A New Look at Being a Stepmother

One in two women in the United States will marry or live with a man with children, according to projections by experts who study divorce and remarriage. And the research is clear: it’s harder for women to be a stepparent than it is for men. Who are these women? What motivates them? Are they really wicked?

“Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do, by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is an empowering book that offers a completely new way of looking at women in relationships with men who have children.

Rather than focusing on how such re-partnering affects the child, Martin explores stepfamily life and dynamics from the stepmother’s point of view, asking how remarriage with children affects her — psychologically, socially and economically. Drawing on her own experience as a stepmother; interviews with other stepmothers and stepchildren; and fascinating insights — from anthropology, literary criticism, psychology and evolutionary biology — that reveal the little-understood realities of this most demanding role, Martin unlocks the mysteries of why stepmothers think, feel, and act the way they do.

Here is a conversation with author Wednesday Martin

Q: Are you a stepmonster?

A: I’ve certainly had my days! And what became clear to me in the researching and writing of this book was that, contrary to what I had believed when I first got involved with a man who has kids, that’s true of most women with stepkids. We have all had days when we feel wicked or evil. Being in a tough situation and feeling compelled to fix it, and then feeling like a failure when it comes to repairing someone else’s dysfunctional family, will do that to a person.

Q: Is that why you wrote the book?

A: In part, yes. It was cathartic for me to write about my own feelings of frustration and failure, certainly, and to find that these were common emotions for stepmothers to feel. I also wrote the book that I wanted to read. As I struggled to figure out how to relate to my husband’s kids and to deal with being a stepmother, I couldn’t find many books out there that went beyond simple advice that felt impossible at the time. Like “Don’t take it personally” and “Let it go or you’ll regret it.”

Mostly I was looking for a book that addressed the emotional reality of the stepmother. After all, stepmothers are people, not just replacement parents, and they have not only their own emotional needs but also their own historical legacy and cultural baggage to bear.

Q: What were your impressions going into a partnership with a man with kids?

A: My initial thought was “My friends’ kids all love me. So my boyfriend’s kids will love me, too. If I’m nice and loving, I’ll get back what I give” — and all those other hopeful, naive expectations. In fact, what we know from the research is that if a kid feels torn about liking his stepmom, the kinder and more attractive she is to that kid, the more she’ll be rejected.

Q: You make it sound like a lose-lose proposition. Your take sounds so negative!

A: I can see why anyone who’s not a stepmother might think that. But really, what I’m up to is sharing the news that saved my sanity and my marriage: stepmothering is really hard, harder than stepfathering, and the difficulty is not your fault. Stepkids tend to be very rejecting. They feel that loving or even liking you would be a betrayal of mom. It helps to know that no matter how hard you try, you are likely to meet with resistance unless mom explicitly tells her child that it’s okay to like you. This kind of knowledge can help women with stepkids stand back and focus on their own lives a bit, rather than pouring all their energy into pleasing or getting approval or love from their stepkids, who are unlikely to confer it.

Q: But there are plenty of women out there who have great relationships with their stepkids.

A: As a culture, we certainly like hearing that, and we resist the notion that it’s difficult. We think that all women should love all children all the time, and assume that if there’s trouble between stepmom and stepkids, it’s stepmom’s fault. The truth is that there are some good relationships out there between moms and stepkids — I myself am lucky to have such relations! But when that’s the case, when things are good between stepmom and stepchild, it’s invariably due to very specific circumstances, not because the stepmom is being a good person who keeps trying.

Q: In your book you argue that we love to hate stepmothers and that blaming them is second nature.

A: Of course. Look at the fairy tales that terrify and thrill us. They inevitably involve stepmothers who are callow, heartless, even cannibalistic. We grow up with this stuff. I loved it as much as anyone — these stories are riveting, and stepmonsters are deliciously compelling villains. On a less dramatic level, how often have you heard people tsk-tsk and say, “She’s the adult!” about the situations where there are difficulties or antagonisms? We love to blame stepmothers. Stepmother blame is deeply woven into the fabric of our culture and our psyches.

Q: Well, the stepmother is in fact the adult, isn’t she?

A: She certainly is. But what we now know is that stepchildren, particularly adolescents and preadolescents, are the main initiators of conflict in stepfamilies with a stepmom. We also know that divorced dads with part-time or full-time custody tend to be permissive, even extremely permissive, parents. For a lot of reasons they just don’t want to say no to their kids or draw a lot of lines.

