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Names and Titles in Stepfamilies

Find tips on how to address and introduce stepparents and stepchildren.

Names and Titles in Stepfamilies

So what are they going to call you? What are you going to call them? For some people, names don't really matter, but for some they are a source of heartbreak.

“Call Me Idiot”

“Call me Idiot, as long as you call me with kindness,” says Marianna. Her two teenage stepdaughters have different titles for her: She's Ma to one, Marianna to another. But Marianna has been stepparenting a long time, since the girls were both under three, and their natural mom has always insisted on being called “Mother.”

In my case, I opted clearly and decisively to have my stepkids call me “Ericka.” (That is, after all, my name and it took me a long time before I even admitted I was a stepmother; the idea of it sounded so foreign and unlike me.) You may be different from how I was and hanker to be called Daddy or Mom.

Be careful when you take a title that by rights belongs to somebody else. Sonia decided that Teddy should call her “Mom;” after all, he was only 18 months when she “got” him, and his biomother was not in the picture. But when Teddy was four, his biomom returned. She insisted on being called Mom, too. It was only after a great deal of stress and agony—much of it suffered by Teddy—that they resolved the problem. Now Sonia is Mom, and Teddy's natural mother is Momma Ann.

As you decide on your name, keep these considerations in mind:

  • Your name should be a conscious choice. Discuss the topic with the kids (if they are old enough) and with your mate.
  • If you avoid talking about it, you may become a grunt, as in, “Uh…I'm going to take a shower now,” or “Uh…can I get some money to go to the movies?”
  • Titles that identify your role can work, but they can also hurt. “Dad's wife” is a term often spoken with a slightly demeaning tone, or with the word “just” in front of it, as in, “Oh, that's just Dad's wife.”
  • Identifying yourself as a parent with “Dad,” “Father,” “Momma,” or “Mother” may work, depending upon the circumstances. Is there or has there ever been another Daddy or Mom in the children's lives? Then it isn't fair. Be “Big D” or “Maw,” but don't force the kids to replace their loved ones with you.
  • Discuss it, provide options, and let the kids have the final decision.

Introducing the Kids

Now how are you going to introduce them? If you don't think about it ahead of time, it can get awkward. Much depends on how they and you feel about the relationship at that point in time. Much also depends on the child's age: Teenagers are notoriously embarrassed by their parents, whether bio or step. Here's a place to rise above petty stresses and be the kids' ally by being conscious and sensitive to their sensitivities.

  • “This is Adam and this is Elsie.” By introducing them by who they are, you leave the problems of figuring out the family structure to the person you are introducing the kids to. They may very well assume you are the natural parent. The “pro” of this: So what? Why is it anybody's business? The “con” of this: The kids may not want people to make this assumption. That's their right.
  • “My boyfriend's children” is a term that, when spoken in a detached manner, relinquishes all responsibility. The kids will not feel threatened by you, but they also may not believe that you really care. If spoken with warmth when the relationship between you and the kids is on an even keel, it merely describes the configuration.
  • “This is Annie's big sister, Rachel.” Once my own daughter Annie was born, I began sometimes identifying Aaron and Rachel in terms of their relationship to Annie. This established clearly who they were to me and included them as family members.

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