Over a Cobb salad I heard a woman say, “This is the best time of the year. My stepchildren are going away to boarding school. For a year. In another country.” One might first assume that this Joan Crawford reincarnate was a cold and heartless woman, probably with no progeny of her own and certainly missing that warm and fuzzy motherhood gene. I might have surmised as much had I not encountered the moniker “Stepmother” in my own life. The mere word “Stepmother” conjures all sorts of evil (thank you Walt Disney) and malice (thank you Hollywood). It is actually quite sad, like blaming the snake for being born, well, a snake. There is nothing inherently evil about the snake – he was born into his life without a lot of choice. And sometimes stepmotherhood happens the same way – no one ever plans by design to be a stepmother (or I have yet to meet them); you fall in love and marry a guy who has kids by another marriage and BOOM a stepmother is born. Little girls do not grow up playing stepmother (mostly bride, princess, flight attendant).
In defense of stepmothers everywhere, it is not an easy job. Out of the gate the kids/teens/grown children are going to hate you. Hate you because: 1) you are not their mother, 2) you are stealing their daddy, and 3) you are stealing their inheritance. The ante goes up with the age of the children, but you see the big picture. You are “the other” and not a member of the core family tribe. You do not belong. They tolerate you if you are lucky. God help you if your husband alienates you when the chips are down and teams have to be decided. The whistle blows and you are all on your own. He chose “them.” Who could not blame a woman for getting her heart broken? (I will not even get into blended families here – that is like solving the cold fusion equation and I am always amazed when people actually pull it off. Mostly I think they wait for the kids to age-out and leave home, then call it a success in hindsight.)
There are not many books supporting the struggle that do not tell the stepmother to “suck it up” and “love them like they are your own.” That is fine and dandy if you are Mother Theresa or have a really strong emotional core with no needs whatsoever for companionship or affection (which I doubt if you are actively trying to maintain the union of a marriage and a family). Now before you start sending me hate emails, give some equal time to wearing the other moccasins. If you are a stepmom hater or a struggling stepmom yourself, I recommend: “Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do” by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. (lots of dog-eared pages in this one) and “The Happy Stepmother” by Rachelle Katz, Ed.D., LMFT. Both of these writers give it to you without icing or pretense. It is what you really want to hear when you feel less than saintly toward anyone in your house, including yourself. (You are not crazy. They are not crazy. The situation is inherently crazy.)
Mostly I want you to take a deep breath (okay, a lot of deep breaths) and not beat yourself up. This is a tough assignment and it is not for everyone. You may be along for the ride or trying to lead the troops, but either way remember that you are a person, too, and that humanity is just that. If we were perfect we would be, well, saints.