Everyone knows the most basic definition of a parent: the man and woman who got together to make and raise a baby. However, in the 21st century, this definition seems hopelessly outdated and limiting. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and the danger with an exclusive definition of parenting is that it can make some parents — and their children — feel “less than,” as if their relationship weren’t as loving or important as the traditional nuclear family from a storybook.
What, then, is a modern definition of a parent? Olympic gold medalist and arguably all-time greatest gymnast, Simone Biles, recently helped many Americans adjust their perceptions.
Simone Biles: Adopted by Loving Parents
During NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, gymnastics commentator Al Trautwig referred to Simone Biles’ parents as her grandparents — specifically as her “grandfather and his wife.” While it is true that Simone Biles’ parents are indeed her grandparents by blood, they also legally adopted her as a young child when her mother could no longer care for the gymnast and her sister.
That means they are her parents — and they should be respected as such.
Not that there’s any problem with highlighting a loving and successful family and adoption in the ever-popular biography bits about Olympic athletes — but it didn’t stop there. When a slew of Twitter users wondered why the NBC announcer repeatedly and relentlessly referred to Biles’ parents as her grandparents, Trautwig responded — in a later deleted tweet — with: “They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents.”
This set off a firestorm of angry responses, including one from Biles’ coach stating that, indeed, Biles’ parents are her real parents.
Who Gets to Be a Parent?
By focusing so relentlessly on the biological connection, Trautwig did what so many people do, whether unwittingly or purposefully: He created a second-class rating for all the parents whose DNA didn’t directly combine to form the child they’re raising.
If we can all agree that DNA is not the sole defining factor in the definition of parenthood, how should we define it? Here are some ideas:
- Do you unconditionally love a child in your life?
- Do you do the hard, daily work of feeding, clothing, and caring for that child?
- Do you provide emotional support and moral guidance for that child?
- Are you the main source of security and comfort for that child?
If so, congratulations! You’re a parent, and you’re crushing it.
What Doesn’t Matter
- How old you are
- Your race or your child’s race
- Your gender identity or sexual orientation
- Where you live
- Whether or not you have a job
- How much money you may or may not make
- Your level of education
- How much time you may need to spend away from your child
- Your genetic connection to your child
None of these factors make you any less loving or any less fit to be a parent, so if you are actively parenting a child in your life, you ARE a parent.
The Cyclical Nature of Parenting
In our new working definition of parenthood, we’ve talked a lot about children. However, as you move through life, it often turns out that the people who raised you into a strong adult will eventually weaken, and they will, in turn, rely on you for the same type of support you once received from them. Old age has been described as a second childhood, with more than 5 million Americans over 65 suffering from a form of dementia. As humans age, their more fragile bodies and minds require extra help to do the things they can no longer handle independently. Without condescension, it can feel like you are now the parent of your parents, especially if they face difficulties in the aging process.
If you have taken on the responsibilities of being the caretaker for an aging parent — whether you do it all yourself, rely on home care aides, or have chosen an assisted living facility for your parents — you, too, are doing the difficult but rewarding work of parenting. As such, you should be as gentle with yourself as you would with a new mother or father dealing with the challenges of raising a newborn. We’re all doing the best we can to love and care for the people most precious to us, and that can take on so many forms. And the work lasts a lifetime.
At the End of the Day
When it comes down to it, there’s no way to measure the human capacity to love. When you honor someone in your life by caring for them when they cannot yet — or any longer — care for themselves, you are performing the glorious work of parenthood. Don’t let anyone make you feel less-than just because they aren’t willing to give you the title you so richly deserve. Instead, keep on doing what you do best, and your child will thrive no matter what.
Featured photo: Simone Biles, Rio Olympics 2016 by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil, Creative Commons