Tag Archives: language

Thoughtful Commentary on the Meaning of Family

There was a piece on NPR yesterday about the author Cheryl Strayed.   She’s the author of Wild, a book I confess to having started but not really gotten into before it had to be returned to the library.  It’s an account of her time spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and her reflections on her life during that hike.

The book has been successful and many people have read it.   Many people write to her to report how connected to her they feel after reading the book.  One day, as you can see if you listen to or read the NPR story, a woman wrote to her to say that she thought she and Strayed had the same genetic father.   And indeed they did.  (Strayed hadn’t named the man in the book, but the woman had recognized him and could name him herself.)  That means, of course, that Strayed and this woman are genetic half-sisters.

It turns out that Strayed’s father, who had been  married to Strayed’s mother, had remarried after a divorce.   His new marriage produced the woman who wrote to Strayed.   But that marriage, too, dissolved and neither daughter has maintained any contact with the man in question.    They knew (at least vaguely) of each other’s existence but that was all.

Strayed asks questions that I think are important:

“It’s been really pretty interesting to think about: What is family? And what is a connection? You know, obviously this isn’t someone I grew up with. I’m meeting her as an adult. And like I said, our connection is through this man who neither one of us has a relationship with now. And so how are we sisters? And how do we proceed?”

For me this connects up the recent post about family forms.   The connection between Strayed and her correspondent has several facets.  There’s genetics, of course.  But there’s also the experience of having had and then lost touch with the genetic father–the same man in both cases.    There’s clearly commonality there.  Is that fairly encapsulated in “sister?”   Probably not.

I don’t mean to suggest that one needs a new term for every variation on relationships.   Perhaps my point has more to do with how language choices can sometimes oversimplify.   Whether Strayed and the correspondent call each other sisters or half-sisters, their relationship is not like many others that fall within those categories.   As Strayed says, they never knew each other growing up–and both sisters and half-sisters common do at least have some contact.

And then there’s Strayed’s last question:   How do we (from my perspective, they)  proceed?

I will not make any attempt to answer that, of course, as it is hardly my business.   But in the end, this is the most crucial question.   What does one make of it all?   There’s something special in that relationship, but the meaning any pair of people give to that is up to them.   Very likely it is contextual.  For medical purposes, for example, the genetic connection may be of paramount importance.  At other times, though, having the same man as absent father or the same man as once-present father may be more important.

I suspect if I’d read Wild I’d know more about Strayed’s own relationship with her father and maybe that would lead to more to think about.  Perhaps I’ll put it back on my “to read” list

More Challenging Technology Ahead and What It Means for Our Language

Some of the discussion in recent posts has been about terminology (particularly “biological mother” and “genetic mother”) and the ways in which (at least in my view) technological progress can create ambiguity.    Consider, for example, the technology that may soon allow use of mitochondrial DNA from one woman and nuclear DNA from another.   In the face of this, what is the meaning of the term “genetic mother?”

To me it seems clear that in instances where this technology is used, it would encompass both women.   Thus, a term that once uniquely identified one and only one woman no longer would do so.   A legal rule that provided “a genetic parent will be a legal parent” would now potentially lead to a three-legal parent family.    (Just as a reminder, I’m not in favor of such a legal rule.   Continue reading

On the Bookshelf: Red Dust Road and Using the Right Words

As those who read this blog know, I think a lot about language.   It’s been the subject of posts from time to time and even has its own tag.    It’s always been fascinating to me that we use the language of family all the time even though we don’t always have agreed upon meanings to the terms.   (I’m thinking of things phrases like “She’s like a sister to me.”)

Anyway, my ears always perk right up when I hear discussions of the language of family.  (And if I’m reading it, my eyes do whatever the equivalent is of perking up….what would that be?)

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast I subscribe to–it’s from the Guardian (UK) and is about books.  Someone (maybe Sarah Crown?) interviewed Jackie Kay, a poet and author who recently wrote a book called Red Dust RoadContinue reading

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.)  Continue reading

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.   Continue reading

The Trouble with Real

I’ve been thinking over on of the comments on the last post and it’s taken me back to some of my earlier discussions of language.   It’s seems clear to me that the words we use matter a great deal.   Sometimes we think we disagree (I mean this as a general observation, not related to a specific discussion) because we might be using the same word to mean slightly different things or different words to mean the same thing.   Sometimes it takes quite a while to figure out exactly what we disagree about.

Part of the problem is that many of the words we use have layers of meaning some of which are necessarily imprecise.   Think of “family” for instance.   I sometimes use family to mean my immediate household but other times I use it to mean a much wider array of kin.    I know what people mean when they say ‘are you planning to start a family,” too, even though that’s not a phrase I use.   Continue reading

What’s In A Name: Blended Families/Step-Families?

Here’s a bit more about terminology, a subject I briefly touched on last week.     (It’s actually a topic that comes up here with some regularity, but it hasn’t had a tag.  I’ll start one today (“language”) but it won’t show up in the tag cloud for quite a while.)  

Anyway, the topic of the story in my paper this morning was step-families.   (It was  based on a poll by the Pew Research Center. )  Here’s the critical line from the newspaper:  

A new poll estimates that at least four in 10 Americans consider themselves part of a stepfamily, but a growing number reject that label, saying it carries a stigma.

There’s no doubting that “step-anything” carries a stigma.    Continue reading