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Should my stepdaughter be calling me ‘Mom’?

It’s important, says Dr. Gail Saltz, that a stepmother makes it clear to her husband’s children that his ex-wife is the real mom.
/ Source: TODAY

Q: My fiancé has a 7-year-old daughter from his first marriage. I have known her since she was born. Is it okay or not okay for her to call me “Mom?”

A: There is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to what this little girl should call you. But I suggest strongly you come up with an affectionate term that’s different from “mom.”

When you become a stepmother, you are also beginning a relationship with your husband’s ex-wife, who is this child’s biological mother. It’s important to keep this adult relationship as comfortable and non-threatening as possible.

And then there’s your relationship with this little girl. She already has a mother, and that mother gets to be called “mom,” “mommy” “mama” and the like. It will be very confusing to the child if you ask her to call you “mom,” too. (And even if she calls you “mom” of her own volition, you should gently dissuade her from doing so.)

It’s all about avoiding confusion and consternation for all concerned. Most important, you don’t want to stir up rivalry, which is innately there when you marry someone who was recently married to someone else. Intruding on the ex-wife’s space could create negativity that could erode your own relationship with the child. If her calling you “mom” makes the ex-wife feel her role as a mother is threatened or usurped, your life will be more difficult.

So, next time this little girl addresses you as “mom,” use that as a starting point to come up with something else she can call you. If you — or she — want to use a term of endearment, she can come up with a special name just for you, or you can come up with one together.

Some ideas:

  • A name that is similar to “mom,” that starts with M and feels mother-y — something like “moo-ma” or “mimsy” or “mimi.”
  • A diminutive, especially if your name lends itself to that: “Joanie” for Joan, “Nanny” for Nan, “Didi” for Dorothy.
  • “Aunt” or “Auntie” is a good fallback. “Aunt Susan” is certainly better than “Mommy Susan,” which could still be perceived as threatening.

Stepmotherhood can be valuable and rewarding in many ways. As with grandparenthood, there tend to be fewer complicating mother-daughter issues, and the child benefits from another loving, parental-type figure in her life. Make sure she knows that you love her and are glad to be her stepmother, but that you are not her mother.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Your young stepdaughter can address you with a name that expresses the affection you have for each other yet doesn’t incite uncomfortable rivalries with your husband’s ex-wife.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was recently published by Riverhead Books. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2004 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.