Titles, Names and Labels

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Let’s face it. Calling someone a “Step” anything automatically assumes a negative connotation. Particularly because if your relationship is strong and happy usually the “step” just goes away and “step-brother” becomes “brother” and “step-mother” becomes “mother” ect… But until that comfort level is developed, what should you call each other? I have learned that there is no real direction for blending a family. Mostly there are just studies and statistics that will tell you what not to do. To decide what will truly be effective is really up to you and your personal family dynamic.

My husband and I both felt hesitant to encourage the use of “mom” or “dad” in our titles. We tried to ask ourselves how we would feel if our children started calling someone else Mom and Dad? For the oldest we felt he might start to think we are trying to replace his mother. For our youngest who was learning to talk this would just be confusing. We wanted something that wasn’t intimidating and that they could replace as their comfort level grew. So we introduced ourselves to our bonus children by our first names. This seems natural, easy and straight forward, right? That’s what I thought too, but this is one of those scenarios where suddenly a challenge arises where you never would have thought it could. Imagine my surprise when my little 18-month old girl, who is just learning to talk started calling me by my first name too. Sure it was cute and funny at first. After a while I really missed being called “mommy” and the funny looks at church or the grocery store were getting old. Then I learned that calling a parent by their first name is also a step towards alienation, or lessening the importance of a relationship. Some ex-spouses encourage this on purpose in order to demean the relationship with the other parent. Well that’s not what I want. How do you explain to a toddler to call her mother something other than what her brother says, when she doesn’t even comprehend that mommy has a name? She still calls me by my first name on the weekends she has her older brother to imitate, but for the most part she has leaned that everyone calls their own mothers, “Mommy.” She has also just started calling my husband “Dad” but has still reserved “Daddy” for her biological father. So far this seems to work for her.

Learning what to call each other isn’t always a negative experience, in fact this very issue took a pleasant perspective for my bonus child. He was 7 at the time I picked him up from school on Mother’s Day weekend as his biological mother was otherwise detained. With the brightest smile he ran up to me with handcrafted cards, projects and flowers and said “I made these for you because you’re my step-mom so that means you’re like a mother too!” It was the first time he ever somewhat called me mother. We had been so used to the words “step” having a negative connotation and being so overused I guess we just assumed he already knew that when dad got re-married he would have a step-mother. Seeing his little face light up at piecing these two things together it was like he finally recognized he had permission to love me on a whole new level. I still love the term “Bonus” in lieu of “step.” It lets them know they are loved and you are delighted they are a part of your life without any fear that you are replacing someone they love. He still addresses me by my first name but now he proudly tells people “That’s my step-mom.”

I’ve heard of some families introducing themselves with a proper suffix like Miss or Mr. in order to establish some sense of authoritative figure, like a teacher or coach. I can imagine this could be helpful if there are older children who struggle with receiving direction from a third party. With time this would ideally transform to a first name basis and eventually Mom or Dad. Because our children were so young when we merged households we thought this was too formal.

It took us nearly a year just to settle on what to call each other and it has been a fluid transition ever since. Something so simple, yet it took months of countless, unforeseen clarification and explanation. A lot of people expect you to already have this figured out. They want you to know what to call each other and then stick to that. This was one of those transitions that we had an idea about but we had no clue how long it would actually take and that this would be a constant transition. No matter what you decide to call each other in your new family, let the children set the pace based on their comfort level and above all, decide with love.

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