“They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents,” tweeted Al Trautwig, NBC’s gymnastics announcer for the Rio games, Sunday. But Ron and Nellie Biles adopted their granddaughters and raised them for the past 16 years as their legal children. Trautwig clearly did not consider them to be her parents, but has since deleted his tweet, and he’s now apologizing for it.
When Olympic gymnast Simone Biles speaks of her mother and father who raised her, people recognize that they seem like lovely people who have supported her career from the beginning. The type of people who drive any matter of distances at the crack of dawn to get their daughter to practices. The kind of people who make the financial sacrifices so their child can fulfill her dream of becoming a gymnast. People who can remember precisely which pair of jeans they were wearing when they got the call to meet their child at the emergency room following an injury, or what dinner was left to burn on the stove when they were called to pick up their child from summer camp where she caught a bad case of the chicken pox.
That’s what parents do. And yet watching interview after interview, I see this young woman forced to answer reporters that while Ron and Nellie are biologically her grandparents, they are truly her mother and father. They changed her diapers. They didn’t sleep as they kept watch over her fevers. They signed the report cards and permission slips and quizzed her on her math facts and spelling words. For some reason, reporters insist on reminding Simone that her mother’s name is Shanon. Ever the diplomat, she kindly corrects the error and clarifies that while Shanon is biologically her mother, Nellie is mom.
Although I have yet to win any championships (and my mother would insist I include the word yet), I’ve not had to answer these questions on the world stage. However, they are all too painfully familiar. Much like Simone and her sister, tragic circumstances led to my being raised by parents who did not give birth to me. When I was 3 years old, my biological mother died suddenly. I was raised, along with my brothers, by our aunt and uncle. From the moment I arrived, I was their daughter, no modifiers necessary. In our home, there was no difference between the three children my mother delivered in a hospital or those who were delivered to her door with tiny suitcases.
Despite the tone my parents worked to set, there were people around us who could not, or maybe would not, understand. At first, I overheard the meddling interrogations directed at my mother, which included but were not limited to, “So which ones aren’t really yours?” “Do you think you’ll keep them?” And, of course, “You are just so selfless to take them in!” as if we were rain-soaked kittens that had been discovered in a cardboard box on the side of the road.
And as I grew older, people felt empowered to direct their comments and questions my way. Mostly out of curiosity, although no less painful, people would ask me why I wasn’t blonde and blue-eyed like my beautiful older sister. “Oh! So you’re not really sisters. I get it,” would come the reply.
Not really sisters. Not really my mother. Not really my father. Not really my family.
Now an adult, I have the confidence to address the ignorance head on, striving to do so kindly, yet firmly. To the co-worker who prattled on and on about how blessed I was to have been rescued by my sainted parents, I assured her that while I was grateful now, just like any other child, I had given my mother at least 25 percent of her gray hairs during my teen years. When a neighbor pressed for clarification on which of the six of us were truly siblings, I gently reiterated that we all were and that DNA was not the defining characteristic of our relationships. And when I ran into the elderly woman at church who kept asking me about my aunt, I may have had a little fun pretending I had no idea what she meant, fully knowing of course that she was referring to my mom. As I watched her shuffle away, perhaps wondering if her memory was failing her, I felt a twinge of guilt, but only the tiniest bit. To be honest, at first I sincerely was confused and paused for a beat, trying to sort out how she might know my aunt who lives several hours away. Because, although when I was born she may have been my aunt, my mother has been my mom for more than 10 times as long as she was my aunt.
In a world that embraces the notion that it takes a village to raise a child, why is it so difficult for people to understand my family and Simone’s family? Setting aside the idea that it isn’t anyone’s business for the moment, what makes adoption so confusing? It is not a rare occurrence. Since (at least) biblical times, when Moses’ mother floated him in a basket, babies have been raised by others who aren’t necessarily their biological parents. Each year in the United States, about 135,000 children are adopted.
I understand that biology is fascinating and not easily dismissed. Admittedly, I delight in recognizing certain physical characteristics I have passed on to my own children. When I finally had a brown-eyed girl, I was thrilled. Although a nice bonus, it did nothing to diminish my love for my three blue-eyed children, however. And much like married people can grow to look like one another after years of sharing a life, there are physical manifestations of my relationship with my parents, however non-biological it may be. My quick wit is most definitely inherited from my mother, and I don’t think genetic material was necessary for my father to gift me with his love of antiques. I can’t begin to tell you how many people exclaim that my children look just like their grandmother. Their grandmother with whom they have no biological connection. And while all of these are lovely, certainly, they aren’t necessary for defining the love of family.
So to Mr. Trautwig and all of those who see my family, or more widely, see Simone Biles’s family, and instead of seeing love see only technicalities, look again. Ask yourself, what tethers you to your own parents or to your own children? Is it a shared recessive gene that caused you to both have green eyes? Do you immediately think of the fact that you are both blood type B negative?
Rather, isn’t it the time your heart was shattered and your father hugged you tightly and let you cry on his shoulder? Isn’t it the moment you let go of the back of the bicycle and your daughter soared away from you, squealing with delight because you gave her the confidence she needed? That is what makes us parents. What makes us sons and daughters. That is what makes us real.
Jenn Morson is a writer from the suburbs of Annapolis, Md. She’s on Twitter @wastedwitblog.
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