The children's book "Are You My Mother?" raises questions about identity, including those related to adoption.

Are You My Mother?: Dr. Seuss and Adoption

I’m always one to look for unique topics. While searching for a topic to add my thoughts and feelings to, I noticed one of the assignments said “Are You My Mother?: P.D. Eastman and Adoption” and I instantly decided to sign on. I’ve been an early childhood educator for nine years and basic literacy is paramount in early childhood education.

P.D. Eastman was a children’s author mentored by the famous Dr. Seuss. P.D. Eastman is a legend in early literacy because he targets many reading strategies in his stories. With the strategies comes a funny and quirky storyline that keeps the children engaged and eager to read more. His stories for small children use techniques such as rhyming, sight words, rhyming emphasis, and some repeated words and sentences for committal to memory.

Early readers gain more success with the strategies that P.D. Eastman produced over the years. With nonsense words and various themes, P.D. Eastman writes books that would help the children learn more about the world around them. I believe that focus on adoption is not intentional in the story Are You My Mother? but there is a hint of the identity aspect of adoption.

The book Are You My Mother? is the story of a bird that is searching for his mother. At the beginning of the story, his mother goes off to get food for her baby bird who is still in the egg. Once the egg hatches, the bird is confused and instantly goes for his mother. One important thing to note is that the bird could not fly. Thus, he had to search for his mother on foot. He goes to different objects and animals and asks them a simple question, “Are you my mother?” He did not know what she looked like, so if he were to see her, he would not know who she was.

The twist to the story was that he walked right by his mother. In his search, he asks a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a cow if they are his mother, but none of them are. Then he sees a car, which cannot be his mother for sure. In despair, the baby bird calls out to a boat and a plane, and at last, convinced he has found his mother, he climbs onto the teeth of an enormous power shovel.

A loud snort belches from its exhaust stack, prompting the bird to utter the immortal line, “Oh, you are not my mother! You are a Snort!” But as it shudders and grinds into motion, he cannot escape. “I want my mother!” he says. Then the shovel drops him back in his nest just as his mother is returning home. The two are united and the baby bird shares the story of his journey to finding her. He says the most famous part of the book and one that is often shared:

“Yes, I know who you are,” said the baby bird. “You are not a kitten. You are not a hen. You are not a dog. You are not a cow. You are not a boat, or a plane, or a Snort! You are a bird, and you are my mother.”

Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman

What is identity?

For me, the theme of the story is identity. Identity, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is the distinguishing characteristic of a person or an individual. With categories of identities, it connects people of the same identity together. For example, racial identity. For the most part, black people identify with black people when it comes to skin tone, cultural dynamics, and way of life.

Jennifer Jones in her article, How Can I Help My Child Get Through an Identity Crisis?, stated that “According to Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, between the ages of 12 and 18, adolescents explore their independence and in the process develop a sense of self. The sense of self develops through adolescents’ social interactions and their perception of where they fit within various social structures. All adolescents will struggle during this time to answer the questions of, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where do I fit in?’ but for the adoptee, this can be particularly difficult.” 

Why do some adoptive parents leave out this book with younger adoptees?

Some adoptive parents decide not to expose their students to the book because of two scenarios in the book: one being the mother bird went off to find food for the baby bird and left them and two, the bird goes from person to person to find its mother. This can serve as a reminder of going to foster home to foster home to find a “home.” Other adoptive families and adoptees comment that they had traumatic issues with the book and thought it was just a bird who was lost and was looking for its mother. They didn’t see much more with the story. I believe that both sides of the argument are important to consider when deciding to let a small child read the story. 

The Connection with the Bird and Adoptees

Search for the Birth Mother and/or Parents

The story of Are You My Mother? relates to adoption because the bird is constantly searching for someone with whom he can identify. The hatchling had a natural desire for a parental figure in their life. And not just any identity, but the animal or thing that can identify as his mother. For the adoptee, their birth parents are always a part of them, no matter how early or whatever the conditions under which their adoption took place. The birth parents are part of them. Thus having as much information about the birth parents as possible is key to helping the child when they research their background to find out more about their identity. 

Identity through Similar Characteristics

The bird could tell that the different animals and the objects were not his mother because they did not look like them. They didn’t even communicate like him. He even knew that the chicken was not his mother as well because she did not know how to communicate with him. Some adoptees look for people that not only look like them but who have their quirks and who communicate like them, just like the bird. 

While our son does have the same skin color that we do, many qualities are very different from ours. For example, our son is extremely athletic. He is very fast and can catch on to many things physically. My husband and I are not as athletic. We do basic things like long walks, hikes, and karate (my husband), but nothing that requires speed or competition. We know that one day, our son will be curious about where this athletic ability comes from.

