Favorite French Customs and Traditions (and Quirks)!
Handy tool in every French home

Stepmother or stepmom in French

Marsha in Cassis

I am bookending today's post with photos of my belle-mère, Marsha--in honor of the beautiful and inspiring woman my father married 20 years ago. I dropped off Dad and Marsha at Marseilles International airport today after an enriching, cozy and delicious visit (many great meals in la mijoteuse and many more by the sea, including here at La Plage du Bestouan in Cassis.). 

la belle-mère (bel-mair)

    : stepmother, stepmom
    : mother-in-law 

Today we have the pleasure of reading an excerpt from Marie Houzelle's novel " Tita." Marie and I met at The Paris Writer's workshop four summers ago and I am inspired by her success ever since she rode off on her bike that last day of school. The following story gives many helpful insights into today's word: la belle-mère. Enjoy, and merci beaucoup, Marie!

Mamans et Belles-Mères

an extract from Marie Houzelle’s novel Tita

Tita by Marie Houzelle

Léonie veut aller à la fête (Léonie wants to go to the party). 

Behind the tree there’s a hut with quinces, apples, nuts, some tools and, on a low shelf, a heap of books. I start reading Léonie veut aller à la fête. Léonie, the heroine, is invited to a dance for the first time. Her father, who is a sailor, is away in Africa. She’s excited about the party and would like to wear the dress her father sent her for her birthday, but there are a few snags. Her stepmother, madame Mercier, thinks she’s too young. Then Dora, the stepmother’s daughter, wants to borrow Léonie’s dress. As Dora is much larger than Léonie, the dress might not survive.

The story is good, but I’ve read it before. What catches my attention is the way Léonie addresses her stepmother. Léonie calls madame Mercier Belle-mère. Which is the French word for both mother-in-law and stepmother, and literally means “beautiful mother”. This sounds like a solution.

Because Coralie and I have a problem: we don’t know how to address our mother. She is a belle-mère to our older brothers and sister, but they just call her Odette. Justine even coined a pet name for her: Dette (which actually means “debt”). Coralie and I are supposed to say Maman, but we don’t. Ever. We don’t call her anything. At all. Which might get us into trouble. Because it’s not polite to just say “yes”, or “thanks”, or “please”; you should go on with the name or title of the person. As in “Thanks, Loli”, or “Please, Grand-Mère”. We can’t do it with our mother, we just can’t bring ourselves to pronounce the word maman, it sounds so babyish; so we try to avoid situations where we’d have to.

Now why not call our mother Belle-mère? She is beautiful.

I can’t wait. I run back to the house with the book. I find Coralie in the coal shed, grinding chunks of coal onto her hair with both hands.

“Hi,” she says. “Where have you been? I’d like to be a gypsy. Can you become a gypsy?”

“I guess. Shall I read you Léonie veut aller à la fête?” Coralie wipes her hands on her dress and follows me outside.

On the green bench under the wisteria I read aloud, practicing my Belle-mère responses. I notice that Léonie hardly ever says anything to her stepmother. Most of their exchanges consist in madame Mercier’s giving orders and Léonie’s answering “Oui, Belle-mère."

Then our mother calls from inside, “Tita, Coralie! Lunch!”

Normally, we’d just go. Silently.

But I answer, “Oui, Belle-mère.”

Coralie echoes, “Oui, Belle-mère.”

Our mother doesn’t seem to notice. She never pays much attention to words.

*    *    *

belle-mère beautiful-mother = mother-in-law or stepmother.The adjective beau or belle is used in French for all step and in-law family relationships, probably in order to encourage good feelings that might not arise naturally.

maman what little children usually call their mothers in France. It’s okay for children (other than Coralie and me) but the trouble is, some adults go on calling their parents maman and papa. As a term of address, I’ll bear with it: if someone wants to remain a baby, who am I to object? But you have to cringe when people use these words when talking to and about someone who’s no longer a child. As in “poor man, his papa just died”, or “her maman will come from Brittany to attend her wedding”.

(From Tita’s Glossary)

Marie Houzelle 

Marie Houzelle grew up in the south of France. Her work has appeared in the collection Best Paris Stories, in Narrative Magazine, Pharos, Orbis, Serre-Feuilles, Van Gogh's Ear, and in the chapbook No Sex Last Noon. "Hortense on Tuesday Night" was chosen by Narrative Magazine as one of the five top stories of 2011. TITA, the story of a precocious seven-year-old girl in a small, wine-producing town the south of France in the 1950s, is her first novel. Visit Marie's blog here.

To order Marie's novel, Tita, click here.

Kristi and Marsha
Marsha and me. It is a lucky belle-fille or stepdaughter who giggles with her belle-mère

"Pass the salt," somebody says. 
"Get it your selfie," Marsha smiles, when we are interrupted at the dinner table while taking this photo.

Marsha and Dad parc mugel

Marsha and my Dad at Parc du Mugel in La Ciotat. Did I already show you this photo? On my Instagram or Facebook page maybe....

