It is a shortcoming of the English language that we have relatively few words to describe familial relationships: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousin – occasionally with a prefix such as “step” or “half”.
We have had general access to computers in daily life for only a few decades, yet the terms we’ve learned to help us accommodate that change are ubiquitous: email, pdf, smartphone, texting, Googling, emojis, and so on. We have integrated this new vocabulary so deeply that such descriptors are commonly used as metaphors: we speak of having insufficient bandwidth to achieve something, or of being hard-wired to behave in a certain way.
This bubbling-up of language reflects how readily discourse assimilates widespread changes in everyday life. And yet for families, the lexicon remains cramped. As a consequence, when we refer to new modes of relatedness we tend to rely on the few existing forms for inadequate similes. We shoehorn the expanding variety of families back into their capacity to imitate the traditional.
My husband and I are often asked whether our son George’s surrogate mother is “like an aunt”. We are asked which of us is “really the mom”. Friends in an open adoption are asked whether their children’s biological parents are “like cousins”. Single parents are routinely asked what it is like to be “both mother and father”.
People apply this vocabulary with a blunt literalism, asking adopted children about their “real parents”, in keeping with the presumption that nature consistently trumps nurture. People will likewise ask my husband and me which of us is our son’s “real father”. What is my relationship to my son’s surrogate and her wife, who are beloved members of our family – especially because the surrogate is also the mother of my husband’s biological children? She is not exactly a mother, because she is not a primary parent, but neither is she a special friend – the word friend denoting a category too indeterminate for who we are, especially in the age of Facebook.
When my husband’s biological children, Oliver and Lucy, learned to talk, they called their birth mother Mama and their adoptive mother Mommy. Then there was the question of what to call my husband, to make it clear that Mama and Mommy were the primary parents, but that John had a special relationship to them. John suggested Donor Dad, but they didn’t know what “donor” meant, so they called him Donut Dad. Now they call my husband Papa and me Daddy, and the son who is legally John’s and my child calls them Mama and Mommy.
Every time I explain the structure of my family, I have to reiterate these complex relationships in a paragraph at least, because there are no words for them. Our relationship to Oliver and Lucy is not less loving than our relationship to George, but it entails different responsibilities and different levels of contact.
Childcare has always been a collective activity. And relatedness grows ever more complicated and varied.
A friend who is bringing up a child as a single mother has met someone who used the same sperm donor she did. They are not close friends. Are those two women’s children to call themselves brothers? If not, then what?
When Jennifer Finney Boylan came out as transgender, her children felt they could no longer call her Daddy, but they couldn’t go with Mommy because that title was already taken by their mother, so they came up with Maddy.
A man I recently interviewed had wanted to have children but was HIV-positive. He couldn’t afford sperm-washing, a process to separate the sperm from virus-carrying semen. So he asked a close friend to be the sperm donor, the niece of another friend to be the egg donor, and a third person to be the surrogate. Through this unlikely calculus, the four of them produced children who live with him and see him as their primary parent.
“Because we were his idea, he’s our real dad,” his 10-year-old daughter explained to me. But what are they to call those other three people, each of whom is involved to a degree in their upbringing?
When a lesbian woman I know asked a friend to be sperm donor for her and her wife, he said he wasn’t interested in being a donor, but would love to be a father. Now the three of them live together and all three identify as the child’s parents. It seems to have confused the schools a great deal, and one of them still lacks a full legal claim to parenthood.
The idea is not so much to redefine the roles of father and mother – although such redefinition occurs constantly as historical contexts shift – but to abandon the binary restrictions those roles impose. Childcare has always been a collective activity. And relatedness grows ever more complicated and varied.
The whole system has changed beyond measure since feminism broadened the right to divorce, and thereby paved the way for step-parents, giving children multiple households (a phenomenon distinct from the historical step-families produced when widows and widowers remarried). Feminism likewise presses for a situation in which a father’s obligations are more commensurate with a mother’s, but does not remove the stigma fathers face when they are the primary caregivers – or the greater stigma their wives confront if they are not the primary caretakers.
Explaining a wider distribution of responsibilities among biological and non-biological parenting figures carries the risk of similar ostracism. In our ecstatic embrace of the nuclear family, we are told that a child “needs” a mother and a father, and that it is problematical for a child to be “missing” one of those archetypal roles, or to look to more than two people for ultimate guidance and reassurance.
We should also question the tyranny of biological relatedness. Why should we presume that children are better off with their biological parents than with anyone else? Some children have biological parents who do not love them or are not competent to raise them; that is an old problem. But the people profoundly involved in bringing up a child have always been both biological and non-biological. Therefore, relatives should be an encompassing word, and each family should have the right to define it to suit their own reality.
How can anyone suppose that I am more of a “real” father than my husband is? And how can anyone presume that he is more “related” to the children for whom he was a sperm donor than to the one in our household, for whom he has cared since birth? Let’s have a fiesta of new vocabulary for these new forms of relatedness, and a society that recognises them.
There is nothing wrong with a heterosexual, two-parent, monoracial family: it’s an age-old arrangement for bringing up children, and it can work beautifully. I raise no objection to it; I grew up in such a household myself. But it is not the only method that can work beautifully. We need to acknowledge that families come in multiple shapes and sizes, that love is not a finite asset, and that caregiving involves more than a genetic imperative.