Simone Biles drew attention at this year’s Olympics not only because of her astounding gymnastic performances, but also surrounding Al Trautwig’s controversial remark that Simone Biles’ parents (Ron and Nellie) “may be mom and dad, but they are NOT her parents.”
Beyond the obvious respect that is due based on the fact that Simone refers to them as both “mom and dad” and her “parents,” Trautwig’s comment raises a more complex set of questions about how we define “parent” and what is socially accepted. It also challenges our ideas of “either/or, if/then” versus “both/and” ways of thinking. For example, Ron and Nellie EITHER are her parents OR are her grandparents. If Ron and Nellie are her parents, THEN her biological mother is no longer considered her parent. In reality, it depends on which aspect of the definition of “parent” one focuses on—and the adoptee, adoptive parents, and biological parents in a particular adoption constellation are the only ones who can truly determine what fits for them.
According to Merriam-Webster, a parent is defined as a) “one who begets or brings for offspring” or b) “a person who brings up or cares for another.” Note that there’s no statement indicating that the biological or birth parents must both bring forth offspring and bring them up in order to be a parent. When biological parents “bring forth” and “bring up” a child, it makes it easy to reconcile the two definitions. In the case of adoption, there are different people filling these different roles, and there doesn’t need to be a sense of possessiveness about who gets the title of “parent.”
Learning to Embrace Dichotomy
Dichotomy is when two seemingly contradictory elements combine, and we need to learn how to embrace the truth in the contradiction. In adoption, we’re challenged because the both/and of parenting is not married through a single person or couple fulfilling the “bring forth” and “bring up” aspects of parenhood. There are different people serving these different roles (birth parents, adoptive parents, and let’s not forget step-parents). We tend to both legally and culturally want it to be EITHER the biological parents OR the adoptive parents who are the “real” parents. Depending on the viewpoint, some argue that the adoptive parents are the only “real” parents while others argue that biology trumps nurturance. In reality, both sets of people are parents, serving different and equally valuable functions. One is no more or less “real” than the other.
Owning Personal Bias and Interests
In the case of Simone Biles, I was both impressed and disheartened with the rush of support (often from adoptive parents) in highlighting the insensitive, uninformed nature of Trautwig’s comments. The emotional charge behind the many comments from adoptive parents reflects their need for societal validation for the “realness” of their place in their child’s life—sometimes at the expense of acknowledging the more complex history of how they came to take that role.
Others (some adoptees) argued against the adoptive parents, citing those aspects of adoption that bring ethical question related to the finances behind private adoption and the corruption that can exist within the international adoption industry. In this case, we’re caught in the dichotomy that adoption can be BOTH a gift with positive intention and outcome AND can be viewed as an industry that can be embedded with corruption, bias, and manipulation.
The Benefit of Tautwig’s “Foot-in-Mouth” Moment
While Trautwig may have made a brash, biased, and insensitive comment, the responses also indicate bias and a personal need for Trautwig to be pinned as making a “wrong” or “incorrect” statement. The reality is it depends on the adoptee, adoptive parents, and birth parents in determining what terms fit the roles and identity in their family narrative. His comments brought this conversation to the surface and hopefully helped create more awareness of how complex it is to define roles and identities within the adoption constellation.