Caryn Sullivan: Not all mothers are ‘birthing people’

That term is ridiculous on so many levels, not the least of which is it fails to recognize the women whose path to motherhood isn't through childbirth. 

Caryn Sullivan

I’m delighted the word wranglers didn’t succeed in changing the name of Sunday’s holiday to “Birthing People’s Day.” That term is ridiculous on so many levels, not the least of which is it fails to recognize the women whose path to motherhood isn’t through childbirth.

I’m referring to the millions of stepmothers, adoptive mothers, and grandmothers who may form the hub of a family wheel.

I was a stepmother before I became a mother, for my late husband brought two young kids to our marriage — without a manual.

When we had kids of our own and two became four, they were always siblings, despite the gap in ages and their different mothers.

I quickly learned that, while parenting is challenging, stepparenting and blending is even harder. My own experiences and those of others who also wore multiple hats left no doubt: it’s tricky for parents and kids alike.

While we intuitively know what to do as a parent, the stepparent’s role is ambiguous, the parameters often poorly defined.

In the rearing days I drew upon my own messy and complicated upbringing.

I relied on trial and error.

I honored my mama bear instincts.

Ok, I’ll admit it. I winged it.

Sometimes I got it right; other times I blew it.

I looked for the lessons. I hoped for grace.

When my husband died suddenly in 2009, I once again found myself in uncharted territory.

The older two were adults, well on their way to marrying their future spouses and starting families of their own.

Would the blended family I’d worked so hard to nurture survive?

Would the bond endure without the magnetic person who’d brought us together?

I wanted that connection as much for the four kids as for myself, for I know what it means to have siblings who not only have your back, but who also share your history.

Several years ago, I married a man who had lost his wife to cancer. Once again, I became a stepmother, this time to three grown sons, two married with children.

The blending is different this time.

The rearing days are behind us. I’m not cooking meals or picking up from football practice. We’re just getting to know and trust one another, to become friends.

My husband and I built a new home. It’s a fresh start for us; it holds no history or memories for anyone, which makes it fresh but unfamiliar. We’re trying to make it feel welcoming to all. With each season and holiday, we’re building new memories and traditions.

My stepsons from my two marriages are forging their own connections. They’re sharing birthdays and holidays with their spouses and kids, who sometimes wonder about the big family tree.

At our Easter egg hunt last month, one grandchild surveyed the room, then tugged on my sleeve with a question.

“Nana, how are we all related?”

I stumbled through an answer, since I wasn’t prepared for the question.

But after pondering it these past few weeks, I have an answer for that inquiring little mind.

We’re not always related by blood.

But we’re always connected by our hearts.

And when we lead with our hearts, family is whatever you choose to make it, regardless of what hat you’re wearing.


Caryn Sullivan

A retired attorney and author of the award-winning memoir, "Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page," Caryn Sullivan has inspired readers with her thoughtful commentary for the past two decades. To learn more about Caryn’s work or to connect, visit