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.”