The first time my 5-year-old, soon-to-be stepdaughter Chloe asked me a big, life-changing question, I was brushing food remains off the kitchen table and into my hand with a wet rag. Chloe was sitting in the chair in front of our china cabinet, finishing her milk when she asked me:
“Hey, Sam?” There was a long pause. “Can I call you mama?”
My heart skipped a few beats. I stopped wiping the table. She and I were alone in the kitchen, but I know that her daddy, my fiancé, heard her question from the living room. I hoped he would listen to our conversation, maybe interject if he felt me floundering with a response. No such luck.
“Oh, honey,” I said. “That is a very, very special word. And I think it would really hurt your mama’s feelings if you called me that.”
She stared at me for a moment. “But it could be our secret. I won’t tell her.”
If Chloe had said anymore, I might’ve fallen right there on the floor. Not from disbelief or anger or worry or panic, but out of sheer, desperate love. My heart swelled twice as big as the Grinch’s until I thought it might break my ribs. I can still see her sitting there, her blonde hair hanging just below her shoulders, her big, blue eyes looking up at me, waiting for a response.
“Baby, that word’s just for your mama,” I began. “If I was your mama, and you called someone else that, it would make me very, very sad. But I really love that you want to call me that. It makes me so happy because it means I am taking good care of you and that you love me as much as I love you. Does that make sense?”
I reached out to give her a hug. She squeezed her arms around my middle and sighed against me, like maybe this was all just too much for her to understand, and headed to her room.
I paused, wondering if what I said caused any damage. Did Chloe want to call me mama because she missed her own during the time every other week that she spent with us? Was it because she truly just wanted two mothers? Did she ask merely to gauge my reaction?
Minutes later, she came bounding back in with her Pretty Pretty Princess game and called me Sam without any hesitation. She seemed to have forgotten all about our little encounter, but that night I tucked the memory of those five minutes in the kitchen deep into my mind, deep into my heart, and willed myself to remember, remember, remember.
Several months later, it came up again. On our way to her mom’s, Chloe piped up from the backseat: “Sam?”
I reached down to turn off the radio. “Yeah, babe?”
“Can I call you mama?” I looked over at her dad, and he tried not to grin.
“Baby, we had this conversation, remember? That’s a really special word, and it’s just for mamas.” I glanced back at her in the rearview mirror, and she stared right back.
“But when we go places, I want people to think I’m your daughter.”
There was never a time when I felt like anything less than a parent to my step-kids, but when Chloe said this, it was like everything we had ever done or said or played together was magnified, zoomed in by a thousand clicks. I remembered the time she got so sick at the zoo that all she wanted to do the next day was curl up in my arms. Or the time I came to her pre-K field day and called her name; she turned around, did a double take, and ran into my arms. There was also the time we all went to Disney World, when she wouldn’t hold anyone’s hand through the park but mine.
As a stepmother, I’ve felt so many emotions, but the biggest and most important has always been love. I love every single thing about these kids. I love that I get to help raise them and be part of the family. And I love that everybody has been so supportive of this new role I’ve been given — even their mom, who has never been anything but friendly and open. Chloe’s sweet words made me feel justified in everything I’ve done as a step-mom. It made me want to throw up a fist for every time I worried about calling her “my girl” or felt guilty about telling people I had two kids. It made me feel good: deeply, purely, and selfishly good.
I don’t remember exactly what I said in response to Chloe — my head was in such a rose-colored, rainbow-sprouting, twinkling fog — but I do remember David repeating that it wasn’t a word to throw around. And I vaguely recall one of us saying that if the feeling of calling me mama didn’t go away, we would talk about it again.
Later that day, David recalled what happened to Chloe’s mom, and she told us that Chloe had actually asked to call her stepfather “daddy.” She had told her no; he wasn’t her daddy. David and I both nodded in agreement and dissected the entire conversation on the way home.
In the car, David turned to me. “I don’t want her calling him daddy,” he admitted. It made my heart ache. He didn’t seem hurt or worried, but I know it stayed with him. And while it seemed he felt a little cheated that another man got to spend more time with his kids than he does, he was also relieved.
“I am so glad that he takes care of them when I’m not there,” David said. “I love that they feel loved.”
The thing is, I know Chloe’s mom feels the same way about me. In a society where divorces seem to happen more often than marriages, it’s amazing — and lucky — that Chloe and her younger brother Trey have not two, but four loving parents. I love that we all know the kids are the most important thing, but we’re aware of each other and aware of our roles in their lives. I was proud of myself for telling Chloe she couldn’t call me “mama.” I was glad I had told her the truth: it would hurt her real mom’s feelings.
Since then, Chloe has not asked to call me “mama” — but that hasn’t stopped her from using the word with me. Sometimes she calls me mama on accident: “Hey mama? Oops! I mean, Sam!” And sometimes she does it on purpose when I ask her a question, giving me a sly grin.
“Do you want more milk, babe?”
“Yes, mama!” Giggle, giggle, giggle.
She likes to come up behind me, wave her arms in the air for me to pick her up, and whisper “Mama, mama, mama” into my shoulder before giggling. When David and I are sitting on the couch together, she climbs between us and says, “Mommy! Daddy!”
David and I have discussed it before, and now I just don’t say anything about it. I never answer her when she says mama unless she’s tugging on my clothes or when I know she’s doing it to be funny. Even then, I offer up a “Girl, you’re crazy!” and tickle her in the ribs, but it doesn’t feel right. While Chloe’s never done it in public or in front of anyone but David and me, I constantly worry about how another mother might perceive it — what a “real” mother would say if she knew my stepdaughter sometimes called me mommy. I worry that if she said it in front of her mom, that there would be a trust and boundary issue, that maybe she would think I was trying to replace her. And then if that were to happen, what if she tells Chloe that she can say “daddy” to her stepdad? The heartache that would cause David is enough to make me sick.
David tells me not to worry. Friends suggest making a nickname for the kids to call me: something that sounds like “mommy” but isn’t. (“Mopsy,” maybe?) Others tell me that if it makes her feel safe and comfortable and happy, then what on earth am I fussing about? The kids are all that matter in situations like this, right? That’s the only thing I feel sure about.