For roughly the past six months, I’ve had the opportunity to talk and write about my family in a way that is more substantive than I have in all my years of writing; most discussions were spurred from the article about how politics had created a rift between my (white) mother and me.
In nearly every discussion—including the currently running The Loving Generation documentary—while discussing my family dynamic, I had to point out that I had this rift with my white birth mother, though I was largely raised by my father and stepmother, both black Southerners. The distinction informs my worldview and why I identify as a black man and why my life has unfolded the way it has.
I use the term “step” when explaining that my father remarried, because it’s the language most folks are familiar with, but it actually annoys me every single time I have to say the word “stepmother.” Or when I’m talking about my sisters, and for informative and explanative purposes, I have to use the term “stepsisters” or “half brother and sister,” where appropriate.
In almost every single conversation I’ve had, and often well after they’ve concluded, I’ve contemplated how else I might discuss the blending of my family and how we operate without using terms that are understandable but feel so removed from my own life.
My stepmother? Is my mama. Period. When I’m around either of my mothers, I refer to them both as “Mama.” And I don’t have stepsisters; I just have sisters. Always have. Always will.
My little sister and I moved from Michigan when I was 6 and she was 3 to live in Frankfurt, Germany, with my father and his then girlfriend. They got married a few years later. I don’t know when I started calling her “Mama.” I do know that nobody told me I had to; it’s just something I started doing naturally after comfort and familiarity set in.
I guess in my young mind, this woman with whom I was living and who was taking care of me was doing what mothers did, so she was my mother. I didn’t feel like that took away from my “real mother,” but I’m also not sure that, at 6, 7 or 8 years old, I had any real ability to understand what those terms could mean to the adults around me.
I’ve never asked my white mother what she felt about my calling my “stepmother” “Mama”; nor have I ever asked my “stepmother” what she felt when I first started calling her “Mama.”
I do know that my real mother has nothing but respect for the job that was done raising her kids. My two mothers get along just fine. Or, at least, all I’ve seen is them get along fine.
From age 6 to today, in my life, I’ve had two mothers. Both holding spaces in my life, but my mama (in Alabama—as my sister and I sometimes say when discussing them both) has been there in every way a mother could be: school plays, basketball games, track meets, parent meetings, surgeries, rough days, good days, etc.
Because we lived overseas, and then 700 miles away (once we returned to the States), it was impossible for my mama (in Michigan) to be present daily except for the summer months when we’d visit. I had my mama for that. She loved me and continues to love me like a mother is supposed to—I can call her for counsel, love, help, no reason at all, or to find out what’s happening in the family, though my family has this REMARKABLE tendency to forget to tell me things.
Of all my extended family—in Alabama (dad), Michigan (birth mom) and Georgia (stepmom)—I’m actually closest to my stepmother’s family. It’s to her family reunions that we go annually. It’s with that family that I am the most connected. We’re all black, so making the cousin leap isn’t hard, but still. My younger sister and I were embraced by that family wholeheartedly, and the love is real. There’s no “step” anywhere in our lives for that reason. And it’s the same with my siblings.
I have two stepsisters, but we were raised as regular siblings. There was never any difference for us, though I suppose you can raise four kids differently in the same house, step or not. We treat one another as one, we love one another as one, we are one big family that loves and supports one another. Our kids have never learned anything about “step” anything.
In fact, we spent years confusing one of my nephews by telling him that his mother and I were actually twins (we’re actually about three months apart—we’d just pick one or the other’s birthday to celebrate), which confused him because he knows we have other parents. He’s 18 now. The jig is up.
To make it even more confusing, my stepsisters have both a half brother and sister, whom I treat as and call my younger brother and sister. They’re not blood, or even step to me, but they’re my siblings all the same. We have family pictures with all of us kids in them, and you can’t tell that we’re not related at all. I talk to them and we visit one another; we’re family. We look like a collection of siblings because that’s what we are.
There are no prefixes on who we are as a family, but when telling my family story, I have to explain it in terms that allow folks to distinguish. And I get it—it is easier to express these relationships in those terms when I’m discussing my background or how I was raised, but as I said, every single time I say “step” or “half,” it feels wrong, as if I’m devaluing my family.
I realize that nobody in my family is concerned about it—we’re close enough that nobody listening to me or reading would think twice about my use of the terms “step” or “half.” But for me, having been raised by a black woman who happens to be one of the most giving people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, who also decided to be my mother and allowed me to be her son and raised me up to be the best person I can be, I cringe a little when I say it.
I know there’s nothing wrong with stepparents or stepsiblings. And it’s just a word; but in my life, those words aren’t things—they don’t exist and almost never did until I had to explain my family.
Is it much ado about nothing? Perhaps. But my mama is my mama, and there are no steps to it.