Lady's Choice

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Dear Miss Manners:

I've been presented a problem in proper address which I would like some assistance with.

A lady friend of mine has borne the child of a sperm donor. The child is recognized by his biological father as his child, and both the birth certificate and the child's christening name is his father's family name. The biological father has waived all paternal rights, though has stated in his will that he wishes the child to be given full acceptance as his child.

The lady in question has on occasion been called Mrs. John Smith or Mrs. Karen Smith, Smith being the father's name as well as the child's, though her name is Karen Jones and she has until recently been a stalwart Miss. There was and will not be any marriage, as the lady is a lesbian and the sperm donor is her 80-year-old stepfather.

I've suggested that it would be correct to use Ms. Karen Jones instead of Miss, and, as there was no marriage, it would be incorrect in any usage, not to mention confusing, to use Mrs. Please advise.

You understand, of course, that before Miss Manners makes a definitive ruling here, she has to take into consideration the feelings of untold numbers of people who are in the identical situation.

No, wait. Maybe there aren't so many. Even if everyone can find an 80-year-old sperm donor around the house, his wife might protest against his putting her in the position of having the double responsibilities of being a stepmother and grandmother.

But let us proceed. The surname is the lady's choice; etiquette has no stake in the matter. It is not unusual for a mother to feel that her life will be simpler if she and her child have the same last name, but then again, society is getting used to the fact that many do not. This lady already had a claim on her stepfather's surname if she wished to take it.

In either case, Miss or Ms. would be the conventional honorific, as Mrs. only goes with a husband's full name, which is why its proper use is dying out. Miss Manners doubts that your friend wants to be known as Mrs. Clarence Smith, and her mother may not, either. But honorifics are so sloppily used now, if they are used at all, that while Miss Manners holds on to her own, she does not condemn confused mistakes as ill-intentioned.

Nor should your friend, if the heart of the problem is that others who do not know her history now address her as Mrs.

Not so long ago, it was an insult to assume that a mother was not married; let us not consider it an insult to assume that she is. Or was.

Dear Miss Manners:


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