Ex-etiquette: What to do when child calls parent’s new partner ‘Mommy’

Q. My daughter and son really like their dad’s girlfriend. She lives with him and has two kids of her own. I am very grateful she is so good to my children. But, here’s the problem. It doesn’t happen all the time, but lately they have been calling her “Mommy” when I pick them up. Like, “Bye, Mommy! See you soon!” It really upsets me. I’m grateful she loves my kids, and I am doing my best to share them with her, but she’s not their mother and I don’t want to share the name. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. It is my experience that this can be an emotional issue, and I want to congratulate you in your ability to keep your head. You have admitted it makes you feel uncomfortable, and you prefer it doesn’t continue, and you are looking for solutions.

Many in your position take it all personally and are convinced the other person is doing their best to sabotage their mother/child bond. Unfortunately, sometimes that is the case. But more often it’s that the children feel comfortable in the living space and other children are calling her “Mommy,” so they adopt the name as a novelty.

When my own daughter was learning to talk, she started calling me “Jann” because all the other kids called me “Jann.” It was amusing for a while, but soon required some calm correction. She caught on quickly.

Parents who require the children to address the new partner as “Mom” or “Dad” are doing everyone a disservice. It’s confusing for the children and promotes a competitive spirit between homes.

Some specific things must be discussed prior to moving in with someone who has children. One is what the children will call you. Most professionals suggest the partner and children brainstorm a special name just for them, and that becomes the name the children use. That way there is no competition between parents and their ex’s new partner. I’ve interviewed children from all over the world and some of the choices have been quite amusing and even beautiful.

One bonusdad and bonusson I interviewed picked the name “Mr. Big.” Bonusdad was 6-foot-6 and towered over the little boy. That’s what came out when they joked around and that’s what they stuck with. It evolved into “Biggy,” then “Big.” And to this day, the 30-year-old adult child calls his bonusdad “Big.”

Perhaps one of the loveliest stories is one offered as a solution from a reader from Italy visiting the Bonus Families website years ago. The child and bonusmom bonded during a trip to the beach, and the child began calling her bonusmom “Mama” at that point. Inherently understanding it may not be appropriate, they searched together for a special name that captured their lovely relationship. They had difficulty finding one, but then one night, out of the blue, the child’s father suggested “Mare” (pronounced “ma-ray”). It means “ocean” in Italian. “You bonded at the beach, and it only seems fitting.” That’s good ex-etiquette.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com.