What’s In A Name?

21 05 2009

A lot according to stepfamilies—anger, shame, pain, jealousy, loyalty. So what do we call each other?

By Jacquelyn B. Fletcher

Shortly after my husband proposed, my three future stepchildren asked me The Question. “What should we call you?” Up to that point they had always used my first name, but the fact that I would be marrying their father changed everything. “Are we supposed to call you Mom?” one of my stepdaughters asked.

I explained they already had a mom who loved them very much and they could just keep calling me Jacque. Then we all watched Cinderella together. After a scene in which Cinderella’s wicked stepmother was particularly horrid my then nine-year-old stepson said, “Thank goodness you’re not like that!”

A few weeks later, my stepson revealed he’d been working on the what-to-call-me problem because he felt I should be something more than just Jacque now that I would be part of his family. “How about S-Mom,” he said. “It’s kind of like Superman. But it’s short for SuperStepmom.”

My fears of being called the Evil One or Wicked Stepmother were laid to rest, and I was touched that my stepson had found a way to solve the name dilemma. And better yet, he paved the way for conversations we all had before my husband and I married. How did the kids want me to introduce them? What did they feel comfortable calling my family? And if someone, a store clerk for instance, mistakenly called me their mom, how did they want me to handle it? The discussions we had helped us work through some of the discomfort that is inevitable when a group of strangers becomes a family.

And because my stepson didn’t like the word stepmother and didn’t feel like he could just call me Jacque, he taught us a valuable lesson: We could come up with a language of our own. It’s a common occurrence in stepfamilies, according to Paul Dickson, the author of Family Words: A Dictionary of the Secret Language of Families. “We have the ability to create new language. Family words are the words that are used within families for their own particular needs. People are very creative about how they come up with names. Family words pop out of the fabric of a family and they become useful.”

Ask stepfamilies what they call themselves and you’ll find that people feel very strongly about what they refuse to call each other and what alternatives they’ve come up with to describe their relationships to each other.

A Step Back

The original use of the prefix step was to describe family connections that resulted after a widowed parent remarried. The very nature of the word stepfamily indicates there has been a loss of some kind, either the death of a parent or divorce. Many families object to the use of the word stepfamily to describe themselves because it is a word that is steeped in negativity. 

“There is a lot of turn-off to the word step because people want to deny it, avoid it, keep it a secret, pretend it’s not happening,” says Susan Wisdom, a counselor who works with stepfamilies and the author of Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today’s Blended Family. “It’s okay to be a stepfamily. People can love each other and care about each other and be stepparents and biological parents. It’s all about a healthy attitude and behaviors.”

Diane, a stepmother of two grown boys, expresses what many stepparents feel. “I’ve always hated the word step. It puts those of us who fill the role on a different, lower rung.”

Julie agrees. She struggled with the step-terms as a stepmom to four children. “Stepmother felt like such an ugly word. Let’s face it, when we’re little and playing, no one ever wants to be the stepmom.”

There’s no doubt that the word step conjures up negative images from stories, movies, and urban legends. “Some of these terms such as stepmother have ended up with a negative feel to them over time,” says Dickson. “They have that fairy tale feel. Stepmother. Stepsister. The words have an almost harsh sound.”

 Negative connotations aside, the word stepfamily is used today by researchers, doctors, and authors to describe a certain grouping of people. And the meaning of the term is expanding as more people are living with stepfamily dynamics even though they are not in traditional remarried stepfamilies formed by a death or divorce—for instance, those couples who are cohabitating but not married and same-sex couples.

Blended Not Stirred

To combat the negative associations, some people choose to use the word blended to describe their family. It’s commonly used when both adults have children from previous relationships. But this word has complications, too.

“People in the stepfamily field object to the phrase blended family because it’s important to include absent biological parents who live elsewhere but are still parents to their children. If you get married to a man, take over his children and call it a blended family, what happens to the mom who created them and what happens to that relationship?”

Another problem with the word blended is that it creates an assumption that two families will easily and smoothly merge into one new family. But as members of stepfamilies know, it’s not as easy as pressing a button and everyone has found their place in this new family of strangers. “The reality is that it takes from two to seven years for stepfamilies to adjust. It’s more like curdling in the beginning than blending,” Wisdom says.

Other terms people have used are bonus family instead of stepfamily or gift kids in place of stepkids. Jodie and her husband merged two sets of children when they married. “We use the term extended family. Stepfamily sounds too harsh, but bonus family or blended family sound disingenuous; I am sure my stepkids don’t see me as a bonus, nor do they enjoy much blending.”

Words as Weapons

In stepfamilies in which members have a lot of anger toward each other or are uncomfortable with their role as stepfamily members, words—or the lack of them—can hurt.

When Andrea and her husband, John, married, they each had adult children. Both of Andrea’s children call John by his first name and refer to him as their stepfather. Their children call him Grandpa and he is treated the same as the biological grandfathers. John’s son calls Andrea by her first name. “I don’t recall my stepson ever introducing me and don’t know how he would. I doubt he would use the term stepmother. Usually, I refer to him as John’s son because I am not sure how the term stepson would feel to him. It might have been different had he ever lived with us but he has lived in other states almost all of the 18 years we have been married. Only my daughter ever lived with us and it was for a very short time after her college years.

