How do we decide what people should call one another in our newly blended family? It's a second marriage for my husband and me, and each of us had a three-year-old child when we married. Those kids are now six and seven years old. Recently, my step-daughter started calling me "Mom." When my husband's ex-wife heard about this she became extremely upset. We explained that we were as shocked as she was, especially since this little girl had been struggling with the new family arrangement. My husband's ex wants her daughter to call me by my first name only, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this. What should we do?
The labels children use to refer to the adults in their lives often indicate the level of emotional attachment they feel with stepfamily members. A stepparent who started off being referred to as "Sara, my dad's wife" may become "Mom" in a few years. That's not unusual. What you need to remember is that labels aren't critical to family success. The important thing is to give children the freedom to choose the labels with which they are most comfortable. In other words, don't force them to call a stepparent "Mommy," but don't scold them for doing it either. A more affectionate label like "Mommy" generally indicates that the child is growing more comfortable and trusting of the stepparent.
These labels can change with circumstances. They may also evolve as the children grow. A child who just returned from a weekend visitation with dad may refrain from calling his stepfather "Dad" for a few days because he is missing his biological father. Once the sadness wanes, the usual label typically returns. Sometimes a child who is used to calling a stepparent "Mom" will refrain from doing so if his biological mother is in the room. In that situation, he may pull back and refer to the stepparent by a first name so as not to hurt the biological mom's feelings.
It's not uncommon for children to feel quite comfortable using loving terms like "Daddy" and "Mommy" when they are small. These same kids may back off and start calling a stepparent by his or her first name when they reach adolescence. The change in label reflects the conflicts and challenges the growing child faces in his attempts to balance loyalties. Some step-parents are uncomfortable with a step-child addressing them by their first name because of a perceived casualness. In many situations that has merit, but in a blended family, allowing the child as much freedom to address the parent in a way he or she feels most comfortable seems wisest.
In an ideal situation, children would be given permission to use whatever term they want to use for a stepparent. But this permission should ultimately come from the biological parents. Your step-daughter's biological mother clearly feels threatened by her calling you "Mom." She needs to be reassured that she can never be replaced in her daughter's heart, no matter what label the child uses. Biological parents have an incomparable God-given bond with their children that cannot be reversed or undone.
If your step-daughter's biological mom is unable or unwilling to grant her permission to call you "mommy," your husband needs to make sure that the girl doesn't feel guilty about this. He should sit down with her and say something like the following: "I know this puts you in a tight spot between your mom and your stepmother. Apparently your mom isn't comfortable with you calling your step-mom 'Mommy.' We realize this is tough for you. Whatever you want to do is okay with me and my new wife. It doesn't really matter what you call us. What counts is that we love you."
If you think it would be helpful to discuss your questions with a member of our staff, please feel free to call Focus on the Family's Counseling department. They'll be pleased to assist you in any way they can.
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The Smart Step-Family: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family
Parenting In Blended Families