My last post was a brief note about Simone Biles and the reporting around her family. I’m still watching a lot of Olympics and I’m traveling, so I’m going to supplement it with a few words about this commentary on that story and some additional thoughts.
The commentary is by Jenn Morson who has a life history similar to Biles’ in at least one important way: She was raised by parents who were not her genetic parents. And so, like Biles, she and her parents endured questions about whether their relationship was “real.” While it’s generally in line with the points I was trying to make in the earlier post, I think she adds a good deal to it because she writes from her own experience.
It’s also made me think a bit more about how to describe the question that lie at the heart of these encounters. Perhaps what is at stake here is what “parent” in its unmodified form means? I think everyone would agree with the statement “Simone Biles is being raised by adoptive parents who are not genetic parents.” Where trouble begins is when you ask “Who are her parents?” or “Are these people her parents?” These formulations leave us to fill in our own modifier. And if you default to “genetic parents” then the grandparents are not parents, while if you default to the meaning Morson uses, then the grandparents are parents.
Does it matter what we mean when we use the unmodified “parent?” I think it does. In most common usage, language is not so precise. We don’t always use the modifiers. So the fight shifts to who gets to claim the unmodified parent–who is a parent in the most usage?
In the end I think this is about more than language. I’m pretty sure that the language in common use shapes how we think. So while I want to continue to use the modifiers for clarity, I don’t want to lose sight of the importance of the unmodified parent.