If you watched Jane Lynch’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes on January 16th – she won for her role as Sue Sylvester in Glee – it would have been impossible not to have been affected by how gleefully she thanked her wife, Dr. Lara Ember, and their kids. While winners commonly thank their spouses and significant others at these award ceremonies, Lynch was particularly and unabashedly exuberant in mentioning her partner, to whom she straightforwardly referred as her “wife.” That in and of itself was refreshing, given the short list of openly homosexual, or married, couples in Hollywood.
Lynch and Ember got married in Massachusetts, which in 2004 became the first state to recognize same-sex marriages. But there is interesting, and legally and psychologically complicated, family history there on Ember’s part, who had previously been in a partnership with another woman, each of them giving birth to a child and then each officially adopting the other’s child. When that relationship broke up, Ember went to court to defend her right to see her adopted child, just like any other member of a couple who has adopted a child, or who has a biological child or children would do.
Clearly, the very composition of the American family has changed dramatically. Heterosexual and same sex couples are rejigging what it means to have “parents” and “children” living together in a household. “Parents” now include single/married and heterosexual/same sex, and “children” now include adopted/biological/step.
While culturally we are more and more accepting of same sex couples, married or not, who are starting families, we still have a long way to go when acknowledging whether or not someone like Sandra Bullock, whose divorce from Jesse James I referred to in my article in this column of January 7th, can or should be allowed to continue a relationship, as the ex-stepmother, with the biological children of her partner once their relationship breaks up, particularly if she has cared for those children for many years as Bullock did.
And while culturally the wheels of change do seem to turn particularly slowly, at least where tradition is concerned, there are many people who are looking for alternative ways to describe these complexly composed American families, whatever combination of biological, step or blended they may be. And there are many people who are also working to protect the rights of each of these different kinds of partnerships among parents, as well as working to preserve and protect the best interests of the children of those partnerships.
Would that it were simple enough to say that all parents and children are simply “family,” but our legal system does not see it that way. To that end, Debra Chernick, a family court attorney in Rhode Island, has started the Para-kin movement to introduce an alternative phrase to describe a sundry of relationships that are not born of biological ties. Chernick’s Para-kin movement has recently caught the eye of the Rhode Island Bar Association Journal, which included an article, entitled Para-kin: Redefining our Relationships, in their January/February 2011 issue.
And just today, January 20th, the Washington Post has posted a User Poll – What term would you rather use to describe stepfamilies – in which you can vote for Blended Families, Bonus Families or Para-Kin. This is my final interview with Chernick about her Para-Kin movement. Read on, then log on to the Washington Post User Poll and vote for your own personal preference.
Words carry tremendous power, some more than others, and can be used for positive or negative effect. How we use them, how we speak about something, matters a great deal when we communicate. If a stepmother, for instance, were referred to as a Para-mom, do you think she would be seen in a different light culturally and legally? Do you think the phrase Para-mom has the power to remove a generally unfounded negative cultural bias?
I agree that words are powerful tools and often times our culture attaches images to them, positive or negative. The word “stepmother” is just one of those words fraught with a negative image. If I were a betting woman, I’d be confident that your readership is as tired as I am of the negativity surrounding the word “stepmother.” But in reality we can’t avoid those indelible images of Cinderella. We can’t take an eraser and blot out hundreds of years of fairytales. So what to do?
In my practice I come across loving moms and step-moms along with not so caring moms and step-moms. It’s an uphill battle for many step-moms on a daily basis. Would an alternative term such as Para-mom, which, by the way, I like to abbreviate P-mom, eliminate some of the battle? Maybe. It seems to me that there are enough issues surrounding the blending of families, that if we could negate at least the “evil” connotation and have children concentrate on the loving component, then at least there would be one less struggle to overcome within the family and society at large.
In essence, the terms P-mom and P-dad, along with P-son and P-daughter, embrace the image of love and caring within a family. For married parents, Para-kin provides an acceptable alternative to the use of step terms, and for unmarried parents, it’s a necessity for identification.
We started with the image connected to words and I’ll end on this same thought. When a partner marries someone with children, there are no choices. It’s a given that one loves the new spouse, but it’s an expectation that the love should or will extend to the children of that spouse. One becomes a stepparent, for better or worse. When the stepparent runs into a brick wall communicating with the child, or is perceived as “mean” or “unloving”, the negative “step” image is the fallback position.
Using Para-kin terms is a choice. One can choose to call himself or herself a P-mom or P-dad and choose to embrace that child as a P-son or P-daughter. Then, if difficulties arise between the new spouse and the child, the words “mean” and “evil” may not necessarily be the fall back position, because that person is not referred to as a stepparent in the first instance. The child may perceive that his new P-mom “doesn’t get it” or “is all over his or her case,” but the “evil” image may not even enter the child’s mind.
The phrase Para-kin is devoid of negativity. It’s devoid of centuries old mythology, legend and baggage. That is its beauty. That is its gift.
For More Info: Log onto Debra Chernick’s Para-kin website at www.para-kin.com.