From The Olympics II: Simone Biles and the Unmodified Parent

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.



10 responses to “From The Olympics II: Simone Biles and the Unmodified Parent

  1. “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.”…..
    “In most common usage, language is not so precise. “…..
    There is no way to avoid qualifiers/modifiers.
    It’s all in context to the discussion. There is absolutely NO way anyone is going to win this debate/argument…PASSIONS run WAYYY too high. For example:

    • True enough. No one will ever win (and even if they did, it would be only temporarily). Or at least, no one will win until we achieve some universal consensus on the underlying issues. I don’t even know if that is possible.

  2. From my perspective there are 3 different kind of parents (all with qualifiers/modifiers): Genetic, Intended and Defacto, If you are really lucky your parents are all of these combined as one couple in a loving, committed family relationship.

  3. BUT I have to say there is much wisdom to be learned from experiencing different kinds of parenting. I personally wouldn’t want to change anything about my (“donor”) conception/parenting/story/experience. I count myself as lucky because the lesson has been such an enormous incredible gift. Something many people never have the privilege of learning (thinking very deeply about).

  4. Unmodified is fine as to define who is current doing the parenting. Since the grandparents are not only legal parents, but also doing the day to day care of a child that’s ‘parenting’. No one is critical of her calling her grandparents, mom and dad. I posted a comment on Facebook.

    It was a reference to this article.

    ” When I read articles like these, I never understand why people take out their frustrations on children who ask a rather reasonable question, “what happened to your parents”. Taking the adoption factor our of the conversation I know for my own children, the idea of losing their mother and father would be tragic. They know ‘God forbid’ if anything would happen that they would be placed with willing family members. So if in school and the child states that she is adopted, well what happened to your parents and extended family? The only taboo thing here is that one can not acknowledge that your parents/extended family aren’t raising you, and the poor child isn’t given a good reason on why? Yes, adoption may be needed and yes the adoptive parents may be great and loving. But heck, your adopted and that’s different than being raised by your birth family. What am I suppose to tell my eight year old, don’t worry if I die or become addicted to drugs, because some nice family will adopt you and you will never think about me or your father, because no one will ever ask what happened to us because we never really existed because your adopted family is the only real family. That makes no sense.”

    How dare we acknowledge the birth parents of origin!

    I know a few kids adopted, but I also know a few kids who lost their parent from premature death due illness, why do we treat parents who are no longer parenting so different based on different circumstances?

    I’m sure that if Simone’s birth mom was able to get clean sooner, rather than later she would still be raising all of her children and the grandparents would still be there being a chauffeur back and forth to gymnastic practice. My parents and in-laws chauffeur my kids all the time to places as an extra hand. They enjoy it.

  5. Julie,
    1. Both/and, not either/or – you can have more than one parent or set of parents.
    2. Who is a legal parent is up to the law/courts.
    3. It is up to the person as to who they call their parents, how many parents they claim, if any.

    • I agree all around. But I still would make two points. First, while it is up to a person who they call their parents, it’s still important to think about what listeners understand when a person says “these are my parents. Effective communication is dependent on a shared understanding of the meaning of the word “parent.” Second, I do think how we (generally, as a society) use language matters. The tussle over whether Simone Biles’ adoptive parents are spoken of as her parents by media etc is important because that helps shape the broad understanding of what the word “parent” means. Thus, it’s not just that she is free to call them her parents. Others should (in my view) respect her choice and there are subtle but broad consequences when they do so (or when they do not.)

      • Caveat – didn’t see it/hear it, just witnessed the aftermath of what happened. It was ridiculous.

        I think kinship adoption is different than stranger adoption. Both come into kinship with one role linked to the other, you both adopt another role, legally your former roles doesn’t exist because the one adopted has legally been severed from the family, except those hierarchies still exist at some level. It’s messy at the best of times. From my understanding he acknowledge they were mom and dad but then wanted them to be grandparents, not parents – kinship is why it made it messy.

        Society should be able to wrap their heads around the messy, accept both/and in kinship adoption. I say that because a whole lot of families have legal and/or social adoptions happen within their own families.

        Stranger adoption is a much simpler animal. You can draw clear lines.

        Adoption has far too many permutations to create rigidity and create specific boxes everyone must fit in.

    • Yes and no, if one chooses to call a non-biological parent a parent, one should be OK being able to explain how non-biological parent became their mom or/and dad. It can be asked in a neutral way and explained in a neutral, when first getting to know someone.

      “Can I ask how your family came together, because all three of you have a different names?” Child was born from a previous relationship, but bio dad was not present and step dad was clearly dad, but it was an interracial couple (Euro/African), but the child was interracial as well but (Euro/Latino). Tim is “Mike’s dad’, but I know Tim isn’t biological father it also allows my children as they older understand the complexities of these situations and be sympathetic with struggles of their friends.

      You can be the best step parent, but kids have insecurities and share with friends and well my kids ask “how do I respond?”, since they can’t relate.

  6. Do we really have such a say?

    When my first child was just a toddler, she wouldn’t call her father (my husband) “dad”. Instead she would call her father by his first name, because everyone else called him by that name. No one else called him dad or daddy. She didn’t have any older siblings, we had to teach her to call her father “dad”. We could have done nothing and allowed her to keep calling her father by his first name, but most people would think he wasn’t her father, and probably a step dad.

    Imagine four biological children who were being directly parented by their father their entire lives and have them call him by his first name?

    Point is we are told from an early age on who to call mom and dad. I didn’t have a say on who I called my parents. I’m sure as I approach the age of 40, that if I started to call my own parents by their first names they would be quite bother by it.

    Instead other people tells us from a young age what things are. You don’t get to pick your own name, and in reality biological or not it is someone else telling you who to call mom and dad. I mean if Simone’s grandparents really didn’t want to be called mom and dad, I ‘m sure they would of redirected and teach a young Simone not to and she would of complied.

    So no you don’t get a say, and if you do it is only with permission of that other person.

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