I went to a restaurant the other night with my daughter. It just so happened that at another table sat my ex-partner with my other two children -- an older boy and younger girl. It was during my ex-partner's court-appointed custody time, so they felt compelled (and she encouraged them, I suppose) to stick close to her. I know: awkward, right?
It got me thinking about language and the impact it has on our lives and our kids. For example, in the LGBT community "real" parentage often means many different things. We have spent decades building families of choice, arguing passionately that our family bonds are as strong as biological or hetero-normal bonds. But, of course, biology can be blurry when romantic and committed partners have to reach out to someone or somewhere else to bring children into our families.
In the courts, biology still reigns supreme in cases of LGBT custody disputes. In lesbian relationships, one mother will be designated the primary mother and the other will be, well, the other mother. That likely makes sense to most of you reading this blog post; after all, it protects the right of the adult to raise their biological offspring as they see fit. But most of you can likely also imagine cases in which the legal parameters are contrary to the emotional rights of the children. Children speak in feelings, they remember in emotion, and I suggest that theirs is a language of the heart rather than one of the law.
When we talk about blended families and parenting, we often speak in this heartless, adult-focused legalease: Who has "custody and possession"? Who is "primary"? Which "rights" did you "get" as a parent? When does a parent "visit" with his or her minor child? It is this language that sets up power differences and relationship roles that may mismatch what a child understands. Children absorb this adult language -- the language of courts and custody -- and it shapes the way they understand their world and their relationships. Children absorb and metabolize this language as they create their identities, internally and in relation to others who feel important to them. If a parent may not be "real," then might a child not be "real" either? And why wouldn't their rights/feelings/perspectives be as important as those who pay the lawyers?
In the restaurant that night, my daughter wanted to walk over and say hello to her "siblings" -- but what is that word? At one table all three were siblings, but at the other they never would have been combined with that parent in that way.
A couple of days later, I asked all three children about their relationships and who is "real." They looked at me like I had three heads. Yes, of course they are siblings. Yes, I am their "real" mom. Have I lost my mind?
Have I? The thing is that if something happened to me, my three children may not be allowed to experience each other as a family. In our quest to legally define families, it seems this protects the rights of the adults at the expense of the children. Shouldn't they be able to define the "reality" of their own relationships?
Before we head off into a philosophy lecture, here's some practical advice: when you want to know what is "real," ask the kid. Stifle your desire to define relationships for your children; they are likely to resent it later. In fact, unless there is abuse present, the "rights" of the "legal" parent are really irrelevant when the kids are sitting within shouting distance in a restaurant trying to figure out why they are siblings at one parent's home and not much better than strangers at another's.
In U.S. law, my two eldest children are stepsiblings, but not according to state law where I live; I'm either married or not married, depending on whether I'm standing in the United States or Canada. In reality, my son and youngest daughter are half-siblings, but my youngest daughter and I share no legal bond, so where does that put me, for her? I have been called all things you can imagine, but to my daughter, I'm always "Mom." And that, my friends, is real.