Branching out with the family tree;Comment;Opinion

29th March 1996 at 00:00
George made me think about it first. We were in the pub together, and a local teacher asked me to introduce him. "This is George," says I. "He's my second husband's first wife's sister's second husband." Time for some new words, I think. As newly constructed families increase in number we should be looking at the concepts we have been allocating to some of the words involved.

A friend takes exception to referring to his initial wife as his first wife. He believes that the word "first" implies some preference on his part, and insults his second partner. He resolves this by speaking of his current partner as his wife, and the former spouse as his "practice" wife.

Once you venture into the realms of mothers and fathers you are talking serious semantic confusion and potential offence. When we refer to a non-custodial mother or father as a "natural" parent, it begs the question: "Who's the unnatural parent?" While "blood parent" may be acceptable biologically, I prefer "original" as an alternative.

Then there are specific terms. How many pupils in schools have a stepmother? As a legal term it describes the woman your father is married to, but as a concept it covers an increasing range of family set-ups each with their own peculiarities. The implications for teachers in understanding the context of their pupils' lives is considerable. When pupils speak of their Mum, they could mean a number of people, depending on their circumstances.

It seems that the extent of parenting responsibilities have more relevance to today's stepmother than the old legal definition. Brian is bringing up his children with his second wife, Celia. The children's original mother is no longer involved with them, and Celia is a stepmother with all the responsibilities of an original mother. Families like theirs may refer to the stepmother as "Mum", particularly in public and at school because it makes life easier than explaining the intricacies of their relationships each time. This doesn't necessarily make life easier for the stepmother, because a school may assume she knows all the details of the children's past, such as when they had measles or whether they could read before entering school. She may not have been part of the children's lives then.

Other couples, such as Tom and Christine, divorce and have joint custody of their children. For half the week the children stay with their father and his new wife, Tricia. Since the parenting responsibilities are carried out by the children's original parents, she is uncertain as to whether she is a stepmother. She speaks of "Tom's children" and does her best to guide them during their stay, while trying not to interfere. When the children refer to "Mum" at school they mean their original and joint-custodial mother, Christine.

These two examples involve fathers with day-to-day responsibility for their children. Such men are still in a minority, as most children continue to live with their mother. Since Roger's and Rachel's divorce, the children live with their mother, and visit their father and his new wife, Susan, at the weekends and the holidays. Susan also qualifies for the legal title of stepmother. Her role is not clear, either to her, the children or the world around. For the children, though, there is no confusion about who "Mum" is. Mum is Rachel, and Susan is Dad's wife.

Schools are becoming sensitive to these emotional minefields, and may be able to offer some new terminology for us all to use to simplify things. A generation ago, we teased people who had been brought up by their Mum and Uncle Jim; Uncle being a generic term for a man involved with your Mum and you, and Auntie supplying the feminine equivalent. Enlightened children of the sixties that we were, we eschewed such euphemistic nonsense and insisted that people came out into the open about their relationships without embarrassment.

Now that there is no stigma attached to these new family relationships, is it not time we had words to describe them, if only for George's sake?

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