You Have Such a Beautiful Family

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Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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61 Responses

  1. Avatar zic
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    says:

    I’m jealous. My family was/is totally mundane, and if no notice if they were well behaved. The only looks, comments I got were when they were obnoxious on planes and in grocery stores; and of course, my husband, when out and about with them, often drew odd comments from people wondering where I was.

    It is rather odd to me that it’s socially acceptable to make stray comments about family that one would not make sans children; there is something about the presence of children opening the family to the participation of the village. From that perspective, I thank you both for providing an education into the diversity of the village. It’s a burden, and you shoulder it with aplomb.Report

  2. Avatar Darwy
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    says:

    I get odd looks when I’m out in public with my daughter and son.

    I can understand some of it – my daughter is very openly affectionate with me – she’ll still hold my hand on occasion and swing back and forth.

    She’s 23.

    My son is 6. People assume that my daughter and I are sisters, or that my son is actually my daughter’s child.

    Add in the fact I’m almost 7 months pregnant with #3 (and the last – unless my husband decides to carry the 4th himself) – people normally stare at the 3.5 of us with their jaws hanging.

    “She’s 23? She’s yours? You’re pregnant again? There’s going to be nearly 24 years between your oldest and youngest???” “Couldn’t you have spaced them better??”

    To which I normally reply, “Yes, she’s 23. Yes, she’s mine. Yes, I am pregnant again. Your gradeschool math teacher should be proud.” and “Well, if I thought I could get pregnant at 60, I might have tried to space them better…”

    People seem to have no ‘filter’ when it comes to making comments about families with kids.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Darwy
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      says:

      Hearing about your daughter being openly affectionate with you warms my heart. One of the joys of my life is that my daughter is and has been – all through her teenage years – very openly affectionate her mother, often resulting in the same types of comments from strangers – that they must be sisters. (She’s been like that with me, too, tho too a lesser extent.) All I can figure is that USAmericans’ default view of children is that they will have – or perhaps even should have – an antagonistic relationship with their parents. Which is sorta whacked, in my view.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Darwy
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      says:

      I cannot believe people say you couldn’t have spaced them better. Except, of course, I can.

      I too love hearing about your 23 year old being so openly affectionate. I hope I have a close loving relationship with my sons when we’re adults. One of our jokes about James is that we at least have one kid who will never be embarrassed hugging his mom in public.Report

  3. Avatar RTod
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    says:

    Ya know, the two of you are the worst people to write this piece, because your families actually ARE beautiful. Pretty ridiculously so, really.

    Still, great post.Report

  4. Avatar Patrick
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    says:

    I think Darwy pretty much nailed it with, People seem to have no ‘filter’ when it comes to making comments about families with kids.

    My sister is the parent of one-(soon-to-be-two) 1/2 Korean 1/2 Western European (mostly Irish/German) Mutt. She gets comments that I admit I find really amusing but they’re clearly in the category of “thank you for expressing an opinion about something that’s really not your business”.

    But it happens to everybody, my own family included. Because people don’t have a filter when it comes to kids (or parenting, for that matter).Report

    • Avatar Wyrmnax in reply to Patrick
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      says:

      Or on families with no kids. People really like meddling into the affairs of others.

      Both me and my wife are tired of the endless ranting that there is about the fact that we do not have kids. Can you imagine? A couple that has been together for the better part of a decade without *any* kids?

      Yeah, we hear about it from pretty much everyone in the families, to the point that we started being vicious on our answers. We do plan to have kids, but due to several circunstances it is a *not right now* thing.

      I always though i was good at making people look stupid and feel guilty when i was pissed, but my wife topples me over by far. A couple weeks ago we were looking for a new house, and the real state broker (?) was a woman that kept yapping:
      “So your kids will really like the common area”
      “You don’t have kids?”
      “Well, obvisouly you plan to have kids. So you could turn this room into a room for the kids, and…”

      My wife got so pissed about that stranger meddling in our life that she just turned to her and lied “I’m infertile”

      I had to turn around so i wouldn’t burst out laughing and ruin all the guilt…Report

    • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Patrick
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      says:

      @wyrmnax

      and thats why i don’t do this whole ‘handle people’ thing well.

