In a word, power.
Over the last months of promoting my book Stepmonster, I've tried to spread the word that, in spite of our image of them, the majority of women with stepchildren are anything but empowered, evil excluders and victimizers. Indeed, numerous studies and anecdotal reports from mental health professionals who work with stepfamilies paint a picture that may startle us: stepmothers are often the most powerless and vulnerable members of the stepfamily system.
Experts including Jamie Kelem Keshet have found that when a woman marries or partners with a man with children-particularly if she has no children or "mini-family" of her own-she must struggle to find her place, often feeling like an interloper. Her partner and his children may not be much help here. He may feel too guilty to show his kids just how important stepmom is to him, and the kids, as Dr. Mavis Hetherington has observed, are often perfectly happy for stepmom to remain on the periphery of conversations and activities, fearful that she will replace them in their father's affections and the family hierarchy somehow if they let her "in."
Often, a stepmother is subjected to stepchildren's hostility and rejecting behavior-something that is normal, but frequently goes unchecked for far too long (due again to dad's guilt and fear). If she adheres to mainsteam stepparenting advice, much of it rooted in biased, misguided assumptions about how women should be and feel ("Leave the disciplining to him; just love them; you be the fun friend, etc,"), the woman with younger stepchildren finds herself in a position of having no say about parenting practices in her own home.
The stepmother with older or even adult stepchildren is not necessarily exempt from this problem. Many women told me they had endured snippy remarks and barely veiled hostility from their adult stepchildren, often for decades, because their husbands' attitude was, "I want us to have a nice time when we're together, so just let it go."
This disempowerment in her own home can have dramatic effects. A number of researchers have found that stepmothers are vulnerable to physical threats and abuse in their households: several women I interviewed told me about older stepchildren getting physical with them by shoving or pushing them during an altercation. The February, 2009 murder of Kenzie Houk, allegedly by her 11-year-old stepson, underscores the fact that, as stepfamily expert Patricia Papernow says, in the tinderbox of stepfamily tensions, stepmothers can easily become victims, sometimes in tragic ways.
Other than frequently feeling like and being an outsider, having little say over parenting practices or the rules of civility in her own home, and being emotionally and physically vulnerable, women with stepchildren have other profound vulnerabilities. Canadian researchers have found that, owing to their conviction that they must "blend" the family, and owing also to their fear of being perceived as wicked, stepmothers tend to take on the role of family counselor and marital therapist, and to bend over backwards to be "perfect." The result is feelings of exhaustion and burnout. And such feelings, combined with the hostile environment she often finds herself in when the kids are around, prime her for anxiety and depression (ample research shows that stepmothers suffer from markedly higher levels of clinical depression than do mothers or stepfathers).
Stepmothers might also find themselves in a disadvantageous financial position. The woman with stepchildren may be asked to sign a pre-nuptial agreement that essentially waives some of her economic rights as a wife under the law, or to contribute to child support and other payments. She may feel that saying no, or being assertive about matters of estate planning and inheritance will be viewed as "wicked," further undermining her ability to protect her own financial interests. Many women told me they felt pressured to contribute to a stepchild's school tuition, wedding, or travels in a way that was uncomfortable to them given the unreciprocal nature of the relationship over the years. Simply put, these women felt economically exploited by their husbands, their husband's exes, and their stepchildren.
Finally, any complaints about her situation are likely to be met with suspicion and a lack of compassion, even by friends, who might say, "What did you expect when you married a guys with kids?" or "Why can't you just be nice?" Such ignorance, judgment, and gender bias can increase the stress and disempowerment of women who partner with men who have kids.
The final bias here is huge: we don't know how many stepmothers there are, owing to the way the U.S. Census counts stepfamilies (only the family where the child is in official residence post-divorce-most likely to be with mom, even if the child is spending half his time with dad and stepmom). And since research dollars follow the numbers, there are twice as many studies of stepfather families as of stepmother families.
In my research I discovered that stepmothers who find social support--friends or co-workers who are stepmothers themselves, online message boards, formal and informal support groups--have the best outcomes and the most satisfying partnerships. For women with stepkids, sisterhood is powerful.