What Makes ‘Real’ Parents?

First published at 365gay.com on May 13, 2011

Many years ago, when I was about 10 years old, my father was driving me to school one day when a story came on the radio about a man convicted of abusing his own children.

I said something like “I can’t believe a father would do that to his own kids.”

“That man isn’t a father,” my Dad replied instantly. “Not a real one. It takes more than getting someone pregnant to make someone a father.” (He may have used more colorful language, possibly involving hand gestures.)

Dad was right, of course.

I’ve been reflecting on my father’s wisdom recently as I’ve been thinking about the significance of various kinds of family bonds, including biological bonds.

I spent the last few weeks in Texas, helping my sister care for my five-month-old niece. Seeing my sister celebrate her first Mother’s Day was fascinating, not just because my niece is adorable (which she is) or because my sister and I are close (which we are), but because of something that, when spelled out on the page, admittedly sounds weird:

There’s something amazing about the fact that my niece’s body emerged from my sister’s body—which, in turn, emerged from the body of the same mother I emerged from, with the cooperation of our father, and so on up the chain.

That persons emerge bodily from other persons because of the bodily cooperation of still other persons is pretty cool—indeed, about as awe-inspiring as things get.

Now, the fact that I find this phenomenon awe-inspiring doesn’t mean that everyone does, much less that its awesomeness is part of the objective furniture of the world. I’m sure that my amazement at such “simple facts” will strike some as evidence of my having too much time on my hands, the sort of thing that makes sense only to professional philosophers and heavy drug users.

But in fact, many people do share awe at bodily connections. Whether because of evolutionary hardwiring or social conditioning or some complex combination of the two, biological bonds have widespread resonance.

Why bring up what seems to be an obvious point?

I bring it up because this “obvious” point is controversial. It’s controversial because it’s easily misread. So let me be clear:

To claim that biological bonds have widespread resonance DOES NOT MEAN that other bonds are less significant or less valuable. It certainly does not mean that non-biological parents aren’t “real” parents.

On the contrary, the claim explains why many adopted kids could have the most wonderful non-biological parents—as real as any family could possibly be—and still want to know their biological parents.

It’s not because their family is lacking in any way. It’s because, in addition to knowing their family, they also want to know the persons from whom they emerged bodily, the persons without whom they wouldn’t exist in the first place.

I’m reminded here of one donor-conceived adult I know, who speaks lovingly of her known family—her mother, her father, her stepfather and her grandparents—yet also longs to know her biological father. All three fathers are “real” to her, in different senses.

I grant that my friend’s longing, though common, is not universal, and that donor-conceived children may approach these issues differently in general than adopted children do. I want to honor her longing, even as I honor what’s unique and valuable about non-biological connections.

I don’t blame LGBT persons and their allies for being sensitive about these points. Our opponents use rhetoric about “real” families as a powerful weapon. Starting with a plausible premise about biological bonds, they then employ a breathtaking series of non-sequiturs to reach false conclusions about marriage and family.

It’s precisely because I want to block such moves that I think we should be clear-headed about the initial premises. Yes, these bodily connections are important to (many) people. No, it doesn’t follow that non-biological bonds are inferior, much less that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

The child abuser described on that radio program may have been a “real” father biologically, but he certainly wasn’t a “real” father morally. A biological parent brings you into existence, but a moral parent sustains you in that existence.

I think bringing someone into existence is a pretty big deal. But like my own (biological and moral) father, I’m ultimately far more interested in what happens afterward.