I got an email last week that started like this: “Eve: If you have a writer’s block some day, I’d be curious to read your thoughts in a future blog.”
One of the things I promised my best friend when I first started blogging was that I would never, no matter how desperate I got, write a blog about having writer’s block. I have not always held up my end of that promise over more than four years of weekly deadlines, but I do think it’s a good goal.
That said, I don’t have writer’s block right now so much as I have a heady case of “Oh my God oh my God it’s 80 degrees outside and there are parades this weekend oh my God!!!” I am as excited as a Jack Russell terrier who has consumed a triple espresso. It’s been a long, cold, bleak stretch since Jan. 6 – by New Orleans standards anyway; don’t kill me, Chicagoans! – and now that it’s warm and Carnival season is starting in earnest, I am painting my toenails and eating al fresco and wearing Capri pants and just about to burst at the idea of throwing my kids on my shoulders and catching some beads. Yes, by Fat Tuesday, I will have total parade fatigue and will be hugely grouchy about the 38 metric tons of beads and stuffed animals all over my house and car, but right now, I am straight-up giddy and severely lacking in motivation to do anything besides jump up and down, dance to marching bands, drink Abita Grapefruit beer, and wear feather boas all around town.
But deadlines are deadlines. So I am going to go ahead and attempt to tackle the question that was posed to me in this email as a writing prompt:
“Technically and by legal definition a stepson is the son of your spouse by his previous marriage. But in the interests and spirit of the term ‘family’, I would have no qualms about calling him my son. Conversely, referring to as ‘my stepson’ has (to me anyway) the connotation that he’s not as good as Ruby or Georgia, who are your daughters — not your stepdaughters. Sort of like he’s held off a bit at arm’s length from being part of the unit that includes you, Ruby and Georgia.
I think ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ is a more inclusive term and, if he’s old enough to know the distinction of being a stepson versus a son to you, your calling him a son might be an appreciated and endearing word for him to hear.
And I think ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ are accurate and inclusive terms in describing your present family unit – forget the ‘legal’ or biological technicality. When a stepson is adopted, he no longer is a stepson; he becomes a son. But a child in a family who gets the same love and opportunity and encouragement as any other child of the family shouldn’t have to be legally adopted to be a son in the fullest sense of the word. Or called a son. At least I don’t think so.
My spouse and I have only one marriage between us and no experience with stepsons or stepdaughters on which to draw, but a sensitivity to each and every one of our four children precludes treating any one in a lesser fashion. I’ve always thought that if I had a stepson or a stepdaughter in the legal term, they would be my son or my daughter to me and referred to that way. Yes they are also the son or daughter of my former spouse (or my spouse’s ex), but as a part of my family, he is my son as well, she is my daughter as well. No chastisement intended here, just curiosity – you’re in a situation I haven’t experienced. It’s your use of ‘stepson’ that struck me.”
Whoa. OK. There is a lot going on in that question – all politely and thoughtfully phrased, but still … whoa.
All I can do is speak for myself: I don’t know how other people handle it – but calling my stepson my son would not feel right or respectful to me or, much more important, to him. I certainly hope I haven’t given anyone the impression that I don’t consider him “as good” as my daughters. He is a great kid, and he is every bit “as good” as my girls, however something like that would even be measured. But – and this is a really big but – he isn’t my son. He knows that. I know that. I would be proud to claim him as my own – but I can’t. Maybe (maybe) it would be different if he had come into my life when he was very young, but he was 9 when I first met him, and his parents had already done so much of the hard work of raising and nurturing the very cool young adult he is becoming. I know, speaking as a mother here, that I would be pretty hurt and angry if my ex’s girlfriend started referring to Ruby as her daughter. And I know, speaking as a former stepchild, that if I had ever heard my stepmother – either of them – call me her daughter, I would have been furious, too.
Biology isn’t everything; please don’t misunderstand me. Adopted sons or daughter are sons and daughters, period. Adoptive parents are parents. I hope that goes without saying. But just as biology doesn’t automatically make someone a parent, marriage doesn’t either.
And I haven’t adopted my stepson. He has a mom and a dad. As I said here, I would never expect him to call me mom. I’m not his mom, and I don’t try to be.
