Who Is A Parent?


A really good question! This age of political correctness demands us to use terms that accurately reflect the reality of the referenced situation. Hence, the uproar some years ago when adoptive parents took issue with the term "real" parent in reference to the birthparents, as if adoptive parents are... fake? Wikipedia defines "parent" without any prefix or qualifier, as "a caretaker of the offspring in their own species" but then goes on to define parental-qualifiers such as biological parent and adoptive parent, where the former does not generally imply a caretaking role, while the latter most certainly does! So it's confusing... but all of these various "parent" terms do denote some sort of developmental contribution to the offspring, and the nature of that contribution - via caretaking, genetic material, and/or the gestational environment.

Do we reserve "parent" specifically for the caretaking role? But then, doesn't gestation carry with it not just a biological contribution (oxygen, nutrition via the umbilical cord) but also, a more thoughtful caretaking role? Is the pregnant woman getting enough rest, avoiding undo stress, talking to the fetus, employing a safe sleeping position, getting medical care, etc. - to promote positive fetal development? Adoptive parents are very concerned with the level of prenatal care that their child's birthparent received for this reason. Besides carrying the baby, did she care-take responsibly? So, maybe gestational carrier does not give that role the recognition it deserves - should it be gestational parent? Likewise, maybe birthparent is OK if we acknowledge the in-utero caretaking component. Or perhaps gamete donors should be just that - donors, not biological or genetic parents since there is no caretaking component attached. Or is there?

Of course, if we use Wikipedia's traditional childrearing definition of "parent," then all bets are off. Our adopted children's birthparents aren't parents, they are... baby donors? ...genetic gestational carriers? Who deserves the term "parent" and the specialness the term implies with regards to a child? Our children are who they are, quite possibly because of all these different and important contributions - genetic, gestational, and childrearing. Maybe it would be healthier, and more accurate, if we apply the term "parent" broadly and acknowledge that our children are the sum of the developmental contributions of many: their genetic/biological/birth parents, their gestational parent, as well as their childrearing parent. Might this also ease the way, psychologically, to greater openness and honesty in families formed via third/fourth party reproduction and through adoption? If childrearing parents need a special term, how's about mom or dad?

Bob Bamman is a therapist and adoptive dad with a core commitment to supporting childrearing parents of all kinds and their families.

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