Who would like to join me in a toast to funny-shaped families: non-traditional, hard-to-explain combinations that don’t fit into a cookie-cutter no matter how you turn them?
. . . . .
The boys have grown into men and they roar up to my house on motorcycles. They peel of their helmets and pick me up off the ground when they hug me. When they were little and I was their dad’s wife, they didn’t call me mamá, but now they do even though I’ve been gone for much longer than I was there. You can divorce an adult, but the kids are another story.
I re-married and have a new set of step-kids who, unfortunately, live far away. My ex’s kids love my husband and he loves them right back, so when we get together it’s a very odd combination of laughter and pizza and reminiscing about things that not all of us remember. But it’s alright. You can open your heart to the people who want to love you, or you can close it. Heads or tails.
But the language breaks down–all the ones I know do. Here’s a question: What do I call my ex-husband’s daughter? If I call her my step-daughter, that confuses her with my husband’s daughter. And my husband has a daughter. He has a son, too, so what do I call the young men on the motorcycles? My ex-step-sons? That sounds terrible. Their dad is my ex—they are not any type of “ex” to me. Our relationship is very much in the present.
So here’s another one. What if my ex-step-daughter has a baby? Because she did. What do I call the baby? My ex-step granddaughter?? I’m laughing now. I’m a little annoyed with Webster’s lack of imagination. We don’t have a word for this. We need one.
I need one.
You know what I don’t like about the options my language gives me for naming children who aren’t mine? I don’t like identifying people who I consider family primarily by who they are not. Like calling the infant I hold in my arms my “ex-step-granddaughter.” That language removes her from me twice before giving her to me. It’s backwards. (And I would never call her that anyway, of course!)
The guy married to my sister is my brother-in-law. The woman married to my other sister is my sister-in-law. Those names give the relationship first and take it down a peg second. I like that order better. My sister’s wife is first my sister—and second, not-really-my-sister.
I guess the supposition is that when you divorce someone, the relationship is broken and the family is broken, so therefore the language identifies the break before it reflects anything else. I imagine that most times it is that way. I just wish we had a whole different word for it, is all, if you aren’t estranged. Like a language that has 50 different words for snow. I wish we had 50 different words for children. We have 3: kids, step-kids and grandkids.
I especially dislike the vibe of the prefix “step” in front of family relationships. I accept it, but I don’t care for it. Tell the truth: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “step-mother?” A wicked woman who won’t let pretty girls go to parties at best, and feeds them poisoned apples at worst. Please. Being a stepmother is wretchedly difficult, and no matter what you do, it will be the wrong thing in somebody’s opinion almost all the time.
I wish we had a word for my husband’s son that doesn’t start out by telling you that he doesn’t really belong to me. I wish I had a word for my grandbaby’s mama that doesn’t showcase what we are not.
Of course you are thinking, “Just say ‘daughter’ and ‘granddaughter’.” And I do, and I will. I just feel the need to put my finger on a very personal place where language and life do not match up at all.
When I was college age, I used to say that I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to have children, but that I thought I would make an excellent grandmother. I didn’t expect to pull that off, but look at me now.
And, dear English Language, please evolve.