Maybe I am weird about this, but I have never called my in-laws mom or dad, either, and I don’t expect them to call me their daughter. In many ways, the suffix “in-law” serves the same function as the prefix “step” – to clarify a relationship created not out of biology (sisters and brothers, cousins) and not by choice (adoptive families, romantic partners, friendships) and not by some combination of both biology and choice (bio parents and their bio kids) but a relationship that was a formed solely because two other people got married. I got lucky – I love my former in-laws, my current in-laws, and my stepson – but this can historically be a tricky road to navigate just because the parties involved are all sort of thrown together.
In any case, when I add “in-law” behind “father” or “step” in front of “son,” I am not trying to slight anyone; I am just accurately characterizing the relationship. This is an incredibly personal, unique decision for everyone. Just as I know some people who call their in-laws mom and dad, I know some people who call their stepkids their kids. That’s fine. That’s great. For them. But I don’t think it means they care about their in-laws or their stepkids more than I care about mine. It’s just a linguistic difference.
The bigger issue, I think, is that “stepmother,” “stepfather,” “stepchild,” etc. have such negative connotations. You hear of “wicked stepmothers” or treating someone “like a red-headed stepchild.” I am the first to admit that I am not as involved in my stepson’s life as I am in Ruby’s and Georgia’s – because he is older and because he has two perfectly good parents already – but I think he would be the first to tell you that I am not wicked. The only thing I exclude him from is the forced wearing of matching monogrammed clothing for special occasions; it would be truly wicked on my part if I made a 12-year-old boy wear a chevron-print jon jon with a gingerbread man on it.
Another thing: I don’t write about my stepson very often out of respect for his privacy and out of respect for his parents. First of all, he is 12. Everything is embarrassing when you’re 12. I would never want to embarrass him. And second of all, I don’t know where the line is. Every parent decides for him- or herself what is appropriate or safe to post online. Now me – I think we’ve all learned this by now, through the aforementioned four-plus years of weekly posts – I have no boundaries. I overshare like it’s my job (hey, it is!). But only I know where the line is for what I share about my kids. Simply put, it just isn’t up to me how much to share about my stepson, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t part of my life. It just means you don’t read as much about that part of my life.
But let’s say that instead of being my stepson, Elliot were my nephew. If I, in writing about him, called him that, I don’t think anyone would object. “Oh, ‘nephew,’” they would think, not even consciously. “That is an established relationship between two people that she is describing.” They would not think, “Why don’t you call him your son? Why do you imply he’s a second-class citizen? Why don’t you love him?” To me, “stepson” is really no different than “nephew”; he’s a kid in my family whom I care about but who is not my legal child. Do I love him, care for him, feed him (well, really, my husband does most of the cooking), wash and fold his clothes, buy him presents and treats, even (tentatively) discipline him from time to time? Do I know the names of his teachers, his pediatrician, his friends? Absolutely, of course. I am proud to call him my stepson, but I am just not justified in calling him my son.
On the other hand, sometimes Ruby calls him her brother. I don’t correct her. It feels true to her at that moment, and that’s fantastic. Hooray. And sometimes Elliot says back to her, “I’m your stepbrother.” I don’t correct him either. He is simply stating what feels true to him at that moment, not trying to rebuke her. When he doesn’t correct her, though, I have to admit that I just stand there and smile for a moment. I am glad they feel like family.
But the truth is, of course, that I am not saying we don’t feel like a family otherwise or that I feel like Elliot isn’t part of my family when I call him my stepson or he calls me his stepmother. I am just saying that the reality of our blended family is a little more complicated than a typical nuclear family. Calling it what it is doesn’t lessen it. Using forced terms that don’t feel true to us, in my mind, actually would lessen it. It would sweep the complexities of our various relationships under the rug and invalidate the pain and struggle we have gone through to get to where we are – the divorces, the adjustments both Elliot and Ruby had to make from only children with married parents to children of divorce shuttling back and forth between two houses, moving a couple of times, and learning to live with first a stepsibling and then a biological one joining the mix. It’s been a whirlwind for these kids and us, and I am proud of where we are right now, but I’m not about to pretend that we are a typical nuclear family. We’re not. We are both more and less than that, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.
And now I’m officially declaring it Carnival season, cracking open an Abita Grapefruit, throwing on a pink boa, and getting ready to hit some parades – with my husband, my daughters, and my stepson in tow.