On Language: What’s A Mother Like? What’s A Father Like?

I’ve written before from time to time about the uses of language.   There are lots of issues to consider here, but I’ve been thinking about the words “mother” and “father” recently.

These words are critical to my topic, of course.  If you are thinking about who is a parent–a legal parent–you are also thinking about who is a mother and who is a father.    A long time ago I wrote about the verb forms of these words, which are starkly different.    This, I think, tells us something about the gendered history of parentage.   To be a mother and to be a father have been different things even if both are parents.  (I’m inclined to think this continues to be the case, though perhaps to a lesser degree.)

Anyway, today I’ve been thinking about two phrases:  “She’s like a mother to me” and the corresponding male phrase–“He’s like a father.”

Now part of what is complicated about language in this area is that we do not have agreed upon meanings for “mother” and “father.”   When I see a comment like “you are denying a person access to their father”, it’s often from a person who take “father” to mean a person who contributes the DNA used to create the embryo.   Given that definition there is obvious force to their point.  But if you use a different definition of “father”–one that is about social/psychological role, rather than DNA–then the statement isn’t true.

It’s far too easy to get caught up in the “is too”/”is not” loop rather than focusing on the differing definitions.    But what can one do apart from observe the differing definitions?   It’s not as though there is an authoritative correct answer.   I think the best one can hope for is clarity that one is working with different definitions.   That clarity at least helps people be alert to trouble spots.

There’s also a question of internal or individual consistency.   I think I should aspire to be consistent in the definition of “father” that I use and I think the same should be true for others.   Consistency here is useful because then we can at least understand each other even if we disagree.   By contrast, if I use one definition of “father” sometimes and a different definition on other occasions readers may not know what I mean.   Lack of consistency leads to lack of clarity.  (I make no claim that I actually attain the goal of consistency, by the way.   The best I can do is aspire to that goal.)

And now back to my phrases–“he’s like a father to me.”   Do we all understand that phrase the same way?   It makes sense to me, given my understanding of “father.”  A person is like a father when he takes care of another person as a male parent, when he has a social/psychological role like that of a father.

There are two things I wonder about.   First, what does this phrase mean if you think a father is someone who has the genetic relationship?   How can you be like that if you are not that?   Does this suggest that there is a further layer to the genetic definition of father–that a genetic father also has a social relationship?  It seems to me this isn’t necessarily true in fact–it’s quite possible to have the genetic relationship and no discernible social relationship at all.   This is a question for those who use that DNA based definition.

The second is a question for me.   If you are like a father in my book, aren’t you a father?  If my definition of “father” is based on behavior, then shouldn’t a person who acts like a father be a father?    Is there room to be like a father and not be a father?

And that’s where I’m stopping today.

18 responses to “On Language: What’s A Mother Like? What’s A Father Like?

  1. The following is not an argument because it is only based on one observation. Still I think it may be of some interest.

    I never knew my mother. I had two stepmothers. The one was abusive, the other one was wonderful. I considered neither of them to be my mother. Strangely enough the abusive one punished me for refusing to call her ‘mother’. Whenever I messed up my room, I always took care to hide the picture of my mother in a drawer, so that she couldn’t see what I was doing.

    Growing up and looking back, this behaviour puzzled me until one day I read a paper in a Psychology Journal and learned that all children grow up with a ‘virtual’ mother and father in their minds (perhaps not so surprising since we are a biparental species). If one of the parents is physically absent, the virtual one takes over. Parenthood may be more ‘hardwired’ and less subjected to social circumstances than we usually think. This was anyways the case for me.

    • I’d love to read that article–do you have a citation? I am doubtful that parenthood is hardwired that way (and at the very least, i would guess the claim is controversial rather than broadly accepted) but I’m no expert.

  2. If someone like a father, wants the authority of a father, he can become an adoptive father, (which is like a father) if the father and the mother and the family court approve.

    • Sometimes this is true (but not always, because the person who has the rights of a father may choose to use them to exclude the other person). But even when it is true, it doesn’t always happen. People may not appreciate the importance of adoption or it may be too expensive to pursue. (Or again, the avenue may be blocked by a person holding legal rights already.)

      For whatever reasons, it is common enough that the adoption fails to occur that some states have adopted the de facto parent doctrine to solve this problem. (There’s tons about that doctrine elsewhere on the blog.)

