My daughter was six-months-old the first time I got the question. The night before, we’d had a successful four-hours of sleep. To celebrate, I would wear her in one of those strappy contraptions and we’d walk to the pharmacy. In front of the magazines, a co-ed in boxer shorts stood too close to me when she said, “OMG. Look at those cheeks. Can I touch your baby?” Which is another weird question, but not the question.
At the checkout, while we waited to pay for post-partum-bad-taste nail polish, and while I did the ticking-time-bomb bounce, my daughter cooed and the woman ahead of us turned to smile.
“She’s so cute.”
“Is she yours?”
Pause. (Maybe I didn’t get as much sleep as I thought I had.)
“Are you sure?”
“Are you for real?” rang in my head– but I only mustered a pathetic, “I’m sure.”
Then, without an ounce of maybe-I-shouldn’t-say-this, the stranger eyed me up and down before asking: “Are you REALLY sure? I mean, hospitals mix up babies all the time.”
Let me tell you what you can’t see: my daughter’s father is white, and I’m not. She has blue eyes and sandy-blonde hair, neither of which her father or I have (recessive genes are a real thing!) and she’s in the hundredth percentile for weight and height. I round up when I tell people I’m 5’2”. Non-strangers have said versions of: “It’s in the eyes. And the nose. Yeaaaah, definitely the nose. She’s SO yours. How can anyone ask you if she’s yours?” But, people do. Often.
On occasion, the question makes me laugh: Of all the people in this room, I knew you’d be the one to ask the question. Other times, the question makes me yawn: C’mon. If you’re going to ask a stranger an irrelevant question, ask me something juicy. But mostly, the question makes angry and sad. When will we move past the idea that all families are one color?
According to the 2010 US Census, over 9 million Americans identify as mixed race, while more recent studies show that this figure might be an underestimation. Yet, my own unscientific research shows that our notions of race aren’t as evolved as we might think they are. Through informal polls of parents, sitters, and grandparents I know, I’ve learned that Is that your baby? is not a standard playground question. Those who’ve not heard the question include the black-haired mom with red-headed son– the white mom with the adopted black daughter– and the white nanny when she’s with my daughter. I have ideas about why I get asked the question but rational reasons A) make me a kidnapper, or B) make the asker an ugly character from the mid-century American south.
For me, the thought behind the question lies somewhere between you and this baby do not belong together and that baby is too good to be yours. So, unless the child appears to be in danger from something more harmful that not getting the tantrum-deserving toy, it’s probably best not to ask the question. Before you stop minding your business, and suspect that the child in someone’s arms, or the child being fed by a doting adult might not belong to the person caring for it, stop and ask yourself, “How badly do I need to ask this question?”
The night that a stranger suggested that trained professionals had given me the wrong baby, I asked my husband if our daughter left his sight the day she was born. “Not even when they took her to put that goop on her eyes?”
He laughed (at me.) “Well, I did go to the vending machine—No! What’s wrong with you?!”
Here’s what’s wrong: In the 21st century, as the global population continues to blend, complete strangers are comfortable asking me about my relationship to my child.
Note: “Are you the nanny?” “Did you steal that baby?” “Maybe you should tell her mother (insert unsolicited advice here),” are all accepted forms of, “Is that your baby?” And yes, the author has heard them all.
By day, Auguste Budhram is a newish mother, sensible-car driver, arts-pusher, fretful-thinker, and more. By night she does stuff like this. She’s a native Montrealer and first-generation Canadian of Trinidadian-descent. Her creative writing has been recognized by Glimmer Train Magazine, New Letters, Callaloo Journal, and Intellect Books. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her partner, their daughter, and a range of real, stuffed, and make-believe animals.