John, listener Alesh wants to know, Alesh writes, “A certain person I know refers to her stepmom, someone her father married after she was an adult and living alone. This sounds odd to me. My intuition is that something like 16 is the tipping point. If my parents had divorced and one of them had remarried after that age, that’d just be my dad’s new wife or whatever, even if they had some limited parental type authority over me.” What’s the line for calling somebody a step parent?
I think this person is working through some issues in their Robot or Not letter.
I’m going to toss in another term on top of it too, which is orphans, right? Because there’s obviously a dividing line there. It involves this concept of sort of like words you use involving parents when you’re a child versus when you’re an adult. There’s that line in, is it “City Slickers” maybe I want to say, where the two old men, their parent dies and they’re like, “We’re orphans now,” because it’s silly. It’s ridiculous, that’s not what an orphan is. It’s a child who’s lost both of its parents. So step parent strikes me as being a little like that, right? If you’re a full-fledged adult and one of your parents gets divorced and marries somebody else, is it a little weird to say, “Oh, that’s my stepmom,” or not?
So I’m mostly with you in orphan, except, before I get on to the stepmom thing, except for the case where I think there is a useful and used purpose for the word orphan in it is the single word description of somebody whose parents are not alive, right? And that sometimes it is useful to use that word to describe an adult, because you just need a compact way to say, “This is a person whose parents aren’t alive.”
Even then, I think it implies that they died when they were young.
We don’t have another word for it, and sometimes you want the single word. If someone said that, you would say definitionally, that’s not wrong. It is just odd. But yes, for the most part, you’re not using that. But stepmother, on the other hand, has no age limits whatsoever. It is simply that the step is in there to explain, “This is not my actual mother. It is somebody that my father married.” And that does not have any time limits. It doesn’t mean you need to call them mom. You don’t need to call them stepmom, but that’s what they are, because they married your father and there is no age limit. It doesn’t mean they have any control over your life. I still call my mother my mother, and she doesn’t even live in the same state, right? She’s not controlling anything.
Well, you know.
Yeah. The title of father or mother, with or without the step, doesn’t have any implications of the age of you or any participation in your life. So yeah, that’s your stepmom. Like, I mean, they can be your wicked stepmom if you like, but it’s your stepmom. It’s not just your dad’s new wife.
I think you made the point there that I think is good, which is it is a choice to use it. And I’m kind of on the side of Alesh here that it is, it can be weird to hear an adult refer to a stepmom, but I think it’s okay. I think there’s a style choice there. So my wife’s father, my wife’s parents got divorced. My wife’s father remarried when she was a, I want to say, late teenager. But there’s complexity here, right? So she never lived with them. She was a late teenager. The new wife was only about five years older than her. And that’s one of those cases where she only refers to her as “my dad’s wife.” She’s never referred to in a motherly way at all. I think because it’s so far out of context that it really makes no sense to her and you would never do that, even though technically that’s what she is. And I would agree technically that’s what she is. She would never refer to her that way. By the way, I’ll also mention on the flip side, her mother got remarried. She lived with her mother and her stepfather and he’s just dad, right? He’s never referred to as a stepfather for the opposite reason, which is that he is also her father. So, you know, there’s a lot of personal choice going on here.
Yeah. So what you, the words you use to refer to someone within your family are completely, you know, it’s up to whatever you want to do. People call people uncles who aren’t even related to them in any way legally or by bloody. You can do whatever you want. But I’m saying like the word stepmother, if someone was looking at, you know, a family tree, someone who you’d never met a hundred years in the past, they’re going to label that as your stepmother, right? Or like, or if they said, here’s you, who is this person that I’m saying? Oh, that’s their stepmother, right? That’s what they’ll say. They don’t know or care what your relationship is or what you call that person or whether you like them or not, or how much control they had of your life. That is literally what they are. And that word never expires. And other people can use it as a descriptive term to explain the relationship, like the family tree relationship, the legal, societal, whatever relationship they’re saying nothing about whether you call that person mom, whether you like them, whether you call the person they married dad, even if it is your dad, like that is totally separate.
And that’s just, you know, again, within families, people call people all sorts of things and that’s fine. And that is much more having to do with the relationship. And there’s nothing forcing you to refer to this person as your stepmother. You never have to use that term because you can use other ways to describe the relationship, but other people will apply that because it is technically true.
Yep. I think that’s exactly right.