A friend hashtagged a social media post with this a few weeks ago, and I paused when I saw it.
I understood why she’d written it. Her blended family situation is very different from mine: She’s the full-time maternal figure in her family, whereas my role is part-time.
But it made me wonder if maybe I had it all wrong, the way I define myself and my stepkids.
Since I came into the picture almost four years ago, I’ve tried to be very aware of where I fit (and where I don’t fit) in my stepkids’ lives.
That’s extended into the terminology I use in the way I refer to myself — and the kids — in our relationship to each other.
I am their stepmom. They call me “Em” and “Emely.”
They are my stepkids. I call them … “my stepkids.”
Very rarely do I ever call them “my kids,” unless it’s in the context of my husband and I together, when I might say “our kids.”
I’ve always made it a point to be specific, because I don’t want the kids — or their mom — to think I’m overstepping boundaries. They do have a mom — a full-time, very involved mom — and I am not her.
But seeing that hashtag made me reflect: Does my emphasis on word choice create distance, maybe giving the kids a feeling of less importance?
Do they understand that I’m trying to respect who they are, and who their mom is — NOT that I’m trying to set them down as second-class citizens, or distance myself from them?
“I think this is an important question,” said Derek Foulds, of the Behavioral Health Center at Family Service Association in Fall River, when I spoke to him via email.
“I think it’s healthy and appropriate [to be] conscientious about not overstepping boundaries, as it is important to respect (and communicate about) the thoughts and feelings of the children and the biological mother.”
Foulds, who is the director of In-Home Therapy and assistant clinical director of the center, continued, “I think it is appropriate and important to empower children to feel comfortable to express the name that they want to call their stepmoms. Each family’s individual situation is unique and different.”
Like my friend’s family is different from my own. What works in her family, I don’t think would work in mine.
Because for all intents and purposes, she really is her (step)kid’s mom.
“We just feel the term has a more positive tone, and it helped making having an extra mom (or two moms) a bit more fun and exciting [for the kid] rather than confusing,” she said.
The important part, Foulds said, is that in every case, “the biological mothers, stepmothers and children in these families feel comfortable and respected…”
Personally, I feel plenty respected when I’m referred to as a stepmom. I’ve embraced the title, because in my mind, that’s what I am. And really, I’m proud of it. It isn’t what people expect when they see my family all together and just assume I’m the kids’ mom. “Nope,” I correct them. “Stepmom.”
But it’s the kids I’m concerned about, and if they’ll feel distanced (even subliminally) by the way I refer to them.
“You won’t be creating a distance between you and your stepkids, nor will your kids feel less important, by using the terms ‘step-mom’ or ‘stepkids,'” he said.
“Different names work for different families,” he said, “and that’s perfectly appropriate.”
Originally published in The Herald News on May 26, 2019.