Last weekend, Kris and I took the kids for a walk around the neighborhood after being stuck inside for nearly a week with viral conjunctivitis. That’s right, pink eye. Or, as I like to say, “Conjunctivitis: when your eyes decide to start hocking loogies.” Naturally, we were thrilled to finally escape our 1100 square-foot home and the attendant horror of caring for two toddlers and a preschooler whose eyes had developed a disturbing tendency to become glued shut at varying times of the day and night, all while our own eyes were leaking copious amounts of, well, snot.
It was a lovely afternoon, sunny but cool which led to a forest fog, as I like to call it. The setting sun slanted through the trees and haze beautifully, and I snapped picture after picture on my phone, hoping at least one would turn out. My parents gave Alex her first camera for Christmas, so she brought it along, snapping shots along the way, too.
After a nice, slow stroll through the woods and back up the street, we were almost home when our new neighbor appeared in his driveway. Our friend who owns the house in question had recently texted to let us know a middle-aged couple would be renting it out through the winter and spring.
“Hello,” I called out, waving as he neared the top of the driveway. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
Smiling, he crossed the street to chat, and soon Kris and I had introduced ourselves and the kids and pointed out our house. He and his wife had just moved out from Chicago, and when we mentioned that we were transplanted Midwesterners, he told us about the years he had lived in Portage, a suburb of Kalamazoo.
The conversation seemed to be going well when he asked how long we had lived in our house.
“Ten years,” I told him. “We bought it when we moved out from Massachusetts.”
At this, he tilted his head and looked between us, clearly trying to work something out. “I see. Are you two related, then?”
I stared at him. We had spoken of the kids and the house as “ours” and mentioned moving cross-country together a decade previously. Did he need me to draw a map?
“No,” I said, staring at him a little harder than was probably necessary. “We’re not related. We’re married.”
“We’re married,” Kris echoed for effect, her gaze just as unyielding.
“Oh. Oh,” he said, and faltered a little.
A car approached just then, saving the moment, and all three of the adults made sure that all three children were safely on the side of our sidewalk-less road. Then the conversation resumed, social miscue seemingly forgotten.
Other things like this happen frequently. Medical staff ask which one of us is the mother, as do complete strangers, store employees, and the parents of our kids’ friends. Wait staff routinely seem unaware that we’re a couple even when we’re out to eat together on a Saturday night, all dressed up, just the two of us.
What do I mean they’re unaware? Well, when we went out to dinner a couple of months ago to mark our fifteen-year anniversary, the server who showed us to our table asked us if we wanted separate checks. When I told him we were married and that his question was, frankly, offensive, he backtracked and claimed that he asked all “groups” the same question.
Right. Totally believable.
After the new-neighbor incident, Kris asked me, “How long do you think it’ll be before the kids start getting upset when people say things like that in front of them?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “They’re growing up with it, so in some ways it’s becoming normalized for them to see our relationship questioned, the same way it’s normal for them to have two moms.”
It didn’t occur to either of us that they might not notice the interaction. Our kids, like most, are sponges. For example, the other day Kris and I were talking about the possible make-up of the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) roster for next month’s Olympic qualifying tournament. (Yes, that is exactly the kind of thing we like to talk about while watching the NFL on divisional championship Sundays.) I had just read an article that said only 16 members of the 23-member World Cup roster were available for the Olympics, so naturally we felt compelled to name the missing players.
“Four retired, right?” Kris asked.
“Right.” And we listed them together: “Wambach, Cheney, Boxx, and Chalupny.”
“Plus,” she added, “Amy Rodriguez is pregnant.”
“And Christie Rampone is injured.”
“That leaves one more.” We looked at each other, brows furrowed. “Wait, who else is missing?”
As we stared at each other, mentally scrolling through the 2015 World Cup roster, a small voice piped up. “Megan Rapinoe!” Alex called out, not even looking up from her grilled cheese sandwich.
Of course, Rapinoe, one of our hometown favorites. Kris and I had blocked out her knee injury because neither of us wanted to accept that she wouldn’t be back on the pitch anytime soon. We looked at each other, our eyes aglow with pride—“as if Alex had just won a spelling bee,” Kris would later say.
I glanced at Alex, smiling. “You’re exactly right. And do you know why Rapinoe isn’t playing right now?”
Our four-year-old nodded. “Because she’s injured.”
Kris and I exchanged another glowy smile, eyes practically brimming with tears.
“That’s our girl,” I said. Because she could only be ours.
The thing is, our kids can identify by sight various members of the USWNT, even the ones who don’t have the same names they do. (Which, I might add, was a complete coincidence. Really.) However, when President Obama recently popped up on our television screen, the girls said, “Who’s that guy?”
Yeah, maybe that’s something we should work on—in a non-Olympic, non-World Cup year, of course. Then again, it is an election year. If our kids think we like to curse at soccer and football refs, just wait until they observe what happens during a Republican debate. On second thought, maybe we’d better hold off on that one. Last thing we want is to hear our girls running around preschool and play group cheerfully dropping the “F” bomb.
Other evidence they listen more than we probably give them credit for? The whole family’s recent brush with pink eye necessitated, naturally, a visit to the pediatrician. The next day, Kris reported that the girls ran a doctor’s clinic in the living room with Alex serving as the doctor and all of their dolls and other creatures doing time as her patients.
In her white doctor’s coat, Alex apparently asked Ellie and Sydney, the “parents” in this scenario (god help their “children”), detailed questions: “Did you notice any eye gunk in Piggy’s eyes, Sydney?”
“Have you noticed any ear infection in Lily, Ellie?”
“Should we take her temperature?”
“I’m going to look in her eyes and listen to her heart.”
At one point, Alex asked Ellie, “What’s wrong with Pink Baby?”
“It’s her heart,” Ellie answered solemnly.
“What’s wrong with her heart?”
“That’s okay, Ellie,” Alex said, and reached for her toy stethoscope. “Don’t worry. We can fix it.”
I know, right? So sweet, our girls.
Alex, it turns out, is not only a skilled cardiologist and pediatrician. When Ellie brought out yet another patient, a stuffed yellow lab she’d named Torrey after my parents’ lab who died last year, Alex started in with the usual pediatric questions: “Have you noticed eye gunk? Does she have an ear infection?”
But Ellie stopped her. “Actually, Alex, she’s really a dog.”
“Well, that’s okay, Ellie,” Alex said again, shifting pretend gears with ease. “I’m a vet, too.”
That’s our girl. They’re all our girls, actually. Actually—gee, wonder where they picked up that word?