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Can I Call You 'Mama'?

"Goodnight, chickadee," I whispered, leaning forward to kiss Chloe, my stepdaughter, on the cheek. "Have sweet dreams, OK? I love you."

"I love you, too. G'night, mama!" she said, rolling over to give me a sly grin.

Did you hear that, too? That was my heart growing three more sizes.

It had been several months since Chloe asked if she could call me mama, several months since we had discussed the issues surrounding it.

"Honey, that is a very special word and as happy as I am that you want to call me that, it would really hurt your mama's feelings," I had told her. I can still see her in the dining room chair, her clear, blue eyes looking up at me.

"But I won't tell her," she said. "It could be our secret."

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A few weeks after that, she had brought it up again. "Sam, can I call you 'mama?'" she asked in the car, fiddling with a goody bag from her cousin's birthday party.

I remember turning down the radio and glancing over at her dad, my fiancé, watching him smile at her in the rearview mirror. "We talked about this, baby. Remember?"

"But when we go places, I want people to think I'm your daughter," she said.

Oh, if only there were a word that could adequately explain how happy I was at that moment in time. It is a moment that I can think about even now, nearly a year later, and see it in complete Technicolor, with sharp, unblurred edges.

My memories have always felt like scenes I saw in a grainy Super 8 movie, with muted colors and shaky angles. Nostalgic, yes, but I've always felt as if they were memories I saw happening to someone else and not ones that I'd actually lived.

But this memory? This memory of Chloe telling me that she wanted people to think she was my daughter? That one is crisp and clean. Whenever I think about it, I'm right there in my little red Honda Civic, driving down Highway 74 in my gray and black dress with the purple tights, the dress I bought especially for Chloe's kindergarten orientation.

As a stepmother, the "experts" say I should feel some resentment, some anger, some jealousy over becoming a blended family. And while those emotions have surfaced, I can honestly say that not a single one of those has pertained to Chloe or her little brother, Trey. Those emotions were all birthed by my ego, by my anxiety over meeting the kids' mom and how I was going to fit into all of it.

I have never felt anything but pure love for those two kids and, despite the many times Chloe had told me she loved me or the times she had run straight into my arms during pick-ups, it felt completely justified when she asked to call me mama. It felt like her way of saying, Hey, you treat us like a mama. I love you like a mama.

Because, at 5 years old, Chloe knows about love in its simplest context. Love is love, and she knows that she has an abundance of it. She doesn't know me as a threat to her family, as daddy's "new" wife or as anything other than "her" Sammy who takes her to school and reads her stories and bakes cookies with her.

RELATED: How I Became Friends with My Stepkids' Mom

After her confession that she wanted people to think she was my daughter, we talked again about what a special word that was, how it was reserved for her mama and how I would always, always be there for her like a mama. Because despite how good it felt to have that recognition from Chloe, I knew that if I were in her mama's shoes, it would seriously hurt my heart to hear. I know Chloe's mom appreciates that I love her children like a mama, but I don't know if being called that could ever really be justified in her mind, which I completely understand.

Chloe never said anything else about it, and the months went by with her sweet voice accidentally calling me "mama" and then sometimes, purposely, as she pretended to be a baby and begged for me to hoist her up on my hip.

But when she said it again, just over a week ago, as I tucked her into bed, I let it go. I didn't tell her to stop, I didn't tell her that it was wrong or that she wasn't allowed to use that word. Instead, I hugged her a bit tighter, pushing her blonde hair behind her ears and gave her some extra kisses.

"Goodnight, baby," I responded, patting her legs in the dark.

I may just be her stepmama, but the root of that word is mama, a short word that packs a sweet punch of meaning. And if dropping the "step" every now and then makes her feel happy and secure? Then I won't argue anymore. It's a battle that I worry will do more harm than good some days. So I'll smile, I'll give her a squeeze and I'll tuck that reel right next to the other ones in my memory vault.

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