it's all relative

A Family in 6 Acts

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg/Photos: Getty

It’s All Relative is an exploration of all the different ways of being a family in the year 2019. With this in mind, we asked four writers to answer the question: What is a family? The answers will appear each morning.


My mother says she will come — no, that she has to come. She’s been to my apartment, but never stays long. She left our wedding 20 minutes after the ceremony; she prefers small doses of me. But he’s the first grandchild and she says we will need her help. Those first days, friends arrive bearing food, hold the baby while we eat, and gifts pile up so high the stack actually touches the ceiling. The baby is agreeable, a steady sleeper. We don’t need her help, and it doesn’t bother me that she keeps insisting we do. I feel free.


A lady on the subway says, “The baby favors you.” He’s strapped to my chest like a bomb, facing out, big eyes taking in the world. I’m charmed by the old-fashioned phrase, but feel nothing about the fact that the children don’t look like me. They may feel otherwise, when they’re older, able to comprehend genetics and destiny. I can tell them about when their Papa and I were traveling around India, and people took us for brothers, not a couple. Your beauty has nothing to do with us, I’ll tell them. But you don’t owe the world an explanation.


My mother-in-law throws a party. There are grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, and the next generation of cousins, a phalanx: eager voices and strange, improvised games. I drink a whiskey in the back garden. The adults discuss every Californian’s favorite topic: the route they took to drive there. It’s all novelty to me, the continuity of grown-up cousins and young cousins. The day grows cool. We cannot find my younger son. I usually know just where he is: attached to me. There is panic. He’s discovered, in his aunt’s bed, content and watching cartoons, wholly at home among his people.


R is in New York so I invite her to dinner. I want her to know my children, as I knew hers — when I was an undergraduate, I looked after her son, then an infant, now a young man. I spent hours every week in their beautiful, sunny house: reading board books to the baby, napping when he did, talking to R or her husband when relieved of my duties. Those sophisticated, artistic adults were my actual college education. My children kiss R good-bye, and my husband takes them upstairs for their baths. That old gimmick: the passage of time.


A friend’s 40th birthday. S and I cash in frequent flier miles, ditch husbands and children, rendezvous at the airport, which feels so glamorous: kisses hello, our stylish weekend bags, our actual selves. I buy coffees, she buys snacks and magazines. When the plane takes off, I hold her hand, something I do with my children, though the older one cannot bear it, always pulls his hand away, irritated at how much I need him. We talk about our husbands and children and money and work. We nap, wake, talk more, and hold hands as the plane lands in California.


We rent a house. The children wake early, and I push them into sweatshirts and outside, so D can sleep. The beach is empty. The boys throw themselves into the sand, toss rocks into the waves, collect feathers and sticks, shriek and yell. D wakes and joins us. We stroll down the shore to meet our friends, out with their new puppy. We spy them in the distance, quite far off, and the children, exhilarated, take off, excited about the dog, about seeing our friends, about being alive. They run far ahead, but we can still see them, of course.

Rumaan Alam’s most recent book is That Kind of Mother.

A Family in 6 Acts