It’s one of those grade school lessons – the Eskimos have 50 words for snow because it’s a central part of their landscape and because it comes in so many variations and forms. We continental folk see snow, and hail and sleet, but those are different. Really, if it’s white and it floats from the sky when it’s cold, we call it snow.
We need more words for mother. The biological parties to the family of origin are a male and female, father and mother. Relationally, that is the most familiar form. But we know by now that many, many children experience other forms of parenting – either in addition to or in place of the biological dad and mom. Our vocabulary remains severely limited in describing and capturing the many varieties of parenting. We add a prefix to the words mother and father but the initial connotation is not that of a close and loving relationship, it’s more scary person than safe parent.
Somehow we understand the language labeling children and grandparents, aunts and uncles, to encompass multiples, each of whom is likely loved, but we haven’t expanded the definition of dad or mom to allow for more than one. If, as a stepmom, I identify myself as my kids’ mom, it feels like I’m somehow usurping or displacing their other mom – their first mom, the one who gave them birth.
Am I a real mom or not? I feel like a real parent. If I were to take an assessment test and check off the boxes that diagnose parenting, a sufficient number would be marked to qualify me. Sometimes it’s acceptable for me to say I’m a mom – when it’s just easier than explaining the whole situation or when it’s Mother’s Day and my husband and I are someplace public where they want all the moms to stand up for applause and appreciation, and he urges me to stand up and be recognized. (This experience used to invariably induce involuntary gagging – the calling out, not his encouragement – but I’ve learned to control the reflex, for the most part, although I do still fear that a spotlight will zoom in on me and an alarm sound as the loudspeaker blares, “IMPOSTER! We’ve got an imposter! Get her out of here!”)
I’m snow, I’m just a slightly different form of snow and there’s not yet a good word for me. I’m not the snow piled up on the ground that we see all around. I don’t think anyone would describe me as softly falling snow – there’s not much soft about me and when I fall, it’s hard and fast. Maybe I’m snow that’s slightly icy and good to drive a sled, or a more crystalline form of snow – the kind that you don’t recognize the texture of until you scoop up a handful to make a snowball and find it doesn’t pack together very well. Whatever I am, I’m not what people expect when they hear the label mom because I didn’t carry my kids in my uterus and I haven’t been with them from the beginning. And they have a mom.
I sometimes get labeled a “Bonus Mom” – which is cute, and friendly and sort of a sweet way to attempt to deal with this vocabulary problem. But it’s also somewhat dismissive and extraneous and a word you almost have to say with a fake smile because it’s oh so super extra special and everybody wants one! I really don’t have a solution, I just know I live in this awkward, in-between place at soccer games, graduations, on school emails, and introductions, and on Mother’s Day when I stand kind of part way up, keeping my knees slightly bent, my body turned to the side and my hand on the back of my chair, ready to sit back down quickly the moment I see a skeptical glance that tells me someone is going to pull the warning signal, setting off the “She’s not a real mom!” siren.
But, I love my children, we are in each other’s lives now as a family and that’s real – whatever you decide to call it.