So one of the things that slightly grates, is when I’ve just referred to my sperm donor, and in response, the person I’m talking to refers to my ‘dad’. I always correct. For me, the man who donated sperm to enable my conception, and has played no part in my life since, is not so familiar as to be granted such a personal familial term.
Every family has its own language. Sometimes I’m dubious – as was the case when I babysat two young children of a lesbian couple, who knew one member of the couple as their mummy, and the other by their name (a naming structure which belied the relationship structures in that family). I’m not a big fan of granting parents radically different positions in a family. However, I recognised and accepted that that was the way that particular family had chosen to relate to each other, and so I respectfully repeated their own language whenever appropriate.
Just as my sperm donor is just that to me, and not a father, my brother Reuven is my brother, plain and simple. We may only share half our genetic material, but we’ve been brought up together and our ties are much stronger than those I might share with any other genetic half-siblings. I do have a half-brother, Daragh. Like Reuven, we share the same sperm donor but were birthed by different mothers. Daragh I do call my half-brother – because we have different immediate families. So although Daragh, Reuven and I have the same biological relationship to each other, the terms we use to describe our relationships reflect our familial links, and prioritise these above our genetic ones.
So what do you do when you come across a child or adult who comes from an unusual family structure? Simple – you listen to how they describe the people in their life, and you echo back that language. I had a situation at school once, when I was about five or six. We were studying the life cycle of a frog, and in her narrative, our support teacher referenced the role of mummies and daddies. During the ensuing conversation, little me piped up “I don’t have a daddy; I have a sperm donor”. This was immediately rubbished by the support teacher, who told me that of course I had a daddy – everybody has a daddy. She explained that her little girl didn’t see her daddy, but she still had one, and so did I.
Naturally I went home perplexed and recounted this to my parents. In their typical fashion, they decided to talk to the school – it’s not ok for a teacher to critique a little girl’s sense of self (and if you don’t see what the problem was consider the time a dinner lady told me I was a lovely little Indian girl, then to my response that I was Indian and Jewish, told me it was simply impossible). The school was great and completely backed my parents up. And I went home the next day happy in the knowledge that whilst the teacher’s little girl might have a daddy, I didn’t, and that both situations were perfect for both little girls.
If you’re deciding to start a family and worrying about labels – don’t. Your family will exist exactly as you define it, which is about the language you use, but far more importantly, the behaviours you enact. My brother and I have different relationships with both of our mums, but that’s not down to who carried us in their womb for nine months, but rather the 20 plus odd years of parenting that have followed. Language is important, but connections are far more so. Nothing that society says can change the love a family feels for one another, and a generic dictionary definition certainly can’t capture the complexities of modern relationships. So next time you find yourself discussing somebody’s family with them, don’t argue technical terminology, accept personal vocabulary.