What constitutes a “real parent”?

family-492891_960_720By Sabrina Bartels

One of my nieces on Rob’s side recently met my parents during our move. When I saw her the next day, she whispered to me, “Brina, why don’t you look like your parents?”

It’s funny that she would ask me this, since it is something I haven’t thought about in quite a while. When I was her age (around three,) I remember fixating on the fact that I don’t look a thing like my parents. It wasn’t a secret – I’m Asian, and my parents are Caucasian – but it was a thought that constantly nagged at me. While all my other friends could say that they looked just like their mom when she was a baby, or that he had his grandmother’s eyes, I could just meekly offer that I have my mom’s love of cooking.

What really brought all of this wondering to a head was when people would ask me the question I hate the most in the world: “Who are your real parents?” They would ask me this after that all-important talk about genetics in middle school, when my dad dropped me off at soccer practice, or when I introduced my friends to my mom. My friends’ eyes would widen as they took in my parents’ blue eyes, my mom’s pale skin, my dad’s height. And then they would whisper that question to me in the back of the car, in the hallways, over the phone.

I have a lot of students who experience the same thing, but in slightly different situations. Some of my students are raised by their grandparents, or other relatives. Some are adopted, like me. Some live with foster families; some live in homeless shelters without either parent. There are students raised by stepparents, and students raised by older siblings. And sometimes, there are a lot of tears and wondering “Who are my parents?” There is confusion about who to call dad, whether it’s okay to call a stepparent by their first name, whether grandma can sign the permission slip that asks for a parent’s signature. It brings up this constant question of who qualifies as a parent, and what that term “parent” means.

So, here is my answer.

Your parents – and let me emphasize the fact that I’m saying YOUR “REAL” PARENTS – are the people who love and care about you. They are the people who are there for you whenever you need them, whether you have a fever of 102 degrees at 3 in the morning, or just need someone to talk to. They are the ones who teach you how to ride a bike, and who instill those morals and values in you. Your parents are the ones who sacrifice so much for you, but yet never really feel like it’s a sacrifice because it’s for your good.

I’m not a parent yet. But here’s what I always thought: being a parent goes way beyond just being called Mom and Dad. It’s what someone does and how they act that makes a person a parent. Whether the person you call Mom is the one who gave birth to you, or the person who raised you as far back as you remember, it doesn’t matter. Mom and Dad are titles that you, as an individual, get to bestow upon the person you feel is your mom and dad. You can choose who you want to give that honor to. That could be your biological parents. It could be your adoptive parents. It could be your foster parent. It could be your grandparent.

For me, my “real” parents are the parents who raised me. They are the ones who taught me right from wrong. My dad is the person who, when I was five, drove out to Madison to find a stuffed animal of my favorite cartoon character. My mom is the person who would stay up all hours of the night helping me with my homework and college applications.

And as for looking like my parents, I have come to terms with the fact that I will never have my dad’s height, or my mom’s eyes. However, there are a lot of other things I have that are just like them:

  • I have my dad’s love of sports, particularly football.
  • I have my mom’s passion for cooking.
  • I have my mom’s attention to detail.
  • I have my dad’s sense of humor.
  • Like both my parents, I can be fiercely stubborn, especially when it’s something I really believe in.
  • I hate onions like my dad.
  • I love art like my mom (though I am nowhere near the artist she is!)

My students have learned that being like someone can go beyond just looks. It goes beyond genetics. It can also be the lessons you’ve acquired through the years, and the habits you’ve picked up from those who raised you. The people who have done all of these things for you are your real parents.

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