June 28, 2012 at 7:13 AM ET
By Pamela Sitt
Babies often take after one parent or another -- my own daughter is the spitting image of her dad -- but what happens when the resemblance is so one-sided that perfect strangers assume you're not the mom?
As a black woman whose three children were born with her Spanish husband's pale skin and straight hair, Lori L. Tharps has been mistaken for the nanny on more than one occasion.
"Walking around in Brooklyn, people just assumed I was the nanny," she says. "One woman actually suggested I get DNA testing done because perhaps my baby had been switched at the hospital -- 'because they can make mistakes,' is what she said."
Black nannies with white charges were a common sight in the Fort Greene neighborhood where Tharps and her husband lived when their now 11- and 7-year-olds were babies. Still, says Tharps, who is now an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University: "As a black woman, being mistaken for a domestic worker -- that definitely smarts."
Especially for darker-skinned moms of light-skinned children, being mistaken for the nanny or babysitter is a common occurence -- sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating.
Putting a parent's face with a matching baby is a natural -- albeit not always accurate -- human reaction, according to cultural anthropologist Michael Baran.
"I think it's fascinating the way our minds work, in terms of breaking people up into neatly bounded categories," says Baran, director of Cambridge Diversity Consulting in Cambridge, Mass. "That's what makes people think twice when a kid seems to be of a different racial group than one of the parents."
Angelica Duffy's Irish husband is so fair, he gets a sunburn even when it's raining -- which it does plenty where they live in Portland, Ore. Not only did their two kids inherit their father's light eyes and reddish-blond hair, but to further confuse matters, Duffy -- who is Bolivian and raising her kids bilingual -- speaks to them only in Spanish.
"I feel like people are thinking, 'Oh, it's the Mexican nanny who doesn't speak English,'" says Duffy. She often gets roundabout comments from curious onlookers who ask things like, oh, where did your son get his curly hair?
"I have curly hair, but people still ask where he got his curly hair from," Duffy says. "I'm like, 'From me!'"
It's not just minority moms who are on the receiving end of wrong assumptions. Caucasian moms -- and dads -- with mixed-race babies may be asked about adoption or completely overlooked as the parent.
In Seattle, Wendy Ogunsemore is used to bystanders who don't immediately connect her to her cocoa-skinned, dark-eyed children. Both kids take after her husband Olugbenro, who's black.
"I often get people who walk up to my daughter and ask where her mom is, when I'm standing right next to her," she says. "It bothered me the first few times, but I realized that people were generally just curious, trying to help or giving them a compliment.
"And the reality is that my kids don't have my red hair and blue eyes, so I just try to remind myself about the characteristics they did get from me."
Some moms shrug it off, some are hurt, and others use it as an opportunity to educate. Tharps, who has written about the topic on her blog, My American Meltingpot, has done it all. By the time her third child was born in 2011, she expected the comments and now corrects people with an open mind: "Sometimes, it ends up being a great conversation."
But even after a decade to get used to it, she doesn't discount the impact of the hurtful words of a well-meaning stranger.
"It's not just embarrassing -- it actually hurts on a deeper level to know that people don't see a biological connection between you and your child," she says. "You start to worry about those what-ifs. If my kid got lost, would anybody connect me to my child?"
Pamela Sitt has not yet been mistaken for the nanny ... but that day is coming. When it does, she'll blog about it on www.clarasmom.com.