Mother/Father, Noun/Verb

There’s a comment posted on an earlier entry that raises an excellent point, one worthy of a bit of discussion.

I’m concerned in this blog with parentage–with who is a parent. That means who is a mother and who is a father. But “mother” and “father” are verbs as well as nouns. The way we use those verbs tell us a lot about gender and parenthood.

This is hardly a new observation, but it is worth bearing in mind here. Used as nouns, a female parent is a mother and a male parent is a father. As a verb, “to mother” a child means (according to one dictionary source) “to give birth to.” I think the second definition given is actually the more common usage of the verb: “to watch over, nourish, protect maternally.” The same source says “to father” is variously “to procreate” or “to create, found or originate.” So mothers nurture while fathers create.

It’s a commonplace now to say that men can mother, of course. I do not doubt that they can and do. What that means is that men as well as women can watch over and nurture children. (Indeed, it seems to me that mothering is generally what all parents do.)

Can women father a child? It’s not common to think so. That’s fairly odd if you think about it. Look back at the definition of “to father”–to procreate, to create, to originate. In the ordinary course of conception, does the man have more to do with the creation of a child than the woman? It hardly seems so to me. And yet the language tells us he (alone?) creates the child. We simply do not say “she fathered a child.”

Does this matter? Well, notice that fathering is a discrete and isolated act rather an ongoing performance. It takes place at a specific time and is then concluded. You father a child by engaging in act that leads to procreation. Once you’ve done that, you are done with fathering. A man may later choose to mother a child he initially fathered, but he cannot keep fathering it. In sum, our language tells us that a single isolated act typically makes a man the father–a parent– of the child.

And women? While women obviously participate in acts of procreation, too, they do not thereby father children. They do not become fathers (or parents) by virtue of the act. Instead, motherhood is the product of long-term performance of the role of mother, typically starting with pregnancy.

All of which reinforces my conviction that parenthood is deeply gendered, so much so that it is sometimes hard to see its gendered nature. We may use the gender-neutral word “parent” to include both mothers and fathers, but when we do so we obscure significant differences between the experiences and capacities of men and women.

12 responses to “Mother/Father, Noun/Verb

  1. I get so into this stuff because of the people I reunite – I never intended to feel so passionately about language of adoption but here it is.
    Parent is a proper noun, not a verb. In the past 10 or 15 years the word parent (a pronoun) is being inserted into sentences, in conversation as well as in writing, exactly where the word raise (a verb) is suppose to be. Instead of writing or saying “She’s raising two kids on her own.” one might say “She’s parenting two kids on her own.” The noun is pretending to be a verb or vice versa, its more of a voun or a nerb than a true verb.

    Similar examples of creating Nerbs would be like when my friends say they “pulled a Marilynn” everyone knows it means they did something clumsy because I’m clumsy. Another example is the 80’s It became common for people to say they “McGyvered” something which meant they made clever use of resources like the character on the popular tv show MacGyver. There is also Jerry-Rigging, I’m not sure who Jerry is or was but apparently he was really good at keeping broken things working for a while until they could be repaired properly.

    The use of a nerb instead of a real verb implies that a person is acting like another person like MacGyver or Marilynn or Jerry or a parent or a mother or a father, but also implies that they are not themselves MacGyver, Marilynn, Jerry or a parent or a mother or father.

    Parents don’t parent their kids, parents raise their kids. People that are not parents raise kids too it certainly does not make them parents. The act of raising a child does not make one a parent. Maybe the idea behind using parent as a verb was that the act of parenting might actually make one a parent. If parenting (acting like parents are suppose to) makes a person a parent, then not acting like a parent would mean that they were the only parent of an adopted child by virtue of being the only person behaving the way a parent is suppose to behave. Its tricky wordsmithing (there goes another nerb) for sure but it definitely is just smoke and mirrors.

