While researching my book Stepmonster, I interviewed a number of women who described being on the receiving end of aggressive and even violent behavior from teenage and young adult stepchildren. They described shoves, pushes, and in more than one cases, slaps and punches, usually in the context of a "showdown" when the stepmother demanded better treatment or an end to disrespectful behavior, asserting herself as an adult authority in the household. In many instances, the woman's husband or partner was actually in the home (but not in the room) when her stepchild got physical with her. These women were not describing protracted altercations, and were not in serial heated disputes with stepchildren; nor had anyone who described it to me ever been physically violent with a stepchild or child herself. In short, none of these women had a history of being part of a physically violent relationship. These blows came out of the blue, in a charged situation, taking them completely off guard.
It is indeed shocking to think of being vulnerable in one's own home, but I was not entirely taken aback by this finding, and I suspect many stepfamily experts and stepfamily members may actually grasp, on an intuitive level, how such scenarios might unfold. The very facts of stepfamily life suggest that episodic physical violence against stepmothers might be much more common than we think.
For example, even those stepfamilies that will end up feeling healthy and normal are frequently, at some point, a breeding ground for the kind of contentious and charged emotions that might erupt physically, combined with a permissive parenting style that may well fail to prevent it. Add another all too common reality-a mother who communicates to her kids, explicitly or implicitly, that stepmom should be treated badly-and you have a tinderbox ready to explode. Throw into the mix an angry, resentful teenage or young adult stepchild testing the limits, and it is easy to see how this wire gets tripped. On the far and blessedly rare end of the spectrum is a situation like last February's fatal shooting of Kenzie Houk--eight months pregnant at the time--by her 11-year-old stepson in rural Pennsylvania. As stepfamily expert Patrica Papernow commented, "It looks awful from the outside and sort of unspeakable, but these are the kinds of feelings that are pretty normal in a new stepfamily. You just hope there's not a loaded gun around."
How often does violence against stepmothers take place? If the emails I receive, plus the findings of stepmother authors like Cherie Burns are any indication, too often. When we control for the fact that this is precisely the kind of information an interviewee might decline to discuss, the number of incidents I have been told of seems statistically significant.
Why don't women talk about it, and why don't we hear about it? My best guess is that it's because stepmothers are steeped in a mindset of self-blame and shame with regard to anything that might be perceived as a failure on the stepfamily front. We all know the formula: "If she were nice to those kids, they'd warm right up to her." The women I interviewed and who emailed me told me, in many cases, that they hadn't even told their husbands about the incidents, out of fear of being blamed or accused of exaggerating. They also told me they feared being judged responsible ("What did you do to make him/her want to hit you?") by friends, clergy, and even their therapists when it came to the incidents of their stepchildren getting physical with them. And as a society, we are so accustomed to the idea that stepmothers are empowered, evil excluders that we may have difficulty imagining a scenario in which they are precisely the opposite--profoundly vulnerable. This mindset might contribute to our not hearing, or feeling unable to tell, such stories.
Let's be clear: we're not talking about a four year old who lashes out during a tantrum, or hits on the playground and in the home out of frustration. We're talking about teens and young adults who may feel that they can get away with it, if stepmom is firmly on the outside of the family structure, if she and dad aren't a team, if there's a history of the stepchild being able to manipulate the parent, or play parent and stepparent off one another.
Without more research on stepmother families (the three most recent longitudinal studies have focused, as most stepfamily research does, on stepfather families), we will not know the extent of this problem. And that means we can't help these women with stepkids who lash out physically, or the kids themselves. Which leads to more stepmaternal burnout and more partnerships and families dissolving. More knowledge about the currently underexplored aspects of stepfamily life can only help.