      I believe you; you don’t have to give us more evidence.

      Both me and my wife are tired of the endless ranting that there is about the fact that we do not have kids. Can you imagine? A couple that has been together for the better part of a decade without *any* kids?

      So then have some kids. That way people won’t think you are a weirdo.Report

  5. Avatar Gabriel Conroy
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    says:

    Not only is this an excellent OP, it’s good to see something by Rose and Russell again. (That’s not a criticism….I realize you both have your hands full. But I like hearing from you both!)Report

  6. Avatar Michelle
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    says:

    Russell–I must have missed the announcement that you and your husband had added twins to your family. Congratulations!

    Wonderful piece about both your families and your friendship.Report

  7. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    Fascinating and powerful piece. Thanks you two. And always excellent to see Rose re-emerge form the ashes!

    As a teacher, I’m privy to a lot of conversation about parents and families. And I’m going to focus on Russell’s situation only because A) I’m more familiar with it and B) I just listened to a podcast that gave me a fancy term I can apply to it.

    Generally speaking, whenever there is a same-sex couple in a school, teachers either want to gush about how wonderful they are and ignore any potential deficiency they or their children might have OR look side-eyed at them and speculate about how their gayness is really the cause of whatever non-perfect behavior their children exhibit. Many teachers seem incapable of seeing them as just another set of parents, good at some things and bad at others. I think it is a combination of the moral approval/disapproval and (FANCY PHRASE I HOPE I USE PROPERLY ALERT!) fundamental attribution error. “Oh, the kid with the hetero parents failed a test? He probably didn’t study. Oh, the kid with the homo parents failed a test? They were probably so busy gaying that he couldn’t study.”

    I had one set of same-sex parents back when I taught in DC who truly were remarkable. They weren’t perfect, mind you; I had to give them their share of tips and points and, “Ooo, yea, don’t do that’s”. But they were truly remarkable people. The type who made a conscious effort to connect with black families in the class (they were white) — even if they otherwise didn’t get along — because their daughter was black and they knew she needed black adults in her life. The type who paid conscious and explicit attention when they adopted a second daughter — also African-American but much lighter skinned — and worked hard to make sure the bevy of “What a cute baby comments?” didn’t create issues for the elder daughter around “colorism”.
    And they were known within the community to be remarkable. Those who knew them well, knew them as I did, knew why they were remarkable. But a lot of other people… well, they just SEEMED remarkable… these two gay men and their adorable little brown girls. Ugh.

    At my current school, one much less welcoming to same sex parents, we had another family a few years back. These parents were not particularly remarkable. They were largely absentee, allowing a bevy of nannies to care for and shuttle around their four children. They spoke of their children as if they were trophies. Like, quite literally. It was irksome. But, they weren’t all bad. They were genuinely warm and loving when they were with them. They provided for them above and beyond. But, they were certainly deserving of some ire. Not just as parents, but as people. They were renowned for calling and talking a teacher’s ear off about nothing in particular for the better part of an hour. They often scheduled PT conferences right before lunch and then prattled on about nothing in particular while the food got cold. Ugh. Very irritating. But, because they were gay and we are not a particularly gay-friendly environment, people spoke of them as if they were abusive. It was appalling.

    In both situations, it was hard for a lot of people to see these folks just as parents. They were gay parents. And that seemed to have to mean something.

