Care and Feeding

How Can I Get My Stepdaughter to Call Me Mom?

A mom holds a smiling girl
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I met my husband when my stepdaughter was 3 years old; we married when she was 6, and she’s now 9. She’s at our house often, but not quite as much as at her mother’s. All is well co-parenting, and we have a good relationship. I love her to death, and she loves me.

The only problem is that she’s called me by my first name since me and her dad started dating, and now that we’re married she still does it. I know she’s just used to calling me by my name, but I feel conflicted because growing up I never addressed my parent or any adults by their first name. I’m 23, and I still don’t call my mother by her first name.

Also, once my husband and I start having kids, I don’t want her to feel like a stepdaughter; I want her to know I’m her mother just as much as I am to my own kids, and I love her just the same. I will feel weird if I have three kids and one is calling me by my name. Am I wrong?

—Skip a Step

Dear SaS,

I think your intentions are very sweet, but you’re making a problem out of nothing. It might be the case that just as you at 23 couldn’t imagine now calling your mother by her first name, your stepdaughter at 9 can’t imagine now calling you Mom.

As you point out yourself, it’s immaterial! You’re her mother just as much as you will be to your own future children; the name by which she calls you has no bearing on that. The key to ensuring she doesn’t feel like merely a stepchild is in how you treat her, not in what she calls you.

You’ve not mentioned one of the most important considerations here. She already has a person she calls Mom in her life. There’s absolutely room in everyone’s life for more than one Mom, but you wouldn’t want to hurt your husband’s ex-wife’s feelings by making her share this title with you.

I don’t think you have a problem, really. This is one of those “actions speak louder than words” situations: The action of being a loving family is far more important than the titles used by the family members.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is almost 8 years old. Clever, pretty, active, sociable, empathetic, and, mostly, emotionally levelheaded. Her father and I share custody, and it’s generally good. We’re extremely lucky to have her, and I often tell her so.

Last year she got bitten by a dog, leaving a small but noticeable scar under her eye. We’re treating it daily with oil, it’s fading slowly, and when she’s older, cosmetic surgery is definitely an option I’ve already considered, if she ever asks for it.

She hasn’t mentioned it. She’s never cared much for clothes, less than the stereotype for a girl. She likes dressing up, sometimes, with “fancy” jewelry, perfume, and makeup. I’m not an everyday makeup-wearer, but I see no harm in it.

Two days ago, while putting oil on her scar as usual, she told me that it’s still not faded and that’s why she sometimes wears makeup. I don’t know how or if I should react. My instinct tells me that she’s too young to worry about her face. On the other hand, I don’t want to overreact if it’s an occasional thing—I don’t think she’s overly bothered. Should I be concerned?

—Scar Issue

Dear SI,

Your poor kid. You don’t say whether this was psychically traumatizing as well as physically scarring, but I hope it wasn’t.

Your daughter is young enough that her adult face may be quite different from her current one, though of course, most scars linger, in some fashion, forever. Obviously a cosmetic alteration should be her choice, when she’s an adult. I share your instinct that she’s maybe too young to worry about this right now. I don’t think you need to say that explicitly, but your words can communicate this all the same.

When she’s playing dress-up, you can talk to her about how fun it can be to wear something that makes you feel special and fancy just because you want to. When she’s doing her makeup, you can talk about how you sometimes love a little color on your face, just because it makes you feel great, or talk about a favorite perfume because it brings you pleasure. I think this is true and important; fashion and grooming are as much about satisfying you as they are about presenting a certain face to the world.

If your daughter says she sometimes wears makeup to cover her scar, I think you can acknowledge that impulse. I might start with the important context (“You’re so beautiful just as you are!”) and then add, “You should do what makes you feel beautiful!” I think you can also point out that she doesn’t need to hide, and talk about makeup that brings out her eyes or brightens her smile rather than disguising who she is.

She might not buy that. She might still want to cover up. But I think she’ll hear it and learn that she’s lovely, scar or no scar.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I are queer parents of a 2-year-old, and we all just moved to a new neighborhood. Recently we got the question “Who’s the little pumpkin’s mom?” from a chatty passerby. This never happened in our old neighborhood, where people weren’t often out and about; also, we lived there before my wife was pregnant, so our neighbors witnessed the pregnancy and the newborn coming home.

