It seems that lately, I have heard a lot of stepmoms saying “I don’t use the word ‘step’ when talking about my stepkids”. I think there are two reasons for this. One is that there are some families and situations where a woman truly does see her stepchildren as her own – perhaps they have full custody or have been involved in their lives for a long time, and that is how she defines her family. That’s great! However, many stepmothers do not see their stepchildren as their own. They may love them and care for them, but do not consider themselves another “mom”, or feel the need to call the kids “son” and “daughter”. This brings me to the second reason why I believe some women choose not to use the word “step” – because of its negative connotation.
The Wicked Identity
We all know the image of the stepmother from stories, fairy tales and movies. She is mean, jealous, cold and selfish. Or she is dad’s young new wife, trying too hard to win over the vindictive children. When these are the stories we hear, of course, we associate “step” with “bad” or “evil” or “less-than”. Stepparents are “less” loving than biological parents. Stepparents are “less” understanding, “less” supportive. They are “Other” to biological parents – seen in opposition to them or at least seen less favourably. This is of course not true, but years of Cinderella has an impact on our social and cultural identities.
But, let me tell you why I always use the word “step”, and why I think it can change the narrative for stepfamilies.
What’s in a Word
I understand not wanting to use the word that invokes the image of a wicked witch. Early on in my time as a stepmom, I remember being at a farmers’ market with my stepkids and seeing someone I hadn’t connected with in a few years. We happily greeted one another, and I could see him looking at the kids, obviously thinking “Okay, I know it hasn’t been THAT long since I last saw her!” So I introduced them. And I remember almost cringing when I called them my stepdaughter and stepson.
That experience really stuck with me. I thought about it over and over… Why did I feel so embarrassed to use that language? What was so wrong with using these terms? And most importantly, what kind of example was I setting for my stepkids by being embarrassed to introduce them as my stepkids? After all, that’s what they are!
I realized that I was allowing those negative stories to impact the way I felt as a stepmom – that I was trying to hide it by not using that evil word… “step”. But this also meant that by refusing to use the word, I wasn’t trying to change the narrative of stepmoms by challenging this association of “step” and “wicked”.
My PhD research explored the way women learn to negotiate their role and identity as stepmothers. Through many in-depth interviews with stepmothers across Canada, I saw not only the ways in which they learn to identify as “stepmom”, but also the relationships that impacted that identity development. For all of the women, their parents played a role in the way they developed their sense of being a “parent” to their stepchildren. For the women who grew up with stepparents, those stepparents also played a significant role in fostering the women’s sense of identity – both positive and negative. Some wanted to emulate their stepparents and be just like them; others wanted to present themselves as very different role models to their stepchildren.
So when I realized I was embarrassed to use the words “stepmom” and “stepkids”, I saw the bad example I was setting for them. What if they become stepparents in the future? Do I want them to feel the same way? No! Did I love them, and was I proud to be in their lives? Yes, absolutely. I needed to change my thinking – to claim my identity as stepmom proudly.
Changing the Narrative
1. Acknowledging my role in the kids’ lives, and the benefits of being a stepmom
I’m not Mom and I’m not Dad. I don’t have to make the really big life decisions for the kids, but I get to be involved in supporting them and teaching them all kinds of things in life. Now that I’m a Mom to my own little one, I really appreciate the value of being a loving adult that my stepkids can turn to, without the pressure of being the one responsible for parenting decisions.
2. Looking at my own family
I have a stepfather who I love. He came into my life when I was a teenager (poor guy), and I would say it took about ten years for us to really live like a family. Yes, you read that right. TEN years. These things cannot be rushed. But in those ten years, and every day since, he has been an incredible source of support for me. He has never overstepped his role, he has never spoken negatively about me (within earshot haha) or my Dad (BIG lesson here stepmamas – don’t critique The Mom in front of those kiddos!), and he has proudly introduced me as his stepdaughter to other people. I didn’t need to look any further for a positive stepparent role model.
3. Looking at my “chosen family”
Through my research, my work as a stepparent coach, and my association with many stepfamily groups online, I have met some incredible stepparents – some of whom are my closest friends and collaborators. I am in awe of how they handle the common challenges of stepfamily life. How could I not want to be associated with this incredible group of women and men? They are changing the world for stepfamilies, and I want to be a part of that change.
4. Seeing the beautiful relationship between my stepchildren and my daughter
My daughter is just over a year old, and her little face lights up when she sees her big sister and brother. It’s pretty incredible. Their dynamic with the baby is so different than the relationship they have with each other, for many reasons – age, not living together full-time, having different moms – but it builds a really special and unique bond. How can I feel negatively about a role that gives so much love and joy to all three kids?
5. Setting appropriate boundaries around my role as a stepmom
While I can be proud to be a stepmom, that doesn’t mean stepfamily life is all kittens and puppies and roses and other pretty things. It. Is. Tough. Part of being proud to be a stepmom is setting boundaries around what that role looks like for me. Do I want to be involved in discipline? Do I want to communicate with The Mom, or leave that to my husband? Do I want to take the kids when my husband is working or only when he is free? Will I be involved in the financial obligations of the kids? Will I be a part of court proceedings if/when they come up? Setting these boundaries around engagement as a stepmother is crucial to navigating this life and to not being drained emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.
Moving Forward, Looking Ahead
I dedicate lots of time and energy to helping others living in stepfamilies – to help them navigate the complexities of this life. If I refuse to use the word “step”; if I refuse to be proud of this role and my own family, how can I truly help others?
If we stepparents can claim this identity and be proud of it, we truly can change the way the world perceives stepfamilies. We can show our stepkids that we are happy being a person of love and support in their lives, and we can set a positive role model for future stepparents.