By the time the man approached me in church, I was no longer in that relationship. After a broken engagement, I moved to Chicago and away from where the boys and their father lived. Once I left, I found myself unable to articulate the loss. I was unable to convey it to others, who could sympathize with the loss of the man, but had trouble understanding why the loss of his children was hard for me. I felt invisible, until I started talking about it.
As I became more direct about my experience, I heard stories from step-grandparents, uncles and siblings who found themselves unsure of how to navigate their role with non-biological family members when they “leave” the family or never formally take on one of the traditional nuclear-family roles.
Pew Research Foundation’s analysis of census data and the 2016 Current Population Survey found that the number of people living with a partner they are not married to has risen sharply in the last decade — approximately 18 million adults in 2016 versus 14 million in 2007, a 29 percent increase.
We know that more people are marrying later in life or not at all; that more married women are not having children and that more unmarried women are. By choice or by circumstance, all of these things are changing what it means to be a parent and a family. And yet we are still mired in narrow expectations and language that is not able to accurately describe the broadening range of familial roles.
After publishing a book about my experience caring for and leaving children who were not my own, I had people write me emails and come up to me in tears at readings, expressing their own hidden losses, their own experiences that have gone unnamed and often unacknowledged.
As the ways in which people create and maintain families continue to evolve, we should expand our language to accommodate them, name them and afford them the dignity they deserve. Personally I have been thinking of phrases like “almost-mother” or “near-mother.” Near to imply closeness, right next to.
What are the words that accurately represent where you find yourself?
“I am not a mother, but I was a near-mother.”
What if I had been able to say that to the man in church? Would that have changed anything? Probably not: I suspect this man was considering a very narrow definition of “mother.” But it would have