  3. If kids got to pick their parents based on what they think a parent should act like, I’d be S.O.L. most days out of the week. By the time she hits 13 I’d be a distant memory. My daughter is always telling me that she is going to the “adoption center” to get a real mother who knows how to treat kids. My brother moved into my apartment last year when my husband moved out and she kept saying that he was her new Daddy. I had to really get it through her head that he is her uncle not her father, doing the things her daddy did when he lived in the house does not turn my brother into her daddy; her uncle is just around more than he use to be. Children are simple that way. She told me that one of her classmate’s Grandpa was his Dad because the Grandfather dropped the kid off at school everyday. She also thought the Secretary was the Principal because that’s who was there when she’d get sent to the Principal’s office. She also thought the Secretary was the Nurse because that’s who was there when she’d get sent to the Nurse’s office.

    • I think there are very good reasons why court’s do not give children’s opinions too much weight, which is what you’ve hit on. We don’t generally think that 13 year olds make very good decisions and so we put someone else (the parent(s)) in charge. Needless to say, when that person does the job expected of them and overrules the 13 year old’s bad decisions, the parent is not very popular with the 13 year old. That’s a good reason why a judges don’t take the child’s view too seriously.

  4. Anyone who uses English must accept the fact that almost all words have several dictionary definitions, denotations as well as conotations. I suspect that you realize that those of us who want to know the identity of our genetic father also accept that we grow up with a father, thoguh he is not genetically related. If you judge a father on terms of how he acts, then even those of us who have non-genetic social fathers will have a problem with that usage. A great many donor conceived people have social fathers who are marvelous but many also have extremely remote social fathers. Other social fathers leave donor conceived families quite early, either through divorce or desertion. What fatherhood means to us includes many indistinct things and you can’t get around that by insisting that we all accept one definiton, labeit legal. Even the Supreme Court wrestles with dictionary definitions such as religinon, privacy, freedom of speech, ad infinitum. How can you expect a strictly legal definiton to be absolute?

    • Bill you were clear just now in your writing because you clarified that people have social fathers in addition to the fathers who made them.

    • I basically agree about language. The problem (as I see it) is that the way we have structured family law whoever is identified as a legal parent gets all the rights and obligations. This means it really matters a great deal whether you are a legal parent or not so the definition of “legal parent” is important.

      Legal definitions can be sort of vague, but this means that there will be more instances where people fight over them, more time in court, etc. So there’s a tendancy (understandable in my view) to try to make legal definitions sharp and clear. And this runs them into the ordinary practices of language you observe.

      There’s another related problem, too. I think lots of people do not realize how important the legal status of parent is. People may assume because someone is a social father (or any other variety of father) they will have legal recognition. Not always true and that creates trouble, too.

  5. Sorry for the poor typing.
    One other point. How will legal definitons make any sense with respect to DC families consisting of a single mother, single man, two women, two men, or in polygamous families? It’s fine to say we need consistency but families are anything but consistently defined these days. You might refer to a case concerning the rights of fathers called DeShaney v, Winnebago County Department of Social Services. In this case of severe abuse causing the permanent vegetative state that a father inflicted on his son, Chief Justice Renquist decided that the state has no obligation to interfere with such abuse.
    To paraphrase Justice Potter’s comment on pornography “I can’t define fatherhood but I know it when I see it.”
    To me, a concern for consistency is misguided, if not impossible.

    • I think your last statement is most interesting. It’s very hard to strive for consistency in family law–partly for the reasons you observe. Judges who determine child custody are told to figure out “the best interests of the child”, but that standard is so vague–many people have different ideas about what is best for a child, all chlidren and all parents are different, and so on. It does almost seem easier to say “nevermind consistency”–either because it is impossible or because, as you say, it is a bad goal even if it is possible.

      But consistency is what allows people to plan. I know that if I do X and Y, then the law will arrange for Z to follow. Consistency is what makes commercial transactions (I know I’m reaching way out of family law) possible. And consistency is a way to ensure fairness–if there’s no value placed on consistency it is harder to idenfity instances where inconsistency is generated by impermissible bias or prejudice–where it is based on gender or racial stereotypes, say.