Colleen Warner Colaner and Danielle Halliwell in their article, Who Am I? Adopted Individuals’ Identity Is Based in Adoptive and Birth Family Relationships, “Some individuals felt communication with their birth families helped explain aspects of their adoptive identity. Individuals talked about looking, acting, or sounding exactly like birth relatives despite having been raised by another family. This provided a lot of comfort for these individuals by explaining why adoptees were a certain way.

Adoptees experienced closure after learning this information, or, as one woman said, ‘I would come away with that sense of feeling explanation—things that were question marks now were periods. I get that now.’ Many people comment that our son, who is South African, would naturally identify with us because we are the same color. While there are many things about our son that are oddly similar to us and our family, we believe that one day, he is going to want to do a deeper search of himself as a South African. While he does look similar to my husband by skin tone and maybe some facial features, he is South African. We acknowledge that with the way we celebrate his culture in our home.

What do we do if our child is reaching an identity crisis?

Naturally, there will be a time that an adoptee is going to face an identity crisis. This is typical for all children, but it is more complicated for an adoptee because of the various layers of their background. Jennifer Jones has a wonderful list of things that adoptive parents can do to properly support their child that is going through an identity crisis.

Tell Their Story

Their story should not be something that is kept away from adoptees nor should their story be modified to fit the adoptive parents’ feelings. The story should be told at appropriate times. I know that we tell our son’s story little by little as time goes by and the information that we give him is what we think he can handle at his age. Having the birth parents and the adoptive parents work together to share the full and truthful story of the adoption helps to leave out any holes and helps to answer questions for the adoptee. Encourage openness with all parties so that feelings are shared.

Ask Questions

I believe that Jennifer Jones in her article about identity said it best. “Children struggling with an identity crisis are seeking clarity on who they are. One tool to help your child is simply to start a conversation. In my family, we talk openly about what makes someone Chinese? What makes someone Indian? How about what makes someone American? If our children are all three of these things then what characteristics define each of these traits? Is it language, race, traditions, holidays, foods?” With these backgrounds and the backgrounds of the adoptive parents, two different cultures can intersect. Everything does not have to be black and white. Allow them to get to the point that it is fine to have a diverse background.

Find Racial Mirrors

Jones explains that the term “racial mirror” refers to mentors whose race “mirrors” that of a child whose race is different from his or her parent/s. “In fact, the child may or may not be adopted, but racial mirrors are a key component in many transracial adoptions. Racial mirrors allow children to identify and develop positive feelings about their race while looking up to people of the same race, and possibly ethnicity, as they are”.

Find Community

Jones adds in her article that “social media is another wonderful tool. Online groups may be a good entrance into discussing the challenges adoptees face. There are also many blogs written by adoptees. Take some time, sit down, and read them together. Does anything resonate with your child? What posts do they agree with? What posts give voice to something they may have felt or experienced?”

Also, social media is a great place to find adoption groups and there are various articles on www.adoption.com or www.adopting.org or www.adoption.org

Be Open to Searching

There will come a day that the adoptee will want to find their birth parents. Jones adds that “the adoptee knows the world of the adoptive parents but the world of their birth parents may remain a mystery. Talk to your child about how they are feeling. If they want to search, let them search. If the only clue is the name of an orphanage half a world away, then start there. Wherever their search leads, support them through the journey.” It is best to offer all of the resources that you can to help them. 

Seek Outside Help

Jones says in her article that “But if your child continues to struggle, seek outside help. It is never too early to begin counseling, and the benefit of counseling is that it can provide the necessary tools for children to explore and articulate how they are feeling. Not sure where to begin? Consult your adoption agency and ask for recommendations of area specialists. Meet with the therapist in advance to gauge their experience level with adoption and to see if they are a good fit for your family.”

I believe that this book is open to all students and is developmentally appropriate for any small child to face identity. P.D. Eastman continues the theme of Dr. Seuss by writing words to teach children how to read and major themes that would help them tackle different issues that they would encounter growing up. Are You My Mother? is an important book when discussing identity for all children. It takes on a life of its own for adoptees but is still an important read based on the comfort level of the adoptee.

Photos provided by Deirdre Parker  P.D. Eastman Random House, 1960

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Deirdre Parker

Deirdre Parker is an early childhood educator in Washington DC. She proudly hails from Baltimore, MD where she received her BA in liberal studies from Notre Dame of Maryland University. She continued afterward to receive her BS in Music Therapy from Texas Woman's University and MS in Early Childhood Education from Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. She entered the adoption community with the adoption of her son from South Africa. When she is not at school teaching her “babies” and mentoring new early childhood educators; she is traveling, reading, writing, playing music, following politics, hiking, attending church, and cheering on the Ravens with her intelligent husband and her extremely bright 4-year-old little boy.