What’s in A Name? Time for A Dual Family System?

I’m switching gears today to talk about this recent post from the Motherlode blog over on the New York Times site.   This is really part of a continuing thread about language and naming.    The post is about labelling family relationships, and in many ways fits in nicely with an earlier NYT piece about family trees that I blogged about a while back.

The Motherlode piece takes off from the term “half-sister.”   Now in a world where everyone lives in a stable nuclear family and is genetically related to both of their parents, terms like this are pretty clear.  (Actually, now I come to think of  it, in the world I just described, there are no half-sisters.) Suppose H1 and W are married and have a child, C1.  Then H1 dies.  W remarried H2 and this new couple has a child, C2.     C2 and C1 are half siblings–they have one common parent (W) and one different parent (H1 for C1, H2 for C2).  If C1 introduces C2 as a half-sister, you get some information that is perhaps useful–something about the history of the family you are meeting.

But, as the Motherlode piece suggests, there are many situations in the real world where family structures are much more complicated.   Supppose you have two kids–C1 and C2.  They are (legally and socially) children of parents–P1 and P2.   Both were born into that family.  Neither has ever lived in any other setting, nor have they had any other primary caretakers.

In any social situation I’d expect them to be introduced as siblings.   And what I would understand from that introduction is that they had both grown up from birth in the same household with the same set of parents.  I’d actually completely misunderstand the situation if they were described as half-siblings.

Now it might be that they are genetically related, or 1/2 genetically related, or not at all.    Maybe the parents used donor gametes–from the same or different donors.   This information might be important to medical professionals (who need to think about genetic typing sometimes).   It might be important to the children themselves, at some point in their lives.  But to me, in that social situation–I don’t see that it matters at all.   It’s no more my business than is the rest of the family medical history.  And imposing my view–that I have to be informed of their genetic make-up in order t properly label them–disrupts their world.

The earlier story in the  NYT suggested that perhaps we were reaching a time when two family trees would be necessary–one for the genetic family and one for the social family.  Increasingly I think this might be true.    And terminology will go with it.  Thus, brother and sister on the social tree may or may not be brother and sister on the genetic tree–and vice versa.

I think what has created some disagreement here on this blog is the use of the genetic relationship terms in the social context.   That’s about giving primacy to genetics, I think–identifying it as the real and solid center of human families.  And it is precisely that I disagree with.

In general I don’t see why the genetic relationships need ever be public–unless and until people want them to be.   I suppose the next question is whether it is just too confusing to use exactly the same words–say “half-sister”–in to describe both relationships, trusting to context to make in sensible.  I’m not sure about that.   Modifiers (like “genetic half-sister?”)  might help.  But maybe they’d just make life way too hard.


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