Last week, the New York Times Motherlode blog cross-posted a piece by Femamom‘s Haley Krischer about a thorny situation at her son’s school. When seven-year-old Jake referred to his sister—his mother’s child by his stepfather–as his “sister”, the school nurse corrects him, telling him that the child he’s always known as his sister is, in fact, his “half-sister.” His mother is not pleased.
I explained [to the nurse] that each family handles the term “half” differently, depending on how the kids are raised. “In our family, the term ‘half’ delegitimizes the relationship, and in a deeper sense, it makes the sibling relationship sound less authentic,” I said. Half, by definition, implies lesser than. And just as an adopted child wouldn’t be introduced as “my adopted sister,” a half-sibling wouldn’t be introduced as “my half-sister.”
Many commenters took Krischer to task for being “too sensitive” and “blowing it out of proportion.” Some of them said that they had half-siblings and never had a problem with that terminology—a classic case of “it’s not a problem for me, so it shouldn’t be a problem for you.” Others with half-siblings agreed that “half” was undesirable, especially when the parents have deliberately chosen—as Krischner and her husband have—to create a family that doesn’t discriminate between whose children are whose.
To me, the bigger issue here is that the nurse felt the need to correct Jake at all. It didn’t seem to occur to her that a seven year old child is plenty aware of what his family situation is, and calling his sister “sister” is what his family does. The nurse has no right to treat it as an error, or tell him to use a term connoting less intimacy rather than more.
This whole discussion is particularly relevant to my own life. I have three younger brothers who are my father’s children by his second wife. We were not raised in the same household, but I have never referred to them as my “half-brothers” nor, to my knowledge, have they referred to me as their ‘half-sister.” I also have a stepsister who is no genetic relationship to me at all. I call her my “sister” because we were raised together from the time I was seven years old, and her father—who I call “Dad”, by the way—raised me as lovingly and actively as if I were his own child.
But because the two-biological-parent nuclear family is still seen as the norm—even though the data show conclusively that it is not—people act confused or disbelieving if they realize that my brothers and sister are not the children of both my biological parents. Or that the man I call “Dad” is not my biological father (in a further confusing twist, my stepfather and I look much more alike physically than my biological father and I do.) Let me tell you, when I explain these things to certain people, minds are blown.*
Like Krischer’s son, I was frequently corrected: “Oh, those aren’t your brothers, they’re your half-brothers.” Or “He’s just your stepdad.” Which always struck me as extremely rude and presumptuous. I am not stupid. I know the terms half- and step-. I choose not to use them. Why do people feel the need to question that choice or act as though I’m somehow a little dim and don’t understand my own family connections?
Another favorite was the patronizing or bemused “Wow, that must be confusing.” To which I always answered, “Maybe for you, but not for me.” I have always been perfectly clear on who my family is. If other people aren’t, that’s their problem. Why would it matter to anyone—except possibly a judge—whether my siblings or parents are tied to me by marriage, blood, or some combination of both? If I tell them someone’s my dad, or my brother, or my sister, that’s all they need to know.
What’s especially ridiculous here is the notion that this is all some brand new modern development that society’s still getting used to. The blended family is not a new thing. For most of human history, children frequently lost a parent, the surviving parent remarried and had more children with the new spouse, or brought their own children into the family.** The only thing that makes this a “new” phenomenon is that now both biological parents are still alive when half-siblings are born or step-siblings brought into the mix.
Families are as much a reflection of chosen bonding as they are of blood or marriage ties. What we call our family members is our choice. People who can’t respect those choices or feel the need to impose their own ideas about family onto other should shut the fuck up. The end.
*As children, my sister and I figured out pretty quickly that this was a frequent reaction, and used to fuck with people by telling them that we were sisters and then grinning smugly at their confusion.
**And if you read a lot of primary source documents from centuries past, such as wills or correspondence, you’ll find that people very rarely referred to their half-siblings, step-siblings or step-parents (or even in-laws) as anything other than “brother, sister, mother, father.” This may be because the nuclear family has always been the ideal, and people have sought to maintain that image, but I always theorized that because of the high rate of mortality and remarriage, people were more accepting of the need to blend families, and maybe more eager to heal their losses by immediately absorbing new members.