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What Is In a Name: a Step-family Dilemma

Step-familyRecently an attorney mentioned to me that he was going to court to ask a judge, among other custody matters, for a client to forbid his 10 year old daughter from calling his wife, her step-mom,” mom”. Aside from the feasibility of enforcing such a ruling, it got me thinking about what we call each other, particularly in step-families and why this is often such a highly charged issue.

When parents divorce there is often a fear of “losing” the child to the other parent, particularly when they remarry. The may worry that the other parent is more “fun” or more permissive and that their child will prefer this. While understandable, this concern is usually unwarranted. Children can love and be loved by more than 2 people and will usually have a very strong relationship with caring adults, particularly those who have raised them since infancy. While children in a step-family will usually start by calling their step-parent by their given name (thereby imitating the name the parent uses) this is not always the case and may change over time. The desire to call a step-parent mom or dad is not necessarily an indicator of the strength of that relationship. If there are other children in the household, the child may want to call the step-parent by the name the biological children use, to fit in and feel more “like a family. “It is helpful if their parent does not feel threatened by this. Sometimes, creative names are used to avoid this. I worked with a family where the children called their step-mom “myom” (my other mom) to everyone’s satisfaction. I think what was most important here is that the family worked together on creating this name. It is of course damaging for a child to be coerced into calling a step-parent “mom” or “ dad “ if this does not feel genuine or comfortable for them. I feel concern for those children who alter the name based on who is within hearing distance. Children, particularly those who have experienced divorce, have enough challenges without having to remember which name to use to spare the feelings of the adults involved. As William Shakespeare said “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So our concern needs to be with the quality of the relationship we have with our children and step-children rather than the name they use to address us.

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