The rainbow of stepmothers

I have grown weary of our popular culture’s need to narrowly define the role of the stepmother.  From Dr. Phil on television to Dr. Joy Browne on radio, today’s “experts” readily put forth their opinions on the appropriate role of the stepmother.  In my estimation, their definition of the role of a stepmom leaves these women somewhere between the neighbor lady and the PTA welcoming committee. 

Dr. Phil is fond of telling the biological parents that they need to grow up, take responsibility, and work together for the sake of the children. I submit that it does not take a PhD to suggest that approach.  Similarly, Dr. Joy Browne likes to tell stepmothers that their role in a stepchild’s life is to be a good hostess when they are in their home.  Again, sounds practical, but lacks any real understanding of the reality of stepliving.

When a couple divorces, they admit that they can not get along, they can not come to resolution of major issues, they no longer like or love one another.  They might be in enough denial to not say these things out loud, but the message remains the same albeit subconscious.

The “experts'” recommendations are therefore founded on faulty thinking.  If these two previously married parents could get along, reach agreements, and put their children’s needs above their own….they would still be married. 

A natural consequence of a divorce is that one or both of the original parties will get remarried.  This person will become not only the spouse to the parent, but also the “step-parent” to the minor child.  If this happens when children are adults, this is a different dynamic entirely.  But when it happens when a child is still a minor, then the “new” spouse has a role.

The million dollar question is “what role?.”  I subject to you that the role varies greatly based on circumstances and can not and should not be dicated in the cookie cutter way to which the popular culture and its icons seems to want to default.

I focus my attention, here, on stepmothers.  I don’t wish to disregard the contribution that a stepfather has, rather I chose to discuss that which I know most about. 

I know stepmother who have entered a marriage as a custodial stepmother and as such have signed up for nearly 24/7 parenting responsibilities.  They become a surrogate mother to children whose mothers are not up to the task.  These women deserve the respect and admiration they have earned by taking on such a role.  We freely give this respect to adoptive or fostering parents; why not to stepparents? 

I know stepmothers who have entered into marriage as a “50/50” stepmother and as such have signed up for half-time responsibility for stepchildren which almost always includes a ridiculous amount of organizing, negotiating, scheduling, and assisting with the ins and outs of children moving between two homes.  This is no small task and requires perpetual adjustments in the dynamics of the home, yet again…stepmothers are expected to cooperate, never complain, and take it on as they “knew what they were getting into.”  That is a lot like saying that we all knew what we were getting into by going to college, getting married, or moving to another state.  It’s simply not possible to know “what one is getting into” until one gets into it.  Complaining is reserved for the bioparents, apparently, and stepparents should just put up and shut up with the challenges of child rearing. 

There is the additional population of fathers and stepmothers who have “visitation” or defined “parenting time” with the children.  It is this stereotype of stepmothers that tend to dominate popular culture’s idea of a stepmother.  It is this group who Dr. Joy Browne tells to be the hostess with the mostess.  Heaven forbid she actually experience what it is like to have a child whom both you and your husband love to come and go like a visitor.  Is she possibly suggesting that over the long term, a stepmother is to be as aloof and distant as Martha Stewart putting on a party? 

 These non-custodial parents see and experience so many things regarding these children that they can not help, if they are caring people, but to love and want to support and guide the stepchildren.  They often cook, clean, shop, manage, and assist the father in caring for the child(ren).  Yet they are expected to be a mere hostess?

Look, house guests come but once a year for a pre-defined period of time.  They are adults.  When it comes to stepchildren, they are not guests but family members.  They come at a great frequency.  They often have their own rooms, their own toys, their own clothes, their own domain in the non-custodial home.  House guests are old enough to behave as guests (ususally). Stepchildren require guidance, teaching, supervision. 

Stepmothers are a part of providing all of the above needs for the stepchild.  To treat her as or to suggest that she behave as anything less than a co-parent to the father is insulting. 

We praise our adoptive and foster parents in this country, yet we demean and limit our stepparents.  The only thing I can attribute that to is our tendency to place mothers on a pedestal, even when they have not earned the position.  We need to seriously re-think how we consider a stepmother, her role, and the appreciation that she deserves.   

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3 Comments

  1. Beautifully written! I too am an evil stepmother. I cook, clean, do laundry, dispense medicine, make sure the kids bathe – and I don’t ask for anything other than respect in return. What I get is an appreciative husband, and kids that call me names … because their mother has told them it’s ok.

    The “experts” clearly have never lived within a step-situation. Step children are not house guests, they are part of the family. It is incredibly difficult to parent a child who has been told repeatedly that their father abandoned them, left them without any money, and married the whore that broke up their happy family. (None of which is true in our case) The father is left defending himself, feeling awful because the kids believe him to be a monster and he can’t tell the kids the truth without hurting them. The stepmother is forced to be forever the whore in the child’s eyes, and do her best to be supportive and understanding, all the while being told that she knew what she was getting into by the experts she turns to for guidance. Being a mother is a thankless job, being a stepmother is an almost impossible one in many situations. The only ones that understand and support the stepmother’s role in the family are other stepmothers.

  2. It’s embarrassing, disenchanting and horrifying how the family court system facilitates the golden uterus notion.
    I have been a custodial stepmom — the main and only mother — to my stedaughters — for years. About a year ago, the court appointed us a “parenting coordinator” to try and ease some of the tension between my husband and his abusive, mentally ill ex-wife.
    Instead, this so-called court official has taken it upon herself to facilitate the golden uterus. The court has taken away the biomom’s custody. The parenting coordinator is horrified by that, wants to give as much visitation as possible.
    The SDs come to me when they need mom-stuff. They PC orders that I tell them to go to the golden uterus for that.
    In the several years I have cared for these girls, I have been more of a mother than their biomom has ever been — yet the courts refuse to see that. It’s ridiculous.

  3. If I am the hostess, then the stepchildren are mere vistors in thier father’s home. I think Dr. Phil and the lot of them would support giving a stepchild his/her own space, responsibilities and to see Dad’s home as THEIR home. Guests that I play hostess to do not reside with me and turn to me to meet their needs. They do not have open access to my home and they do not have a right to anything in this home. You can’t have it both ways, society. They are either guests and vistors or part of this family and in this family I am not a hostess. I am a parent.

    I often hear it said that the kids didn’t choose for Daddy to remarry, but in truth, the kids didn’t choose for Daddy to hook up with the mother either. It happened before they were born, they don’t get to choose who they have as parents in any case. It’s an absurd argument.


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