“While my children remember to call John on his birthday and Father’s Day, that hasn’t happened with my stepson and me, although I always send birthday and holiday gifts and cards for him and his wife, signed by both of us, of course. They do not have children so I so not know if I would be called, Grandma or by my name.”

Some stepchildren don’t call their stepparents by any name. “My stepson, 13, tries not to speak to me at all,” says Jodie. “In the few instances he has needed to initiate a conversation, he calls me, ‘Hey.’”

In the early days when my stepchildren and I first moved in together and had yet to feel comfortable around each other, if I was the only one home they wouldn’t call my name to get my attention. Instead, they would say, ‘Is someone there?’ I would answer, ‘No, Someone is not here, but Jacque is.’

A classic distancing technique by stepchildren is to call their parent’s new spouse, “My Mom’s husband,” or “My Dad’s wife,” which can be incredibly hurtful to a stepparent. Equally harmful is when a child is asked to call a stepparent something that makes them feel disloyal to their biological parent. “The most important part in coming up with names is that stepmothers, stepfathers, stepparents, should not force something that does not fit,” advises Wisdom. “If you tell a child, ‘You must call me Mommy or Daddy,’ that’s very hurtful and confusing.”

Your Family is My Family

As if the stepparent-stepchild naming conundrum isn’t enough, kids also have to figure out what to call all those other people who come along with a new stepparent — the stepgrandparents, step uncles, step aunts, and cousins. Talking openly with the kids about what they would like to call everyone is a good place to start. My stepchildren call my parents by their first names and my siblings either by their names or their nicknames. Instead of an Aunt Kate, they have a Katie-coo. But they call their stepfather’s mother Grandma Barb.

Anne never called her stepmother anything but her first name, but now, thirty years after Anne’s stepmother joined her family, Anne has her own child. She feels guilty that her daughter calls her stepmother by her first name instead of Grandma. “I feel that’s insulting to her somehow, but I don’t know what I can do about it.”

What Anne could do is talk to her stepmother about what she would like her daughter to call her. By brainstorming nicknames together and turning the name game into a fun exercise, you can reduce tension between all the extended family members in your stepfamily.

Free To Be You and Me

Ultimately each family decides for itself what terms will be used when they’re alone together or have to describe each other to outsiders. And often it is the quality of the individual relationships that help determine what words a family comes up with.

Ann grew up with two stepdads. The first she called Dad because she was so young when he was with her mother. Now that he is deceased, Ann continues to refer to her first stepdad as Dad. Ann calls her current stepfather by his first name, Joe, but not because she doesn’t love him. “I wouldn’t define myself as Joe’s twice-removed stepdaughter. There was no question that Joe would be Joe. We had known him as Joe for so long before he and mom got married that it seemed strange to change after 10 years. It kind of was a habit. However, if you ask me straight off, who my dad is, I’ll say Joe without even thinking. I just don’t use the term dad when speaking to him or of him by name.”

Ann’s stepfather Joe adds his explanation, “I had always encouraged the girls to call me what ever they felt comfortable calling me. I suggested the first name because the three of them started out by calling me Sir. In the book To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus, the father, allows his two children to call him by his first name as a sign of respect, as all people are equal.”

Because stepfamily life can be so challenging, some people come up with humorous words to describe each other. “Language is a way of coping,” Dickson says. “Language becomes a way of easing daily life.”  

My mother has three stepchildren who she has always had good relationships with and for years they called her stepmonster as a term of endearment. Jenny didn’t have a stepmom until she was in her mid-twenties and the adjustment was difficult. When Jenny is getting along with her stepmom, she calls her Bom, which is short for Bonus Mom. But when things aren’t as close between the two of them, she calls her by her first name.  

Words can help a stepfamily create an identity for themselves since it can be difficult for two separate families to figure out how all these new people relate to each other. Whether a stepfamily calls themselves a step, blended, bonus or just a family, the most important thing is that the members learn how to communicate and live together in peace without negating the histories of each person. “What stepfamily members call each other is very individual,” says Wisdom. “The best way to handle what to call each other is for the family to come up with creative names that work for them.”

Ideally, parents should discuss the names issue early on, even before a remarriage occurs. And the more fun you can make it, the more you’ll give your family the signal that this doesn’t have to be loaded with emotional baggage. Find out what your children or stepchildren would feel comfortable with when introductions are made at school or to their friends. When I talked to my stepkids about this I asked them if they wanted me to tell their pals I was their Wicked Stepmother or their Evil Stepmother. They all laughed, but the first time they each introduced me to a friend, they said, “This is my stepmom, Jacque,” with no embarrassment.

It’s also important to talk about names with your extended family members out of earshot of the kids so you’re not hit with an awkward situation on the first holiday you all gather together. When you bring up the topic, you give everyone permission to talk about it instead of letting the kids skulk around not knowing what to call your parents when they’ve only seen them a handful of times. And remember that any names you all come up with can change over time as your relationships grow.

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a stepdaughter, stepmother, and the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins). Find more at www.becomingastepmom.com. This article first appeared in Remarriage Magazine.

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