“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” -Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
What’s in a name? With Mother's Day around the corner, this has been top of mind as I try to use conventional labels to describe who I was to Teagan and who she was to me. I have always talked about my three kids. In most conversations, I wouldn't point out that Teagan was my stepdaughter, she was simply my daughter. We didn’t use the term stepbrother, stepmother, stepfather in our house. We were just brothers, sister, kids, mom, and dad. But, since Teagan’s death I have struggled as I feel that I have to describe her as my stepdaughter, given that she was murdered by her biological mother. It leaves me confused and angry.
What is a “Mother”? There is a simple definition: a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth. But, society has given this word a more complex meaning. A mother is a woman who is caring, selfless, loves unconditionally, and provides safety and security. A mother regularly sacrifices her own needs for those of her children. She teaches her children everything from the abc’s and table manners to positive self-image and excellence. In doing this, she instills confidence, independence, motivation, and good in her children. So, perhaps giving birth to a child has less to do with being a mother than the simple definition would allow.
The word "Mother" has become a loaded and uncomfortable word for me. It seems that our society has idealized, romanticized, glorified and even prioritized the importance of the relationship between a mother and her children over that of a father. When I hear this word now, it seems self-righteous. It leaves us with the idea that a mother could never do harm, could never be evil, could never be selfish, could never abuse, neglect or even murder her child. In the weeks following Teagan’s murder, there was an article published in a small paper that described Teagan’s murderer, Lisa Batstone, as the “greatest mother in the world”. The same paper refused to print an alternative point of view. Why? Perhaps because it doesn’t fit the definition and when you see a made-for-Facebook smile on a woman with her arm around her child, there is simply no way that you could think that “mother” could do harm to anyone.
I also don’t identify with the term “Mother”. I have been mom, mommy, a single-mom, a step-mom, a working mom, a stay-at-home mom, and Stephnami. No, that’s not a spelling mistake – that is what Teagan called me. She had plenty of nicknames for me, “little-miss-fruits-and-vegetables” and “steph-mommy” were a couple of my favourites. But, Teagan regularly called me Stephnami. It’s a long story as to how she came up with it (it’s a blend of Stephanie and tsunami). Teagan’s biological mother (Lisa) had tried to control my relationship with Teagan in a variety of ways including dictating what she would call me. Teagan wasn’t allowed to call me mom. She wasn’t allowed to call me her step-mom because Lisa had a negative association with that term. So, Lisa decided that Teagan would call me her “bonus-mom”. As was so often the case with Teagan, she chose to define her own relationships, in her own way, without upsetting or offending anyone. And so, I became Teagan’s Stephnami.
My role as Stephnami was the biggest responsibility of my life. It is the role that has taught me the most about who I am and who I want to be. Along the way, this made me a better person and a better mom. Being Stephnami meant that I had to be what, in my opinion, was the primary positive female role model in Teagan’s life. I didn’t believe her biological mother was capable of providing this for Teagan and that meant I had a huge responsibility to instill the values that Teagan’s dad and I believe are most important for girls. I wanted Teagan to understand that a woman can gain much success and personal satisfaction from both her career and her family without sacrificing either. I wanted her to understand that taking care of her health and wellness should be one of the biggest priorities in her life. I wanted Teagan to understand that beauty is nothing without intelligence and depth of character. I wanted Teagan to love learning and to be curious about the world around her. Most of all, I wanted Teagan to know how much I loved her, her brothers and her Daddy.
As I look back, Teagan gave me many signals that she was watching closely. She would specifically call me to tell me that she had scored 100% on this week’s spelling test or that she had tried a new vegetable and actually liked it! She visited my office, and told us that it was the highlight of her trip (I can’t imagine visiting a government office in Ottawa could be that exciting). She met some of my colleagues, many of whom are strong, beautiful women with careers and children of their own. She took it all in. My mom often visited when Teagan was with us. On one of her visits she had the kids create a scrapbook of their family. They went through magazines and cut out pictures that they thought represented all the people in their family. Teagan found two women running while pushing baby strollers - this was her Stephnami and Auntie Ali. She found a picture of a mom and daughter playing on a beach - this was her and Stephnami. She found her Stephnami in a picture of a business woman and another in a rather glamorous shot of a woman in a very beautiful flowing dress posing on a chaise lounge (this was the depiction that got the most chuckles from everyone who knows me). She thought of me how I wanted her to think of herself.
In the process of becoming Teagan’s Stephnami, I learned so much. I learned that every child requires very different parenting priorities. I learned to parent with more understanding and compassion. I learned to listen with my ears, but also with my heart. I learned that my own perspective within each and every situation had to be broadened. I learned, more than ever, that every time your child enters a room, they need to see that love and excitement in your eyes. Teagan taught me to be a better mom.
On this Mother’s Day, the first since the passing of our Teagan, I will find comfort in the loving arms of my own Mom. I will hug my boys tighter and make sure they know how much they are loved and how appreciated and loved I feel. That’s what Teagan would have wanted for her Stephnami. And, then, I will visit my daughter’s grave. I will cry and connect and she will be with me guiding me through, as she always tends to be.
So, am I Teagan Batstone’s “Mother”? Not by definition. I didn’t give birth to her, but I am the one who had to lay her to rest. I am Teagan’s Stephnami. By any other name would smell as sweet.