    Bringing this back to @rose-woodhouse , she and I used to laugh that we will know we have reached the mountain top when we are comfortable telling a developmentally delayed person that he is being a dick if his dickishness is unrelated to his delay. Let’s see people as people. Let’s consider and understand how their unique circumstances might dictate somewhat of a divergent response, but let’s not continue otherizing people, even in supposedly benign ways.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      @kazzy, I’m now worried what my youngest’s preschool teachers will think of me. I have a job and three kids and my husband will be temporarily relocating to a different city. I’m already chafing at the school’s co-op requirements and plan on the bare minimum (not least because they are more difficult for poorer/working class parents). So I pretty much have zero desire to co-op at the school, zero desire to fundraise for it (I am, after all, already paying tuition), and our nanny will be taking my son to and from his classes. I can see how they will think I’m a horrible parent.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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        says:

        @rose-woodhouse

        I wouldn’t stress it. We can usually tell the difference between busy, working parents who are hustling to make it all work and those who see their kids as accessories. I didn’t mean to denigrate working parents and/or nannies. Our son has been in daycare part-time since three months and full-time since five months. We are the only people in our social circle who had our child in organized care this young (most relied on a parent staying home, family, friends, an in-home sitter, or some combination thereof). And we make no bones about it. It is what made sense for our family and ultimately served our son’s long term interests.

        I’m speaking about those parents who seem to see their kids as accessories.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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        says:

        @kazzy thanks for the reassurance.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      Fundamental attribution error 101:

      http://xkcd.com/385/Report

  8. Avatar ScarletNumbers
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    says:

    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.

    I don’t think they are trying to make a point except for the fact that you have a large family by modern American standards. Considering that you made a proactive decision to have a family of this size, I don’t see how it is an insult.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to ScarletNumbers
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      says:

      Scarlet is absolutely right here. It is always appropriate to comment on aspects of strangers’ lives, as long as those aspects are visible in public and appear to be a result of a choice, as far as you can tell. Absolutely unobjectionable topics to discuss with strangers include, in addition to the number of children they have: the attractiveness of someone’s significant other, fashionableness of clothing, level of fitness, whether and why their children are adopted.Report

    • A couple of responses:

      1) I don’t consider it an insult. I consider it presumptuous. The tone of voice goes a long way, with there being an unfortunate tendency for people to adopt a sarcastic rather than friendly tone.

      2) On the note of presumptuousness, nobody who offers these comments knows how or why we have a family of our size. They, like you, have no idea how we came to our decision, and we’re certainly not going to explain it to random strangers. But just because we came to said decision does not mean that we’re particularly amused by the editorial comments of people who happen to be passing us on the street.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Russell Saunders
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        says:

        @russell-saunders

        Yeah, well, people are jerks. Someone above talked about “filters” being off. Hell, I’ve done that a lot, but I generally don’t comment about other people directly to their face pretty much because I’m more conscious that my filter is down. Most people aren’t so aware.

        Case in point: at a resturant, some old lady came up and commented to my stepmother how nice it was for her to be lunching with “her father”, who, in actuality, was her husband, and my father. Smooth move grannie.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Russell Saunders
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        says:

        @russell-saunders – I can’t speak to tone (which, as you say, can carry a lot of freight) but this is the sort of comment I can see myself making, and even if it sounded sarcastic, that wouldn’t be my intent – rather, as the parent of three small children myself, and so well aware of the kind of time/stress/work/sleep-deprivation involved, it’s an attempt at rueful bonhomie – which, obviously, you still might find presumptuous – but what I would be trying to say is really a sort of shorthand nod for “I feel your pain, fellow-brother-in-the-trenches. Semper Fi.”

        I suspect that at least sometimes, these sorts of comments are meant to be a sort of weary encouragement, even if it doesn’t sound like it.

        It can mean, roughly, “I acknowledge your commitment/struggle” and/or “you’re not alone.”Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Russell Saunders
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        says:

        That should read “weary *parental* encouragement”. The speaker may simply be trying to communicate knowing sympathy to a probably-overworked parent (because pretty much all good parents are at least somewhat overworked, and the more kids, the more overworked).

        Like if I see someone working hard in the hot sun, and as I pass him, I say something like “Man, it’s a scorcher today.”

        On the one hand, ‘duh’, and maybe he’ll be annoyed that I said anything so stupid and pointless; I don’t know anything about his situation, and if I really cared, why didn’t I get him a glass of lemonade, huh?

        On the other hand, I am at least acknowledging his existence, and that he is doing hard and worthy work under difficult circumstances.

