When Miss Manners hears about stepfathers, it is usually as their stepdaughters are about to trade them in.
"Who should give me away?" they ask when they are planning to be married.
Well, dear, who has you?
Never mind that it is usually the bridegroom. Miss Manners does not believe in spelling everything out on ceremonial occasions, even symbolically. Wedding guests are neither as innocent nor as easily titillated as young couples excitedly imagine.
But the odd persistence of the archaic gesture of giving away a bride, usually so much at variance with the facts of the participants' lives, brings out the larger question of etiquette toward stepparents. Miss Manners doesn't mind solving the wedding-day crisis but believes a fuller understanding of politeness in step-families should precede it.
First, she wishes to take the curse off the prefix "step." Those who consider step-designations insulting make it difficult to refer to today's complicated relationships without confusion, at the least, and possibly also hurtfulness toward non-stepparents.
Some stepparents, like some parents, are better than others, and some worse. But to allow the evil connotation from fairy tales to persist is ridiculous. Surely a devoted stepparent is extra-laudable for having done the difficult job of parenting without the humbling comfort of knowing that all the child's faults can't be blamed on the other side of the family.
Therefore one should be able to use and accept the title of stepfather or stepmother with pride. Doing so would also relieve others of being referred to as biological parents, as if the act were performed for a science-fair demonstration; they are merely father and mother.
Stepparents may be addressed as parents or by their first names -- a matter that is most kindly left to the preference of the children. But in introductions, the alternative of "my mother's husband" is frosty, unless used by children who were grown up before the marriage took place.
Second, Miss Manners wishes to condemn the vulgarity of emphasizing the money angle. For any parent to claim respect on the basis of supporting the family is equivalent to the mother's claiming it on the basis of having suffered during the child's birth. Such matters are not decently flung into children's faces.
A stepparent derives authority from being one of the heads of the household, a fact that should be stressed by the parent. (This is not the place to send in stories of child abuse; abuses of any sort of parental authority must be countered with stronger weapons than disrespect.)
Nor are honors in the family for sale, which brings us back to that question of who should give the bride away.
Perhaps neither the father nor the stepfather. Having to make Solomonic decisions to preserve a very minor tradition may not be worthwhile. Brides who are obviously not emerging from parental households still covered with dew often omit this custom.
If the mother was the primary parent, she should do it. There is traditional precedent, as well as symbolic sense, in this solution. Miss Manners has always thought it callous for fatherless and stepfatherless brides to go scrambling for distant male relatives, while the parent who reared the bride is not even considered.
If the bride prefers to be given away by either father or stepfather, and the choice is made and explained tactfully, it behooves the one not chosen to be gracious. A bride who tells her stepfather that she loves him dearly but feels she should have her father with her, or one who explains to her father that she loves him dearly but her stepfather was the one with whom she grew up, should be met with an example of magnanimous acceptance.
Or perhaps both the father and the stepfather could give her away. It is not shocking to have more than one parent present -- the Jewish custom of having both bride and bridegroom accompanied by both parents is a charming one that should be more widely adopted -- and Miss Manners maintains that it is no more laughable to have two fathers present at a ceremony than to be reared by two fathers.
I attended a grand wedding in my daughter's husband's family and sent the couple a pair of silver candlesticks. After quite some time, I received a thank-you note. But the odd thing was that the note was not in the bride's handwriting but in her mother's. I know her handwriting well and so does my daughter. There is no mistaking it.
The note was written in the first person -- "I," not "they," throughout, as in "Bob and I really love the silver candlesticks and they look so nice in our new home." It was signed with the daughter's new name.
Miss Manners, is this now an acceptable way of thanking someone for a wedding gift? To me, it almost borders on forgery. Nor is the mother doing the daughter any favor, as she certainly isn't teaching the daughter the values of responsibility or honesty, do you think?
It seems to Miss Manners that your friend has long since taught her daughter something about responsibility: namely, that she can get her mother to do her job. I would love my preschool child to grow up as non-prejudiced as I feel I am.
I know I can't do much about remarks she hears outside our home, but I find myself in a bit of a bind when guests make remarks about blacks or retarded people.
I am appalled at some of the things people say about others. But being an adult, I just try hard to overlook this problem.
My daughter is just a child. She could innocently say something hurtful or offensive to someone that she heard from one of mommy and daddy's friends in her own home.
Is it proper to let guests and family members know how I feel about this type of talk in my home? How does one do it tactfully? I don't want to insult friends.
My husband doesn't feel as strongly on this matter as I do, and would be very upset if I embarrassed him or our friends over this matter.
Miss Manners agrees with you that this is an extremely important issue. Unlike your husband, she would go so far as to say that it is important enough to embarrass guests over -- mildly enough not to break the rules of hospitality (also a gross rudeness) but strongly enough to disassociate yourself from bigotry, whether your child is present or not.
You may politely challenge their statements conversationally, with "Really? That's not at all our experience" or "Perhaps you don't know what it's like, but we employ some retarded people, and so I know how wrong these ideas about them are."
But whether you do that or let things pass, there must be a double-barreled parental lesson after the guests leave. Your child must be told that people often say harmful things carelessly, and that although we don't go around correcting others (lesson No. 1), we don't ourselves endorse such mean ideas (lesson No. 2).
People who teach their children only general rules, without teaching the application by critiquing events the children have witnessed, are only doing half their child-rearing job.