So yes, the stepmom is the adult. But we need a model for understanding stepfamilies and their dynamics which recognizes the complexities — that everybody plays a role and that the stepmother has very little control over how the kids treat her.

Q: What options does a woman in a bad step-situation like the one you describe have?

She can try to take charge of the kids herself — a futile endeavor without her husband backing her up. The other thing I’ve seen women do in a difficult step-situation is simply retreat. Feeling unsupported by her husband and singled out for poor treatment by the kids, she recedes into the background, remaining an outsider and a stranger in her own house when his kids are around. Fortunately for a woman I interviewed in this situation, her husband was not only crazy about her but also very smart about parenting, and he always backed her up and listened to her sound off about being hurt and angry without getting defensive about his daughters’ behavior. He heard his wife out and put her first, and that kept their marriage in good shape.

Q: What do you mean when you say “Stepmothers are actually the ‘neglected stepchildren’ of the stepfamily system”?

A: We all grew up with images of stepmothers as stepmonsters, as wicked stepmothers from the Brothers Grimm tales. They were all-powerful excluders, and worse, too! The truth is very different. Stepmothers aren’t all-powerful; they’re profoundly disempowered. The stepmother’s situation as the most disempowered person in the stepfamily system primes her for burnout, exhaustion, and even clinical depression. In one Canadian study, doctors discovered a syndrome that was so specific to stepmothers that they called it “Cinderella’s stepmother’s syndrome.”

Stepmothers are misunderstood and neglected in yet another way. There’s twice as much research out there on stepfather families as there is on stepmother families. We need to fund more research on stepmothers and stepmother families, especially in light of projections that as many as two-thirds of women in the United States are likely to become involved with a man with kids at some point.

Q: You say that women don’t feel the same way about their children as they do their stepchildren.

A: Absolutely. We can have great relationships with our stepchildren if the circumstances are right. But relatedness matters. Or, in the case of adoption, strong attachment from early on in a situation where you are a primary parent figure matters. When you look at the research you see that even when you control for factors like growing up together and feeling close, people are willing to do more for relatives — give, sacrifice, help out — than for nonrelatives.

Yet we’ve perpetrated this ridiculous idea that all women have to love all kids all the time. It’s so unnecessary. Our stepkids don’t feel the same way about us as they do their parents, after all. It’s so obvious, and so logical. My position is: Let’s quit denying it. Let’s quit holding women with stepkids to this impossible, ridiculous, hypocritical standard. That way there’s less guilt and more of a chance for a real stepmom-stepchild relationship to blossom.

Q: There’s research in the book about stepparenting among animals, specifically birds. Can you explain?

A: We tend to look to nonhuman primates to understand ourselves, but some kinds of birds have pair bonds that endure for life, and a rate of monogamy similar to our own (about 85 percent). Both mates are likely to parent. A Cornell biologist named Stephen Emlen found that among a species of bird in Kenya, the white-fronted bee-eater, stepparents are a fact of life. More interesting still, there are specific parallels to human situations. When a bee-eater stepparent comes on the scene, it creates conflict, and the offspring of the bird who has “remarried” tend to leave the nest at a higher rate to live with other kin.

What seems clear is that stepparenting is not unique to our species, and stepparenting was part of our evolutionary past. We know this not just from birds but also from looking at traditional hunter-gatherer societies, which probably resemble what ours was like in the Pleistocene Epoch. There’s lots of stepparenting in such cultures as the !Kung, the Aka, the Ache, and so on.

Q: Are there any warning signs about the kind of guy with children a woman should avoid?

A: A couple of caveats here. First, this isn’t a book of advice — it asks lots of questions and looks at stepmothering from lots of different angles rather than offering neat, cut-and-dried solutions. In some sense, I feel women have to make their own mistakes, just like I did. Also, if you have a list of ways a guy with kids has to behave if you’re going to get serious with him, it will rule out most guys with kids, because they tend to be what I call a “Disney Dad” or a “Yes Dad,” the kind of parent who wants time with his kids to be all about fun, and so he tends to let them throw their towels on the floor, talk with their mouths full, and even be nasty to dad’s girlfriend.

All of which is to say that I think getting involved with a man with kids requires a leap of faith. Inevitably there are going to be problems, even if you blind yourself to that in the beginning, out of necessity. So my advice would be, if you can’t communicate with this guy, if you can’t argue effectively, if the two of you can’t fight productively, that would be the biggest sign that the relationship probably won’t work out.

Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. is the author of “Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2009; $25.00US; 978-0-618-75819-7

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