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What Do You Call a "Step-Grandmother"?

QUESTION: My husband's son from his first marriage has a daughter who is now 10 months old. We live across the country from each other. My stepson and his wife are very close to his mother, who lives near them. The kids have always been cordial to me. I am not sure on what I should ask to have the baby call me. Should I request any title that includes "grandma," or just use my first name?

ANSWER: Congratulations on becoming a step-grandmother! You are right to be sensitive about the decision of how to include yourself as a grandparent, and much depends upon the nature and history of the family relationships. Past conflict could resurface if family members harbor unexpressed negative feelings about your marriage. But if relationships have always been cordial, this may be an opportunity to come a bit closer. If you have known your stepson since he was a child, and had a role in caring for him as a stepmother, he would be more likely to consider you a full-fledged grandparent. However, if you married his father when he was an adult, or had only a very small role in parenting him as a step-parent, then it is less likely that he will hold you in this light. Still, the birth of this child may allow you an opening for greater connection. Consider taking advantage of it! Regardless, you are clearly a respected family member, and no doubt will be seen as an asset to this child. Consider the following guidelines to help you make your decision:

  1. How does your stepson introduce you, and what does he call you?
    If he calls you by your first name, it is likely that including your first name in some form would be a comfortable way to continue. If he calls you Anne, for example, consider an endearment such as "Grandma Anne." Many grandchildren use their grandparent's first name as an adjunct to differentiate maternal and paternal grandparents from one another.

    It is also possible to create the role of "step-granny" if he is used to calling you his "stepmom" or "stepmother." A combination of both, referring to yourself, could also be appropriate. For example, "This is Grandma Anne, our daughter's step-granny."

  2. Are there any tensions around names/roles in the family?
    If there has been conflict in the past about your role and place in the family or considerable tension over what to call you, it would be appropriate to ask your stepson and his wife what would make them comfortable. After all, you are not a mind reader, and they will no doubt appreciate your consideration. A neutral endearment, such as "Nana," could also be adopted in such cases.

    If there is mere awkwardness (but little tension), and you feel a warmth and desire to be a grandmother to this little one, do not hold yourself back! Talk with your husband about his suggestions, and try on a few titles for fun. Choose a title that feels natural to you, and rest assured that your loving intent will shine through. Sign your cards as you wish, and stay open to feedback from your stepson and stepdaughter-in-law about the name you put forth. Grandchildren present a unique opportunity to bring families together.

While you do not want to step on anyone's toes, you also do not want a lack of outreach to be interpreted coolly. Express your warmth and affection. Do not miss the opportunity to let them know you care!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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