You're not my mom.
It's one of the most common fights in blended families. The step-parent makes a move to discipline, correct, or otherwise parent a step-child, and inadvertently triggers rage and rebellion that can sour the home and weaken the bonds between every single person in the family towards everyone else. Sometimes, the pain and fear of divorce, grief, and change are so strong that even a positive reinforcement on the part of the new parent - a hug, an affirmation, a kindness - can be met with hostility and withdrawal. It's like trying to cross a minefield with snowshoes on.
We had a couple of years of this cycle of rage. My kids made mistakes, my wife made mistakes, I made mistakes. I often felt trapped in the middle, like a UN negotiator trying to sort out a peace treaty between warring nations, except both nations think of me as a countryman. We prayed, we loved, we got professional counseling, and things got better. Ultimately, it took some maturing on the part of everyone involved, including myself, and even some relocation and time apart, but I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we're a real family now.
But they still don't call my wife "Mom."
And I don't really want them to. We already went through the war of the names, what everyone is supposed to call everyone else without hurting someone else's feelings. When the dust settled, my oldest daughter put it in the best words possible. In one family meeting, after discussing all those years of strife and reconciliation, she said to my wife, her stepmother, as best I can quote it, "You're not my mother, because I only have one, but you are my parent, and I know you love me and want the best for me."
It was so wise, I wish I had thought of it myself. I've been thinking about it for the past three years or so, since she said it. Maybe this wisdom came through her own motherhood and learning to rely on others in the process, or maybe she's just got it like that, but, I swear, this one way of thinking is going to change our bloodline for the better for generations.
It's not just about making peace within the home, or reconciling with a stepparent. When you really tease out the implications of such an idea, that one doesn't have to be a biological mother or father to be a parent, it has such wide-spread ramifications on the family culture. Because if I can adopt that mindset, it opens me up to accept other people as parents as well. I'm still parenting my grown children who have left the home, even if it looks different now than when they were younger. I'm also parenting my younger children, ages ten and four. But beyond that, I'm parenting my grandchildren. They know that Papa is fun, but he don't take no mess. Rather than undermine my daughter and their father by subverting their rules and parenting, I'm trying to co-parent with them and create a community of parents, a league of superheroes all trying to protect and guide the littles through life.
My kids and grand-kids are growing up with the idea that they have so many parents that not only aren't their mother and father, but aren't related to them. Sure, they understand, in their way, that their grandparents (and step-grandparents!) are parents as well, but they will also see their uncles and aunties, some of them biological and some of them "play-aunties," as parents. When they're at school, they'll see their teachers as parents, there to care for them and correct them. Even some elders in the church or community are their parents, in their own limited way. It feels like something we lost along the way to the nuclear family parade, where we only recognize and celebrate the immediate biological connections between adults and children, and not the broader cultural and social ones.
Of course, there have to be boundaries. Our kids need to also know that they can trust their instincts about grown-ups and listen to their own "creep-alarm" when it goes off in their heads. There's a hierarchy at work here, and the custodial parents have the fullest rights and the fullest responsibilities over their children. And, I'm aware, even in my own experience, that investing too much respect for elders can also cripple a child.
I had an experience just the other day that made me think about the need to sometimes push back against elders who are just flat wrong. It was kind of a minor dispute, but it really forced me to challenge my thinking about elders. I was at the movies with my wife, something we rarely get to do because of a lack of available babysitters. When we got into the theater, this old man and his wife were in our seats. When I gently informed him he was in the wring seat, he got huffy and said, "What's the difference?"
See, you have to understand, I've always had an intense respect for elders, especially old people. I can't say if this is a generational thing, or a church, thing, or a personal thing, but talking back to elders is just very difficult for me. I'd rather humble myself than disrespect an old person, and sometimes, that means I'm getting taken advantage of.
But not this time.
After I took a second to really process his audacity, I calmly explained the difference to him. Mainly, the difference is that I picked and paid for those seats because they're good seats, which is probably why he decided to poach them and refuse to get up. But he had me at a disadvantage, because if he won't get up and move voluntarily, my only options are putting hands on him or snitching to the manager, and neither one seemed right to me. Since he continued to be unreasonable, I told him, without yelling, but loudly enough so that people around would hear, that out or respect, I was going to take the seats a little down the same row, but that what he was doing wasn't cool. I told him, for everyone to hear, that we don't live in the days of the Royale twin screen cinema where it's first-come, first-served and the popcorn is fifteen cents a bucket. I told him, furthermore, that if I end up taking someone else's seat, and they come for it, then I'm going to have to find a way to make him move. He accepted those terms. In a minute, someone else did come, and he ended up moving, with all twelve or so people in the theater jeering at him while the previews started. I was pretty proud of myself, and only wish that my wife had been there to see my heroic, diplomatic handling of the situation, but she had stepped out to the lobby to put a literal bucket of fake butter on her bucket of popcorn.
The whole experience made me question one thing:
How old do I have to get to be able to just punch an old man in the face and it not be considered elder abuse? I mean, I'm about to turn fifty, so when is it gonna be just two old dudes working something out?
But seriously, it did make me proud for a minute, to be able to show respect to someone old enough (barely) to be my father, but also advocate for myself without Karening down the hall to the manager. This is what I want to raise my kids and grand-kids with. I want them to think of their older family members, teachers, and community elders as parents, worthy of respect and sources of wisdom and guidance, regardless of their biological connections. But I also want them to be able to advocate for themselves, to set fair boundaries and speak up when those boundaries are violated. I want them to think of their step-parents as parents, and their grandparents and uncles and aunties and play-uncles and play-aunties and teachers as well. But I also want them to have the courage and diplomacy to be able to say to any of them, "I don't like that," or "you crossed the line there," or even "this is not cool, and I'm not prepared to tolerate it." And I want them to be able to do this without escalating the situation into a screaming match with the repeated refrain of "You're not my mom!"
Now that I see that in writing, it looks like a gargantuan task.
But as daunting as it is, I still think it's the goal, and I know that my kids and grand-kids have the best possible team around them, with the skills to get them there. At the front lines, they have their custodial parents, obviously, but behind and supporting them, they have generations of parents, a wealth of wisdom and love to see them through.
And if they ever have to say to one of their "parents," or even one of their parents, that a boundary has been crossed and they feel violated, there are enough of us to sort that out in their best interest.