        It’s meant to be a moment of simple human empathy, though it could certainly go wrong (I’m sure some would say it’s best to say nothing at all, if you can’t do something concrete to help).Report

      • @glyph The “you have your hands full” comments don’t always rankle, and often seem to have the connotation you describe. The “need another kid?” comments never fail to annoy me.

        That aside probably made me seem more touchy about it than I am. But in general, I’d rather people not comment on how much work they think my family must be as their contribution to our day.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Russell Saunders
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        says:

        I see your point and will be mindful of it in the future, but it occurs to me the term I should have used is some parental equivalent of “gallows humor”.

        Parenting small children is beautiful and wonderful and rewarding and yadda yadda, and also stressful and frustrating and grinding and tiring.

        Even the “need another one?” may sometimes be an expression of an understanding of that reality, and an attempt to leaven it with mordant (if cliched) humor; the equivalent of “hot enough for ya?”

        It can certainly be meant as jerkish, but maybe it’s not always meant that way.

        More just a sort of backhanded acknowledgement of “it’s a tough job, but we gotta do it.”Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Russell Saunders
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        says:

        nobody who offers these comments knows how or why we have a family of our size.

        In fact they have no idea if the kids are really yours or if you’re taking nieces/nephews along on a trip.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Russell Saunders
        Ignored
        says:

        @damon

        How much older is your father than your stepmother?

        @russell-saunders

        I’d rather people not comment on how much work they think my family must be as their contribution to our day.

        I’d rather be 6’3″, blond, tan, and good-looking. And have a pet unicorn.

        That aside probably made me seem more touchy about it than I am.

        Well at least you admitted it.

        @james-hanley

        In fact they have no idea if the kids are really yours or if you’re taking nieces/nephews along on a trip.

        Or neighbor children, for that matter. The point is, the comment isn’t offensive per se.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Russell Saunders
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        says:

        @scarletnumbers

        Scarlet, she’s 10 years younger. At the time of this event, however, my Dad was in a wheel chair and had an incurable terminal illness, although he still looked pretty damn good for being in his late 70s.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Russell Saunders
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        says:

        It just genuinely shocks me that people are so flagrant about commenting on the lives and choices of strangers. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. It is one thing to make comments to friends or associates. But to strangers? Good god.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Russell Saunders
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        says:

        @kazzy – It just genuinely shocks me that people are so flagrant about commenting on the lives and choices of strangers.

        Dude…have you SEEN this site? 😉Report

  9. Avatar Mike Dwyer
    Ignored
    says:

    We used to get the adoption thing a fair amount. It was always pretty funny since both of our kids our biologically ours, but it made sense given what people saw. My wife and I look very Western European. Fair skin, light-colored hair, etc. My oldest daughter (biologically mine, my wife’s stepdaughter) is a chip off the old block and with her red hair and freckles she looks like she fell out of an Irish Spring commercial. She’s tall like me too and when she was little I used to get a lot of, “Oh there’s no denying this one is all yours.” So the three of us look connected by appearances.

    My youngest daughter (biologically my wife’s child, my stepdaughter) is 25% Navajo but got about 98% of her looks from her father. My wife’s heritage softened those American Indian cheekbones and gave her some curves so this had the result of making her look ethnically hard-to-determine. Most people think she is South American or Mexican or occasionally they think she is part African-American. So they see us all together and assume we had one of our own together and adopted another daughter through UNICEF. We mostly just laugh about it. 20 years from now the way she looks will be so common I think people won’t even bother to try to figure things out anymore. The slew of gorgeous mixed-race actresses in Hollywood these days will certainly help (seriously, I just saw Guardians of the Galaxy – Zoe Saldana has to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, even when painted green).Report

  10. Avatar Chris
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    says:

    Now I’m curious about what other AOL Chatrooms ya’ll hung out in.

    This post is the sort of thing I need to read. I admit, when I saw James’ photo, my first thought was, “Aww… he’s cute,” and while I can tell myself that I do that with pretty much all kids (somehow, when I had a child, I went from barely noticing that children existed to smiling every time I see children), reading this makes me look damn closely at what I’m doing and why.

