I’m sure most of you reading this had the same training as I did growing up: we addressed adults by their last name and proper title, e.g., “Mr. Johnson” or “Dr. Bradley” or “Mrs. Hinkle.”
Those Misters and Missuses of the ’80s and ’90s we so addressed probably still prefer (or maybe just expect) to be called that. After all, they are still our seniors by a good twenty years or more and belong to a generation where this was thoroughly standardized. So, unless I’m given specific instruction to the contrary, I maintain this form of address with them—and I expect my children to mimic me.
However, I don’t refer to my peers in the same way, even around my children. Since I normally address my friends as “Gretta” or “Bob” or “Joanna,” and my children hear me refer to them this way, I don’t want to confuse my boys by giving them another name to know adults by, so I just have them use first names as well. Sure–previous generations have worked through this confusion in the traditional way, and it was no big deal. But that’s not the main reason I do this; it’s just a helpful side effect.
To clarify somewhat, we don’t have our children address adults just by their first names. Formal titles do show respect to one’s elders, or in some cases to those with a greater degree of expertise in a particular subject field. Since using titles doesn’t actually require coupling with a last name, we do have our kids use them when referring to adults. The results are “Mr. Bob,” “Dr. Dan,” “Ms. Anita,” etc.
But we rarely, if ever, use the title “Mrs.” If we do, it’s by mistake; a slip of the tongue generated through years of habit.
“Mrs.” is the formal title specifically for a married woman–one who “belongs” to someone else. In very formal settings a wife might even be denoted by her husband’s name preceded by the title, e.g. “Mrs. John Smith.”
For more about this, see grammarly’s very helpful article, “Here’s How to Know the Difference Between Miss, Mrs., and Ms.”
Here’s what bothers me: why should a woman’s traditional, formal title be defined by her husband’s possession of her? In contrast, a man’s formal title remains unaffected by whether or not he is married. Now, there are certainly many different degrees and forms of possession in relationships, plenty of which are harmless and normal; after all, my children are referred to as “Stephanie’s kids.” But the relational imbalance inherent in the titles “Mr.” and “Mrs.” paired with the all too commonplace misogyny in traditional marriages of the past half century (either grossly overt or relatively benign) leads me to feel that, on the whole, I’m not sure I like “Mrs.” anymore.
But even that isn’t my ultimate reason for avoiding the word. My final reason comes down to this:
I want to avoid putting any sort of negative spotlight on unmarried moms.
If I ever told my kids that we call the mom of some friends “Mrs. So-n-So” but the mom of other friends “Ms. Thus-n-Such,” I would have to explain the reason behind that cultural phenomenon: one woman is married and another isn’t. I would be highlighting that fact for my kids, singling out the minority group as different in some way, and thereby planting seeds of skepticism, disassociation, and criticism. I’d be inviting gossip about the other mom and the opportunity to discredit her for no reason except for the fact that we call her something different. If we label her with something strange and use it every time we speak to her, there must be something wrong with her–right? This is the kind of assumption a kid can easily make.
Of course it would be obvious to my kids if their friends have no dad in the picture. Of course they might have questions about the situation, but I would encourage them to talk to their friends and their friends’ mom about it, and if they didn’t want to talk, to respect that. It’s not something my family needs to problem-solve around our dinner table, and it’s not anything that should alienate us in *any* degree from a family with a different shape.
So, for all these reasons, my boys address women roughly my age as “Ms. First Name.” No muss, no fuss. Everybody’s on the same playing field, and, I have to say, no one has batted an eye.
Words so greatly affect how we relate to the world around us, and I feel that the fewer lines we can manage to draw between ourselves and others, the better off we’ll all be.
Image credit David Hayward @nakedpastor