All the hangouts and play dates we’ve had since have been with people who’ve known us since before the baby was around, or with other queer families. We’ve lived a queerly sheltered life where we’ve never really had to answer for or explain our family.

To our neighbor, I said, “We’re both pumpkin’s mom.” She still seemed confused, but ultimately the interaction ended fine. I am, however, left feeling moderately disoriented to be thrust into a world where people are seeing our family and wondering about us. I also felt somehow responsible for this friendly woman’s confusion. So how much explaining should I do, and at what pace?

I understand that we’re not in a super queer part of town, and not everyone is familiar with ho-hum domestic queers like us. We expect most of our conversations with people to be at a stoop-to-sidewalk distance for the duration of the pandemic. What sort of script can I use to avoid confusion and stammering?

—Two Moms

Dear TM,

As a queer parent myself, I understand how the simple act of being out in the world with your kids may require endlessly coming out to complete strangers.

The answer to the question “Who’s the mom?” is quite simple! “We’re both mom!” or “He has two moms!” or “We’re both his mom!” or “Two moms in our family!” are all very clear. You sound like you’re very understanding about your neighbors’ familiarity with queer families, which is generous and also probably wise if you’re hoping to live where you are for years to come.

I don’t think you need to feel bad or responsible for confusing your neighbors! Just keep answering honestly and directly, and, I guess, at the top of your lungs from a distance of 6 feet. It might seem weird or possibly aggressive to have this kind of conversation while shouting at near-strangers, but that’s something you can’t help at the moment. Keep strolling around the neighborhood and it’s only a matter of time before everyone figures out that you’re both mom.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a divorced mom to a 10-year-old son. Due to witnessing abuse of me by his father, along with being neglected by his father, my son has some problems with anxiety. He sees a therapist and is doing well.

I’m a nurse, so I’m still working full time during the pandemic. With school out, he and I spend every minute of my days off together. And honestly, he’s driving me crazy. He hounds me to play with him all day. The only thing he’s willing to do is play with his action figures. I have to make them talk in different voices and act out whatever story he’s come up with.

It’s mind-numbingly boring and hard on my throat to make these things talk for hours at a time. He never tires of this, won’t play anything else, and if I refuse or take a break, he hounds me incessantly until we can play again. He says no to every other suggestion and cries like he’s heartbroken if I refuse too much. I’m at the end of my rope with this and have started dreading my days off. It feels so babyish for a 10-year-old to act this way, like we’ve reverted back to the preschool years. What do I do?

—Action Figure Fatigue

Dear Action Figure Fatigue,

My heart goes out to anyone single-parenting right now. As a nurse, you’re under a particular strain—busy at work and negotiating single parenthood without the usual support system of school. This is a tough time, and I hope you are able to find a few hours in your week that are just for you.

I do think it’s possible your son is regressing a little bit; these are stressful times, and he’s a kid who’s (understandably) struggled with anxiety. I wonder if it’s helpful to remember that he’s 10, and there are very few years of playing with him like this left, and that, yes, it’s exhausting and boring, and maybe you need to get it off your chest by complaining to me in this letter.

I don’t think this is worryingly babyish behavior for a 10-year-old, nor do I think you should beat yourself up about feeling bored by his play. Some adults are diverted by kids’ games, and some are not. This is just a difficult moment in which you need to show up and be your kid’s playmate though you might normally not. You could try, though, to interest him in alternative distractions—talk about them and get him excited about them in advance instead of in the moment.

If he enjoys imaginative play, perhaps you could buy him a video camera or a tablet with a camera and let him experiment with making movies or TikToks or Instagram videos with his action figures. Perhaps he could have FaceTime play dates with a friend or cousin who is also engaged by this kind of game. Perhaps you could try audiobooks or even watching movies that divert him and give you a chance to coast a little when you’re on mom duty. Maybe he’ll be interested in art supplies so he can draw pictures of his favorite toys, or maybe he’ll be diverted by a video game or some other solo activity. If not, he’s old enough that you can set some limits: “We can play this game for 30 minutes. Then Mom needs to go in the other room and fold the laundry.”

You don’t mention what your child care arrangement is when you’re at work. I wonder if it would be possible to extend that to cover some hours when you’re off, so that you get some time to truly just be yourself instead of Mom. Even a couple of hours’ downtime could make a big difference, and you might find that gives you the energy to play action figures.

—Rumaan

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