Like a piece of sand in an oyster, the name irritates, aggravates, annoys.

It’s anything but me. I am not a "STEPMOTHER."

Up until this point, I’ve been a beloved aunt that celebrates you, surprises you, spoils you. I’m that aunt that sings you silly songs and tells you stories, that lends you something to wear for your high school’s weekend retreat.

But more than that, I’m the aunt that gets you. You can complain to me about your mother, your sister, your spouse. I’m the aunt you call not because you have to, but because you want to. I’m the aunt that's there for you. In this role, I am beloved.

Stepmother seems like an entirely different can of worms. After Cinderella, no PR company can do sufficient damage control on this term.

So while I accept this role, I shun the nomenclature.

Maybe I should be called a dubstep mother, as in mother that brings dance into this situation. Or maybe a step-up mother, as in a mother that has stepped up to the plate.

All I know is that I will bring into this situation gifts I’ve honed all these years – my ability to listen, to love, to hold space for these children who are transitioning through grief into a new reality. I’m ready to be there, to take it on with an openheartedness that will certainly banish all this stepmother-ish-ness into the awful fairytale where it belongs.

Except as I try to do this through corona, through holidays, through simple family get-togethers the automatic mindset underlying the term stepmother seems to be wearing itself through the fabric of our interactions.

I perceive the children’s reality: A stepmother's first step is to take your father. Then she takes your house. Then she replaces your mother.

I discover that no matter what I have to give, no matter what gifts I wish to bring to this situation, there is a child's perspective that no amount of giving can change. I perceive the children’s reality: A stepmother is automatically someone who takes from you. Her first step is to take your father. Then she takes your house. And these enormous losses are minor compared to the fact that she has taken something so gigantic from you that she could never give enough to replace it. Just by being in your life, she has taken the place of your mother.

That seems to be the unspoken starting line in which I find myself.

And I’m not a taker. This is not my bailiwick. How to reconcile this constant giving with the feeling like I’m constantly taking?

I attend plays bringing gifts – but what I bring is pain. I’ve shown up in the place of someone who was supposed to be here – I’m proof that she is not.

I attend the celebration of birth, I welcome the guests, host the party but once again all I do is provide proof of her absence.

I work on my relationship with a teen only to have it come to a grinding halt.

"What’s up?" I ask as together we assemble an Ikea cabinet.

"You’re not my mother," says Mr. Hyde.

The temperature in the room plummets.

"When did you realize that?" I ask lightly, trying to interject some humor in the situation. Then: "Can we be friends anyway?"

He just grunts.

And so it goes.

Maybe I should call myself the out-of-step mother. My actions and my reception feel so out of sync. What more can I do? I wonder.

A small shift occurs.

There’s a wedding. The children need help getting ready. I don’t offer to step in. It seems too complicated. Besides, I’m regrouping – not consciously, but with all the misconstrued giving, I don’t have the extra emotional strength to energize myself in that direction.

Then someone throws an impromptu birthday party for one of the grandkids.

The party is relaxed. There is no strain. I bring a gift. Children are children and the grandchildren have easily accepted me in their midst. I give loads of hugs and get lots of hugs in return. The children run off to play.

Everyone is together, sitting around the living room. Someone mentions gowns.

I’ve heard through the grapevine that they need help. And I offer to step in.

Maybe stepmother simply means a mother, one step at a time.

They seem relieved. We throw around gown ideas. Colors. Fabrics. We share links. I give my two cents (highly sought-after two cents, in other circumstances, I might add). We make a commitment to make a date to go fabric shopping.

I leave the party, my step lighter than it has been.

Suddenly the moniker stepmother seems not so cruel, not so removed, perhaps even apt.

Maybe stepmother simply means a mother, one step at a time.

I haven’t carried you in my heart, nurtured you with my blood. I haven’t soothed you through broken gums, broken dolls or broken hearts. You haven’t relied on me with your wedding gowns since there was weddings in this family. And yet here I am.

And as I learn about you – your needs, your hopes, your fears – you learn about me, my needs, my hopes, my fears. As your life continues to unfold, I can, as necessary, step in. Whereas mother preceded consciousness, every act of mine is fully conscious, fully a choice and it unfolds steadily over time, over events, over milestones.

So that I become a mother – one step at a time.