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Parenting Traps

I'm a Real Mom, Too!

A stepparent wrestles with labels.

By Lylah M. Alphonse
April 5, 2009
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"So, you're not really a mom."

I was picking our oldest boy up at summer camp a few years ago. The counselor watched as he raced up and threw his arms around me in a huge bear hug. "Tell Mommy what you did today!" the counselor enthused. My boy looked around, puzzled. Mommy is here, too?

I explained I was his stepmom, and there was silence. The counselor stared at him, wrapped around my leg, my arm around his skinny shoulders. "Well," she said after an awkward pause, "he certainly seems to like you." And then, the kicker: "So, you're not really a mom."

The most difficult part of stepparenting, for me, hasn't been the kids, but other adults. The kids were young when I entered their lives -- 5, 3, and 1 -- and on our wedding day, I traded vows with them and their dad. I still tuck them in at night, even though our oldest is now 15 and much too cool for our ritual.

Early on, we exchanged ideas about what they should call me: a variation of "Mom"? No, that might hurt their mother's feelings. "Bonus Mom"? Accurate, but awkward. "Extra Mom"? Ditto. So I call them "my big kids," and they use my first name. If pressed, they add, "She's my stepmom." None of us like the label or the baggage that comes with it, but it requires the least amount of explanation -- and, oddly enough, the people who question us are almost always adults. Children don't seem to care how I'm related to my kids.

There are more than 20 million blended families in the United States, and the Census Bureau predicts that by 2010 stepfamilies will outnumber "intact" families. You'd think that stepparenting would be considered legit by now. But when I became pregnant in 2004, the issue resurfaced. Now, people told me, I was going to be a "real" mom. I wouldn't "just" be raising "someone else's kids" anymore. I bristled. All those years of, well, parenting wasn't enough to make me a "real" mom, but getting pregnant and giving birth was?

Two births later, I still disagree. Parenting is parenting, step or not. Just ask any of my kids -- big or small.

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