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What's Wrong With Calling a Kid a Love Child?

When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big secret became big news, I was surprised to see a familiar phrase used to describe the product of his affair: Love Child. It seemed like such an antique. Are we not beyond this weirdly euphemistic label in 2011? Nobody gets married before having kids anymore.

OK, not nobody. A 2007 study reported that 40% of children were born to unmarried parents. That number has increased over 8 times since Diana Ross sang her famous song, about a girl who was “never meant to be” and “scorned by society”.  If close to half of the kids in the U.S. could be described as love children, isn’t it high time we found a better way of describing them?  Yesterday in XX, Katie Roiphe deconstructed the meaning and evolution of the term.  She was interested for personal reasons: as an unmarried parent, she is the mother of a “love child” herself.  I was interested for personal reasons, too, but very different ones.

I’m not a love child, myself, and I don’t have one, either. My reproductive efforts have been timed with uncharacteristic appropriateness. But as the member of a 90’s indie rock band which co-opted this somewhat inappropriate term as its name, Love Child is a phrase I have thought extensively about. I had nothing to do with the band’s naming. But I more-than-occasionally found the phrase being applied to me. Maybe it was the long hippie-scraggly hair, the residual adolescent baby fat, or the unfortunate empire waist dress trend.  More likely, it was just the fact that I was the only female in the band at a time when females in bands were somewhat less common than they are today.

I was always disturbed when people applied the term love child to an actual person,  and not just because they were generally older dudes using the word love to flirt with a 19 year-old. There was, and is, something about the term that felt…dishonest. Dishonest to me because it didn’t describe me, circumstantially or emotionally. But also just inherently dishonest. As Roiphe puts it:

“Of course we can’t know exactly what went on between Schwarzenegger and his housekeeper, but I am quite sure that most of the pundits and commentators and gossips who are using the phrase love child do not think that it was “love.” The ironies or elaborate commentaries within the phrase are fraught; the word love in this instance is in fact communicating the idea of sex, of unmade beds, of hotel rooms in the afternoon. Most people are not actually thinking, when they utter the phrase, “Oh how nice. A love child!”

But then, maybe the implications can actually be used to the term’s advantage.

“what is a tiny bit subversive and possibly appealing about the term is the faint suggestion that the love child has something more to do with love than the baby born in wedlock, who is in a certain sense just doing his job, fulfilling the natural and upstanding function of holy matrimony. On some level, the existence of the love child is testimony to some special energy on the planet, to someone doing something not necessarily sanctioned by the Bible, on his or her own time, out of some extra industry or aspiration.”

Love child may be an outdated phrase, but Roiphe points out that there really isn’t a better option out there. Illegitimate? Bastard? Both worse. She suggests that we might try to collect a range of names, just like the Eskimos have 120 words for snow.

I think we already have a term that fits: child.  When almost half of the children in this country fit this description,  should we really feel the need to make this distinction?

Mad Girls: Where did my daughter get her anger?

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