Being both the matriarch of a blended family and a certifiable word nerd (where my English majors at!), I sometimes struggle with labeling relationships. My live-in partner has an amazing bond with my daughter; it provides her unique elements of stability and affection. This man even spent five months as her full-time caregiver when the household needed it, and has implemented the structure required for potty training and bedtime success far better than I, her “real” parent, ever could have.
While he cherishes this relationship with a girl who feels like his own, he’s never felt right identifying as a father, or a stepdad, or a “bonus” fill-in-the-blank. Introductions haven’t been easy. In my search for a word that fit, I realized this semantic struggle was forced by a larger one:
We shouldn’t be using the word “parent” as a noun.
It’s hard to disown because being a parent is the main thing in my life; it affects my thoughts, health, relationships, career, and schedule more than anything else. But calling people with custody of children, “parents” implies that people without kids of their own are somehow not – which, at least etymologically speaking, is untrue.
“Parent” comes from the Latin verb parere, which means: bringing forth. It wasn’t until after the turn of the 16th century that the English present participle came to be used as a title, giving special distinction to biological mothers and fathers. Previously, mom and dad would’ve been known simply as elders, along with all other adults. Somewhere along the way, as families came to be increasingly pared down to nuclear units, we conjugated ourselves into another fun false binary: those who are parents and those who aren’t.
In fact, there are no non-parents, because parent is a verb. I parent. You parent. We parent. Anyone can parent, and in fact, everyone does. Because kids don’t look only to their moms and dads to discern what’s cool/intolerable/important – at least not for long. Teachers, coaches, bosses, babysitters, and public icons have as much or more influence on the culture we collectively produce, which is the psychological nest in which their personalities hatch.
In other words, even the child-less, child-free, and child-avoidant, “bring forth” the emerging generation, through influence both direct and indirect, conscious and unconscious. What we say and how we treat each other impresses children simply because we are the adults; we’ve been around longer. We shape the context of our species’ past and future. Likewise, the problems we create for ourselves and our environment can’t be contained within any “private” life – these too we pass on.
Make no mistake, every child belongs to all of us and none of us. The fate of each elder is tied to the wellbeing of every youngster – we’re sharing the same world, after all. They enter our habitat with clear eyes and determine which of our stories will be retold, whom will be remembered and how.
They will rebel against all of us – as they should – to test whether our values are still relevant for their moment in history. And when they come of age and we are simply old, all of us will depend on them, and the integrity of their character. The work ethic, compassion, and generosity that we’ve hopefully brought forth will ultimately define our quality of life, and our quality of death.
So isn’t it time to stop pretending that some of us are responsible for parenting and others aren’t? Why do some of us get credit for the wild beauty and brilliance of a child, but others don’t? Now that genetic science, environmental evidence, and every major religion make the same point – that we are all related – there really is no excuse to behave as anything other than family. And within that family, everyone has a role to play. Everyone is a parent.