Who am I to my partner’s daughter?

Guest post by Stef Thompson

It's amazing how well those leggings coordinate with her shoes.
It's amazing how well those leggings coordinate with her shoes.
“Are you Little Miss’s, ummm aunty?” asked my little cousin.

I’ve got to hand it to her, despite only being four she had the street smarts of someone far beyond her years.

My cousin’s parents had been separated for years and her mum happily re-partnered with man that my cousin now happily refers to as her stepdad despite no formal marriage taking place. Along the way my cousin had a few ‘uncles’ and knew playmates who often had their parents’ significant others masquerading as ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles.’

This is the same Stef who brought us What to expect when you weren’t expecting.

But at that point, I was at complete loss to answer my cousin’s question so I went for a factual response, “Umm no, Little Miss already has an aunty. Two in fact if you count my partner’s sister-in-law.”

“Well, are you you her stepmum?”

How the hell do I answer that kind of question within earshot of a child I only met a few months ago? The answer I picked was a Dora the Explorer DVD in the hope that my cousin would be distracted long enough to drop the topic.

The truth was, I wasn’t and still don’t really know how to put into words my relationship with my partner’s child. Because let’s face it, once you put a label on someone you assign a whole bunch of emotions and associations to the person or thing you are labeling.

Like for instance Little Miss’s mother.

When I use the term ‘ex wife,’ it conjures up all the negative and sometimes hateful emotions one might expect. The ex wife label defines her in relation to my partner and their marriage. However, when I call her ‘Little Miss’s mother,’ it humanizes her and softens the imagery a bit. A more delicate label evokes a more positive emotional response.

But what about me? The term stepmother comes with so many negative connotations. It’s true that as I hone in on 30 I do have more facial hair than I’d like to admit but I do not in any way resemble the stereotypical wicked stepmother depicted in those fairy tales.

You will not find a single wart on my nose and, despite the state of the garage, I’m pretty sure that there are no dungeons or spinning wheels to be found around my home. Besides, any term that uses the word ‘mum’ is likely to piss off Little Miss’s mother.

The only person who didn’t seem to care much about the name game was Little Miss. She knew Daddy loved me and I loved him and that we both cared for her, which was really the most important bit.

She had always referred to me as Stef, and truth be told we didn’t really need a label because I had always just been her Stef.

I secretly worried that if we didn’t attempt to label our relationship someone else would do so for us and thus to define my relationship with the child from their own perspective. In the end we decided to let the issue lie until the child raised it.

Sure enough, a few months ago Little Miss was at our kitchen table asking if I was indeed Daddy’s girlfriend. I had wondered if we should try coming up with a label for me before she started school since she’d inevitably have other kids asking her who ‘Stef’ was if my name ever popped up in conversation.

Apparently it did, and for a few weeks all I heard was “Are you daddy’s girlfriend?” over and over again.

The questioning finally stopped when I finally added that Daddy was my boyfriend to my answer. At that point, a little light seemed to go off in Little Miss’s head and she seemed contented; if Daddy could be my boyfriend, then we could be friends too.

Whether or not my partner and I get married, I’m sure at some point the term stepmum is bound to enter our household. In the meantime, I continue to search for an appropriate nickname – one that satisfies Little Miss’s need to solidify my place in her life while not causing confusion or conflict with her biological mother.

So far the only label I’ve come up with is ‘Stef’ because that’s who I am.

Comments on Who am I to my partner’s daughter?

  1. oh, labels. my mother remarried when i was 20 and H, her husband, and I always had a difficult time defining our relationship for others. we weren't exactly father/daughter considering i was well out of my mother's house by the time they married but we were much more than just friends. after my mom passed away it was important for us to recognize our connection vis a vis her life but people who never met her didn't have an understanding of the implications of "my mother's husband" or "my wife's daughter". the sucky part is that we know exactly what we were/are to each other but putting that into words so others can understand is nearly impossible. we've decided together that step-father/daughter is the easiest label at first blush and that regardless of how we label each other, our love stays the same.

  2. My mother-in-law has a long-term partner who arrived on the scene after my wife had grown up and left the house, so step-father seems inappropriate somehow. We just call him "Cindy's Larry" which seems to make everyone happy.

  3. My parents divorced when I was four and my dad remarried when I was seven. It wasn't difficult to define our relationship when I was growing up, as I was just told that she was my stepmom, and that never held any negative connotation for us. I have had a problem explaining who she is since she and my dad divorced a decade ago. We don't still have a relationship, which is sad but true, so I don't still call her my stepmom. Sometimes I refer to her as "my brother's mother", since she and my dad had a son together, sometimes as "my ex-stepmom" or "my dad's ex-wife", but nothing ever seems right. It doesn't help that she and my older sister have the same name, so it confuses people more when I refer to her by name. Sigh.

