I knew it was inevitable, that one of them would say it eventually, but I didn’t expect it to be over something so insignificant.
As a stepparent, I’ve had phrases like this one thrown at me once or twice. Ironically, it was never in the midst of a serious argument. It happened once after I insisted – for the ten thousandth time – that my stepson put the toilet seat down. It had become a battle in our house. His refusal to do it became far more offensive than the toilet seat itself, and my frustration spiraled into me threatening to take away his car and him coming at me with, “You’re not even my mom.”
I knew it was inevitable, that one of them would say it eventually, but I didn’t expect it to be over something so insignificant. How I really wanted to respond was by screaming “I’m not your mom, but this is MY house, and that is MY car, and I am taking it away until you learn to PUT THE TOILET SEAT DOWN!” Luckily, I’d had just enough therapy to take a different approach.
If you’re a stepmom, adoptive mom, or any non-biological parent facing this dreaded moment, below is my advice on ways to respond.
I do not recommend involving the car.
It’s important to remember that kids often say the things they know will hurt you the most. It’s really no different than them saying “I hate you” to their biological parent, which I definitely did as a teen. Many times. Kids go for the jugular, and it’s better for us parents to block their shots than to fight back. Besides, it’s hard to fight against something that’s true. You’re not their “real” mom. And in the moment, it’s important for you to acknowledge that.
I said to my stepson, “I’m not your mom, but I am your stepmom. I am one of your parents, and your dad and I make the rules in this house, and it’s important to both of us that you respect them.”
When I get angry, I tend to descend into an exploration of everything you have ever done that I ever found slightly objectionable. I am exceptional at this. But when it comes to my children, I do my best to shield them from this talent and instead, focus on specifics.
“I want you to put the toilet seat down because we only have one bathroom, and I think it’s gross to walk in and see the seat up. But what upsets me the most is that we don’t have that many house rules, and you simply refuse to follow the ones we do have. I really don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to remember to put the seat down.”
I tried really hard not to make the moment about something else. It was not the time to solidify my role in his life. It was the time to address the real issue – his refusal to follow my simple request.
That said, I was stung, and he could tell. And I wasn’t quite evolved enough to follow all of my own advice, so I added, “I know I’m not your mom, but I love you. And I would never treat you differently because you’re not my “real” kid. It’s really hurtful that you would say that to me.”
At the time, my stepson was 16 or 17, so he was old enough to understand my emotions, but for little ones, I recommend leaving the bigger picture out of it until you’ve calmed down and gathered yourself.
FOR ADOPTIVE AND FOSTER PARENTS
Hearing these words as an adoptive or foster parent can be even more crushing, and children often say them much sooner you’d expect. My friend’s six-year-old, who was adopted at birth, recently announced “you’re not even my real dad,” in the midst of a tantrum.
As an adoptive mom, I’m bracing for the day I hear these words, and I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for how I will respond. My plan is to repeat the same explanation I give to my son anytime we discuss his adoption: “I am your real mom. And so is your birth mom. We’re both real, and we’re both your moms, but I am the mommy you live with and I make the rules.”
My son is six, so obviously my approach is still very elementary, but I know I have my work cut out for me. He’s already asking me why adults get to make the rules just because they’re older, why he has to eat breakfast when I only have coffee, and why God gave us bodies that can get sick instead of giving us bodies that can always heal themselves.
If you have any answers for him, please leave them below. Because I’m drawing a blank.
My friend Amy, a fellow adoptive mama, offered the best explanation of “real” parents to her son. “There are three ways to be a parent,” she explained. “Make a kid, take care of a kid, and love a kid. Your birth parents made you and we could not. We can take care of you and they cannot. We all love you. We just needed to share the job. All of us are your ‘real’ parents.”
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.
Your reaction to your stepson is appropriate. When someone who is adopted tells someone who adopted them that they are not their real parent, there is a lot more to unpack. People who adopt don’t have to put their names as parents on the birth certificate of the person they adopt, its done to make people who adopt feel like parents. If someone adopts a friend or relative’s child, they often decide not to alter the identity of the person they adopt, and in so doing retain their truthful relational title of Aunt, or Godmother (or whatever). An adopted person knows that it is more of a Hallmark meme than truth to say someone has two Mothers; they have a Mother, but someone else adopted them and is raising them (they could call that person Aunt, Grandma, Godmom, Mrs. X, or, Mother). Their Mom may not be doing the job Mom’s are supposed to do, but the title creates the job, not the other way around. Imagine if people had to actually raise their kids before they got to refer to themselves as parents, nobody would get to call themselves parents until their kids were 18! The response given to the stepson is a good one and still appropriate to give to someone who is adopted who says the same thing. It’s a more respectful response than the “two real Moms” option.
Jessica — love this article. As a 2x Adoptive Mom, I’m know it’s coming. I loved hearing your response (and am shocked at how early it happened). All the more reason to be prepared, so thank you!