    Also, being in the birthplace of Whole Foods, I’m totally stealing the “Whole Foods glow,” which describes so much of this place.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Chris
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      says:

      Chris, go ahead and say how cute he is! Just stop yourself before you say, “They’re always so happy!”Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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        says:

        He is cute. Perfectly arched eyebrows, beautiful eyes, good cheekbones, a dimple in his cheek.

        And that’s a great picture, too. His pose and the expression on his face make him look really engaging, and draw the viewer in (unlike photos were kids are rigidly posed with fixed smiles).Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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        says:

        @james-hanley, funny that you say that. I was just saying last night to another syndrome mom that the two aspects of the syndrome I’m totally jealous of are a tall willowy body and high cheekbones.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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        says:

        Those are actual symptoms? Huh, they certainly do map onto traditional (western) notions of physical attractiveness, don’t they?Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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        says:

        I suppose I wouldn’t really call them symptoms, more characteristics, such as upslanting eyes and shortness are characteristic of Down syndrome.

        Yes, those are indeed attractive features. Their eyes, as a whole, tend to be too wide-set and bridge of nose too prominent for Western standard attractiveness. They actually look shockingly like the creatures from Avatar (albeit not blue). Some people with the syndrome are very good-looking. My 6-year-old typical son had a crush on a very pretty 9-year-old girl with the syndrome at a conference we recently attended. Others, probably most, are less good-looking: they have either have more extremely dysmorphic faces, crossed eyes, malformed ears, or teeth issues. Although James has a very severe form of the syndrome (in terms of the number of genes involved), he actually has one of the milder cases of dysmorphic facial features.Report

    • Avatar Russell Saunders in reply to Chris
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      says:

      All I will say about those other chatrooms is that we found them hilarious.Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    There’s probably something in the back of our heads, towards the base, that sees children as common property. They’re not really individuals, not yet anyway, and we, as fellow tribe members, have the right and responsibility to nudge the kids in whatever direction.

    Of course, in a post-industrial society, it’s probably vestigial.Report

    • Avatar Boegiboe in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      I agree that this feeling exists. I’m not sure I agree it’s vestigial–I usually feel my daughter is safest when I’m around other families, with the kids playing together and the attentions of a large number of adults at least loosely focused on the children’s welfare.

      We don’t usually get comments regarding our family make-up (two dads, one daughter of similar complexion). Even those who might feel one way or another about same-sex parenting can’t be certain Jason and I aren’t brothers, at least until our daughter identifies us both as parents. What rankles me, though, is how everyone loves to say how pretty or beautiful our daughter is, and just leaves it there. I always have to add something on like “and she’s very good at reading.” Folks probably think I’m a bragging, doting dad, but I’m trying to fend off the persistent damage done to my daughter by a society that only values her for her looks. And it’s not my imagination that this is happening, either. She already cares far more than I would like about being pretty, and has even said things like “Princesses don’t have to read” (we corrected that misconception in a hurry).

      Consequently, if someone comments on anything else, I generally regard them as saints.
      “Did you pick out your outfit? You are very clever!”
      “You’re so polite!”
      “You speak so clearly!”

      And I try to keep this in mind for other people’s kids who I talk to.Report

  12. Avatar Wyrmnax
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    says:

    So… putting up with my own inability to be subtle here.

    I am not trying to offend. Please forgive me if i do, im just stupid sometimes.

    I understand that Russel union ( marriage? ) is one between two guys that have four children. So that turns out some heads, especially on oh so religious and “morally correct” USA.

    I do not understand why Rose’s bring the same kind of attention? Is it because James has a disability?

    Sorry if this seems obvious, but don’t have kids and i do not understand how people act, and when someone is being a bigoted idiot i tend to point it out. It is why i went to work with IT, truth be told. If the computer is being stupid i can just reboot it, not so much when someone thinks you are somewhat wrong because you do not fit in their narrow view of how the world should be.

    My wife gets a kick of watching me having to deal with my mother’s overly religious family too…Report

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