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Posts Tagged ‘stepmother’

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

 

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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 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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