We need new words for new kinds of relatedness

I am inspired to write today by the erudite Andrew Solomon whose article in the Guardian on Monday wondered just why it is that we are still trying to shoehorn modern family relationships into a language lexicon that limits us to traditional and binary roles. He reflects that in only a very few decades we have managed to develop and incorporate into everyday life new words that encompass our electronic and technological age, but that when it comes to personal relationships we rarely get beyond adding the odd ‘step’ or ‘half’ to indicate that someone in the family may not be fully genetically related.

Solomon gives several examples, including that of his own quite complicated family arrangement where it currently takes several paragraphs to explain the different relationships and responsibilities, where others are always trying to fit the relationships into a conventional mould.  As a gay man, he and his partner are often asked,”Who is the real father?”, meaning the genetic father or if the surrogate mother they used is ‘like an aunt’.

It is not conventional families with traditional mother and father roles that Solomon is attacking – he acknowledges that they can work well – but it is the binary restrictions that these roles impose.  He also believes there is a tyranny of biological relatedness (and I know I will upset some of my readers here).  As Solomon says, why should we presume that children are better off with their biological parents than anyone else?  Some children have biological parents who do not love them and are not competent to raise them.  This is an age old problem but the default position in societal and political discourse seems to be that that the nuclear family is the ‘ideal’ unit in which children should be raised.  There seems to be lacking a bravery to declare publicly that other arrangements can work perfectly well too.  Solomon ends his article by saying, “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.”  I for one am persuaded.  Do read the article.  It’s really thought provoking even if you disagree with the propositions.


And on the subject of language, in addition to the recent abandonment of ‘diblings’ as a term for half-siblings, DC Network is considering beginning to use in publications for young children the terms ‘donor man’ and ‘donor lady’ for sperm and egg donors and substituting the word ‘seed’ for ‘sperm’.   The former changes are because the term ‘donor’ by itself is not understood by children’s peers (it is often transformed into donut) and also because it is friendlier and indicates clearly that the donor is a real man or woman.  I am personally less supportive of the ‘sperm to seed’ change, but I do know that many parents are anxious about their children using the term at school and being thought to have age-inappropriate sexual knowledge.  I’d be interested to know what you think.



About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to We need new words for new kinds of relatedness

  1. My parents donor is my father says:

    Sperm ‘donor’ = biological father (egg ‘donor’ = biological mother, gestational ‘surrogate’ = gestational mother, ‘traditional surrogate’ = biological/gestational mother). There simply is NO SUCH THING as a ‘donor’ or a ‘surrogate’ in relation to ANY child/offspring regardless of how they were conceived/ gestated/ bought/ sold/ commodified/ traded/
    trafficked/ abandoned/ given away/ ‘donated’/ ‘wanted’/ ‘unwanted’.

  2. gsmwc02 says:

    Then how do you define relationships where there is no biological connection? Are the Adults just Caretakers or Providers?

    • My parents donor is my father says:

      That completely depends on the individuals and the circumstances and the context of the discussion. Everyone is free to call anyone what ever they want.

      • My parents donor is my father says:

        There are facts and there are feelings. Relationships are complicated and need to be negotiated but can’t be forced on anyone. For example, just because someone calls their biological father an ‘alien from planet sperm’ does not mean that this is fact, just as someone who calls their biological uncle their father does not make it a fact regardless of the social interaction/relationship. Of course people can use the terms that an individual feels as a definition but this, again, needs to be negotiated. Regardless, feelings are not the same as facts.

        • oliviasview says:

          I’m not sure it is as straightforward as that MPDIMF. It is of course a fact that a donor has a genetic link to any child conceived with their sperm or eggs but whether this makes them a father or a mother is unclear and depends on how you define those terms. I suspect you would dispute the lack of clarity, believing that the person who provides the gametes to conceive a child is obviously the father or mother. I am of a different persuasion – accepting of the genetic link but believing that the intention to parent, the willingness to accept the responsibility of parenting and the day to day act of fathering or mothering making a person more deserving of the term father or mother. But as Solomon indicates in his article, these words carry heavy cultural baggage and may not even be appropriate to use in the context of the modern family. What seems most important to me is that children are wanted, raised in honesty and given the love, warmth and security that leads to good attachment, high self-esteem and resilience to face whatever life holds. As you know, I do absolutely support openness, donor identifiability and access to the donor or whatever information the donor conceived person needs.
          We probably won’t agree about this, but good to set out ones basic beliefs from time to time.

          • My parents donor is my father says:

            It’s a matter of pronouns/noun vs. verb. It’s not all about intention (feelings). Intention and feelings can change, facts don’t.

      • gsmwc02 says:

        That wasn’t my question. My question was for you and what you believe are facts how do you define (what would you call) those relationships? Are they just caretakers or providers? Or do you define them as something else?

        • My parents donor is my father says:

          I can’t answer that question for anyone but myself, it all depends on the context but that requires way too many words for the comments section. Everyone has a story to tell.

  3. gsmwc02 says:

    This is all really complicated when it comes to defining these relationships. I’ve learned no matter what you try you are always going to offend someone. To me from a non legal standpoint I think it’s up to the parties involved to define these relationships. As long as they work for all sides involved it doesn’t matter to me what the outside world thinks. Best course of action is probably to ask the parties that question rather than society defining it for them.

    • oliviasview says:

      I think Andrew Solomon would say that you define them by intention and willingness to accept responsibility – what name you put to that is up to individuals.

Comments are closed.