Women in love with men who have children are a special breed. Without exception, they exude confidence that their relationship has the strength to withstand challenges they barely acknowledge. Older, wiser stepmothers might regard younger versions of themselves as naive, or in denial, or both. But our brains are powerful protective organs that take in megabytes of data and then dole it out piecemeal in doses our conscious minds can handle. If not for this magnificent, subconscious ability, men with children would be single dads forever.
Given this process, stepmothers benefit from different advice or support depending on their stage of development. This makes sense; we don’t try to teach new moms of infants how to parent adolescents. We know there will be plenty of time for that later.
But there are some universal truths, I think. Stepmothers at any stage can benefit from thoughtful consideration of what their role in their family is. The role, of course, also varies as the stepfamily traverses developmental stages, which is why this consideration is always timely.
What makes it such a confusing process is the pedestal on which mothers are placed in our society. From literary archetypes to real-life cultural norms to commercials for laundry detergent, assumptions that mothers are all-knowing, selfless creatures with spotless homes and flourishing careers abound. The problem for stepmothers is there is no other model to follow. Childless stepmothers are especially prone to be proponents of the very chattels that bind wives and mothers–and they therefore hold themselves to the impossible standards that mothers often quickly dismiss as unrealistic and ridiculous. The standards are unrealistic and ridiculous, but stepmothers don’t know that because not being mothers, they buy into the fantastical perfection, and view themselves as failures when they don’t measure up.
While the data is difficult to collect, many experts believe that families with a stepparent are increasing more quickly than any other household constellation. As the numbers grow, it is imperative that we undergo a cultural shift that creates a new standard for stepmothers, one that is less influenced by Disney-inspired “evil stepmother myths” and more reflective of the fantastic, loving women who are willing to sacrifice their OWN fantasy of a storybook romance–no young girl casts herself as the stepmother in her wedding dreams–to step into a ready-made family with the man she loves.
One of the ways stepmothers can support such a change is by taking pride in their family roles. Because stepmothers are so villified, we avoid reference to ourselves as “stepmothers” and do what we can to assimilate into the mom role. The fact is that children benefit from having many loving adults in their lives, but they become confused when roles aren’t clearly delineated. Stepmothers are the inevitable target of the loyalty conflict that ensues when children aren’t taught that their relationship with their stepmother does not have to have a negative impact on their relationship with their mother, or when they’re told that they have two mothers who love them equally.
In order to model this pride, stepmothers need to buy into the idea that their relationship with their stepchild does not have to look like a mom/child one in order to be important. It is only when we start comparing ourselves to this standard that we feel bad about what we are able to contribute to the child’s life. Unconditional love is rare for a reason—and does not usually exist between stepmothers and stepchildren, even if we say it does or plan for it to. Think about the impact teachers, coaches, aunts and other adults have on children—those relationships are not threatening to mom or child because they don’t try to usurp the mom, AND they don’t attempt or claim to be more than they are. When we make a conscious effort to find an appropriate place in our stepchild’s life, we reap the internal and external benefits of avoiding competition with the mom, and we can avoid the pressure of trying to measure up to society’s impossible standard.
An antidote to the “two moms” paradigm is for stepmothers to be clear in their own minds about their role–and to steer clear of ANYTHING that looks or feels like trying to take the place of the child’s mother. If the stepmother is doing a lot of the actual mothering, this can be a pretty abstract concept, but even if it’s only an internal recognition, it is beneficial to the dynamic. A stepmother can be a GREAT stepmom and still support her child’s relationship with her own mother. If saying “Your hair is so pretty—it looks just like your mom’s,” makes you want to choke, you might need to re-think your feelings about your stepchild’s relationship with his or her biological mother. When you can say positive things, it is a gift to your stepchild, allowing him or her to appreciate you while still feeling affection and love for his or her mom.
Shifting a culture takes a long time, but it certainly does happen. Racial comments made on TV even 30 years would get people fired today, and it is conceivable that in another 30 years, stepmothers will be portrayed in positive and realistic (no thanks, Carol Brady) ways.
You can start in your community by correcting people who believe you are your stepchild’s mom. “Oh, I’m not his mom, I was lucky enough to marry his dad so I get to be his stepmom!” might take this transition further than “I’m not his bio-mom but I love him just the same!” or “I might not be his mom but I do all the work so I get to claim him!”, or whatever. The first disclaimer is unrealistic, and your stepchild know it; the second is a subtle slam to his bio-mom…..and the stepchild know it.
There are LOTS of ways to be a good stepmom. Other posts already written and yet to come discuss specific ways to get there. But a good first step is to take pride in yourself and what you contribute to your family in your role as a STEPMOTHER.