Thanks for forwarding this post to a friend who might enjoy these French words and their meanings.
A bientôt,

P.S. More about Tita, via this Publishers Weekly review:

In Houzelle's first novel, Tita is a seven-year-old girl growing up in the south of France in the 1950s whose life seems to be defined by obstacles: the many foods that disgust her, the school that fails to challenge her, and parents who struggle to understand her. Tita is precocious and clever, but in some ways painfully inept. She is thoughtful but frail obsessed with rules and rituals, and determined to understand the nuances. Through Houzelle's sharp, straightforward prose (which captures Tita's perspective), the story of how Tita grows takes center stage. She learns the alternatives to those things that have held her back or held her down. She challenges social strictures that she feels are meaningless. She battles her mother to get what she wants, and when sometimes that turns out to be the wrong decision, she acknowledges it. At the novel's end, Tita is still a little girl, but her brilliance, potential, and unusual way of looking at the world will have won readers over.

To read Tita, order the book here.

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Eileen deCamp

Hi Kristin,
I just love the word belle-mère. So much nicer sounding than stepmother or mother-in-law. Thanks for giving us a little snippet of Marie Houzelle's novel!

Suzanne Arbet

Have some dear friends in town from France and just learned the term "beauf" today at brunch. (Short for beau-frere.) It was a funny timing coincidence to then see this article! Apparently the word can also have a negative connotation but in the context of our story it just meant brother-in-law.
Bonne journée!

Leslie in Oregon

I just put a hold on "Tita" at my local library, which has three copies! I'm looking forward to reading it soon.

Your photographs of you and/or your belle-mère are lovely...a relationship to be treasured. And the photograph of your father and belle-mère at Parc du Mugel in La Ciotat...wow! Did you all swim in that glorious water? (Playing in and on the water is one way my family bonds.)

Sarah Gaede

I'm southern, so I called my mother Mama until the day she died. And I still call my almost 90-year-old father Daddy. All southern girls call their fathers Daddy forever.


Our dear Kristi,
Today's post and pictures are filled with love.
What a wonderful bond you share with both beautiful Marsha and your dear Dad!
You have wrapped us in hugs(as always!)
For this and also for "Tita",THANK YOU!!
Natalia XO
PS I,too, called my parents Mama and Daddy--and even now in sweet memory continue to do the same!
They will never cease to live in my heart.

Catharine Ewart-Touzot

How fortunate you are!!..A lovely Mother, a lovely step mother, and also a lovely mother-in-law....Mine are no longer in this world, how delightful it is to see you enjoying your so.

Kathleen from Connecticut

I still call my mother Mom and it is nice to know that I am a belle mere...it sounds so much better than stepmother. I'll have to teach that to my "stepchildren"who are 43 and older,although I do like Kathleen.
Great selfie with your belle mere at La Ciotat.


Chris Allin

Dear Kristin,

Your and yours are a beautiful example of love and acceptance within a blended family. It is heartening and encouraging to read your thoughts and see such affection in your photos~

George joins me in wishing you and Jean-Marc another remarkable 20 years together!

Marianne Rankin

I don't see anything babyish about calling one's parents Mommy and Daddy - or at least Mom and Dad. Some people call their parents Mother and Father - which I agree is more appropriate when talking about them rather than to them.

Kristin, you are fortunate that your various relatives, especially your parents, can visit you as often as they do.

I clicked the link for "Tita," which led to an Amazon link. But the book is in English. I would want to read it in French. Perhaps in a future post you could let us know where to find it in French.

The variety of your posts, and the great pictures, are always appreciated.

Kristin Espinasse

Thank you for your lovely comments. I am indeed grateful to have these three inspiring and beautiful and funny women in my life!

Leslie, No, we did not swim at the calanque (accessible via Parc du Mugel). And now we regret missing the chance! Looking down into the turquoise blue waters of the calanque, Dad was amazed to see a quartet of octogenarians (sp?)  happily splashing there in the sea. They wore swimcaps and flippers and seemed to have been enjoying this daily exercise all their lives.

At lunch, at a nearby sea inlet, Dad finally could not resist--and peeled off his clothes to go swimming in his underwear. A memory to treasure!

Marie Houzelle

Marianne, Tita just came out in English in paperback (in December it will also be an ebook), and we've already sold the translation rights to Random House Germany. Let's hope we find a French publisher soon. For the time being, it's only in English but there are many French words and expressions in it; so many, that the publisher asked me to write a glossary, which she put at the end of the novel.
Thank you all for your interest in Tita.
Marie Houzelle

Trina, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA


Was not aware that belle-mère was interchangeable with both mother-in-law and stepmother; I had often thought it was your personal choice of beautiful words. What a lovely way the French created to try and encourage good feelings towards others.

And thank you for introducing us to Tita!

June Shenton Turner

Using Mummy, Daddy, Mum, Dad, is more about the person you're addressing than about oneself. I know brave men who call their mothers 'Mummy'so don't judge harshly. My middle aged offspring like most English or Australian grown-up sons and daughters call their parents Mum and Dad. To me and I'm sure many of my fellow countrymen and countrywomen would definitely not like to call their parents by their given names - it would make them seem very ordinary like everyone else. Mum and Dad are proud names to wear. Your column always interests and pleases.

Elizabeth Hamitlon

Loved the Tita extract. Is it available in a soft version for me to read on my ipad?


I just started reading your lovely and informative blog a few weeks ago. It helps quell my wanderlust and desire to jump on a plane to La Belle France. Or does it? Reading your stories, seeing your pictures, and visiting your sponsor's rental properties caused me to buy several of your (and other Francophile authors) books. The blog and books will prepare me for our long-awaited Tour de France in 2016!

Marie Houzelle

Elizabeth, thank you. The ebook willl be available in December.

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