Ron L. Deal
Life seems to tuck us into categories. Are you young or old? Are you Republican or Democrat? From the south or north? A student or a graduate? Employed or unemployed? The list goes on and on.
When it comes to family life, the questions seem pretty straightforward: Are you married or single, a parent or not? But for stepfamilies, this seemingly simple question gets complicated—fast. Perhaps because the terms used to define and describe the blended family experience vary from person to person. Do you, for example, call yourself a stepfamily or a blended family? Or perhaps you’re like those who call themselves a merged family, combined family, an instant family (like coffee?), a reconstituted family (sounds like orange juice to me), a binuclear family (which originated from the child’s perspective of having two nuclear homes, but sounds like “stand back it’s going to blow!”), or a remarried family (while this may work for one family it doesn’t work for others if neither of the adults was married before). And while we’re at it, is it spelled stepfamily or step-family, or step family? It’s all so puzzling.
Can We Talk?
Language is a living organism; when and how we use words—and their meaning—changes with time and culture. That certainly is the case with blended families. When I first started teaching and writing about stepfamilies the term “stepfamily” was the predominate term within the US. Then, about decade ago I noticed a change in my Google search results suggesting that “stepfamily” and “blended family” were used equally in the popular culture. Most recently, however, the term blended family has vastly overtaken the term stepfamily at a ratio of about 3 to 1—at least, in the US it has. If you live in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or the UK the term stepfamily is still the predominant term.
So, clearly the term blended family is the most widely used term for those of us in the US, right? Not so fast. If you live in the south, states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and parts of Tennessee and Arkansas, the term blended family often refers to a bi-racial couple that may or may not have any stepchildren (I’ve often wondered if a bi-racial stepfamily would be called a blended blended family?).
And then there are the strong emotional reactions that the terms stepfamily or stepparent have within some people. They point out that the term “step” has many negative connotations to it and dislike being associated with it. They’re right. The term step does come with a shadow over it. It comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term meaning “bereaved or orphaned child”. When a child’s parent died, the child was bereaved; when a new adult came into the child’s life they became a step-parent (that is, a parent ushered down the aisle into marriage and parenting by grief). If that weren’t bad enough, the dark and evil images of fairytale stepparents, like Cinderella’s stepmother, embedded in our psyche even more negativity with the word step. (Incidentally, the original author of Cinderella cast the evil stepmother as an evil mother, but the Brothers Grimm didn’t think society would tolerate a story about a horrible mother so when they republished the stories they changed the character to be a stepparent. Cinderella’s real mother would never have rejected one daughter in favor of the others, but a selfish, manipulative stepmother would have no problem doing so—that was a story people could fathom. And with that one simple change, presto, a villain and a legacy was born!) No wonder stepmothers hate the term!
So, again, to solve the problem just do away with the term stepparent, right? Not so fast. I’ve never met a child who took issue with the term stepparent, I only hear that from adults. To kids, it’s quite clear who is their parent and who is not. The term stepparent fits exactly right. Said another way, I’ve never heard a child introduce an adult saying, “This is my blended mom.” And therein lies the rub.
Children use terms that represent their current level of bondedness and feelings toward stepfamily members; adults use terms that represent their hopes and desires. Kids say, “You’re my stepmom/dad.” Adults say, “We’re a blended family.” Given this difference, the wisdom for adults is not attempting to use terminology to force your agenda for family connection on a child when it doesn’t naturally exist yet. Children often bow their backs a little when adults try to force terms of endearment, and therefore, love, down their throat. Blended families don’t blend just because you want them to; rather, they clearly start out as “stepfamilies” and cook very slowly until a blending of relationships, identities, traditions, purposes, and hearts occurs. No single term has the power to rush that, but a pressuring word can sure slow it down. No, it’s far more wise to let relationship determine labels rather than the other way around. (For more about this, read How to Cook a Stepfamily).
PS. You can spell it stepfamily, step-family, or step family. They are all acceptable in the English language. For what it’s worth, the consensus among academic writers is to spell all step words as one word, thus stepfamily is the most recommended spelling. But, of course, blended family is two words. Now I’m confused again!
To find a shared terminology for and about your family have a family meeting to discuss:
1. Everyone’s preferred term for your family. Ask, “What term do you find yourself using the most with your friends when describing our family?”
2. Ask people to share why they prefer that term.
3. Go around and let everyone answer how they would like to introduce and be introduced by their stepfamily members (e.g., at a school function). This helps everyone understand what feels respectful to others.
4. Giving preference to the children’s terminology, negotiate a mutually agreeable way to talk about the family as a whole and individual relationships. Please note that with close friends children may be okay with you using one term (“my daughter said…”) while preferring another with acquaintances (“my stepdaughter said…”).
5. Over time, continue to check in with one another to see if preferences have changed (which typically happens as relationships deepen).
Ron L. Deal is Director of FamilyLife Blended, President of Smart Stepfamilies, an expert in marriage and stepfamily relationships, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies including the bestselling book The Smart Stepfamily.