By STEVE MASCORD
ON Boxing Day – the day after Christmas, American and Irish friends – I found myself in a leafy backyard idyll on northern fringes of Sydney.
My sister was celebrating her 40th birthday. The poor girl shares my dark hair, pointy nose and vaguely round face – though not my scruffy beard, thankfully.
Around her were eight of her nine brothers and sisters. Some were entertaining children, others nursing beers …. huh? What? Yes, I did say ‘her’ brothers and sisters.
They were not my brothers and sisters. They do not share the physical characteristics described above, that I share with her. My sister and I were each adopted out – to different parents, in different cities – while infants.
I did not know my sister existed until 2006.
Let’s go back 24 more hours. I am north of Brisbane, marking Christmas with my other sister, the one I grew up with. And her partner. And her daughter.
Not ‘his daughter’ – because my sister’s relationship is about 16 years younger than she is . My niece also has a boy and a girl who were once strangers, then became her brothers and sisters and are now … somewhere in between because they were the offspring of my sister’s ex-boyfriend.
See those dots “…”? They are what this column is about.
What words do we have to describe family members? Mother, father, daughter, son, brother, sister, cousin. Then add “great-” and “step-“.
I have a great grandfather (biological) who was wounded at Gallipoli and survived. My great grandmother – who nursed him back to health – already had her kids when her first husband died in the First World War, so I am not biologically related to my great grandfather (from the family I knew nothing of until recently).
But if I can be proud of the grandfather in my adoptive family, who also fought in the Great War, don’t I therefore have the right to feel a similar sense of pride and belonging about the man wounded at Gallipoli, with whom I also share no blood?
Language is supposed to serve us. It is supposed to reflect the culture it serves. As all sci-fi nerds know, Klingon has no word for “love” but a single syllable grunt that says “I’m sorry sir, I killed the prisoner”.
But language can also inform and drive behaviour. You may not be a racist, but if you use bigoted language in front of your child, he or she is at risk of becoming one.
When it comes to family, our language reflects what we want family to be: the mythical nuclear unit which is actually quite rare. I know from my family history that relatives for whom there was no word – or if that word was, say “bastard” – were cast out.
The untidy growths on the family tree were callously clipped and never spoken of again.
We have cracked down on racist and homophobic language because we accept words inform behaviour. But we still say mother, father, son, daughter as if they are the only worthy roles in a family.
There should be a specific, short terms for “brothers and sisters of my biological sibling, to whom I am not related” or “siblings from my parent’s failed relationship who remain my friends”, “My biological uncle’s children from a previous relationship”, “relatives by marriage of my adoptive family”, etc, etc, etc.
“Step-“ is dismissive. As a prefix, it wants the subject to go away with no further explanation.
I’ve tried to kick things off by referring to my biological family as the “biofam”. “Adoptofam” sounds kind of crappy though, so I’d appreciate some suggestions there. My girlfriend calls the children of her siblings “chiblings” (‘niece’ and ‘nephew’ have no collective, sex-neutral assignation).
My point is this: that which we have no word for, we cannot discuss. This isn’t familial dysfunction, its human reality, a reality which was pushed under the carpet to the enduring misfortune of millions for centuries.
When we change our language, we will forever escape our shame.