A year after 13-year-old Ruth's mother died, her father married a kind woman, but a bit of a drama queen. Now, 20 years on, she has started to refer to Ruth as her 'daughter' on social occasions. The half siblings call Ruth their 'sister'. Ruth's father says it's flattering and she shouldn't rock the boat by asking to be called stepdaughter and half-sister, but Ruth still feels uncomfortable.

When loving parents talk about their children, I always notice different muscles coming into play on their faces, muscles that never seem to operate at any other time. There's pride, joy, and often, even, radiance. This may sound sentimental, but I see it, even in the faces of parents who are fed up with their children temporarily. "My son", "my daughter" - the words speak of a special relationship, and one that should never be used by people who have not been involved in bringing up a child from a very early age indeed.

No wonder Ruth feels peculiar when her stepmother tries to steal this relationship from her dead mother. She feels her stepmother is trying to claim possession and pride that belong to a mum she no doubt still misses deeply. She feels her mother has been forgotten, by both her stepmother and her father, and she feels this as not only to an insult to but a betrayal of nof her real mother and her own roots.

Having said this, the stepmother almost certainly is blissfully unaware of what she's doing. She thinks that by claiming this mother-daughter relationship she's doing her stepdaughter a favour and making her feel part of the family. She's like one of those peculiar acquaintances and colleagues who sometimes introduce you as their "best friend". It's all very tricky, and not the moment to say "Erm, actually, I may be your best friend but you're not mine."

But it's how Ruth is to state her feelings that is the problem, not whether she should state them at all. And the only way to do it is nicely. Next time her stepmother talks of her as her daughter, a big hug and a: "You're too kind, but you know she's not my mother, but" - to the person introduced - "she's the best step-mum in the world" or some such affectionate nonsense, would do the trick. Or, if it's appropriate: "Daughter? Don't be silly! You just can't get away with that, you look far too young - no, this is my glamourous step-mum." The emphasising that, as is true, the relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter actually can be special and fulfilling in its own way would stop any tantrums or hurt.

As for the half-sisters and brothers, what Ruth forgets is that they never knew her late mother. When they appeared on the scene she was, to all intents and purposes, their sister. The concept of half-sister is too difficult for a tiny to comprehend, and it seems a bit hard to impose this on them now. My advice would be for Ruth to accept their description of her. But that they, in their turn, should accept her description of them. She is their sister; they are her half-sisters and half-brothers. This may seem rather peculiar, but there is in this a kind of truth that works both ways and should satisfy everyone, even the weak old father who is sadly more interested in a quiet life than a truthful and honest one.

The relationships between steps and halves can be fraught with resentments and difficulties, but it's a matter of unpicking everything and getting everything clear. When stepparents, are not insisting on being called mum or dad, when half-brothers and stepsisters have unravelled where they really stand in relation to each other, then paradoxically much closer relationships can evolve out of ones that might seem, by imposing their distancing definitions on them, more remote. The day may well come when Ruth's stepmother can introduce her stepdaughter as her step-daughter with the pride, affection and love that might even include using some of those mysteriously joyful maternal muscles in her face.

Go your own way - tell her

I can understand exactly why it "eats you up" to be referred to as her daughter by your stepmother, having been in the same situation myself. The problem is probably that your father just can't see why it's a big deal. In my own case, my father would say things like "It's just semantics" and 'Don't see problems where there aren't any." I tried to explain to him that it was to do with identity, but he just thought I was being even more dramatic.

In the end I decided (against my instincts) to disregard my father's wishes, and said to my stepmother that I would prefer it if she did not call me her daughter. She seemed surprised, but hardly minded at all. There was certainly not the havoc my father had predicted.


London, N1

Nip it in the bud

None of your step relatives has any right to ascribe to themselves false blood relationships. We've been through this one in our families and our conclusion is that we all should use the correct, accurate word to make relational references. We are what an American friend recently termed, a "blended" family: we have step and adopted relationships.

I've asked my wife's grandchildren to call me Martyn because I'm not their grandfather: they all have blood grandfathers very much in the frame. I have no right to use that title. When strangers make relational assumptions and refer to me as "grandad" I'll grin and say "yes" but, if they're closeish friends (who forget who is who) then I'll tell them, probably.

In your case, Ruth, be firm and straight from the outset. Don't let others refer to you in terms which upset you: it's objectively dishonest: it dishonours and dismisses the real relative. Speak quietly and privately to all concerned and be very assertive about this matter: it is important! If you find this beyond you, ask a mature family friend to speak to you. Encourage your people to refer to you simply as Ruth. Later, when you're a parent possibly, then your children will be labelled your step-mother's 'grandchildren' and the irritation and dishonest ascription will continue. Nip it in the bud, Ruth, and get them to face up to the disappointing fact that they do not have the privilege of being your mother, sisters or brothers.

Martyn Lloyd

Woodbridge, Suffolk

Get a life

Ruth's small problem should be ignored like so many "small" issues. Try getting on with life.

John Langton

Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Be generous

You don't say how old you are, if you are married and or have children of your own but this is not a small problem, otherwise you could have dismissed it. You say that your father had two more children, I take it that you were all brought up together - (ish; a 13-year-old gap would have been extremely difficult for you: did you have any opportunity to change the nappies, or kick the small interlopers?). How vivid is your memory of your mam? Was she a strong woman? Now, your Dad: could he not hack it on his own, with his 13-year-old daughter, and did he go for comfort?

Unfortunately for you, there was issue. It happens. Now you have a man who is trying to keep two women happy - he loves her, he loves you, he wants a bit peace. And now that her fledglings have flown, dear cuckoo, she feels lonely or bored, or shrill, or superfluous. Be generous.

Name and address withheld

Ask her to be more discreet

I think part of the difficulty is the "loudness" with which Ruth's stepmother calls her "daughter". If she were discreet it might be easier to deal with. Unfortunately she is indiscreet, so it is up to Ruth to make her feelings known. A truly kind stepmother would respect this and respond.

Nicholas E Gough

Swindon, Wiltshire


My best friend from school has asked me to be best man at his wedding. I have never been asked to do anything like this before, and I've not yet agreed, simply because I am absolutely terrified of public speaking. I have a very slight speech impediment, and though people say I could just get up and offer a toast, I feel I want to do all or nothing, either make a proper speech or not do it at all. I know my friend would be disappointed if I refused, but every time I decide to accept I break out in a sweat of panic and dread. I cannot bear to speak; I cannot bear to give up a role that would mean a lot to me since I regard my friend almost as a brother. Has anyone any ideas?

Yours sincerely, Nick

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Send relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the 'Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.