You don’t have to share DNA to be a family.
It is a typical Saturday morning. I struggle through the grocery store, the toddler threatening to jump from the cart to find the fish, the 10-year-old reminding me we’re out of grape juice and asking if can we please get a new kind of ice cream. He manages to get out. She chases him through the frozen foods and tackles him; I dump him back in the cart, where he’s bribed with a bagel to sit in his seat. By the time I manage to steer them to the checkout lane, I’m exhausted, ready to take a swig from the wine bottle teetering on top of the oranges.
After this, we can all go home, put the food away, have lunch and hopefully nap. Finally, the food is up on the conveyor belt; I fix my ponytail, kiss my son on the forehead while my daughter picks out a pack of gum. She likes the new kinds, flavored like apple pie and other desserts. What beautiful blue eyes, the woman behind us inevitably says, does he get them from his father? Or, wow, she’s very tall for her age; her father must be tall.
Mostly, in response to all those comments from well-meaning but impolite acquaintances and strangers, I’ve said something to the effect of genetics works in strange ways. Or, sometimes, there are light eyes on both sides of the family. Or, my father is tall.
All these statements are true, though they really don’t address the underlying questions and assumptions.
If you don’t know me—if we’re having this conversation in the checkout lane at the grocery store—if you don’t know if I adopted my kids or gave birth to them, if I’m married or single, if I got knocked up from a one-night-stand or conceived at the clinic with the help of a donor egg, donor sperm, or donated embryos, why are you asking me anything about my family at all?
And if you do know something of my family-building history but not enough that I’ve shared the gory details with you, do you really think asking me a question like that is going to warrant a forthcoming answer?
More to the point, what are you really asking?
I’m an adult. Mostly those questions don’t bother me except those moments they push at the tender buttons of a long struggle with infertility. But what kind of message does that send to my kids?
My daughter, splashing in the bath with her brother the other day, said he doesn’t look like he belongs in this family. Other days, she’ll longingly question why he got the blue eyes and she didn’t, and generally I tell her that when he grows up, he might want to be tall like her or have dark brown hair.
But clearly, smart as she is, she’s internalized a message that tells her that families look like each other because they share DNA. And while that’s never really been true—genetics really do work in strange ways—it’s even more true in an era of the “postmodern” or “nontraditional” family, where families are often cobbled together from second marriages and step-kids, adoptions and foster children, not to mention more high-tech approaches to family building, involving donor gametes and gestational carriers.
As I shampoo the blond hair that my son clearly didn’t inherit from me, I am all too aware of how often in casual conversation people make comments about what holds families together. That they look alike. Or, share the same tastes in foods or interests (as my mother said in response to my toddler’s penchant for carbs, he’s certainly in the right family).
But people are different; they look different, they like different things, even when they share DNA and a home environment. So, if the cultural critic in me knows that these kinds of comments suggest an anxiety about changing family forms and reproductive technologies, as a mother, I’d like people to just shut up.
Yes, my kid has beautiful blue eyes…can we leave it at that?
Tonight the three of us are crowded into our small upstairs bathroom. After the kids have toweled off and put on pajamas, my son stands on a stepstool and chews on his toothbrush while my daughter endlessly brushes her hair in front of the mirror, curling the dark strands. I take my contacts out and find my glasses in the medicine cabinet.
It’s a small bathroom, really designed for one person, not a whole family. The basket holding the bath toys falls down as we shift places, moving around each other, moving toward stories and bed. But for a moment I can see all of us in the long mirror on the door, covered with watermarks and toddler fingerprints. “Down,” the little one says; his sister picks him up, and they kiss each other with an exaggerated mwah.
It’s true we don’t look alike in some predictable ways, but there’s also no question: We look like a family.
Robin Silbergleid is the author of the chapbook Pas de Deux: Prose and Other Poems (Basilisk Press, 2006), as well as Frida Kahlo, My Sister (Finishing Line Press) and the memoir Texas Girl (Demeter Press), both forthcoming in 2014. She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Michigan State University, and raises her two children. You can find her on Twitter @RSilbergleid.