What’s In A Name: Blended Families/Step-Families?

Here’s a bit more about terminology, a subject I briefly touched on last week.     (It’s actually a topic that comes up here with some regularity, but it hasn’t had a tag.  I’ll start one today (“language”) but it won’t show up in the tag cloud for quite a while.)  

Anyway, the topic of the story in my paper this morning was step-families.   (It was  based on a poll by the Pew Research Center. )  Here’s the critical line from the newspaper:  

A new poll estimates that at least four in 10 Americans consider themselves part of a stepfamily, but a growing number reject that label, saying it carries a stigma.

There’s no doubting that “step-anything” carries a stigma.    The wicked step-mother is a recurrent figure in fairy tales and step-fathers don’t fare a whole lot better, even if they are less common.   This being the case, why would anyone aspire to the title of step-parent?  (Even as I write that, I’m mindful of the process by which groups embrace identity terms that began as slurs.   But while there are notable examples one could cite, it doesn’t always work out that way.)  Anyway, as more people play the role of step-parent, it seems likely that more people will reject the term. 

There’s something else equally interesting to me that is also going on.   Family forms appear to be more varied than they were a hundred years ago.  (I’m phrasing that cautiously as sometimes the perceptions of change don’t match the reality.  It’s easy to idealize the families of the past.  See The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz.)   

As the diversity of family forms increases, the content of the term “step-parent” gets mushier.   What exactly is a step-parent?  Definitions vary.   And as noted, lots of people will resist the term.  They can point to distinctions between their role and the classic step-parent.   Over time you can see that step-parent might lose some of its agreed upon meaning in this manner.  

As the article notes, no new term has emerged to replace step-parent.  I can see some reasons why that might be.   I’m not sure what the category is we’re really trying to describe.   My guess is different people will have different views of what that category is, and so a new term is hard to agree on.   “Blended family” captures something, but doesn’t give us a name for the individual members of the family.  

But perhaps the most important indicator of change is that Hallmark Cards no longer publishes greeting cards using the term “step.”   What I’d like to know is what they are publishing instead.  

A couple of other thoughts:   First, if you look at the Pew study (but not, I think, the news story), you’ll notice the researchers concluded that people with step-relatives “typically feel a stronger sense of obligation to their biological family members (be it a parent, a child or a sibling) than to their step relatives.”    That’s a pretty sweeping statement that you might say suggests that DNA is really what matters.   But then, the researchers have swept a whole lot of people into their net.   As far as I can tell, it includes a child whose parent remarries no matter what age the child is.  There’s a world of difference between having your mother remarry when you are four and having your mother remarry when you are forty.   Until I see the statistics broken down to take these differences into account, I’m not reaching any grand conclusions.  

And finally, while I’m on the subject of language, have a look at footnote 3.    

Biological includes relatives related through adoption (who are not considered step relatives).

This actually answers a question I was wondering about as I thought of all the different ways people might enter the loose category “step-parent.”   Still, defining “biological” to include “adopted” is what I would call “non-obvious.”

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5 responses to “What’s In A Name: Blended Families/Step-Families?

  1. My dad was in his thirties when his father got married, and refers to her daughters, who were also grown, as his stepsisters.
    One of the stepsister’s husbands once phoned saying “Hi, this is uncle Billy.”
    Uncle who??? I wondered.
    My relationship to them is as distant relatives.
    But once I introduced my new grandma as my stepgrandma, and she got mega insulted. I never did it again.

  2. I refer to my step daughter as my “bonus daughter”. She will be having a baby soon, and I will be Meemaw, as the baby has two “Grandma’s”.

  3. My 4 son’s were 8, 5, 1 and 3 months old when my husband, and their father, passed away. I now live with my “boyfriend”, we have not and will not marry because the pension we get from my husbands service disability is terminated upon remarriage. Everyone (including ourselves) considers us married. My older boys call him by his first name (and Step-Dad to others) since they are old enough to remember their “real” dad, but my two babies call him dad, in fact dada was my youngest sons first word. He has two little girls who’s ages are right in between my oldest two boys. I guess I call them my step-daughters, I see that “blended” is more representative of what we are, but isn’t that what families are? A hodgepodge of people that love each other? Even my partner’s ex-wife is over all the time and we go to all the functions together and I can call her anytime. I guess I’m blessed!

    • It’s good to hear that sometimes (and doubtless more than we know) things work well. I guess stories of troubles make better news. Few stories lead with “here’s a happy family….”

      I’m struck in reading this by the categories your boyfriend falls into. For you older boys he is as step-dad while for the younger he is something more. Of course in law (and likely for some people) he’s a step-dad for all the boys. But it seems like we need to distinguish between the relationship with the boys who remember their “real” dad and the boys who do not have that memory. Perhaps this shows us that the essence of being a step-parent (in a social sense, anyway) is that you are a successor to an earlier parent.

      Hope things continue to go well.

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