    Raising a child on behalf of a parent that has relinquished control of his or her child is a very big deal – that kid is definitely going to be closer to the person who raised him/her than to his parents. Why can’t that be good enough for the person raising the child? Why do they need the child to call them mother because they behave as a mother should while their mother won’t. Isn’t that kind of f’d up to do to a kid? It takes a loving act and turns it into a self-serving charade that everyone else has to go along with. Its sort of gross.

    • I find your discussion of language very interesting and there is much to think about. Nerbs and vouns are new ideas to me. Here, however, is where I think we begin to disagree–you said “People that are not parents raise kids too it certainly does not make them parents. The act of raising a child does not make one a parent.” Why doesn’t raising a kid make one a parent? Perhaps one more step removed from that is the question of who decides what makes a person a parent?

      You can go as far back as Solomon to find stories of people trying to figure out who is a parent. One way to read that story (there are of course many) is that the woman who would give up the child rather than have it cut in half was a parent precisely because of the sacrifice she was willing to make for the good of the child.

      While in many–likely most–cases we’ll all agree on who the parent (or parents) of a child are, it’s not easy to articulate and justify the tests we use to figure out who parents are in the difficult cases. And there are, as I think this blog has shown, many difficult cases.

      As for why it matters? It matters because a parent holds critical legal rights to make decisions for the child and owes grave responsiblities as well. If a person is, in fact, the one raising a child she or he needs to be recognized as a parent so that s/he can enroll the child in school, take the child to the doctor and so on. I don’t think it matters what the people involved call each other–that’s up to them. But it matters a great deal what the law calls them.

  2. I really appreciate that you read my comments. Ok – I don’t think its true that one has to be recognized as a legal parent to enroll a child in school or take them to the doctor. If you can show me one enrollment form or pediatric authorization form in the past forty years that doesnt have the words “or legal guardian” on the signature line next to the word “parent”, I’ll show you a guarding standing next to the form with a chip on her shoulder and an eraser in her hand.

    If there is some big movement to get rid of the phrase “or legal guardian” I’m not aware of it. It sounds like the unilateral wet dream of someone without offspring who is raising someone elses kid and feels like the world owes them a parent cookie. Calling them parents is a lie by virtue of omission. While not everyone NEEDS to know how you or I became parents, letting them believe something that is not true is kind of shadey. If a person went 20 years referring to herself as mother and parent “her child” would be pretty pissed to find out that they were in fact the child of some anonymous lady thru a fertility clinic or that they were in fact adopted and not conceived by the people they call mom and dad. They are likely to feel lied to even though their “parents” never explicitly said “we’re your biological parents” and their birth certificate does not say the mother is a “genetic mother”. Omission of how a person becomes a parent allows people to believe there is a genetic link and that is a lie. I still think its better to call adoptive parents by their first name or something. Maybe GodMother and Father? Because if even one irrellevant stranger thinks there is a biological link – your perpetuating a falsehood. Why go there? Why must the law even venture there? Shouldnt the law focus on making sure the kid is RAISED by the best possible PEOPLE regardless of their gender, or their genetics?

  3. You also mentioned about Solomon wanting to figure out who is a “parent”. I recall that he was trying to figure out which woman was the child’s mother not “parent” and he suggested cutting the child in half knowing the real mother would rather give her child up than have the child killed.
    I think it was his mother (biogenetic-birth-egg-vendoretc)that went ahead and said no, don’t cut the kid in half. I got kicked out of catholic school so the details are fuzzy.

    • The Solomon story is a wonderful one to think about. There are at least two ways of understanding it. In one, Solomon is looking for the historic truth of who gave birth to the child. When he threatens to divide the child in two, the woman who actually did give birth to it says she will forgo her claim rather than have the child harmed. Thus, his test revealed the historical truth. This version of the story rests on a belief that the woman who gives birth will give up anything for her child, while the woman who does not will not care for the child.

