Posts Tagged ‘stepmom’

I wanted to share this wonderfully brave and honest blog post — well worth reading!



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In class last week I watched my own couple therapy unfold before my eyes.

My professor played one member of the couple, an older man with children from a previous marriage. A classmate played his younger, childless wife.

He didn’t want more kids; and when they got together, neither did she. But she’d changed, and he hadn’t, and though they were happy in every other way…there they were.

It was surreal. My classmate—not a stepmom—did a really amazing job predicting and expressing the feelings I had poured out before my own therapist.

My professor said afterward that this was a real case of his. He wanted to demonstrate what are, to him, the most heartbreaking cases of all: the ones where a wonderful couple just can’t agree on an issue for which there is no possible compromise.

And how strange to know that my husband and I were, more or less, that tragic couple. I couldn’t help thinking that, if this demonstration had come only a few months earlier, I probably would have left the classroom in tears.

But if you’re like me, you want to know what the outcome was for this couple in real life. My professor said that they finally agreed to try for a child for six months. If they were not successful, they would stop. And that’s what happened. The husband’s daughter ended up having her own child, and the stepmom helped raise the baby. My professor pointed out this last as a positive, though I know many a stepmom whose heart would remain forever in pieces to see her own stepdaughter having the experience she was denied.

Caught in the uncertainty of trying for my own child, I have no way of knowing if this woman’s fate won’t also be mine. All I can do is hope for better, and be grateful that my husband—like this man—came around.

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Last year I wrote this short post about the different roles of mothers and fathers, commenting how stepmothers often seem to play the father role.

My suspicions were reinforced in marriage counseling class today. The topic was gender differences in parenting, and my professor reinforced all the ways that (typical) fathers differ from (typical) mothers. How many of these do you stepmoms recognize in your own stepparenting?

Fathers often…

  • teach children about how to strive for independence and function well in the outside world
  • enforce (or, in our case, want to enforce) rules and discipline
  • tend to be stricter
  • play with children more than nurture them
  • have an easier time connecting with the kids while doing an activity together

I’ll raise my hand here—guilty as charged. (Except for playing, at which I am not the greatest.) The good news is, both kinds of parenting are needed, and whether this stuff comes from mom, dad, stepmom or grandpa, it’s all good.

What I find fascinating is how often in stepfamilies, the biological father ends up playing the more lenient, nurturing “mother” role, while the stepmother becomes the “father.” (My professor says, by the way, that this is an astute observation. Go me.) But what I didn’t tell him was how unsatisfied I am to be a woman and play the father in my family. Though it might feel right for many, I’m not one of them. There’s an emptiness there that fostering independence in my stepdaughter just can’t fill.

I’m also very curious to know how women who start out as stepmoms, and play the father role, change when they have biological children. Do they revert to full-on mom-style parenting? Do they remain, essentially, fathers? Or do they blend the two styles? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d wager that the latter option is probably the most common. I know if I had my own child, I’d do far more nurturing than I do as a stepmother. But I also believe very strongly in independence and boundaries, and can’t imagine letting that go. Anyone who’s been there, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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How do you ever get over the feeling of being a non-entity in your stepchild’s life?

I know, I know: Better to be neutral than evil. But is it? It’s more peaceful, sure. But the toll of feeling insignificant, valueless—in your own home—is devastating. The constant subtle reminders that you don’t really count, you don’t really register, perpetuate this slow steady siphoning of your self-worth.

And the kicker is that the stepchild is doing nothing wrong. The stepchild is perhaps a model stepchild, in fact, a kind and polite and friendly stepchild.

But this stepchild doesn’t love you as you want to be loved. And it’s the only child you’ll ever have.

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I will confess—I love going to B&Bs. I love all the hokey decorations and the faux Victorian stylings. But the one thing I don’t love so much is having to talk to the owners and other guests at breakfast.

I prefer my breakfasts quiet—just my husband and me—and (I have to be honest) I really don’t care about chatting it up with people I’ll never see again. But what makes every B&B breakfast ever so much more uncomfortable is everyone’s inevitable suspicion that I am a not a “real” mother.

It always goes something like this. The kindly owner asks about our summer. My husband mentions our daughter —he always says she is ours; I know some don’t like this, but I do. (So far so good.) Then he mentions that she plays competitive sports. (Cue the quizzical look.) Then he mentions that she is 14, or in high school. (They are openly looking at me now, sizing me up. “She’s much too young to have a daughter in high school,” I can hear their minds ticking. “She must be the stepmother.”)

And so I can feel the burning in my face, the shifting in my seat. I’m actually not too young; I’m twenty years older than my stepdaughter. But that isn’t the point. I look young, my husband looks older, and I know what people think. And the truth is that I hate even being thought to be a stepmother. I go on vacation, at least in part, to escape life. I can pretend to be a young mother or one half of a happy child-free couple.

Until the B&B breakfast.

I don’t really understand my shame. In reality there is much to be proud of in being a good stepparent. It is one of the most difficult roles in a family, and to take it on and do it gracefully should be considered by all to be a major accomplishment. Yet that’s never how it feels in the wider world. Stepmother, especially childless stepmother, equals “less than.” It means “not real.” And there I sit, blushing into my omelette, exposed as this lesser creature.

