For those of us lucky enough to have the engaged kind, the ever-present kind, sometimes the step-parent label, so wrapped in stereotype and qualification, doesn’t quite fit.
I am turning 27 next week and my Facebook feed is predictably overflowing with engagement rings, bridal white, and blurry sonograms. While some friends prepare to take on new mantels like “wife,” or “mom,” in the last week I’ve had three different conversations with those donning a different label: step-mother.
It makes sense, right? As modern families fragment and coalesce in complicated, creative ways, and as my friend pool spills into their 30s, second marriages and accidental-but-welcomed pregnancies will inevitably lead to more step-parenting. But no matter how statistically normal it might be, it’s not exactly how most people imagine their families expanding.
I only have experience on one side of the fence, but 15 years of being the step-parented (does two step-parents x 15 = 30 years of experience?) have made fairly clear that it’s not the easiest gig. Watching my friends embark on this particularly thorny path toward familial unity has compelled me to reconsider (belatedly) how we talk about steps.
My stepmother doesn’t like the word “stepmother.” Too many ugly connotations, she says, too many witches with poisoned apples, too many brassy, bossy gold-diggers. Stepmothers don’t exactly have the best pop cultural rap; even Julia Roberts in Stepmom only became tolerable when we learned Susan Sarandon was dying.
And “step” what? A step down? A step over? Just a half-step from “real”? Etymologically, “step” actually comes from the Old English prefix “steop”, which is related to bereavement. A steopcild was an orphan, making a steop-parent one who becomes the caretaker when the people who are supposed to do it aren’t available. But…nobody cares about Old English. We’re left, then, with awkward modern interpretations of people stepping in to the structures of existing families, and often, being stepped on along the way.
My step-parents have been my step-parents longer than they weren’t. I have hazy memories of a mini U-Haul when my step-dad moved in, and of realizing that my step-mom’s skirt in the laundry meant this arrangement was for keeps, but my brother can’t even remember the pre-step era. To him, they are as constant as our parents.
When I spoke to some other step-parented friends, they described their steps as “like uncles, or godfathers,” but they were usually referring to once-every-other-weekend steps, or long-distance steps. We were a 50/50 custody split, and I think my steps would consider that “distant uncle” description a disservice to their work, and so would I. My step-parents made lunches and carpooled screaming tweens. They quizzed us on the periodic table and band-aided rollerblading accidents. They drove hours for regional soccer tournaments and sat through interminable graduations. They were present for everything.
I know that this is not everyone’s experience. I made the mistake recently of referring to a friend’s stepmother as such; “Nope,” she cut me off, “I think you mean my dad’s wife.” My friend is also 27 and she feels strongly that this person, while legally bound to her father, has no maternal relationship to her. They’ve spent all of a handful of days together and, beyond the bare minimal scarf-exchange at the holidays, don’t have an independent relationship of any kind, much less parent-child.
But for those of us lucky enough to have the engaged kind, the ever-present kind, sometimes the step-parent label, so wrapped in stereotype and qualification, doesn’t quite fit.
I’m generally a fan of calling people by what they prefer to be called, whether it’s gender pronouns or racial identification or the politicized difference between Ms., Miss, and Mrs. Names are powerful and how we self-label is the first step (I swear, I’m done now) to self-determination.
It’s no small thing to find the right words to describe your role in a family, the words that make you feel affirmed and accepted rather than sidelined or excluded. In my family, we recently discussed, and approved of, the term “bonus parent” (though it turns out we’re not the first). It’s a nice idea, isn’t it, to frame a step-parent as a net positive, rather than by how much they aren’t a parent?
But even “bonus parent” didn’t feel quite right for our situation. It wasn’t until I was chatting with my brother that I realized the right words have been in front of us all along. We’ve used it a million times without even noticing. What did he call them? Just “the parents,” and he meant all four of them.
Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.