The day after my husband and I got married, he told me he thought his mom and dad would like it if I called them Mom and Dad.
I know a lot of people who call their spouse’s parents Mom and Dad, and in general, it is something I find endearing. It always warms my heart when I hear step-parents say “these are my children” without differentiating at all.
Parker and I have been married for four years, and I love his parents. They are extremely generous and caring individuals whose love knows no bounds. In some ways, they treat me better than some of my own family treats me. I know this sounds like slander, but family can be a precarious and tricky thing, so I’m not going to specify which family members I’m indicating. It’s more than one of them.
I am very lucky to have them as in-laws, but I still struggle with this every time I have to refer to one of them by name.
Here’s a little history as to why:
Growing up, all my grandparents were divorced and remarried. Regardless of how you feel about divorced families, this is fantastic news for grandchildren if it’s done correctly. It means that you get more people to love you, more presents, and more events to go to around the holidays.
My maternal grandmother baby-sat me frequently. When I was about three years old, we went to my paternal grandfather’s house. Since “we’re going to Grandma and Grandpa’s” was ambiguous, when we showed up, I just EXPECTED everybody to be there. It still makes sense in my head.
“Where’s Grandma?” I asked, looking around for my maternal grandmother.
“I’m right here, Sweetie,” my paternal step-grandmother said.
I frowned and looked at my mom. “No,” I said a little quieter. “Where’s my REAL grandma?”
To this day, I feel incredibly bad for hurting my grandmother’s feelings, but it was a lesson to everyone to be more explanatory. From that point forward, my mom began to explain titles to me so I’d know my relationship to everyone. Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle, Aunt were all followed by the person’s actual name. While my cousins called my dad by his first name, this always felt weird to me. They didn’t call their parents by their first name.
The other complicating factor was that in elementary school, we had room moms*, and my teacher had a speech about how all grown ups should be addressed as “Mr. or Mrs.” So-and-So.
When my mom arrived though, she changed the rules slightly.
“The Weird Button’s father and I are divorced, so please don’t refer to me as Mrs. Button. That is not my name. My last name is long and hard to pronounce. Please call me by my first name. Now I understand that your teacher wants you to refer to adults as Mr. or Mrs. This is out of respect. However, I have heard people call each other Mr. or Mrs. without respect in their voices. Please use my first name, but when you address me, please do so with respect. It is important, regardless of whoever’s name, that you speak to them with respect in mind.”
Fellow room moms followed suit.
By the time I got to high school, I’d learned that you should ask most people how they want to be addressed. At one point, I had a crush on one of my classmates and met his mother for the first time.
“It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you!” I gushed. Big fan of your work, I wanted to add. “Would you prefer that I call you by your first name or–”
She visibly straightened her posture. “It’s Mrs. ____,” she said.
“Oh,” I said, thrown off. “Well it’s nice to meet you, Mrs. _____.” Then I slunk away, silently added to myself, Guess I won’t be marrying YOUR son.
However, when I had a crush on a different classmate, his mother told me, “Oh Sweetie, you can just call me by my first name.”
These two interactions became the two groups mothers would fall into. I always preferred mothers of the latter. Women who loved their sons but wouldn’t make their son’s girlfriends work to unprecedented heights to obtain approval. Occasionally some still did, but it was still always a relief that it was not related to her preferred title.
Then after years of insisting they were “Mister, Missus, Ms., or Miss,” my college professors completely changed the rules, and some of them allowed us to call them by their first name. It still unnerves me when I wear a name tag, and a customer says “Okay, Weird Button” or “Thank you, Weird Button,” when we’ve just met. Of course, I realize that I am guilty of this as well.
For some, there is a rule of familiarity. You graduate to certain names by your closeness and length of time known. One of my preferred names to refer to my bosses as is “Boss,” but only the ones I’ve worked with awhile for whom I feel are more work family than merely business overlord. When I used to work in a clinic, my favorite thing to say was, “Well, you’re the doc, Doc,” followed by “What’s up, Doc?”
I have also never wanted to refer to anyone new by a title that could easily be taken away by law or falling out of favor. Once you are promoted to a certain title, it’s distressing to think that a demotion could remove it. As if the circumstance itself wouldn’t be hard enough.
So while I adore my mother and father-in-law, I’m still getting used to calling adults, college professors, and bosses by their first names. I hope they know how much they mean to me regardless of title.
*I say Room Moms, because I don’t remember anybody’s dad volunteering. My maternal grandmother that I mentioned earlier was also a Room Mom.