these five shapes into 100?
The administrator didn’t join in the joke. Instead she responded with the furrowed brow of a detective trying to solve a mystery. “Oh boy, that’s a tough one,” she put her hand under her chin. I was confused that she had never been asked that question before. I knew Maine was predominantly white, but I was at the biggest hospital in the biggest city, I couldn’t have been the only mixed-race mom there. My desire to hold my daughter again outweighed my need to fight this frustrating question I didn’t really have the answer to.
“Well, my father’s parents were both Chinese,” I offer.
“Yes! Perfect, that makes the most sense. Check Asian for sure.”
Makes the most sense. I wondered if I should have continued trying to get a laugh out of her by telling her that the only non-mixed coupling in my family was due to an arranged marriage. But I was so loopy by the time I thought of that, she and her clipboard had disappeared down the hall.
My husband and I moved to Portland to raise our daughter in a place with four seasons. Being close to the ocean and close to culture was important to us. We’ve had the privilege of “playing Goldilocks” (trying a few out) with a few states around the continent, but it was Maine’s rugged shores, tall white pines, and Portland’s burgeoning downtown that called us home.
People joke with us that our baby is a Mainer because she was born here, but my husband and I never will be. It stings when Mainers ask me if I’m “from away” after barely meeting me. Then I realize that my parents and grandparents have been trying to answer that question all their lives too.
I’ve always hated answering the race question on forms, but something about doing it as a mother is making me think in the future tense. In the hospital bed, something like defiance swept through my veins, but it could have also been the pain killers. My husband placed my daughter back in my arms and defiance was replaced with confidence. I can’t imagine trying to decipher what box my daughter will have to check one day. However, I must remember to tell her to do the next best thing – question why is there a box to begin with?
Coco McCracken (she/her/hers) is a photographer & writer who lives in Portland with her daughter and husband. Born in Toronto, Canada, Coco has always been interested in writing about the intersectionality of place, race, and identity. She currently has a newsletter called Coco’s Echo, and is working on her first book.