      A second way to read the story is to understand that Solomon is trying to identify who he should pick as mother–who gets the legal (Solomonic) designation and responsibility. He chooses a test that will tell him which woman is willing to sacrifice her own interests for the good of the child. When she says she’ll give up her claim in order to ensure the child’s well-being, he knows she is the person who will better raise the child. (And in this reading, whether or not she gave birth isn’t what he is interested in.)


  4. I think the second reading is forced. Neither of the women arrived with the claim that she would be a better parent. Both claimed to have given birth to the child.
    The first also explicitly states that “for her compassion had been stirred for her son.” The king also states “give her the child for she is its mother.” Not she WILL BE its mother.
    Additionally this ignores the Biblical context in which genealogy is of prime importance in determining identity.
    Adoption seldom occurs in the Bible. When Sarah arranges for Abraham to impregnate Hagar to bear a child that she can adopt, that doesn’t work out too well.
    Indeed, biological motherhood in the Biblical Hebrew is so associated with mother love that the very word for compassion r-h-m comes from the word rehem, womb.

    However, we can certainly interpret Biblical stories in manners consistent with our own worldview, and many people do.

    • I’m hardly a biblical scholar, and I’m confident there are yet more readings of the same story. It’s a rich text.

      I think the original claims made to him by the women were about history–who gave birth to this particular child. What he says he decided, I think, is who is “the mother.” He decided that based on the behavior of the two women when confronted with the prospect of cutting the child in half.

      In one reading this reaction tells him the answer to the factual question because the genetically related woman would have been the one to act that way, while the genetic stranger would not. While this might be the case sometimes, it doesn’t seem to me that it is a reliable test. There are too many instances in which women who are genetically related to their children do harm to them and women who are not genetically related step in to intercede.

      In the other reading, he announced who the mother was because that was the right result to reach in terms of what is what was best for the child. That would be a startling show of wisdom, if you think about it. A very early instance of a best-interests-of-the-child analysis.

      I think (again professing no expertise) that adoption unknown in Jewish law, which would be relevant during the the reign Solomon. I believe it is an artifact of Roman law. But I’m not sure what to make of that.

      • I suppose this is not very relevant but I personally don’t think the test was very wise at. He assumed that ONLY the natural mother would jump up and protest. I should think even an unrelated person would do so. But what do I know.

  5. On the other hand I know of someone with an absentee dad who still has a very close relationship with her step-dad even after her mom’s death.

    The interesting thing is that no one forced her to call him dad, (they initially called him Mark or some such), and no one claimed to her that he was her real father. She grew to establish that relationship with him on her own. I wonder if that relationship was able to grow precisely because of the lack of force or deception.

  6. Julie I see your point, that Solomon was looking for the appropriate mother, but Kisarita’s explaination is spot on with regard to my recollection of the story and the King’s intent. It was his way of determining which woman was lying about giving birth.
    What Kisarita said is very accurate, in my experiences helping people find their families, kids who were never told to refer to their guardians as mother, father or parent – ultimately do refer to them with those or similar words out of pure love and respect. They might introduce their guardian this way “This is Betty, she raised me, I call her Mom because she’s the best mother anyone could ever hope to have and she’s done more for me than my own flesh and blood ever has or ever will.” OK if I had raised someone elses child I would LOVE to hear that kind of beautiful heartfelt proclamaition of love everytime I was introduced. So yes Kisarita, children will grow up and assign those titles to those who raise them but it is done in a really honest way.

  7. I recently asked my pre-teen daughter if she considered adoptive parents as real parents (she is not adopted but has adopted friends). She responded firmly “yes” but then added that even so the adoptive parents cannot pretend that they gave birth to the child because that would be wrong. I asked why and she said because it would be false and a lie and if they lied about that their kids could never trust them anymore.

    • It seems to me that this emphasizes the importance of honesty and trust between parents and children. Indeed, honesty is critical to many human relationships. Though it has nothing to do with this specific topic, there’s an essay by Adrienne Rich called “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” that I find quite persuasive.

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