Recently, I was having a conversation with someone about my family. In describing my parents, I referred to my biological father as my “real dad,” something I picked up as a kid when I became a part of a blended family. After using the term a couple of times, the person I was talking with stopped me and casually asked me to “please use biological.” I was caught off-guard and quickly apologized, realizing I could easily have offended them.
Externally, I just kept relaying my story with the appropriate term. Internally, it stopped me dead in my tracks. I was mortified. If I could have crawled under a rock, I would have. I felt so small and simple-minded in that moment and couldn’t believe that someone I respected quite a bit caught me in a moment of ignorance.
I consider myself a fairly progressive person. Perhaps because of my career field (student affairs), I am hyper-sensitive to issues of identity and inclusion and the language associated with them. So why, for nearly 30 years, had I thought that “real” was an appropriate way to describe a parent-child relationship?
As a kid navigating the reality of having two dads, I took cues from my friends. “Real” dad was the man who shared his DNA with me. “Stepdad” was the man my mother married. Fairly simple when you’re talking among a group of 8 and 9 year olds. It didn’t have so much to do with the quality of the relationship as much as it was a way of identifying to outsiders what the relationship was. Looking back, I realize I don’t owe anyone an explanation for my family make-up; I just wish I’d been able to articulate that when I was younger.
In that moment when someone asked me to use “biological” instead of “real,” I felt like I’d betrayed my step-dad (who I refer to as Dad. Always have, always will). Using “real” to describe my biological father was like a slap in the face to my Dad, who had been my sole father figure since I was 6. When my biological father was not a presence in my life (which was over a decade), Dad was everything society tells us a father should be. So if “real” is a term I have to use to describe a parent, I’m much more apt to use it with my stepdad.
But I think it begs a different question. In a world where families come in all kinds of compositions , how does using “real” color our understanding of what family is? I know several people who are adopted; does their adoptive parent somehow mean less to them than the people who biologically created them? What about same-sex parents? Are t
hey somehow lesser parents because they don’t share DNA with their kid(s)? What if one does and the other does not? And while we’re at it, what about people who use surrogates to birth children?
These are all the things that started swirling around in my head when I was checked on my use of “real” to describe parents and families. I don’t for a second believe that a parent in any of the above families is somehow lesser because there isn’t a biological link. Nor do I think their relationship is any less authentic. When I stop and think about it, that whole line of thinking is problematic. If you’re going to use “real” as a synonym for “biological,” you paint a false picture of the nature of family relationships. But if you look at “real” for what it means, more as a synonym for “authentic,” you’ll find that it’s more about being genuine and true to one’s character.
Families are amazing, complicated entities. People will come and people will go. But what matters is the quality of those relationships. The more we get hung up on technicalities, the less honor we give to the relationships that deserve them.