Mom and son baking together
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Stepmom: What’s in a name?

“Congratulations! You’re a stepmom!” said no one ever.

And I don’t blame them. I mean, I like being a stepmom, but it’s not something anyone really aspires to the way people aspire to become parents otherwise. And the term “stepmom” doesn’t have the same warm, fuzzy connotation as “mom” does. In fact, outside of the stepparenting community, it drags around a fairly negative connotation for various (many of them fairytale, all of them unfortunate) reasons. To be honest, I didn’t know the etymology of the word until I recently Googled it, and I definitely don’t suggest you do that, because reading about the real origins of the term kinda got things off to a rather sad start. (Again, imagine all those unfortunate fairytale beginnings.) Save yourself going down that rabbit hole, and instead, consider the origins I developed in my naivety …

Amy Menzel at her wedding

My first thought was that the “step” indicated a step off the original family tree. It made sense to me, plus it gave me a visual in my head, even if I wasn’t quite sure what, exactly, that visual looked like. Maybe a green shoot, a tiny bud — some lovely new growth, something extra. It was a theory, and it was wrong. 

My second theory was developed when I started to experience some of the real work of stepparenting. For various reasons, I started to think that the “step” meant “step aside” or “step back,” as if it was more directive than descriptive. A very real part of stepparenting  an intricate dance I had to learn. It was another theory, and it was also wrong.

Then came the birthday card my stepson made me last year. He wrote, “Thank you for steping into my life and always being there for me,” and I thought, “The kid’s a genius!” (Aside from the spelling.) “That must be where the term stepmom comes from!” Then a couple weeks ago, he asked, “Where does the word stepmom even come from?” and I was like, “I thought you knew. Like how you wrote in that card last year about ‘stepping” in?” and he was like, “Oh, no. I have no idea. What did I write?” And I realized neither of us had any real clue.

But it’s all just the same, isn’t it? I mean, I wracked my brain to come up with a different term for my new role before I officially took it on, but I came up with nothing. And it really wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because anything I might have come up with would require an explanation, and it would all just end up coming back to defining myself as a stepmom.

Stepmom isn’t the worst term, even if it isn’t the best. My stepson never uses the word with disdain (at least, not in my presence  he is a genius after all). And it is a defining term. I’m not just my stepson’s dad’s wife, I’m my stepson’s stepmom. There’s a familial feeling to that. 

But I’ve also heard the term “bonus mom” thrown around, and I really like that. A fellow bonus mom calls me that, and I smile every time. There’s no negative connotation in that! I can only hope this catches on because (as an English teacher and just an all-around nerd), I think words matter. 

“Congratulations! You’re a stepmom!” said no one ever.

I won’t go so far as to request being called this myself by my family; I just can’t get over thinking it would be a little like Amy Poehler in Mean Girls – “I’m not a stepmom, I’m a bonus mom.” But maybe my guys will come around to this realization on their own? (Hint, hint. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.) 

And the word is spreading. Last spring I did see Mother’s Day cards addressed “to my bonus mom.” Granted, they were strewn across the floor in the clearance aisle, but still, there’s hope.

About the author

Amy Menzel is a wife, stepmom, teacher, and writer happily living life in Wisconsin. She appreciates the opportunity to learn through writing. Her writing has appeared in the Wisconsin English Journal, at the Three Teachers Talk blog, and in Stepparent Magazine.

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