When my wife Anne accepted me into her life, she also graciously accepted my "luggage": three wonderful kids aged 9-12. They love her and she loves them, with clear affection traveling in both directions. But Anne rejects the label "stepmother" for reasons that have nothing to do with parental responsibility, or the demonization of stepmothers in movies and television.
Her question -- and mine: What message does the word "stepmother" convey more clearly than "You're NOT a mother"? And why does a father's new wife need to be contextualized in relation to the mother at all? It not only instantly sets up apples-to-oranges comparisons, but simultaneously declares a winner... as if society doesn't already halo moms over non-moms enough.
In our line of thinking, a "stepmother" is not "a step below" anything. She is a complete person. Annie -- as my children know her -- is a teacher, writer, painter, wife, daughter, and chef. She cares for my children no less than I do. Her status in their lives is self-evident, and requires no labels, especially ones thrust upon her by a society that still seems to think childless women are akin to men without libidos.
The truth is, you can be great to children whether they're your husband's kids, your neighbor's kids, the kids you nanny, or the kids you help cross the street safely. You can also abuse them, even if you're a blood mother or blood father. You can spend hardly any time with your kids and still be a parent; you can spend all of your time with your spouse's kids and still not be a dad or mom. Unfair? Only if you judge your role by its title.
I'm not saying stepparents don't deserve recognition; they do and I'm all for it. I'm saying "stepmother" and "stepfather" minimizes them as individuals. There's one "father" and one "mother," period. Then there are myriad people who admirably, generously, and selflessly love and spend time caring for those children.
These people deserve more than an asterisk, an "almost," and a "but for". They should be characterized by who they are -- not what they aren't.
This essay was originally published in StepMom Magazine.
Joel Schwartzberg, a nationally-published essayist, father, and lucky husband to a wonderful wife, is the author of the award-winning collection "The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad"