Learning to Love Our Labels

Post Divorce labels can be scary. When I was in my twenties a good deal of my efforts seemed to propel me toward being given a label as coveted as "girlfriend." Now, in the post-divorce era of my life, a label like "boyfriend" can be dangerous.
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Post Divorce labels can be scary. When I was in my twenties a good deal of my efforts seemed to propel me toward being given a label as coveted as "girlfriend." Now, in the post-divorce era of my life, a label like "boyfriend" can be dangerous. No longer does it mean, "Let's not see other people, and consider all your Saturdays booked." Instead it can involve custody stipulations about who can spend the night, and sit down talks with the kids about who mommy or daddy's special friend is. When a man as amazing as my now husband was around every day and night, kissing boo-boos and wiping boogers (and let's not forget 2012, the year of only closet pooping), hearing my son introduce him as "mommy's boyfriend" or "Jason" made me cringe. It didn't seem appropriate, it didn't seem worthy, and it didn't seem like it would last.

It was a relief for all of us to gain new labels after we were married. The kids could finally say they were really related, and the adults could add the word "step" to their label and be met with slightly more consideration. But we are still struggling with these new classifications, and we carry them around clumsily from day to day.

A few hundred clicks deep into Pinterest I came across an inspirational idea for wall art. It was leading up the staircase and it said something to the effect of "These are the only steps you'll find here." I enthusiastically shoved the laptop in my husband's face, "THIS! This is perfect! We should do this." What an affirming statement it made. I mean, I would have to promptly stop using the term "step" in regards to our roles, but I've made bigger lifestyle changes than that in order to make decorating choices work. This wall art is totally the declaration I want our family to make to the world! I started Googling the appropriate stencils and decals.

A short time later the children's grandmother and I were watching the kids at gymnastics. Stepdaughter bounced towards us, excited to introduce her school friend who is not normally there on Tuesdays. She tapped my son on the head so he would emerge from his tablet and proudly said "This is my stepbrother!" Grandma, who is awesome by the way, interjected "He's your brother sweetie; just say brother." But the kids were already on to something else. She remarked to me how she hates the word "step." "It's her brother. She should just say brother." I just smiled. I didn't agree. But how could I want to redecorate my stairwell proclaiming "step" wasn't part of my vocabulary and simultaneously be content that my stepdaughter used this label just now? Grandma's sentiment was totally natural, after all, brother is family and "step" means there was a divorce, no blood ties, an extra layer of distance...that's not us.

I laid awake that night reminiscing about when our family began to blend. When my son and his daughter were introduced, it was like the play date that never ended. She was six, he was three. He hung on her every word, and went along with whatever idea she had. She loved having someone to play with from sunrise to sunset. Still to this day they rarely fight. My brothers and I, we fought. They get on each other's nerves and need to cool down, but that's the extent of it for now. They only see each other 50% of the time, so it's like getting back together with a playmate when they are here. In that respect, "step" is a wonderful word. It means I am away from you enough to miss you. "Step" also means that they are no longer an only child, and instead of being handed a baby as a sibling they were instantly provided someone old enough to play with. "Step" means an extra set of loving, spoiling grandparents. Maybe two extra sets if there are remarriages on both sides. It means I have another life when I leave here, and when I return I can teach you all about the new games I learned, new naughty words they don't know I know, and discuss all the furry animals and fast go karts we aren't allowed to have at this house. Step siblings are so much cooler than real siblings.

Adult labels are tricky. You might remember that playing out between LeAnn Rimes and Brandi Glanville on Twitter As a bio mom, a stepmom, a fan of Real Housewives, but also a fan of coming off classy, I am totally at a loss for who to side with there. Personally, when I introduce myself to a group of mothers I typically say, "This is my daughter." When I say stepdaughter it has a certain ring to it. Maybe only I perceive it, maybe it's blended family guilt, but it sounds like I am making it clear she's not biologically mine. She's not, and I would never claim to take her mother's place, but I also would never want it to feel like I was denying her in public, or going out of my way to make it clear are association is only as such. When people just assume she's mine I am proud. But then conversations twist and turn and before you know it, sometimes several interactions later, something is mentioned about not having the kids this weekend and I have to qualify that 'I am actually her stepmother.' Was I deceitful at first? I didn't mean to be, but I am also not trying to draw a line in the sand between both of my children on the playground. They came with me, they leave with me, they are both giving me a heart attack on those monkey bars, and I brought each their favorite snacks. I don't need separate labels for my relationship to each of them in this capacity.

School and doctors are different. Her mother interacts there half the time, and I would never want any confusion about which woman makes those decisions. I want to mitigate as much as possible, her being mistaken for the stepmom and vice versa, because it stings. It hasn't happened to me yet, being mistaken for my son's stepmother, but it will and it will hurt. When I volunteer at school, Stepdaughter's friends always have questions about my role. It surprises me, considering statistically half of them should be in the same boat, but I am happy to educate them as their first real, live stepmom. I usually refer to one of the Pinterest worthy sayings like "Stepmom means I stepped up to the plate to love her." Or "I stepped in to love her daddy." "I'm her bonus mom." Or to get a giggle "It means all the apples in our house are not safe to eat."

We let the children decide what labels to give us, and they are still dancing around several even after a few years. During story time at the library the mother next to me leaned over and remarked, "They could totally pass as yours." I was confused. I looked at the kids, thinking for a second whether we had different ethnic backgrounds, trying to recall if I had adopted one of them from overseas. She must have seen my baffled face because she added, "I heard them call you Heather." What a strange compliment. Pass as yours? They are both mine. He is MY son and she is MY stepdaughter. I suppose looking like your stepdaughter, passing as real blood relatives, would be a compliment to some. I'm not trying to pass as anything.

When your own child starts referring to you as "Heather" because he hears his sister so often, you start to brainstorm a happy medium. That's when we settled on H-Mom and J-Dad. It makes us sound like hip hop artists, but it gets the job done. Now his biological father gets to enjoy accidentally being called J-Dad, but at least it has Dad in it. It's an improvement from returning from a week with us and calling his father "Jason" for the first few hours. We will all answer to almost anything at this point, these poor kids have been real troopers with all the new names they've been introduced to.

As complex as these labels get, we love them. They represent this beautiful new family we've created. They come with perks "regular" families don't get, and they come with the power to choose what labels work and to change those on a whim. We still might wear them like a sweater we need to grow into, but we will grow into them. Until that time, I will hold off on any interior decorating that takes a firm stance on labels.