THE BLOG
05/13/2014 05:06 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2014

Motherhood When Your Child Is Different

David Sacks via Getty Images

Every child struggles with being different. We all somehow make our way through the awkward ages and phases of life trying so hard to fit in, to assimilate, to not pronounce our distinctions to the outer world. And then we become mothers to children that have to go through that very same cycle. Often, we feel the sting of "otherness" more acutely through the eyes of our children.

"Our differences are what make us special, right Mama?" My kindergartner son echoes my words back to me. The reality I don't tell him is that in America, some of our differences can get us profiled by the police as suspicious for being criminal, undocumented or terrorists. That is not exactly the happy message I want to share.

Mothers of any child face challenges starting with the day they bring a baby into the world. A mother has to learn to nurture and nourish her new baby. As our babies grow into children, we see that they are very aware of their differences from their peers. As child psychologist and University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer found when recreating the 1940s "Doll Test" in 2010, the tests

...showed that white children, as a whole, responded with a high rate of what researchers call "white bias," identifying the color of their own skin with positive attributes and darker skin with negative attributes. Spencer said even black children, as a whole, have some bias toward whiteness, but far less than white children. [1]

This is a difficult landscape to navigate, as there is a parental advocacy required when your child is different in some way from other children in their class. Our children's differences actually expose us to their (and our) innermost fears: fear of negative judgment, fear of being perceived as different or suspicious, fear of not fitting in or being bullied. We live in a society where there are multitudes of ways to be different; race, religion, ethnicity, gender, language, sexual orientation and varying abilities.

In my case, my son's difference as a Sikh boy with long hair tied into a topknot on his head means that every interaction with a stranger is potential for him to feel ostracized, misunderstood or bullied. How can a mother nurture her baby when everyone keeps staring at her child like he's an alien? It's an ongoing challenge -- 70 percent of the U.S. population does not know who a Sikh is, according to a recent study conducted by Stanford and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.[2] For many in the Sikh community raising boys like my son, the answer is communication and preemptive education. We answer questions on the street when we see the question marks in the air even before they are articulated. We educate our sons' peers before they can react negatively to his long hair and what he wears on his head. We talk to our kids about other people's perceptions of us so they can navigate the complexities of people's ignorance.

My son went to the nurse's office recently and found a substitute nurse there who greeted him with "You're Sikh, aren't you?" In that brief moment, he didn't have to explain his differences away in order to fit in, he was simply understood. I wish he and others like him could experience that kind of knowledge in every interaction. Instead, we'll keep laughing through the awkward moments when people don't understand his difference, and celebrate those instances when people do. Mother's Day for me is recognizing that so many other Mothers have similar struggles, and I thank them for being invaluable lessons and inspiration for us all on not merely tolerating diversity, but truly appreciating it.


Jasbir (Jesse) Kaur Bawa is an Assistant Professor of Lawyering Skills at Howard University School of Law. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF).

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/

[2] http://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/blogs/religion-world/os-turban-myths-exposed-in-sikh-study-20130924,0,7506.post