      Lack of consistency also has other costs. If no one knows whether they are a parent without litigating it, you end up with more litigation. If I know that I am or am not, then I don’t go to court. You may also end up with more conflict. And people with more resources (money, lawyers, education) will have the advantage. Surely one of the virtues of the DNA based idea of parenting is that it is easy and simple and if it were absolute there’d be much less fighting over this stuff. (I do not mean to suggest that I have begun to advocate for DNA based parenthood, but that is one of its selling points.)

      Some people (sometimes me, in fact) will say that without consistency what you are doing isn’t “law.” You can decide disputes one at a time, but law is about rules that are applied consistently across different fact patterns.

      All of which is to say that while consistency may be impossible, it is still a worthy goal. We should try to have general principles that can be articulated. It will be hard given the diversity of family forms and there will always be variation. But we can try.

      I appreciate your reference to DeShaney. I wrote my first law review piece on the case–it deeply touched me. I don’t think of it is a father’s rights case, but rather a case about the unwillingness of the state to take responsiblity for intervention.

  6. WHAATT?????????????
    “You might refer to a case concerning the rights of fathers called DeShaney v, Winnebago County Department of Social Services. In this case of severe abuse causing the permanent vegetative state that a father inflicted on his son, Chief Justice Renquist decided that the state has no obligation to interfere with such abuse.”

    • It’s a terribly sad case where the state failed to protect a child who was eventually killed by an abusive parent. The child’s other parent (I think it was) sued, asserting that the state had an obligation to the child. The Supreme Court said it did not have any such obligation. It’s a standard line courts draw–you cannot take action that harms another but you can freely choose not to act and let harm occur. This is a US principle of law not followed in Europe. It means you can walk past a drowning person here and not throw a life preserverer. No obligation to take an action. In Europe, you have an obligation to throw it.

  7. Sorry for the lack of clarity here. Julie says “If my definition of “father” is based on behavior, then shouldn’t a person who acts like a father be a father? ” I agree but that does not mean that a progenitor who doesn’t act like a father is not one in fact.

    In the DeShaney case, the Court refused to say that the State of Wisconsin had a duty to interfere with a father, Randy DeShaney, who did not act like a nurturing father in his consistent abuse and neglect of his son Joshua. By Julie’s definition, Randy would not be a father because of his actions. In another case, Moore v. City of East Cleveland, the Court found that Cleveland’s ordinance defining “immediate family” did not meet strict scrutiny. DOMA will likely suffer the same fate.

    If the Court is reluctant to support legal definitions of family, fatherhood, motherhood, etc. , then Julie’s desire for consistency and clarity in the law is futile. Chief Justice Roberts spilled a lot of ink in recent decisions that criticized reliance on definitions. This reluctance is typical of many Court decisions over the last century, most notably in the Depression Era decision that the Constitution does not endorse “laissez-faire” capitalism. It also can’t define pornography, obscenity, privacy, religion, etc.

    My point is that “father” has multiple meanings beyond “legal” and includes both genetic paternity and social paternity. That is part of the reality of my identity. If lesbian families instruct their children that they have two mothers, then why shouldn’t I also be able to say that I had two fathers? It is fundamentally absurd to me that some children of donor conception, who lack social fathers, are supposed to accept the idea that they do not have any father at all – biologically impossible. The dictionary includes meanings like male parent, step-father, adoptive father, father-in-law, progenitor, protector, provider, paternal caregiver, and any male ancestor.

    Those of us who stress our genetic origins are not denying the role of the fathers who raised us, whether their actions were nurturing, remote, or if they left the family early. I’m disappointed in the view that we donor conceived are looking for a black-and-white situation where we can deny one father over another. Let us create our own narrative of paternal meanings and don’t impose others’ definitions on us.

    • I’m not sure whether Randy DeShaney would be a father or not in my view–I don’t recall the details of the case well enough. But that’s probably besides the point, really. I think people do create their own narratives and that’s a good thing. The problem is that the law really cannot accomodate this very well. It insists we consider each person and make them parent or not parent. If they are a parent, they get all parental rights and obligations. If they are not a parent they get none. There are no partial parents. A more flexible system–one that unpackaged all the rights and obligations and assigned them according to differing factors–might be better, but we’re a long way from that.

  8. what am i missing here? the state is supposed to intervene in cases of abuse commited by ANYONE. why is the definition of father relevant?

  9. I’m equally confused.
    Besides you have to BE A PARENT before you can fail as one.

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