    • I know what you mean. My dad remarried when I was 3 and his wife was always my step-mom. They got divorced when I was 17, but she and I stay very close. She’s a disabled vet, and I recently moved her and her parents closer to me so I could take care of them. It is a challenge to explain what their relationship is to me. Especially since my dad has remarried and divorced twice since then. To keep it as simple as possible, she is, and always will be, my step-mom. My dad’s other wives are just that. Dad’s wives. Oddly enough, my mom and step-mom have a great relationship and Mom calls my step-mom her “wife-in-law.”

      • When my mother and stepfather divorced, I continued to call him my stepfather, regardless of how my mother felt about him. His new wife is my stepmother and her daughter is my stepsister, even though none of them have any legal or biological connection to me. It confuses people, but I don’t want to start calling him my mother’s ex-husband. He’s more than that.

  4. my parents separated before i turned three, and my dad remarried when i was 9 and my mom when i was 11. however, my "stepdad" had been living with us since before i turned 5, so i generally referred to him as my stepdad or just "bob", since that was his name. stepdad doesn't cut it though…he was more of a father to me than my bio dad could have been if he hadn't left.

    my stepmom, on the other hand, was "my stepmother" in the beginning, and has since become "my father's wife" since we were never close. their children together i refer to as my brothers though.

  5. Labels are always difficult. My bio-father was pretty much never in the picture, and my mother married when I was 8, so my step-dad has been around for quite a while. However, they divorced when I was 18, so is he still my step-dad? He has always considered me his daughter, as much as his children with my mother, so does that mean he's my dad? I only in the last 4 or 5 years or so started referring to him as just "my dad" because I had so many other father-figures growing up (my absentee father, my foster father, and a priest, in addition to my step-dad), it was just too complicated. It's only that the others are now out of my life that I can call him that in comfort.

  6. Oh my goodness…I could write an entire page about this…since I was partnered with a woman for 13 years, and both her and I re-married so my daughter now has her two original mother, plus two stepdads and I am a step mother to my husband's two daughters. I so agree with you that labels can be very stereotypical and emotional! Labels are a way to neatly categorize people. Sometimes they help you understand, other times they just mess thhings up. Sounds like Little Miss, though, is lucky to have a STEF!

  7. This is great post. We have had the same debate at our house and for much the same reason. Stepmother, as a title just doesn't feel right to me. I say stepmom, it sounds better to me at least, nicer. I also prefer to use A's mother instead of husband's ex-wife to refer to her mom.
    In the beginning my mom was introducing A as my daughter's husband's daughter, a mouthful.

  8. I'm not in the situation…but what about lettin the child pick a cute nick name for you. A special name that you and her can share. My grandmother has always called me lil Bet short for little Beth…maybe you could come up with something like that.

  9. How confusing the name game can be! I have a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old daughter with my ex-husband, and a 3-month-old son with my new partner. My ex-husband's new partner has a 6-year-old son with her ex. The children are all so confused! My oldest daughter calls my new partner by his first name, and my younger daughter calls him 'Daddy' (because she didn't know her biological father until very recently). It's so hard to know what to call ourselves to these other children in our lives.

  10. I am always in awe when I look at the relationship my older brother and my mother have. My brother is from my father's first marriage and was 7 when my parents were married. Initially, he called my mother by her first name out of respect to his own mother and because of that initial confusion. However, by the time I was born (3 years later) my brother had begun calling my mother "Mom".

    When we got older, I asked him about it. "I call her my mom, because she IS my mom," he said. He told me that for him, it just made sense. He had lived with his biological mother for most of his life, but my mother was just as much a part of his life as his bio-mom had been. "I know she loves me just as much, if not more than any biological relative I have. She's been there for me and supported me my whole life. She IS my mom."

    My mom said that she earned the title. "I just loved him and I made sure that he knew it." She also never differentiated him from the rest of our 5 siblings from her marriage to our father. I didn't even know what a "half-brother" was until a kid in jr. high told me. She never refers to him as her step-son, unless someone asks her about it (then she has to explain why she's only 13 years older than him…).

    Now that my brother is married with 3 kids of his own, the new query was what to call the grandparents. My mother easily remedied this, saving the "grandma" & "grandpa" for my brother's bio mom & her husband and using her culture's "Tutu" (Hawaiian for "grandmother") and "Papa" for she and my father. I thought it was a cool way to include my nieces and nephews to what is unique to our family's culture.

    I think the best advice I can give is to just to continue to love Little Miss. Like my brother, she'll eventually come up with a name for you all on her own. I've learned that the best thing about real love is that it doesn't need a title. 🙂

  11. Whenever I marry my boyfriend, I plan to call his children my bonus son and bonus daughter. I already have two sons of my own and his two are just that… a bonus. Maybe they'll start calling me Bonus Mommy. 🙂 My son's call my partner, their "Other father." They did that on their own accord. I don't mind it and it makes him proud that they see him that way.

  12. My husband has two kids (6yrs and 4yrs) and we've recently gotten married. We've been together since his children were 2yrs and 3mths old. He and their mother split up before the youngest was born.

    His children just call me by my first name, which is fine for us. I'd be reluctant to be referred to in any way as their mother (even 'step' mother) as I don't see myself as a deputy parent of any sort. I'm a significant adult in their lives and love them dearly, but they have two very capable parents who look after them and care for their immediate needs. I see myself more like an aunt. A supportive, loving significant adult in their lives.

