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Parenting, 1 and 2

1439911231007-300x169I hadn’t given Parent 1 and Parent 2 a thought before I saw the headline on Tennessee’s “reversal” of its “ban on ‘mother’ and ‘father.’” Huh, I thought. How had I missed news of a state’s banning mothers?

In terms of language, there’s a small, esoterically interesting story here that I’ll claim as part of what’s become sort of my bailiwick, writing about gender-neutral language. But the larger story has to do with the venues in which something becomes, or fails to become, news.

Here’s the deal. For many years, not only because of gay partnerships but also because of divorce, adoption, single parenthood, and so on, certain registration forms in the United States and abroad have asked for the names of a child’s caregivers not as Mother and Father but as Parent 1 and Parent 2. These designations are less cumbersome than specifying mother/father/stepmother/stepfather; they leave room for there to be two mothers or two fathers; and they eliminate any quibbling about whether Father or Mother should be listed first. I was still filling out Fafsa forms for one of my offspring in 2013, when the change was introduced by that federal department, and I can’t say I noticed. Apparently I filled out a passport application for my kids with similar wording. For all I know, the pediatrician was asking about Parents 1 and 2, or the public schools where my children were enrolled. Slipped right by me.

Now that Tennessee has “reversed” its “ban,” I can imagine there being a weird little bit of gender-studies interest here. For instance, was Father listed first on these forms before Parent was introduced? And do heterosexual couples tend to list the father first now, giving evidence that they think in patriarchal terms, or do they list the mother first because she is supposedly the primary caregiver? Someone (not I, particularly) might be curious to know the answers to these questions. Someone else (I) might note with a bit of irony that the form in question is a “permanent parenting form” to be used in arranging child custody after a divorce.

But these questions and observations are not what interest the reporters and readers of this big news about Tennessee. Todd Starnes, announcing the “reversal” on Fox News, remains troubled by the government’s “redefin[ing] traditional family roles”: “I reckon it’s only a matter of time,” he (somewhat predictably) writes, “before Tennessee completely conforms to the demands of the gender-neutral crowd and begins referring to children as ‘Thing One’ and ‘Thing Two.’” And his commenters sound a note of doom: “Thank God I will not be in this life for much longer. The destruction that has come to America is down right disgusting.” Responses range from rage to rags-and-ashes depression. “I gave birth — I am the Mother. Don’t try and call me anything else,” writes one commenter to the original news of Parents 1 and 2 in The Blaze, whose “hot topics” are Hillary Clinton, Planned Parenthood, Iran Deal, Islamic State, and EPA. Earlier, commenting on the news about the Education Department’s gender-neutral language, CNS News (“The Right News. Right Now”) commenters asked, “Now will the Liberal Democrats do away with ‘Mother’s Day’ and ‘Father’s Day’?” “I suspect with the way the Left has been removing all standards in our society that the word sex will be replaced by the word ‘species’; will that be their next civil right de jour?”

I can’t find the story in The New York Times, Slate, MSNBC, or anywhere else with a reputation for being so-called liberal.

This sort of news-picking isn’t exclusive to the right, of course. Google “crèche public space,” and you’ll get reports mostly from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, DailyKos, Slate, and About Atheism. But for those of us who actually find something interesting in the intersecting meanings of parent, mother, and father, or who note with curiosity and delight the ways in which children adapt to and adopt a changing vocabulary when it comes to the roles that adults play in their lives, such lopsidedness is a pity. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a parent is a great thing to be.

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