Q: You always say that "Put the children first" is the primary rule of good ex-etiquette. I've been in my stepdaughter's life since she was a year old. My husband and his ex share equal custody. When my stepdaughter was 4 she asked if she could call me "mom." It was completely her idea, but her mother absolutely forbade it. My stepdaughter was in hysterics. So, we sat down with her and listened why it was so important. Her mother didn't care. Your advice concerning this topic according to your book "Ex-etiquette for Parents" is "It is inappropriate for a child to call a bonusparent "Mom" or "Dad" unless the biological parent is comfortable with that choice." I don't see how that is putting the child first. I'm confused.
A: I understand why you are confused, so let me explain the thought process behind the position I took.
Most biological parents feel like your stepdaughter's mother does, and even the most diplomatic have a real problem not reacting negatively to the news that their child is calling the stepparent "Mom" or "Dad." This puts the child right in the middle of two people he or she loves. And, since, as you have pointed out, the primary rule of good ex-etiquette for parents is "Put the child first," it's best to look for ways to take this burden off the child's shoulders. Therefore, I suggested that right from the beginning, look for a special nickname for the stepparent that only the child uses, and present it as special between just them. That way, the biological parent can relax and support the bonus relationship. When the biological parent can comfortably give their child permission to love the stepparent, the child will no longer feel that he or she has to choose and be much more comfortable with going back and forth between homes.
I understand that the way you look at it is, "Wait a minute, I didn't tell her to call me that. It was her idea. The mother isn't putting the child first making this such a big deal."
Granted, but good ex-etiquette is also a well choreographed dance between all the players. It's all about give and take and picking your battles. Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 7 is, "Use empathy when problem-solving," and this was included because of this situation in particular. We have to put ourselves in the other's shoes to understand their point of view, and that will empower us to look for solutions when negotiating rather than digging our feet in.
Moms and dads did not anticipate only spending half their child's time with their children. Many feel quite insecure because they didn't stay with their child's parent and they are trying to overcompensate for what they inwardly feel is their personal failure. Then their child starts calling their counterpart "Mom" or "Dad" and it just rubs salt in the wound. Looking for a solution that makes everyone happy, finding a special name, makes the bonus relationship special and appeases the biological parent. If presented to the child as "special" the child will not feel in the middle, but special — and that's what we want. The more people to love a child, the better. That's good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is the founder ofbonusfamilies.com.