I Had One of Those Flashes

Beth Ingalls

Beth Ingalls
October 30
Writer, activist, former Mayor, lifelong Deadhead, and above all else, single Mother to three sons. Killer memoir in the works. Agent needed.


MAY 24, 2009 6:05PM

“Step Child” Moniker Must Go!

Rate: 3 Flag

One of the most difficult challenges in my life currently is helping my son deal with the anxiety and sadness that overwhelm him when it’s time to visit his father. He loves and adores his father, who remarried and moved away four years ago, but has big issues with his Stepmother.

During a four hour solo drive home from the Bay Area yesterday after dropping him off, I had plently of time to mull over absolutely everything related to the situation. I’m looking for ways to help transform this part of his life from something dreaded and ugly to something special and beautiful. I really want things to be better not just for him, but for all of us. I want my son to look forward to summer, not fear it. I can’t stand seeing his eyes well up with tears. He is normally strong, brilliant, engaging and comfortable in almost any situation. He is enlightened beyond his years and he’s a leader among his peers. I’ve watched him entertain a room full of strangers with an hour long impromptu comedy routine. Hitting huge jumps and pulling off amazing freestyle skiing moves is nothing at all. He’s normally so brave and funny. But in this situation he just crumbles.

I didn’t solve the problem in my car but I got to thinking about what being a “stepchild” means. Where did the term even come from? Like so many things we take for granted as part of our language I was hoping there were some answers hidden in a question I had never even asked.

It turns out the prefix “steop” can be found in an 8th century glossary of Latin-Old English words, and is related to the word ástíeped, meaning bereaved.  Stepbairn and stepchild were occasionally used as synonyms for orphan.

So there it was – stepchild originates from words meaning “sad orphan.”  That simply won’t do. It’s outdated and it’s just plain wrong. So we need a new term to being the process of turning this thing around. I haven’t figured out exactly what it should be, but I’d like it to mean something close to “Happy kid with two parents and lots of extra love.” I’m hoping for the best and I’ll keep you posted.

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I am partial to bonus-child, myself.
The language around "stepparenting" and "stepchildren" has always bothered me. The term "stepmother" has always had dark and devious meanings behind it, starting back with fairy tales. The other thing that bothers me about these terms are that they imply the act of parenting. It has been my experience, both personally and professionally, that it is folly to assume that when you marry someone with children, and vice versa, that parenting someone else's child becomes automatic. I can only say that most children deeply resent this. It doesn't feel natural. If they have a mother and a father who are involved in their lives, more often than not, the step-parent's attempts to parent are seen as unwelcome and intrusive, even if they are good willed in their intentions. Your post makes me wonder how old your son is, what your relationship is like with your ex so that you could talk to him about this, and what kind of tools you could give your son so he isn't so sad. This is one of the heartbreaking parts of divorce...it must have been very difficult to drop your son off and drive away. Personally, I recoil from using the word "stepmom". My "stepdaughter" has a mother and a father who are actively involved in her life. Rather than see myself as any kind of parent (I met her when she was 5 and she is now 15), I try to be an ally to her. But the rules and the belief systems belong only to her parents (excluding house rules...something my husband and I come up with). I support my husband, even during those times we disagree. I'm not the god when it comes to parenting, although I have 4 of my own. Take heart, however. Studies show that children who experience adversity in their life and have parents who equip them to deal with these adversities (because life will always present challenges in different forms), fare much better in the long run than those who have been over-protected and sheltered from the realities of life. The movie, "Life is Beautiful" was an exquisite example of a father taking a terrible unthinkable situation in the concentration camp to a game of adventure for his young son. As parents, we would do well to remember this when we see our children experiencing difficulty. And with you, I'll continue to think of different terms that would be more appropriate than the stepchild term. BTW, I find the term "blended family" to be ridiculous and rarely realistic. I call my family the "lumpy" family. That resonates so much more. Great post and especially loved the research you did to find the origin of the word stepchild.
My Dad remarried after my mother died. Instead of calling her "stepmother", we call her "Fairy Godmother of Charm and Beauty" ... I know it sounds insane for an adult woman to have the need to do this, but for all of the reasons Mary so beautifully states, I just can't call her stepmother.

I hate that situation for your son and I hate it for you. I can see how it tears you up inside, as it would me. I hope that set of relationships finds some healing and happiness.

So, YES ... all "steps" must go!!! Right Away!!!