The Question Every Step-Parent Dreads

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I arrived, breathless, in our neighborhood pizza place for the family-friendly happy hour. $5 glasses of wine for grown-ups and $1 slices of pizza for kids. Everybody wins. The man who greeted us had electric blue eyes filled with watery wonder. “Are they all yours?” he asked.

I hesitated. “Yes” was not the whole truth, but “no” didn’t feel right either. After all, I was in charge of them for most waking hours of most days of most weeks that summer. They all called me “mama,” and they all came to me when they needed something. But in a few weeks, one of them would go back to his mother.

So are they all mine? All of them are “mine,” but not “all” mine. I share one.

“More or less,” I said.

“Yes!” said a little voice scooting into the booth. His voice. The oldest one, the child in question, shattering my heart and healing it with his earnest expression.

“Yes,” I faltered. “Not always, but yes.” Immediately, I regretted these last four words. No matter where my stepson is in body, he is with us in spirit. This does not make him more or less a part of either family. He straddles two homes, his life a graceful example of duality.

I didn’t like that man for putting me on the spot. I didn’t like him for doubting me. I didn’t like me for doubting myself.


Why do strangers feel entitled to make small talk and ask personal questions? I believe it comes from a place of natural curiosity rather than malicious intent. Humans long to connect, even with strangers.

But a backlash has begun. Pregnant women are tired of comments about their bodies. Mothers are tired of people calling their children “a handful.” Women are tired of questions about their reproductive plans. Stepmothers are tired of questions about their families.

I reached over and I kissed my boy and I said, “Thank you. Thank you for letting me be your mom.”

I almost told him that the man asked the question only because I appear young to have three kids, especially a 9-year-old, especially in a city like San Francisco where the Peter Pan syndrome is rampant: grown-ups are waiting to grow up. But I didn’t. I let it be. When we left, amidst chaos and tears, the man said, “you guys are awesome. Come back soon!”

That night, as I put the baby to bed, my stepson wrote me a sweet note and put it where he knew I would find it before morning. On my closed laptop. The letter was addressed, “To My Mom.”

Words are powerful, even children know this. In our culture, we are eager to fill silences, so we often speak before thinking, as I did that night at the pizza place.

When I saw the Dalai Lama years ago, he waited for long minutes to answer questions posed in front of thousands. He allowed blank spaces to commandeer the auditorium. By the time he did speak, his words were anticipated and his thoughts were well-formed. There is wisdom in waiting and power in pausing, a lesson that permeates parenting.

To other parents and step-parents who receive awkward comments about your families, I urge you to pause before you answer. With a bit of mindfulness and compassion for every member of the family, you can find the best possible answer. I wish I’d responded to, “Are they all yours?” by saying, “I think so.” Maybe then the man would have realized what a preposterous question it was to ask of a woman in the trenches of mothering her children.

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