mum’s (not) the word

In the four months since our wedding, there have been plenty of surprises. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to find time to get my work done some days, or that I would look forward to grocery shopping as “me time.” I had no idea Miles would run over a baby bunny with the mower and ask what to do. (“Find your dad.”) I didn’t understand the importance of having a husband who can make you belly laugh during a five-day power outage, and it never crossed my mind I would be saying things like, “No hitting during prayer time.”

But one thing I didn’t expect—to be referred to as anything but a stepparent.

“How are you getting used to being a mom?”

“That’s just what it’s like to be a mother.”

“Sounds like you are being a great mom!”

At least once a week someone says this kind of thing to me, and I know what these well-intentioned people mean. Since Matt (and, by extension, I) have primary custody, there are a lot of mom-like moments in my life now—carpooling kids to band practice, monitoring chores, attending soccer games, helping with homework, even arbitrating arguments. Matt and I talked before we got married about the significant role I would play in the kids’ lives, and as the months have passed I have grown more comfortable with exercising a little authority here and there—yes, Nina, you can go to Courtney’s house….Did you finish your math problems? I want you to get them done before youth group…..I know it’s a green vegetable, please eat some anyway……Miles, it is hard for me to work when you play the same two measures of that song for 30 minutes straight.

But that is a far cry from being a mom, and even though I know many people simply use the word as an acknowledgement of everything I’ve taken on recently, it bothers me. Both pre-June and since, we’ve had several family conversations about how I’m not their mom, and not trying to be. The kids respect me and love me, but they know their actual mom, who is an active part of their lives, gets to make the decisions with Matt about their activities, education and friends. I push back against the term partly because it seems unkind to Miles and Nina, who love their mom and don’t need another one.

But I also push back because it ignores the issues of my real position–stepmom. Yes, there are days when all I do is tend to the needs of others, and yes, that is what it’s like to be a mom. But it’s not the same, folks. I get lots of responsibility without lots of authority, I have countless opinions that can’t be voiced, and I deal with the lingering emotional fall-out of situations I didn’t create. Again, I know the women commiserating with me about the craziness of mothering are just trying to kindly welcome me into their fold, but it seems like cheating to accept a name I haven’t earned—and like I’ve been cheated when the unique struggles of stepmom-ing aren’t recognized.

I’m not sure what to do with this tension, other than what I’ve done so far—assume people mean well and accept it as one more unexpected twist in a year full of them. After all, compared to the dog eating half a pan of brownies and throwing up down the living room stairs as the school bus arrives, it’s a manageable surprise.

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