Jill Martin Shares Her Journey as a 'Bonus Mom,' Explains Why the Term Celebrates 'More Love' (Exclusive)
TODAY anchor Jill Martin is talking about why she's embraced life as a "bonus mom" and hopes others will take on the term
Jill Martin is celebrating bonus moms this Mother's Day.
The lifestyle and commerce contributor, 47, is sharing her Mother's Day-themed TODAY x Shop The Scenes collection, just in time for the holiday.
Among the sweet buys for the hardworking moms out there are some special items, celebrating the term "bonus mom." Martin has been embracing the term since last year and has dug deep into its meaning.
"I always felt like step had a negative connotation to it, and I guess that is how most people regard it. It had a negative connotation to it," Martin tells PEOPLE.
"Last year, we were doing a show called The New Rules on NBC with Heather Rae El Moussa and Eliza Roberts, who are both bonus moms too," Martin says. "We were talking about sort of the stigmatism around step-parenting and discussed what kind of term exists for women like us who are really working hard and trying to have a positive impact in our significant other's life, instead of being regarded by a term that doesn't feel like it matches the energy and love we're putting in."
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After they settled on "bonus mom," Martin learned about Dr. Jann Blackstone, founder of the non-profit Bonus Families — dedicated to peaceful coexistence between divorced or separated parents and their combined families — who was the first to use the term.
Dr. Blackstone tells PEOPLE that she coined the alternative term "by necessity."
"I married the kids' dad when they were very young — 4 and 7. They stayed with us on alternating weeks. One night my stepdaughter, Melanie, got the stomach flu. All night I was nursing her sick stomach and fever. As I rocked her to sleep, I realized that this was not my 'step' child, nor did I feel like her 'step' mother," Dr. Blackstone shares.
Working with her bonus children and their mom to find something that fit, they finally coined the term during a family outing.
"We put our heads together and came up with a word that better described our family. It happened at Melanie's after-school basketball game. Her mother and I were joking around while watching Mel run back and forth. I said, 'How about Bonus Mom?' After joking about so many other alternatives, Bonus seemed perfect," she says.
"I went home after the game and looked up the word, Bonus. It said, 'A bonus is a gift to reward performance—something extra or additional, an asset given freely.' Bonus Mom respected their mother and gave me purpose. It was based in love and acceptance—the exact opposite of step," she continues. "That was in 1993. Bonus Families' web site was born in 1999. It became the most visited stepfamily site on the web, then a non-profit in 2002. The rest is history."
For Martin, learning about the organization — to which a portion of the proceeds for bonus mom gear will go— made her feel seen in her nearly six-year journey as a bonus mom to husband Erik Brooks' kids.
"When I first met them, there was a little rough patch, like in any relationship. I remember going on vacation with them and Erik and I went out to lunch, and when I came back, his 11½-year-old daughter Bella had very beautifully packed up my stuff — basically saying, 'It's time for you to go now.'"
Noting she laughs about the moment with the now 16-year-old, with whom she has a "beautiful relationship," at the time, it was a tough blow.
"I was hysterical crying. I'm tough, but I was trying so hard. Eric had never introduced his kids to anybody else," she recalls. "It wasn't until later I realized we were both going through a difficult journey."
Though the initial meeting was positive, Martin says there were "ups and downs" as she integrated herself into the family.
"It's about carving out where you belong in the puzzle," she shares. "I feel like we've really worked on it, and I really work hard on it every day. It's something that I take super-seriously, being a bonus mom. I don't have kids of my own. This is my family and my bonus family, and I take that responsibility seriously."
Martin champions Brooks for being "so supportive" despite it being a "very hard position for him to be in."
"It's not only hard on the bonus parents. It's hard on the significant other as well. Imagine having to balance the emotions of — in some cases, grief, in others, divorce — and going through those emotions yourself and also with your children and then the person you're in a relationship with."
For that reason, it's important to Martin that they're always on the same page. "If we have issues that need solutions, we work on it together and figure out what's best for us and what's best for the kids. And I always ask, 'What's best for Erik?' " she says.
From chatting with Dr. Blackstone, Martin says she realized the importance of conflict resolution.
"We all should be focused on leading with kindness and trying to avoid conflict and improve each other's lives. I think that's a general rule but especially in bonus families," Martin says.
Bonus families are always evolving and Martin says that both she and her bonus kids recognize the changes in their years together.
"The oldest, Georgia, is now 25. She basically lives with me during the summers and it's such a delight having her around. At her age, it's more like having a friend that I also have the ability to have a positive influence on," the bonus mom of three shares.
"I feel like I have opportunities now that I didn't have before. I didn't give myself enough grace at the beginning," she acknowledges. "I was really hard on myself and took everything personally and now I have come to place where I know it's now always about me or the situation itself."
Martin channels a mantra she picked up from her own mom, "Life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react to it."
"I think things through and I don't react, and it's come with time and with work. I actively work on it and I believe my bonus children do too. We all work together to make sure everybody is happy in their environment."
It's important to Martin that the work also extends to both her and their relationships with the kids' mom.
"I respect their time and their relationship and look at how I can be a bonus, how I can be added. I am never trying to be a replacement because that's not what I want and that's not what's best for them."
Joking that she might get gifted some bonus mom gear this year herself, Martin also respects that the kids spend Mother's Day with their mom every year.
"I appreciate the love they show for her," Martin says. "I'd help them pick something out for her if they asked."
Martin is hoping the spread of bonus mom will help us remind us all to show each other love and grace as we navigate the different journeys life presents us with.
"I don't think I do everything right as a bonus mom, but I try really hard. And if I do something wrong, I want the ability to make a mistake, and it's harder when you're a bonus parent. You feel like you're walking on eggshells sometimes, even when you may not need to, and then you're worried about what society says or thinks about your family," Martin says.
"Changing the title, embracing bonus for what it means, gives us a break. I would really love for 'step' to not be the default. Let the default be that there's more love to go around and more kindness to go around, and that it's an added positive influence in a child's life."
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