Life

Being a queer stepmom is not at all what I thought it’d be. It’s better.

Behind view Mother and Sun kissing and hugging. Happy Family,copy space.filter color effect.
Photo: Shutterstock

I sat at the oversized kitchen table – the “war table,” as my wife Molly and I call it, where we talk politics and family life – with my friend Heidi. We’d just finished a strategy call about stopping anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the New Hampshire State House and were commiserating before my stepsons were due to come home from school.

I rubbed my eyes as Heidi packed up her laptop, and we spent a few minutes expressing dread to each other at how many dangerous bills loomed. I tried to perk up when my older stepson, Big, came home from middle school, threw his backpack on the floor for the weekend, waved, and went straight to the living room to turn on the Xbox. Fifteen minutes later my younger stepson, Small, danced by us with a singsong “Hello!” and flopped down on the couch to watch his brother play. 

Eyes on the screen, Big called out to me, “Liz, a kid on the bus said one of those words you told us we can never say.”

Heidi and I did not make any sudden movements at the kitchen table, both aware how easy it is to spook a preteen in vulnerable moments. 

Small, unable to help himself, asked, “Which one?”

“No way. I’m not saying it,” Big said.

“What letter does it start with?” I asked. 

He pushed his chair back high on two legs. “F.”

Small said, “Ooh, that one.”

Heidi and I both sighed. Of course.

“Did he say it in passing or was he using it to insult someone else?” I asked, as if that mattered.

“He called another kid that word,” he said, his fingers still tapping the controller.

I started dating their mom, Molly, when the boys were five and four. Their lives revolved around superheroes, legos, and eating ice cream. I knew parenting them would both deepen and become more complicated, and I was unsure of how well I would handle that evolution. A colleague, both a biological mom and a stepmom, told me, “Even though you’re their parent, it’s different as a stepmom. They confide in a way that’s special and beautiful. They ask questions they wouldn’t ask their mom, but they feel comfortable asking me. You’ll see.” 

Any time the boys corner me in a conversation without Molly, I think of that colleague. Once a few years ago, I walked by their closed bedroom door and heard them giggling and shrieking when they were supposed to be asleep. I knocked, and Small peeked his head out. “Oh, it’s just Wiz!” he said, still unable to pronounce his Ls at the time. “Wiz, come in, we’re talking about our crushes.”

The boys blushed and giggled and confided, falling on the floor in somersaults, so excited. I grinned and said, “Do you know who I have a crush on?” They leaned in, quiet, about to burst, “Who???”

“Mama!”

They collapsed to the floor again, laughing. I tucked them back in for bed and went downstairs to tell Molly.

“They always tell you things they won’t tell me,” she said with a smile. 

“Honey, you’re their mom. I’m their Liz. That’s my job.”

Like any parent, though, I have to do the less fun, more boring stuff too, like repeat the same instructions ad nauseum:

You need to hang up your wet towel.

Please take your cleats off outside, not after you’ve walked through the house.

Yes, you need to wear a coat, I don’t care that it’s “only” 35 degrees.

Just when it seems like they’ve perfected tuning me out, they’ll reach back for an old conversation, one they’d tucked away. Often it’s something like, “Liz, remember when you said the first sunny, summery day we were going to get ice cream? Well, it’s sunny and summery today,” reminding me four months later as they take their cleats off in the living room.

Other times it’s something bigger. Like the first talk we had about the unspeakable words.

The boys had come home from camp, giving me the daily rundown: the winner of each Magic: The Gathering game (Big, mostly); whether they changed clothes after swimming (Small, never); and whether the water fountain worked (still no). Big then repeated a phrase he heard someone else say, to which I said, “Oh. We don’t say that word.” 

He frowned. “Why? What does it mean?”

“That word is a slur,” I said, and before I could continue, Small asked, “What’s a ‘slurp’?”

“Slur,” I said. “Let’s look up the definition together, and then I’ll explain where that particular word came from so that you understand.” I read the definition of “slur” to them and then explained how language changed when talking about people with disabilities, including those with Down Syndrome. “The word you just repeated, Big, is a slur. We do not say it. Not even when you’re an adult.”

“Not like cursing, right?” he asked.

“Right, cursing is something you’ll do when you’re older, I am sure.”

“Like you do,” he said.

“Right.”

“And Mama,” said Small.

“Yes.”

“More Mama, actually, because she curses on work calls and so do the people she talks to…”

“Yes, but let’s focus,” I said. I looked at Big, only 11 years old. Tall and thoughtful, but still a child. “Biggy, you’re going to middle school soon, and I’m guessing you’re going to hear that word and other slurs, too.”

He didn’t respond.

I took a deep breath. “That’s okay. What we just did, talking about the word, explaining where it comes from and why we don’t say it, that’s what we will do. You’re not in trouble for repeating a word you didn’t know.” He nodded at me. “Now that you know…”

“I can’t say it,” he said. “I don’t want to say it.”

I decided to talk about one other word. The word starting with “F.” 

“This is a word that is used as an insult not just to gay men, but to straight men,” I said. They didn’t take their eyes off me. Maybe they sensed a change in me, an awareness that this and other similar slurs could be part of their life with two queer parents, as it was for many of the youth I spend my day job trying to protect. Maybe they saw in my face all the times I’d heard the word, many times hurled like a weapon. Maybe they felt my exhaustion at confronting yet another one of those limitless parental prayers: that they will be safe, but also, that they will be good.

The conversation had happened in August, and I’d just left it there. Now it was a Friday afternoon in spring, and I was sitting here with a friend to witness what, if anything, had stuck.

“Thank you for telling us, buddy,” I said, peering at him from the kitchen. “I’m proud of you.”

“You’re not going to be happy with what I did,” he said without turning away from the screen.

Oh no, I thought. He stayed silent. I guess I could understand that. Or what if he laughed? He wouldn’t repeat the word, would he? 

“What did you do, bud?” I asked.

He set his chair down on all four legs and turned toward me. “I flipped him off.” 

Heidi turned her face away from him and dissolved into silent laughter. “Actually,” I smiled, “I’m very happy with that.”

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