DEAR MISS MANNERS: Is it inevitable that the wife of one's father by another marriage must be called one's stepmother? I know that is what the dictionary says. Is any mothering required?
As you might have guessed, I am the first wife (now ex-wife) of a man who has remarried. Over the last 10 years, he and his wife have never spent more than a few days a year with my daughter, who is soon to be married. Yet I hear the term "stepmother" applied to his wife.
This woman has not acted as a mother to my daughter. I have accepted her as my former husband's wife. I am polite to her when I see her. Most certainly she will be included in the wedding events and photographs, but I do not consider her any kind of a mother to my daughter.
Nor would I consider anyone my 80-year-old widowed father might marry now my stepmother. Heavens, I am over 50. She would be my father's wife. I'm sure she would be a lovely person, but she would not mother me, so I would see no reason to call her my stepmother.
Does one's father's subsequent wife require the appellation "stepmother" irrespective of any mothering she has done? If so, I will yield the point. And if not, I promise to continue to behave politely. I will simply have the satisfaction of knowing that Miss Manners thinks as I do -- that mothering is required in order to be a stepmother.
GENTLE READER: Of course, Miss Manners guessed immediately that you are the first wife. She can always spot interested parties when they attempt to make etiquette rules, because they fail to consider any but the immediate effects.
A second wife may or may not be called a stepmother by her husband's children for any number of reasons, including the age of the child, the closeness of the relationship and how the child and the lady herself feel about the term. However, it is not up to the former wife to decide, based on her assessment of how much mothering is done.
It is true that should your father take a bride, you could decide not to call her your stepmother. Should you marry again, Miss Manners doubts that you would care to be given a rating and a designation by your bridegroom's former wife. She begs you to seek the deeper satisfaction of rising above this issue.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: When I sent my mother-in-law her granddaughter's homecoming photo, she told me her date looked like he had a "great personality." I thought nothing of it.
A month later, she raved how "good-looking" another fellow in the photo was and once again, that granddaughter's date (who is of ethnic background and actually good-looking) looked like he had "a great personality."
Now I am miffed big time. Am I too sensitive? This is not an unusual comment from her, and I'd like to call her on it. My husband says it's up to me. What do you think?
GENTLE READER: That being said to have "a great personality" is only an insult when it is a substitute for saying one is in love. And that your mother-in-law is hoping your daughter will get married, your husband is hoping to stay out of a quarrel, and that you are looking for one.