Rose: Russell Saunders (a.k.a. Batman’s Primary Care Provider, arch-nemesis of the anti-vax crowd, and certified Franco-skeptic) has been my bestest best friend since 1997. Unsurprisingly given our throughly genteel and urbane sensibilities, we met in an AOL chatroom devoted to Simpsons trivia. (Seriously. That is actually how we met.)
I did my best to persuade him that New York City is the best fishin’ city in the universe, although I’ll allow that the city itself may also have played a role in Russell’s deciding to move there in 1999. Only six blocks away from each other, we lived the life of childless Manhattanites — albeit with significantly more TV-watching and fewer art gallery openings than Stanford and Carrie in Sex and the City.
Fifteen years later, neither of us are in Manhattan. We now have husbands and reliable cars. We live in the suburbs. We no longer regularly blow wads of cash on tipsy dinners at upscale restaurants. And…the children. Dear me, the children. Won’t somebody stop thinking of the children? It seems like every time I sneeze, one of us is telling the other about a new baby. Between us, we have seven kids under the age of seven. Probably not what I would have predicted in 1999.
In one sense, ours is not an unusual story. Friends get older, have families, etc. We recently realized, however, that we have something else in common besides wading armpit deep in diapers and sippy cups. It’s the fact that strangers regularly rush up to tell us, “You have such a beautiful family.” Most families, I’m sure, get comments on how cute their kids are. This is different. Both of us, it seems, have the kind of family of whom people wish to express their approval. Who embody some kind of value. They want us to know that they appreciate our families. We decided to co-write an article about what it’s like to have such a beautiful family.
Russell: Ah, yes. 1999. The year we became neighbors as well as friends. The year I formed a me-shaped indentation on your couch in between on-call shifts. The year I learned to stop worrying and take an illegal sub-let from a mutual friend with whom neither of us are in touch any longer, and whose unpleasant personality we finally agreed to stop pretending to find charming.
No, you’re right. I don’t think I could possibly have predicted the sheer mass of juvenile humanity with which I now dwell. The laundry that does not seem so much to accumulate as reproduce. The reality that on the miraculous days the children all slumber until 7 AM, it feels like sleeping in to a sinfully luxurious hour.
Back in the days when the George W. Bush presidency was a mere promise of disaster instead of the memory of one, I never would have guessed that I would one day be packing four children under 5 onto a plane alongside a husband far less unnerved by the prospect than I, and then sitting with them as we crossed three time zones. I regret to admit that the Better Half is far better at ignoring or shrugging off the negative attention of others, but I stepped onto that plane praying that we wouldn’t be that family. You know, the one with the crying infant or truculent children. “Please,” I implored the travel gods, “let this go smoothly.”
I needn’t have worried. Not only did the kids handle every flight we took on our vacation with aplomb (I’m going to knock on wood as I type this, but so far flying with the kiddos has always turned out much better than I always fear), but our family received so many beaming smiles and gushing comments we were practically the in-flight entertainment.
[Aside: attention random passers-by! I feel generally OK with the “you have a beautiful family!” comments that are the main thrust of this post. (Stay tuned!) I feel… less so about the “what a big family you have!” ilk, a la “You must have your hands full!” or “Need another kid?” Your observations are not as droll as you seem to think. I’m not quite sure what point you’re trying to make, and politely request you put a sock in it. Thanks.]
Now, it bears mentioning that my kids are all genuinely cute. Really. I’m not just saying that. Telling me I have a beautiful family seems to be stating an aesthetic truth, at least as far as the children are concerned. Plus, everyone seems to fall all over themselves when they see twins, and so our two youngest would probably get a lot of attention no matter the composition of the family as a whole. When people make their happy comments, I believe they mean them.
But the comments about the beauty of our family seem to be about more than the kids’ pulchritude, manifest as it may be. People seem to be approving of the moral beauty of our family. They see our family with the two dads and the children of different races (three of our kids are biracial Hispanic/African-American), and they want us to know that our kind of family is beautiful, at least to them. “You have a beautiful family” comprises approval and reassurance of that approval. It communicates that our interlocutor is the kind of person who thinks same-sex parenting is aces. I call it the “Whole Foods” glow, for the location where our mere presence seems to validate everything the other customers like to think of themselves.
Truth be told, even though these comments are as much about the commenter as they are about my actual family, they don’t bother me. It seems churlish to object to the obvious good intentions of people who really are being as charming as they can to me and my family. Plus, since I still worry (though less and less with time) about the more ambiguous glances communicating disapproval of my two-dad household, I’m not going to pretend that the reassurance isn’t a little bit welcome, even if it’s mostly signaling on the speaker’s part.
But I suspect you and I might feel differently about that last part?
Rose: I do feel a bit differently, but not entirely.
For the record, I have three boys. The second of my children, whom I have called James on this blog, was born with a Ridiculously Rare chromosomal rearrangement. He has severe psychomotor and cognitive disabilities.
