Almost six months ago, I got happily married to a man with three tween-to-teenage kids. I love being part of their lives, and they are great: fun to be around, smart, interesting, and kind (they were extremely kind to give me permission to use their photo for this blog post). We are learning to be a family, day by day. The only thing I don't love about our life together: when people call me their stepmom. I know, technically speaking, that this is a common term for the wife of a man with children, but it just doesn't fit me. I am much more comfortable simply being their father's wife, for several reasons I think are important: 1. They have only one mom. I am pretty sure my husband's kids don't need an extra mom, or an auxiliary one. 'Step' means 'one up' or 'one down', but either way, the standard is mom and the term 'stepmom' kind of crowds the two of us into the same space, the same role. I cringe whenever I hear a stepmom say, 'I could never take mom's place'. As true as this is, even having to say it means it has been contemplated. I know where my place is in the mom circle, and it is far, far outside. And even as a distant second, I don't think the comparison is appreciated by mom, or kids. Or me.
2. I am related to them through their dad. Similarly, having a mom and a 'stepmom' puts the emphasis on the similarity of the roles she and I play in the kids' lives. But I love my husband's kids because I first loved him, and I love them through him and because they are a part of him. Thus, being 'dad's wife' puts me where I belong - beside their father, loving and guiding them, and processing parental decisions with him and through him. If anything, this makes me more of a 'step-dad' than a 'step-mom' (but that's a whole other post!).
3. I am not a parent. One reason 'stepmom' grates is that it shows a certain lack of imagination in terms of roles that loving adults play in kids' lives. I am super-clear that I am not a parent and do not make parental decisions. When the kids are with us, I am part of what I call 'roommate' decisions - how loud the TV is (and what's on it), what we're having for dinner and where we're going on vacation. But permission-level questions: can I stay up this late? Can I date? Where can I apply to school? Can I dye my hair blue? (an actual question in our household!) - these are answered only by mom and dad. I might offer my counsel to my husband if he asks, but regardless of what I think, I respect and abide by decisions set by the kids' parents.
4. There is only one of me. Just as the kids have only one mom, their dad has only one wife. This means I am free to be an adult in their lives who loves and supports them, listens to them and has fun with them, all in my own way. I can see that, as with other adults in similar roles - a priest, a teacher, a favorite aunt - I can add gifts and perspectives to their lives, as they do to mine. And the boundaries around kids/mom/dad/dad's wife mean that each of us gets the freedom to be who we are, where we are, the way we do it, with minimal bumping into each other in terms of expectations and roles.
5. We are all family. This is a faith issue for me, because what we call ourselves is important in the larger context of living peaceful and faithful lives. Being the wife of a man who has children has re-defined how I think about Christian community. Like it or not, we are all related, forever: my husband, myself and the kids; their mom and her friends and family; my friends and family, etc. This means that every day, we negotiate our lives in very real ways that require continually re-learning forgiveness, self-giving love, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile. For the kids' sake, yes. But ultimately, also, for the witness of how we actually come to know one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Of course we don't do any of this perfectly, and we learn new things and make new mistakes every day. And I am continually grateful to have such great kids, as well as such an awesome husband, in my life. And I am grateful to their mom, and all the other people who make up the community we are part of. But mostly, I am grateful as a child of God to learn every day new ways to love. As only dad's wife can.