I’m happy to introduce a new guest writer for Parent Talk Today, Amy Wallen. This piece originally ran in The Faster Times and is used with permission. Amy is the bestselling author of MoonPies and Movie Stars and is a frequent contributing book critic for the Los Angeles Times and other national magazines. She is also the founder and comedic host of the popular reading series DimeStories, 3-minute stories…
With families taking so many different forms these days, what we call each other does indeed matter. But that doesn’t make it an easy thing to sort through. I think Amy says it well — and with a light touch. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Take it away, Amy…
“I sleep with Adam Lambert’s dad,” I have been told by a special someone, is a tacky way to introduce myself. But I have run out of explanations, and that seems to be the most succinct description, and well, one that shuts everyone up. But I’m not ready to shut up about it. I do sleep with Adam’s dad. I live with Adam’s dad, but apparently there isn’t a word for what I am. I’m not Adam’s stepmom, nor is he my stepson (stepstar?) because I’m not married to his dad. But I’m having sex with his dad, and I’m paying a mortgage with his dad. But, I’m not a wife. So what am I? What do I call the relationships in this non-traditional household of rockstars, sinners and one fellow who before the 2009 season thought American Idol was a game show?
It was somewhere between the first few horrific audition weeks of scathing remarks from Simon and the last week when one of the American Idol directors grabbed my arm and pulled me out of a camera view of a “family shot” with the explanation, “Amy, I leave my conscience at home for this job,” that I introduced myself with my tacky quip to the mother of contestant Megan Joy. I was standing with Adam’s dad and mom, Eber and Leila. For weeks all of Middle America (who apparently not only believe everything Sarah Palin tells them, but also believe that reality TV is reality and not staged at all) had blogged about Eber and Leila. What a close family they seemed to be, the bloggers said, wasn’t it wonderful that they had stayed married after all these years?
Even my own mother was sending me emails asking why every Wednesday night the show kept putting Eber and “and that other woman” next to each other. “That’s Adam’s mom,” I kept telling her. But the whole thing–our entire raucous experience of American television’s circus–was about Adam, not about me. I don’t have many maternal instincts, but I do have one: the kid comes first. While bloggers and my mom continued to speculate and ask who is that other woman–the bloggers meant me, and my mom meant Leila (my mom’s level of concern much greater than any blogger) — I’ll be the first to state that this was never some big controversy. Eber and I tried our best to ignore it. Okay, he ignored it, and I cringed when I had to say, “He’s my boyfriend’s son”–like I just got a date with a rock star’s dad, like I’m a roadie, a statement way too temporary for what we all really are to one another.
But, in the same way that I like to pop bubble wrap, pick scabs and gnaw on gristle, I wasn’t going to leave the question of what I should call myself alone. It had presented itself in the past, but never quite so publicly. And, while I figure not everyone lives with the father of a rockstar, very likely other lovely readers are out there who have encountered the same awkwardness, or at the very least wondered why paramours get their own word and living-in-sinners don’t.
This really begins with what is the right terminology for my relationship to Eber. Boyfriend/girlfriend is the word I used when I was a teenager. But I’m 45, and my relationship is an entirely different one than what I had with my boyfriend in high school (thank god). I don’t feel I need to explain to strangers that Eber and I are committed with a legally binding document, and that we live together — have for several years — and fully intend to spend the rest of our lives together, which is the rough definition of marriage. There were no bridesmaids, no five-tiered cake, and no tulle or veil. I’m too old for that, we each had one of those already, and we don’t feel it’s necessary since we don’t plan on having kids of our own. “My long term life partner” sounds not only cold and unemotional, but it’s way too long (five words is too many). I thought about using the term “husband” loosely. Allegra Huston, author of the memoir Love Child, told me she refers to the man she lives with, who is the father of her son, as her “husband she’s not married to.” I like the humor in that, but it’s still too long, and “My husband I’m not married to’s son,” doesn’t work either (see five-word rule above). The word “Partner” alone sounds too cowboy, or like he’s my business partner. “Lover” instantly creates a visual that is too private, and S.O. always makes people respond with, “What? S.O.? (pause for mind flipping to 1972 memory files). Oh. Right. Significant Other.” I could have saved them time and just said, “The man I sleep with who happens to be the father of Adam Lambert.”
The issue starts with what I call the father of the rockstar, then continues with what do I call his son? I mean, besides, “Adam” which is how I address him. But what is the relationship I pass on to acquaintances, co-workers, or total strangers, and those incessant gossipers? Or, my mother (who doesn’t understand why I’m not on the cover of Rolling Stone too) who without any qualms tells her friends she’s Adam’s stepgrandmother (she’s had all of one Christmas dinner and five scotches with him). This is when I realized it’s more than just a stumble bumble of words. Stepson would be the easiest word to use. But stepmom/stepson, can be bothersome to some. I received flak for using it in a column for The Writer’s [Inner] Journey.
According to dictionary.com “stepmother” is The wife of one’s father and not one’s natural mother. I’ve heard and read the stories–when the stepmom over steps her bounds. I’m afraid this ain’t The Brady Bunch, “Here’s the story…of a lovely lady…” I can also see where the biological mother is coming from–no way does she want anyone claiming any maternal rights to her child-she went through the labor, the worry, and all the discipline and caring. She deserves that title “mom” more than anyone, and hands off to anyone else.
I’m certainly not asking for any sympathy here, just a new vocabulary for our not-so-new standards of living. Perhaps we even need to re-think the word “stepmom”-first get rid of “step.” It’s so Cinderella evil. And you have to get rid of the “mom” portion unless it applies in that unconditional-raised-them-to-be-the-rockstars/politicians-they-are-destined-to-be sense of the word. The mother/child relationship is sacred, and I don’t want to intrude on that. But without step and mom, there’s no word at all. I tried to come up with a new word, but neologisms aren’t my strong suit.
This is about more than just the territory of who is whose who, but I’d rather avoid turning this into an article for Psychology Today, so instead I’ll stop there. I just want a couple of new words. Hell, I’ll settle for just one: What do I call Eber?
Apparently, we who do not go to a courthouse or church and provide public affirmation of our commitment and love to one another are freaks of nature. Our relationship is too bizarre to get its own word. So, I’m going with that. “My outré.” It’s an adjective I’ve turned into a noun–romantic poet’s license. I can proudly say, “My outré’s son is Adam Lambert.” Over the years, the dictionary will show the word’s derivation, the history, and it will say something like…
[American, from Middle America – noun. Began with rockstar familial relationships, but evolved into common usage. Originally French adjective – bizarre, freakish, past participle of outrer, to pass someone, from outre, beyond, from Latin ultrā; see al-1 in Indo-European roots. See pop culture 21st century.]