The hardest part of being a new mother was not the sleepless nights or constant crying, but more how people reacted to my daughter Aysha and me in public. One day I was carrying her to the bank when an employee came over to help me. “What a cute baby! Whose is it?”
I was so shocked that all I could muster was, “Excuse me?” She smiled at me, “So you are a nanny right… whose baby is this?” she asked.
When I answered that she was mine, I was met with laughter. “But you are SO dark,” she said. This was my initiation into the strange reactions and conversations which were awaiting us as my husband and I navigated society with our bi-cultural family.
I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia but my family is originally from Pakistan. We migrated to Australia when I was nine years old. My husband, Casey, is an eighth-generation Australian with ancestors linked to the Third Fleet. We met on one of our last days of university. He was walking past, and I said to my friend, “I think I know him.” To my embarrassment I didn’t know him, but as fate would have it she did, and immediately introduced us.
Fast forward seven years and we are married with two children.
"Having to convince people that I am Aysha’s mother, is equal parts ridiculous and painful."
Our journey to get married was tumultuous. We experienced family tensions and as the time progressed more and more people would ask “Is this really worth it?”. There was a great deal of opinion from extended family all over the world. For a long time, it felt like an ongoing international conference call with everyone weighing in on the debate. However, with much perseverance and conviction, we finally got there. We celebrated our marriage with ceremonies acknowledging both of our cultures.
There have been countless times since the bank incident that I have had to reassure strangers that Aysha is my daughter. One day a neighbour came over to inform us about the trees being cut down behind our house. He said to Casey, as he pointed at my fairer skinned sister, “So this must be your wife”. “No”, Casey replied, “she is”, he said, pointing at me.
The neighbour just shook his head and said, “But she doesn’t look anything like your daughter”. Having to convince people that I am Aysha’s mother, is equal parts ridiculous and painful. The fact is that she has my eyes, my smile, temperament and creative flair. People seem to get stuck on the colour difference. My husband has not faced the same questions from society about Aysha being his daughter. I often wonder if it is because she is fairer, like him, or that it is not as common for him to be questioned in society at all.
I know that people’s comments and reactions to my family come from a place of curiosity rather than malice.
More recently I was pregnant with my son and there was plenty of speculation of how this baby might look. By this stage I was well versed in the conversations around colour and appearance. Often, I would quip, “Well I am doing my part by sunning my belly… so he may be tanned!” or “It’s a huge gene pool, he could come out looking like anything!”. The humour is a defence mechanism, a way to beat people to the punch. Once my son Noah was born, the comments I received were exclamations that he looked “just like dad” or “a mini Casey”. Recently we were at a party and I had just finished feeding Noah and was holding him on my hip as we sang happy birthday and another father turned to me and asked, “Is this your baby?”
“Yes,” I answered. “He certainly is.” Noah is six months old and I know there are more questions awaiting me as he gets older and his features become more defined.
The experience of raising bi-cultural children has made me very aware of society’s preoccupation with colour. People do find it strange when children don’t look like their parents.
I know that people’s comments and reactions to my family come from a place of curiosity rather than malice. As more people engage in relationships outside their own culture, I think we will find it less surprising and more affirming to see families of all colours together.
Maryam Johnson is a freelance writer. You can follow along Maryam’s family journey on Instagram @featherandfable.