Mother’s Day can be a strange and hard time of year for many stepmothers. Consumer capitalism and advertising are exhausting at the best of times, but when there’s suddenly an impending Day To Thank Mothers For Giving Life To Their Children by giving her a shitty mug or some soap she’s probably allergic to, stuff can get alienating fast if you don’t fit the mould.
Between 9.3 and 11.8% of New Zealand children are being raised in a blended-family home, yet every ad on TV shows a mother with kids that are intended to look as similar to her as possible. (And c’mon, we all know that even someone’s biological child can look like an unrelated friendly potato until they’re out of kindy).
I didn’t give life to my child. I didn’t even meet him until he was three. But since then I have wiped his butt and his tears and his DRAWINGS OFF THE GODDAMN WALL and held him when he was nervous about school, and when he broke his arm, and when he felt weird about telling a girl in his class that her jumper was so beautiful.
My husband and son ‘do’ Mother’s Day for me, and I am lucky to have surrounded myself with a community which strives to be inclusive of diverse families. But whenever I step outside that warm, comforting bubble I feel like I have to fend off tiny darts of essentialist, isolating and frankly unrealistic portrayals of what families and mothers look like.
Short of creating my own advertising content [hit me up, though], here are some things you could do to make Mother’s Day easier for the stepmums you know:
1. Let her know that you see how hard it can be to step-parent
This isn’t because we’re ‘raising someone else’s children’ – seriously cut that shit out, it’s gross – but because we’re often made to feel like an ‘other’ or an afterthought in anything related to motherhood as well as parenting generally being an acid trip. [“Baboons actually eat your flesh, did you know that, Mum?”].
You can do this, not by going “Ooh gosh, two stepdaughters? That sounds hard, do you get on with them?” because no one would ever say that about you having two biological daughters, eh. Instead, you can let us know that you notice the job we do, see it’s challenges and that you appreciate us.
2. Start using more inclusive and thoughtful language
Did you look at your newborn baby and just know that this is what it felt like to be a mother? Did you grow to love your child before it was even born? Do you feel most connected to your kid by marveling at how you made them? These things are beautiful and important, but when people pitch these as the cornerstones of Sacred Motherhood™, it can be really alienating for non-biological mothers (not to mention mums who experienced post-natal depression, had rough pregnancies or bond differently than you do).
Please don’t stop telling us the stories and experiences that were important for you, most of us love to hear them, but please don’t equate them with everyone’s experience, or hold them up as an ideal without realising it.
3. Stop treating step and biological children differently
Whether we will never have, already have, are about to have or are considering having biological children, please shut up about how different it is to parent ‘our own’ kids. Again, not everyone’s experience is the same, and frankly it can be really disrespectful to our families and the job we’re doing to imply we’re at some lesser level of connection with our step children. And before you say no, no it’s not *less* it’s just *different* – that’s often not how it comes across, and honestly I’d encourage you to stop and think about why you need to point out the differences between types of children in a family.
If you really want to ask stepmothers without biological children if they’re planning on trying to get pregnant, and you believe you’re close enough for this to not be random and invasive (yeah I’m looking at you, hairdresser I won’t go back to), try this: “Are you planning on bringing another kid into the family?” or “do you reckon [my stepchild’s name] might have a sibling one day?” or even “will you want to have a baby at some point?”
Honestly if someone did this the next time they were determined to ask me what I plan to do with my uterus, I would probably glow with happiness and overlook the fact they don’t give very good haircuts, Susan.
4. Check in about our preferences with terminology
My kid calls me mum. He has more than one mum and it’s not confusing for him, but boy is it confusing for grown adults, apparently. Some stepmothers are mum, mama, mummy, māmā, whaea, tīna or any other word for mother, some stepmums are “[word for mother] [name]” and some are simply their name.
If you’re wanting to better relate to me or my child, unlike asking me what my long-term plans with my junk are, this is not a super invasive question. Just ask me or my kid what he calls me.
I guarantee front-footing this question would go down better with stepmothers than awkwardly stammering “ask your…err…your…” to my kid across the room at a kid’s party.
As an aside, you might want to consider incorporating more te reo into your life and taking the lead from Te Ao Māori with the word “whaea”. It’s used interchangeably for both mums and aunts, by both adults and children, and it’s ubiquitous yet respectful.
Depending on the circumstance, however, using “whaea” might not always be culturally appropriate, and some step-parents or kids might always use the prefix “step” when referring to each other. I remember my 12-year-old self glowering at people who called my new stepdad my “dad” or me his “daughter” and I know the difference can be really important to some families. But it really is as simple as asking what they’re most comfortable with and taking their lead.
5. Don’t ask about co-parenting relationships
Seriously, this is just nosey. Sometimes co-parenting is hard, sometimes it’s great, mostly it’s somewhere in the middle. We’ll bring it up with you ourselves if we want to.
One of my close friends and fellow stepmums once said that for her a painful thing about being a stepmum was that while meeting new people she would bring up she was a stepmother, and regularly (and most often in other women) see a flash behind their eyes as they were reminded that they might not always get to choose who parents their children, or that their relationship might not always work out as they hoped. Feeling like you’re the harbinger of that reminder is a gross feeling, and it’s one that a lot of stepmothers I’ve talked to can relate with.
In my experience, this realisation in people is often followed by an inquiry into how I get on with my son’s biological mother. I can’t help but wonder if it’s a need for reassurance for their own fears, or a morbid fascination with details they’re not close enough to deserve, but either way it’s invasive.
Put it this way, if I’d just met you and I found out you were divorced, I wouldn’t ask why you split up with your partner or how you divided things or whether you were still on good terms. Please afford stepparents this same privacy.
While I genuinely think that people are getting better at respecting how diverse families can be, and how mothering is a verb rather than simply a DNA match, I know that even the most well-meaning of people can make Mother’s Day harder for those who don’t fit the mould. So I hope this list is a small tool in being more supportive and inclusive of some of the parents you probably won’t see in a Farmer’s catalogue.