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.