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.