Like many adoptive families that include racially mixed children, we get our fair share of questions when we're standing in grocery lines: How much did your children cost? Where are they from? What nationality are they? Do they speak English?
Now that I've had a few years of experience, I can handle these queries with grace and ease and a few short replies.
But there is one question that still trips me up each time it's asked: "Are they brothers?"
"Well, they aren't sisters, if that's what you mean."
"No, you know what I mean. Are they brothers?"
"Um, yes... They are all mine. I'm too old to baby-sit."
"No, I mean are they real brothers?"
"Would you like me to pinch them for you?"
Perhaps this question is tricky for me because it's the one I get asked most often, and by people I know – my kids' teachers, neighbors, co-workers, and especially by other adoptive families. That is, they're people I see often, not just strangers in line behind me in the checkout lane.
When the interrogator is another adoptive parent, I want to cringe. "Shame!" I want to say. "You should know better."
I know this shouldn't get to me. After all, it's a naturally curious question. People want to know if they are biologically related. But how can I answer that question, using the language I am given? My children are listening to me give the answer.
What would a 4-year-old think if he heard me say, "They aren't brothers, just three kids we adopted and forced to live together for better or for worse. They have no connection at all. They didn't even know each other before!"
One Halloween night we actually had an inquisitive neighbor chase us down the sidewalk, trying to figure out the truth. This woman was on a mission. No matter how much I tried to dismiss her question, she persisted, "Are they brothers?"
"Did you get them all at once?"
"No, I bought the firefighter and police costumes and made the convict one."
"No! I mean the boys – did you adopt them together?"
"No, we brought them home at different times."
"But they were brothers before?"
"They are brothers now."
"Oh. Oh! I get what you mean – they aren't real brothers."
"No," I replied. "You don't get it at all. They are real brothers."
After all, they wrestle over toys, push and shove, and fight for our attention. They also watch out for one another, try to cheer one another up, and make one another laugh. They speak their own language (which admittedly uses a lot of silly words about burps and other things), and they are always sad when they are apart. They love waking one another up, making the others laugh, and scheming against their parents. They invent ridiculous games with limited props and always end up chasing one another throughout the house. That sounds like brothers to me.
I am blessed with a brother and a sister of my own, both of whom I cherish and feel very close to. But the tie that binds us is not biology. I never think about the fact that we share the same biological parents.
What I think about is the fact that we share a history. We are the only ones who can appreciate and laugh at our own inside jokes. And they are the first people I call when my parents are driving me insane. Because they get it. I don't have to say a word.
I want my kids to feel like that when they are my age. I want them to feel a tie that binds them together. I want them to argue and be different. But I also want them to appreciate the blessings they have in one another and to know that they can always count on their brothers.
So that is why I usually answer the question with a simple "Yes, they are brothers."
But maybe I should cock my head to the side, raise an eyebrow, and then simply wave my hands in the direction of my three kids to let them answer this question for me.
I can see the answer they would paint now: a 4-year-old taunting a 5-year-old with a toy out of reach. Then the 5-year-old attempting to squeeze the 4-year-old's neck to get the toy back.
And I can see my 7-year-old glance at our nosy friend with a puzzled look and give a simple reply: "Duh."