On Being a Stepmom
Being a stepmom is arguably the most difficult and demanding position in the stepfamily. In Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin provides an excellent survey of the research on stepfamilies, which indicates that stepdads are more easily accepted than stepmoms, and that they don’t struggle to the same extent with their role.
Being a stepmom has a heavy cultural overlay that must be overcome if she is to meet with love, acceptance or even basic respect; and that is the stereotype of the Wicked Stepmother. The evil stepmother is a well-known character in fairy tales going back centuries – Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, to name just a few. Because this myth is embedded in the subconscious mind of our culture, it is often assumed by the children in a new stepfamily to have some truth in it. Too often, when the word “stepmother” is uttered, the first word associated with it, subconsciously, is a scary or negative one.
If the father of the children remains passive when his child or children act with resentment or hostility towards her, that’s when being a stepmom can result in her association with the myth of the evil stepmother becoming “hard-wired”. That’s when the kids feel justified in their opinion of the stepmother, since his not backing her up is taken as tacit approval of (or agreement with) their behavior. True, the biological dad may be feeling a good deal of conflict about being stuck in the middle between his wife and his child(ren) – and perhaps his ex as well. But this conflict must be faced and worked through, otherwise the chances of this stepfamily’s success will decline, as this situation spirals downward.
Being a stepmom can be a thankless job, too. If there is a joint custody situation, she’s often expected to do all the things that their mom would do (carting the kids around, cooking, cleaning and doing their laundry, helping with homework, and on an on), but somehow she doesn’t receive the credit or appreciation. This is another, opposite cultural expectation of the stepmom, (swinging to the opposite side of the pendulum from the evil stepmother) that she should put the children first “no matter what”, denying her needs and feelings to make everything comfortable and easy for her stepkids. If you find yourself being a stepmom in this category, who bends over backwards to “do for them” and get them to love you, you might wear yourself out with exhaustion, and find resentment building under the surface, which eventually must erupt.
I often hear women who have thrown themselves into this image of being a stepmom, whisper that their stepchildren have told them they wish she were their mom instead, or say with great satisfaction that the stepchild gets along better with her than with their real mom. I admit to having done this on occasion too. While it is a help for the children to have another adult resource when their relationship with their parent is unsatisfying, that sense of rivalry with the biological mother promotes an artificial relationship and will eventually create a problem of some sort – unless it can be done without the comparison, where the stepmom wants to come out “on top”.
Neither the evil stepmother or the perfect stepmom are acceptable ways of being a stepmom. In my case, I was pretty determined to have a family that functioned well and generally got along. I wasn’t willing to continue being seen as the evil stepmother (although I did wear that hat for a period of time – mostly putting up with sideways rejection, anger and sullenness). I wasn’t willing to give up, accepting a distant or hostile relationship with my stepdaughter. Nor was I willing to offer “I’ll do everything for you and give you everything you want”. Heck, I had just come out of being a single mother for nine years, having to be both mom and dad, and I wasn’t going to get into another long-term situation of doing it all. I had worked hard to train my son to be a “cooperative member of the household”, and I wasn’t going to give up on that plan – and I just don’t make a good doormat.
So I took a third alternative – and I am suggesting this one for other courageous souls, who are willing to get their hands dirty a bit in relationships, and who are willing to make some (occasionally ugly) mistakes along the way. Sometimes it seemed we were going backwards instead of forwards when I told the truth about how I felt – but in the long run it would spiral up again…
This way of being a stepmom requires good communication and honesty – and lots of it. And it must be managed in a positive way. Most importantly, the stepcouple must understand the importance of the strength of their relationship to the success of the stepfamily. As Susan Wisdom says in her book, Stepcoupling, the couple is the foundation and the glue of the family. The couple must do what it takes to understand one another’s side of the conflict and work through it. They must find a way to support one another and let the children know that both are committed to one another and making their marriage work.
And then being a stepmom is about being real. I had to learn to express myself and to listen to the other members of the stepfamily express themselves. Sometimes it wasn’t as pretty as I wanted it to be, and sometimes my “I” statements had a little undercurrent of attack in them. But express I did, and I encouraged them to express too (my stepdaughter would say I got defensive when she expressed – and she’d be right). Yet those in my stepfamily knew, deep down, that I was trying. And I knew that they were trying too. And gradually, we worked our way through the conflict and the ugly feelings and forged relationships that are real – and meaningful. It took a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of developing communication skills, and a lot of courage. Still there are some “stepfamily growing pains” that we’ll never see eye-to-eye on. We leave those aside, mostly now, and focus on the positive good in our relationships.
So, being a stepmom is an opportunity – in becoming stepmom, you have taken on a very complicated challenge. It’s a challenge that can be a tremendous opportunity to learn the skills it takes to forge a real understanding with your husband, and to find the balance that’s right for you with your stepchildren. Your family has to find its unique balance. Throw out the stereotypes on both sides, and roll up your sleeves!