[Aside: the equivalent comment we get to the comments on the size of your family is, “So, are you going to try for a girl next time?” Ha ha ha ha haaa….haaaaa…ehhhhh….not really.]
I think James, like our other two kids, is very cute, and he is the only one of our kids who managed to rummage through the recesses of our Italo-Jewish genes and wind up with lovely blue-green eyes. Because I think he might be hard to visualize from description, here’s a pic. His behavior includes stimming, tics, and a tendency to stare into the middle distance. These are liberally interspersed with wide grins, attempts to join conversations (he’s not gonna let any ol’ inability to speak hold him back), and vigorous sign language demands that his interlocutor sing to him.
James is unmistakably disabled, given his wheelchair and behavior. His facial features also announce genetic difference. People in general don’t comment on my kids’ cuteness (as opposed to their noble beauty) unless we are out without James. One exception to this: someone behind us in line at a store looked back and forth repeatedly between James and my oldest, Thomas, then gestured toward Thomas and said, “Well, he’s cute.” Lovely. The most dramatic positive reaction we ever got was from a woman who literally ran and caught up to us in a parking garage. She gushed over James, teary-eyed, about how amazing “these children” are. Then she asked if she could kiss his feet.
So here are some thoughts as to why you and I might have different reactions to the comments:
1) There is not a vocal, politically powerful segment of the population that believes that my husband and I should not be married or parents. There are no laws anywhere preventing our parenting children. The negative reactions in public to your family are felt to be moral opposition. Our negative reactions are visceral: they involve sidling away, mocking teenagers, and (somewhat ironically, I like to think) open-mouthed stares.
James is notorious for suddenly holding the hands or grabbing the arms of strangers in public and smiling up at them. To my eternal surprise and gladness, people are almost always charmed by this. There is no winning-over that can be done in your case.
2) Those who believe that children like my son should be aborted or killed generally are ashamed to admit it. Except philosophers and internet trolls, who lack acquaintance with the concept of shame. See here for the most famous, fatuous, and influential philosophical argument for modern-day liberal eugenics. NB: advocates modify “eugenics” with “liberal” to indicate a rejection of state-sponsored eugenics, not because they promote free-wheeling willy-nilly eugenics. As a philosopher and blogger, I’m pretty sure I wade far deeper in this muck than anyone who has a real job. My bioethics syllabus includes many articles advocating such. Retweets and syllabus readings are not endorsements.
But no matter how often this song plays on my particular radio, disability rights groups are far more organized, well-funded, and politically powerful than philosophers and trolls. There are no ableist rights groups that have sit-ins to block the building of ADA-mandated ramps. I never worry that some stranger in public will confront my family about it.
3) I imagine people say it to you in a happy, friendly way. People usually say it to us in a very solemn, earnest tone. Which is fine, of course, but if you’re having fun on the beach with your family, it’s a bit of a bring-down to politely accept solemnity.
4) While it is not the case that all homophobes are racist or vice versa, it is usually the case that people who wish to declare their opposition to homophobia also wish to declare their opposition to racism. And shop at Whole Foods. You pretty much know the folks who are saying it to you and what they are trying to say.
5) On the contrary, I am uncertain of the agenda of the person saying it to me. Here are the general categories:
Some say it because they oppose abortion and wish to express approval of James’s patent unabortedness.
Similar to your Whole Foods glow, some wish to express acceptance of those with disabilities.
Some wish to begin a religious conversation, expressing such views as James is a gift from God, or that God does not give you any burden you can’t handle.
Some use it as a preface to introduce the fact that they know/love/work with/volunteer for someone with disabilities. I have actually made friends this way.
As might be imagined, my response varies depending on the motivation of the person who is telling me my family is beautiful.
What do you think?
Russell: First of all, all three of your kids are cute. And as James’s godfather, I am now struggling with a desire to inflict grievous physical harm on that person standing behind you in that line. The world, it is full of schmucks.
Yes, I think any variance between your reaction and mine is largely due to the political implications (or lack thereof) that our families respectively represent. If there are people who believe that families like yours should not exist, their beliefs are generally viewed as so shameful as to not bear public expression. There is, blessedly, not a politically active eugenics movement within our country. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are quite happy to express the belief that I ought not to be able to call my husband that, to say nothing of being parents. (I’ve had the privilege of “un-friending” a few I’ve known since high school on Facebook.) I can still reasonably fear encountering people who are genuinely hostile to the notion of my family existing at all.
And yes, you’re right about the tone. People who express a belief that my family is beautiful typically do so in the lilting way that they compliment children’s cuteness in general. It doesn’t seem freighted with meaning in the way your comments do, even though I know there’s more than a statement about cuteness behind it. I imagine it would be more trying if, every time someone said something about my family’s beauty in solemnly approving tones, I felt compelled to say “I know” and gaze at them with placid profundity, it would get on my nerves, too.
Sadly, my daughter is yowling from her crib with something other than placid profundity, and so I must draw this conversation to a close. I am grateful for both of our beautiful families, and that though we may have lost access to Ollie’s, after all these years we still have each other.