  13. My parents divorced when I was about 3, and both remarried before I was 6. I've always called my step parents by their first names. Some of our family worried that I (and my step siblings and half-brother) would be confused, but my parents (all four of them) made sure to explain things to us at a young age, and I never had a hard time understanding what our relationships were. My little brother understands that Dad is his dad, even though I call him T, and that L is my dad, etc.

    I tend to have pretty strong opinions on the matter of step parents, because I've been in the middle of a couple different situations. I get along really well with both T and E (the step mom). E became more like an older girl-friend as I grew up, since we didn't see each other that often, and I'm also really close to T. I love my dad, of course, he's always been there for me and I'm very much a daddy's girl, but T has been there for me too. He's the one who ran me to dance lessons and fixed my toys and brushed my hair when it got tangled into knots. A lot of people have a hard time understanding that the only reason I don't call him Dad is because I already have a Dad in my life, and I wouldn't want to diminish my real dad's seeming importance by giving his title away to someone else. I've seen that happen; T's two daughters live with their mom, and she eventually made them start calling their stepdad 'Dad' so as not to confuse the younger kids (which is ridiculous, as my family demonstrates). As a result, my sisters were the ones who became confused, to the point that the younger wasn't sure who her real dad was, and wanted to know why she had to come visit us every other weekend.

    I think the important thing is to do whatever is comfortable for all of you. Children tend to be a lot better at understanding things like love and support than silly titles anyway.

  14. My parents separated when I was 7, my father has been with his partner ever since (and indeed before – hence the break-up!) but we have never been "officially" introduced so we have nothing to call her by, bar her name which, sadly, is always sort of 'spat' out when it's said. They also have 2 sons, my half-brothers, that I've never met, and don't expect I ever will. My mother's had a few partners over the years that my brother and I have met, most of them we've just referred to by their names, though one (our favourite) we did call Dad a few times when we were younger but he always corrected us on that, and reminded us that we had a Dad already, he was just happy to be "Our Paul". Unfortunately, due to the weird way our family dynamics have worked out over the 21 years since we've never really settled with any of these people, and Mum's current partner of 7/8 years is still referred to as "The Red Fella" (due to his hair colour) as we simply don't like him, nor does he like us.

    My two cents on it though are that first names are perfectly fine, if that's what you and the child, and your partner are happy with. I grew up calling my Grandfather by his name, even though he was the relative I was closest to out of the whole family. It was almost like this closeness allowed me to use his name rather than a title for him, because he was a friend, not just a person I was related to.

    Add to this that I've just started contact with my biological mother (I'm adopted) and well, it starts to get very tangled LOL

    Sorry for the length, just realised how rambled this is…

  15. My mom and her brother were both adopted. So she's always felt family is tied together by bonds of love not blood, and passed that belief/feeling on to my brother and I. We have different fathers and neither of us know our bio-dads. But I've never felt that my brother is only a "half-brother" he's just my brother. Likewise my Dad is the man who my mom married when I was 5 and my brother was 3. To us he has always been there and raised us as if we were his children. Which really amazes me now that I'm in my 20s that he married a single mom and chose to be our Dad at only 23 years old. My Dad is a great man.

    Now that I have my own kids my Dad is over the moon, crazy in love with them and absolutely LOVES being a Pappaw. The funny thing is how many people tell him how much my brother or my son look "just like Pappaw."

  16. My mom remarried when I was 15 but had been with my stepdad since I was 11 I always just called him by his name and slowly started refering to him as my dad when he felt like a dad to me now he is pawpaw to my girls and even my mom refers to him as pawpaw most of the time. He is a great man and a better father than the bio who walked away when I was less than 2.

  17. When my husband and I had just gotten engaged, we went through this. People had a hard time accepting that Adam was an appropraite name for my son to be calling my fiancee. Dad or Daddy was out of the question because of my son’s almost absent father and the confusion that was involved that relationship. One day in the car on a long trip Adam blurted out, “Why dont you call me something else, like a nickname. How about Bamboo, that’s a good one.” And so even more than a year later, Adam is still Bamboo. I was suprised at how quickly the grandparents and rest of the family caught on. Apparently a silly nickname was much more acceptable than Adam’s given name. Even in preschool, if someone asks my son who Bamboo is, he says that’s his nickname for his dad. He will call him DAD when he talks about him, but to his face he is still Bamboo. This little name of endearment took the pressure off of everyone. It works for us! 🙂

  18. I’m stuck on this at the moment. my boyfriend’s daughter is with us full time. We love together. I have two children of my own. But I am primary carer for all 3.. doing school pickups etc. To her I’m Kelly we tell each other we love each other etc and I’m good with that label, shes been through calling one of her dads girlfriends stepmum before and I dont want to force that on her again. But right now we’re filling in emergency contacts for school and logically i need to be number 1 contact but its asks for the relationship to the child and I have no clue what to put on it, can I not just be Dad’s girlfriend.

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