Meet My Bonus Mom! Establishing Terms for Members of Your Blended Family

By: Marina Edelman, LMFT
: November 01, 2016

Cohabitation is so popular today, yet our colloquial language has not caught up. Imagine Bob and Laura are both in their mid-40s with two children, and each decide to live together. What does a child call his/her mom’s live-in partner, or what does he call him/her? The most common label now is girlfriend/boyfriend. Girlfriend/boyfriend are the generic terms most people use to describe an exclusive and non-married significant other. Yet the term seems so young and doesn’t capture the commitment of their relationship. Maybe the term "significant other" would be more appropriate.

A category used by U.S. Census Bureau: POSSLQ [pos-uhl-kyoo], a person of opposite sex sharing living quarters. I personally think it’s a unique and modern way to quickly describe to the world who your arm candy is to you. We have a need to label everything to be able to categorize and understand one another better. The term significant other (SO) would also signal, to your children and other family members, commitment and allow them to open up and accept your new found love.

Consider these common occurrences: Laura goes to a party and introduces Bob. People will wonder who is Bob, and she will have to awkwardly explain. Imagine Bob is driving Laura’s daughter home when he receives a phone call. Trying to explain who is in the car with him, he pauses and searches for a correct noun. He has been living with this family for four years, contributing financially, caring for Laura and her children. Is it too presumptuous to refer to her as his daughter? If he refers to her by first name and the caller is unfamiliar with her, then an explanation of "my girlfriend's daughter" seems distant and not endearing.

Recently, I came across the term "Bonus" daughter/son/mom/dad. I feel this is endearing and captures the essence of the situation. It removes the stepparent negative connotation, thank you Cinderella, yet relays the message accurately. Another popular option is to choose a word from the significant other's culture such as Papá (Spanish) or Ema (Hebrew). Every family's dynamic is different, but a feeling of acceptance and safety is common to all. Initiate a family discussion about this subject and observe what follows.

Let’s assume you figured out the moniker. What about the timing? In comedy, as in life, timing is crucial. Every professional, friend, and family member tells you to wait. But for how long? General rule of thumb is to be in an exclusive committed relationship with someone for at least six months.

Divorce is an end to a relationship, and dating is a possible beginning of a relationship. Your children might still be processing the end and are not ready or able to process a new beginning. Remember, you were probably contemplating divorce way before you actually told your children, so give them time to catch up to you. Children need time to adjust, and introducing them to someone new who might or might not be in their future life can have negative repercussions such as fear of abandonment or fear of commitment.

You also need time to figure out if this new love is a good fit with your children. The initial phase in dating allows people to feel attraction and discover a connection. After several months, deeper conversations evolve that allow you to really learn about the person you are interested in and to see if they would be a good influence on your children and treat them with love and kindness. The more sure you are of your choice, the more confidence you will communicate to your children and, therefore, increase the chances of them accepting this new person into the family unit. Introducing too many people too early might cause automatic rejection by your children because they will not be interested in investing time and energy in getting to know someone who might not stick around.

To ensure successful integration of your new love, make sure the person is ready to be a bonus parent and is interested in long-term commitment. Gradually prep your kids and introduce them in a non-threatening way such as at a park or the mall. Going to dinner or meeting at a holiday celebration might be too intense. Once a relationship between him/her and your children is established, bring up the discussion of how should each family member refer to one another.