The Heartbreaking Reason a 7-Year-Old Boy Won’t Call His Stepmother “Mom”
On the eve of becoming a stepmother, a woman wonders what the boy she has come to love like a son will call her.
Gracias Lam for Reader's Digest
One afternoon a few months before Tom and I were to be married, Max wandered into the dining room of the house, where I was sorting through a box of old photographs. He tossed a bright orange Nerf ball over and over, said nothing, and didn’t look at me; he just focused completely on the ball. Soon he began to twirl around after each toss, catching the spongy ball behind his back. Then he bounced the ball off the wall over the table, then off the ceiling.
“Nice moves,” I said.
No reply. Wall. Ceiling. Twirl. Wall.
“Whatcha doin’?” he finally asked.
“Just trying to organize some of my pictures,” I said.
In my months of living with them, I’d learned to let Max, who was all of seven, come close on his own. If I crowded him or moved too quickly, he skittered away. If I was patient, though, we often ended up playing, laughing, and, recently, even snuggling on the couch with a book or a TV show.
“Who’s that?” he asked, peeking around my shoulder.
“My mom when she was young.”
“What’s she sitting on?”
“A paper moon. They used to have them at fairs and carnivals. People liked to pose for pictures on them.”
“That’s dumb. It doesn’t even look like a real moon.”
“After the wedding, I suppose she’ll be your grandma Sylvia.”
“Cool.” Wall. Ceiling. Wall. Wall. Twirl. He caught the ball and then sidled up beside me, leaning his warm body against my arm and pressing a dirt-smudged finger on another photo. “Who will that be to me?”
“That was my grandfather, the one who died a few months ago.”
Max shrugged and resumed his tossing, this time switching hands. Right. Left. Right. “I already got a grandfather,” he said, not unkindly.
“Lots of kids have two grandpas. I guess my grandfather would have been your great-grandfather.”
“Hmm. Too bad he had to die. I coulda used one of those.”
Death is always a barbed topic, but is particularly so for a child who’d lost his mother only two years before. I shuffled quickly past the pictures of dead relatives.
Max propped his elbows on the table, resting his chin on his upturned palms. “What about them?” he asked, pointing to a picture of my sister and her family. He’d known them his whole life, just as he had known me, played with my niece and nephew regularly, and attended birthday parties and family dinners. But I could see that he was beginning to grasp the change that was coming. The difference in how he knew me before, when he was a family friend, and how he would know me in the future.
“Di and Jim will be your aunt and uncle. Megan and Matt will be your cousins.”
“Sweet,” he said, looking into my face for the first time since he’d entered the room. His eyes were chocolate pools, his thick, dark hair a sleek, shiny coat that made me want to run my fingers over it. “I don’t have any boy cousins. And how about him?”
“That’s my brother John. He’ll be another uncle.”
We sorted stacks of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends.
“Wow, you have a lot of people,” Max said with a sigh.
“I suppose I do.”
He began to finger through the stacks, messing up what I’d already sorted, but that was all right. My original task no longer mattered. As we neared the bottom of the stack, a honey-thick warmth began to fill me. Perhaps my family was to be the dowry I’d bring to this little boy who had lost so much.
“Whoa,” he exclaimed, laughing at my third-grade photo, the one where my hair had been expanded to new dimensions by an especially humid Indiana day.
At moments like this, Max was just a little boy, buoyant with energy, easy with a laugh. He played Legos and watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And he tossed balls. At other times, when he was still or thought no one was looking, it seemed that the earth’s pull was just a little stronger where he stood, tugging the corners of his mouth downward, making his eyes years older than seven birthdays would imply.
Just as I was about to put the last of the pictures in the box, Max pressed his finger once more to a face. “And who will this be to me?”
Beneath his finger I could see the edges of my own face. My heart swelled. This son of the man I loved was becoming my son. We’d have family Christmas cards and school art stuck with magnets to the fridge. I’d make goody bags at birthday parties, snap pictures at graduations. I was becoming a mother but without the benefit of a growing belly or a baby shower to prepare me.
I should have known the answer to his simple question. I should have known how to say just the right, wise, magical thing. But I didn’t. “Well, what do you think?”
Max shrugged. Then he looked away, and I knew it was my job to field this one. “I’ll be your second mom,” I said.
“I’m sorry that your first mom died. I liked her.”
“What should I call you?” he asked.
My heart pounded, and my stomach turned. Mama, I wanted to cry. I’ll be your mama, and you’ll be my son. I resisted.
“You can call me Mom, or Mama. You can also call me Betsy, if you’d rather. Whatever feels OK for you.”
He stood there a minute, and I waited, expecting a pronouncement of my new title.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked, picking up his ball.
“Sweet,” he said, tossing the ball as he walked out of the room.
Tom and I were married a few months later. For a couple of days afterward, Max tried out a new title for me. “Can we go bowling?” he’d ask, and then follow the question by mouthing the word Mom. Or, “Can we go to the store?” And the mouthed word Mom. Mom was always silent. It seemed he was trying it on, seeing how it felt in his mouth. “Whatcha doin’, Mom?” “Can I watch TV now, Mom?”
It felt wrong to take such pleasure in seeing his little plum lips form that singular syllable. After all, this new son of mine was an inheritance I would not have if he and Tom hadn’t sustained such an enormous loss. I felt small … and smaller still when old habits resumed and Betsy was once again my only title.
Weeks later, as I drove him home from school, Max pulled a baggie full of Cheez-Its from his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunch box. He munched away, licking the orange dust off each finger. With his focus deep inside the near-empty snack bag, he suddenly said, “I notice I don’t call you Mom.”
Oof. Who threw that rock at my chest? “I noticed that too.”
One last Cheez-It. “When I say Betsy, I mean Mom.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s nice to know.”
He looked out the window. “Moms die, you know. I think it’s maybe safer if you’re just Betsy.”
We could have a long talk about magical thinking and death and how nothing he could say, or not say, could cause me to die or could have caused his mother to die. But this just didn’t seem like the time for all of that.
I willed tears away, not wanting to overwhelm him. He had enough to carry. “Thanks, bud. I appreciate you telling me.”
Those big chocolate eyes found mine. I waited.
“Yeah,” I said, delighted with the new sound of my old name.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked.
To read more, buy Betsy Graziani Fasbinder’s book, Filling Her Shoes.