Picture this: I’m standing around with Mr 10 and Mr 13 at their weekend soccer match, doing my best to look cool and dodge the ‘soccer mom’ label. One of the bona fide soccer moms wandered past and innocently asked ‘Oh, are these your boys?’. Now I should point out at this stage, that the boys biological mother is from a distinctly different ethic background to my own , so it’s a bit of a stretch to immediately assume I am their biological mother. However, obvious differences in physical features aside, the question was immediately recognisable to me as linguistic trap! A nomenclature nightmare. What the hell do I say that isn’t a) a flat-out lie ‘why yes they are!’, b) possibly mean-spirited ‘Oh no, I’m not related to them at all’, or c) just plain awkward ‘Well yes but no, you see I’m not their birth mother, they have a mother, but I kind of look after them like a mother and their dad is my partner….’
You get the picture.
So the result was an uncomfortable exchange of glances between the boys and I, followed by a mumbled ‘They are with me, yes’. Crisis averted.
But it got me thinking – what do I say when people ask me if they are mine? I had always assumed that no-one would think I was their mother. In fact, when all four of us are together (the boys, their dad, and I), I sometimes wonder if people think we have adopted children, their appearances being so clearly different from our own. The language minefield required me to convey the nature of the relationship between the boys and I in a way that reflects the care and affection I hold for them, while at the same time preserving the right of their biological mother to claim them as her own. If I said ‘yes they are’ to the question, I would mean so in the sincerest sense of the word, but the boys may feel that I am negating their mother, or trying to replace her in their lives. If I say ‘No, I’m their step-mother’, I’m back to the same old problem of the Disney villain image.
In a similar, but yet more uncomfortable interaction, a man who I knew vaguely but who had never met my partner or the boys, straight up referred to me as ‘mum’ when he spoke to them once. At that point, being wholly unprepared for such an incident, I fumbled through an explanation of their non-biological relationship to me. That was uncomfortable for everyone.
But, all is not lost. I have come across a new term that I think will solve all my labelling woes. While listening to talkback radio recently, I heard a woman casually refer to her step-daughter as her ‘bonus child’.
‘Bonus child’ says the the addition of the child/ren to your life is something good, but clearly identifies the non-biological parent-child relationship. I also assume, then, that having bonus kids makes me a bonus parent. I like it. I like it a lot. I’m yet to use it in anger but I am confident that it will end the awkward explanations I’ve come to fear so very much.
Thank you talk-back radio lady, your casual quip is the best thing I’ve heard in years.
The Reluctant Step-parent.