President's Message #2, Spring 1998
by Dr. Marjorie Engel
The chore of packing away holiday decorations was put aside while I curled up in my favorite chair and reread the annual catch-up letters. Sure, I enjoyed them when they first arrived in December, but this reading was different. I noticed how many of our friends wrote about expanding families — a brother's second wedding, a stepson joining the family reunion for the first time, a daughter becoming stepmother to her new husband's nine-year-old son, a Christmas celebrated early since the stepgranddaughter would be spending the holidays with her birth father — and I was struck by the number of different names used to describe these new relationships. T.S. Eliot wrote at length about how hard it is to name a cat. These letters pointed to another nationwide dilemma: What can/should/do stepfamily members name each other?
The word stepfamily seems simple enough because it describes a state of relationship by marriage. And yet a few researchers, some authors, and most of the media have latched on to blended family. How depressing to be a blended family in which the various members have been mixed together so that their individuality can no longer be distinguished. Research suggest that couples and children in stepfamilies who try to function like a homogenized family must engage in massive denial and distortion of reality. Therapists report some pretty bizarre things happening when personal history is denied. So we circle back to the question: What can/should/do we name each other?
It all starts with the remarrying adults. Steve and I are sailors. And it's common practice to refer to one's wife as First Mate. Except that I'm not. So, tonight Steve presented us both with a Valentine present — new sailing caps. His still says Captain and, because he calls me the prime person in his life, mine says Prime Mate. I love this guy!
When there are children from previous relationships, all of the adults will be connected throughout the children's life passages. Does that mean my husband's ex is my ex-wife-in-law and my ex is his ex-husband-in-law? And if his children are my stepchildren, is he my stephusband? And what do our children (three of his and two of mine) call us collectively? Our parents? And, if we're their parents, then who are the non-resident mom and dad? And are the girls collectively our children or separately his children and my children? And, sure, we could eliminate the step in front of daughter (who needs the genetic blueprint?) but is that the best psychological move when my counterpart, my stepdaughter's mother, is nearby?
Stepparenting is untidy in many respects, including names. Most of the self-help books bring up the question of names — almost always including the word complicated. For the child, there are two basic complications. First, "What is my name?" Having a different name from the adults in the household becomes conspicuous at school and church, and a problem when friends can't find the older child in the phone book. Then there's the guilt issue because making one part of life easier is guaranteed to make another part harder. Besides, they arrived in this new family with an identity, a name, and they may not want it to be blended.
Second, "What do I call my stepparent?" A parent name: Mom, Dad — or any variation such as Mommy, Momma, Daddy, Poppa? Seasoned stepparents point out that to insist a stepchild call them Mom or Dad immediately puts stepchildren in a loyalty bind. A special nickname (I, myself, am not too fond of Stepmomster or Fake Father) — and do all of the stepchildren use the same one? Or do children go the route of first names, either plain or in combination such as Daddy Bill and Mommy Joan, now that our culture has become increasingly informal? Does the stepchild's age have anything to do with the choice? Do teens use first names and little ones stick to parent terms because that's what adult-size men and women are called? Is anything preferable to She, He, or Hey, You?
And how do stepsiblings feel about the choice? Is it awkward for some children in the household to refer to the adult by a first name and others in the home use Mom or Dad? Is it different from visiting a friend's house and calling their parents Mr. and Mrs. while their friends use typical parenting terms?
Maybe different names for when members of the "old" family and the "new" family are present or for different occasions? As one young man put it, "When I'm around my father, I'm careful to call my stepfather by his name and not 'Dad.'" When I'm around my stepfather, I call him 'Dad' even though that's what I call my father. When they're both together, I'm in trouble."
Then there is the issue of grandparents. Do all of the existing grandchildren, steps and bios, use the same name or are stepgrandchildren starting from ground zero? What if the first grandchild/stepgrandchild comes along after your remarriage? When the youngster begins to talk, are you "grand" anything? My stepgrandchildren call me Marmee — a play on my name and initials and also what the daughters in Louisa Alcott's Little Women called their mother. It has now become my name — used by all of our daughters and our sons-in-law as well as the little ones.
So, what can/should/do we name each other? The name chosen reflects what the person means to us. What we call someone cannot be separated from how we feel about the person — position, acceptance, respect, and love. The two go together. Or at least, they ought to go together. On the other hand, what is it that has prevented us from devising other names children can use when relating to, and referring to, their stepmothers and stepfathers — names that belong exclusively to them and identify the roles they play in stepfamilies? Is there a rational solution to the name problem? Write and tell us how you solved the "problem with no name "in your stepfamily. We'll pass on your ideas in a future issue of Stepfamilies.
Dr. Marjorie Engel is president of the Stepfamily Association of America