What would the world be like, I wonder, if stepparents were admired and praised for taking on the challenges we do? I close my eyes and imagine this: compliments, encouragement. Wow, that’s great! You must be very courageous. You must really love your husband to do such a difficult thing. Your family is lucky to have you! It would change my experience completely if I thought that people equated stepmother, especially childless stepmother, with “more than”—more bravery, more patience, more self-sacrifice, more thoughtfulness.

Maybe that day is coming. I wish I didn’t need it. I wish I could sit there and hope that my husband revealed my step-identity. I wish I could happily smack down my home fries, brimming with pride that I and my friends embrace this difficult life. Because the plain truth is that we are “more than.” And I don’t know why I let strangers make me feel like anything less.

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I apologize for the lack of frequency of posts these days—I’m taking a class about ethics and legal issues in the counseling profession, which isn’t exactly brimming with stepfamily material. Nonetheless, I’ll still be posting all summer, mostly items of the “personal reflections” persuasion (groan…). But I should be back with lots of research-based loot in September!

One thing did stand out in class, though—on the first night, my professor asked each of us to talk about our future plans and “unique perspective” as a therapist. (I felt a little like I was on The Next Food Network Star, having to dredge up a special “culinary point of view.”) I said, of course, that my unique perspective came from being a stepmom and an active part of the stepfamily community.

That was an understatement. It’s hard for me not to see anything and everything through the stepmom lens. In some ways, being this aware is a real positive. In that same class, for example, I was the only one who saw the potential custody/emotional issues in two complex case studies. Others didn’t even notice.

But sometimes, it’s not so positive. I routinely wonder which of my friends will get divorced. And when a happily married friend talked to me about getting a vasectomy, all I could think about was his next wife and the trouble they will go through to get it reversed (!).

The stepmom perspective: is it just realistic, or all too doomsday? I don’t know, but—for now, anyway—it’s the one I’ve got.

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I have buckets of respect for every kind of stepmom. But there is one type in particular that really, really gets me where it counts. I call her the Real Mom.

The Real Mom steps in to do the day-in, day-out work of mothering that the biological mother cannot or will not do. The sick days, the driving, the facts-of-life talks. She is the mother in every way save biologically. And more often than not, her stepchildren love her and depend on her just as the mother she is.

But it’s not that simple—for often those children have a living biological mother whom they still see. Maybe she’s a drug addict who can’t care for them. Maybe she’s chosen to pursue a career in another geographical location. Maybe she never really wanted children and decided to give custody to the father. Whatever the reason, she isn’t a primary caretaker and certainly not the primary mother.

If life—and emotions—were rational, children in these situations would rearrange their expectations and their labels. Stepmom would fill the role of mom; biological mom would fill the role of friend, aunt, stepmom, stranger—wherever she fits.

But it rarely works that way. Even as these children love their stepmoms with all their hearts, they still long for the love and attention of their biological mothers. Indeed, there are two horrific tasks routinely cast upon this type of stepmother. The first is comforting her stepchildren after their biological mother has let them down, trying as her own heart shreds to convince the kids that “your mom really does love you.” The second is to be supportive when the biological mother does follow through, smiling through her hurt and tears at the kids’ bounteous excitement and joy.

Honest to god, I don’t know how they do it. I can scarcely imagine anything more heartbreaking.

Clearly our society’s views of motherhood do their part to foster this emotional turmoil. “Everyone knows” that mothers would do anything for their children. “Everyone knows” that kids always come first in their mothers’ hearts. But where does this belief leave the children whose mothers will not do most things—let alone everything—for them? It leaves them lost. It leaves them wondering what they did wrong. It leaves them pining for the assurance that comes with maternal love, even when they have stepmothers supporting them every step of the way.

But is it just society that creates this dynamic, or is there something deeper? Humor me for a moment as I dig up a crazy theory.

Carl Jung believed that all human beings share certain instinctive concepts of various roles and ideas. He called these “archetypes.” Every culture, he argued, has a concept of Good and Evil. Every culture has a concept of a Hero. While the definitions of these archetypes may vary, human beings are born understanding them. And The Mother is one of the most important.

Now I am not a Jungian. I don’t know that I believe in archetypes at all. But I started thinking about the incredible pain these children feel when their mothers abandon them, even those who are lovingly nurtured by other caretakers. Is it really just a kid-centric society’s doing? Or is there something deep and instinctive and human that is profoundly disturbed when a mother fails to live up to our universal concept of what she should be? (And is there a part of these kids that questions a loving stepmother because she is not the archetypal wicked one they instinctively expect?)

I don’t know. I’d like to believe that with time, work, and love, these kids can learn to accept and forgive their biological mothers—and embrace their stepmothers for the crucial role they really play. I’d like to believe that they can put biology aside, realizing that true mothering is an endeavor of spirit and choice, not genetics.

I’d like to believe that—if the archetype exists—they can refashion it.

“Real Mom” doesn’t mean biological, no matter how casually and erroneously the term might be used. Real Mom is the woman who—whoever she is—does the daily, messy job of loving and shaping and raising children. And that’s an archetype I can believe in.

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