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Unpacking the Myths and Truths of Stepmothering

Why are we so quick to believe the worst about stepmothers?

Key points

  • Cultural myths affect how we talk about biological mothers and stepmothers.
  • The complex role of the stepmother is often overlooked and reduced to a series of tropes.
  • Being a successful stepmother is not easy, especially since there are specific boundaries associated with the role.
  • The experiences of daughters with stepmothers are hard to reduce to generalizations since specifics very much matter.

Not long ago, I got a message from a reader that got me thinking. It was from Kathy, now 40 and the mother of two:

Has anyone reported having their relationship with their mother altered during childhood by their stepmother? My sister and I were in a joint custody situation, beginning at the ages of eight and five. The two households could not have been more different. My dad and stepmom’s house was ritzy–they were both very successful–and my stepmom was a perfectionist and everything was new and beautiful. She had no kids of her own. She was very generous–always showering us with gifts–but I don’t think I understood how her always bad-mouthing my mom affected me.

My mom was a bookkeeper and her house was neat but well-worn and since we commuted between the houses, she didn’t get a lot in child support. And my mom was strict, unlike Kathy, our stepmom. So the two of us preferred Dad’s house where the fridge was stocked with treats and we learned to look down on Mom. It made our stepmother happy when we agreed with her so it became a habit.

I’m not even sure she did this consciously or intentionally, in truth, but there was a long time during which my sister and I wrongly disparaged our mother. Has this happened to other daughters?

Photograph by Moises Alex. Copyright free. Unpslash.
Source: Photograph by Moises Alex. Copyright free. Unpslash.

Her question offered an opportunity to explore all the possible variations on the stepmother theme. I am not a disinterested party either since I’ve been a stepmother more than once; two of those experiences were with almost adult or adult children, but I was the stepmother to a boy starting at the age of six. I will readily admit that the role can be a difficult one, especially for the child.

Even then–I was 31 and had no children–I was aware that Elie, my stepson, had to accept my presence as a condition of staying with his father since we lived together and then married–and that’s not exactly easy for a small child to do. He didn’t need another mother–he had one, thank you very much–so the role I played on Wednesdays, every other weekend, holidays, and two weeks in the summer was one that had to be figured out over time. As I said, it wasn’t easy for either of us. My only child was born when my stepson was 15.

When it comes to stepmothering, there is much-unexplored territory. And, of course, there are many variations on the theme which must be taken into account. For the child whose mother has died, the stepmother plays one role while, for the child of divorce whose mother is very much alive, much will depend not just on the nature of the custody arrangements but on the emotional history of the two biological parents and, more importantly, the tenor of the divorce. And whether or not the stepmother has children of her own.

Margaret, now 68, was seven when her mother died; her father remarried when she was ten.

My father was undone first by my mother’s death and second by being my only parent. He was used to going to the office every day and it seemed beyond his ken that parenting solo should fall to him. He had money so there were housekeepers and nannies but when he married my stepmother when I was eleven, he was genuinely grateful. But she appeared to be threatened by his past–this was her first marriage–and she set about erasing my mother from our lives.

One day, I came home from school to find all the furniture replaced, all the photographs of my mother gone, my bedroom redone with a pink canopy bed. It was though someone had taken a giant eraser to my life with my parents. I hated my pink bedroom–I wasn’t a girly girl–and missed my modern furniture and reading nook But complaints were not allowed. I was warned not to speak of my mother in front of her to keep the peace.

It was an enormous burden to place on a child, especially one who’d suffered a terrific loss, and, not surprisingly, I withdrew into a world of my own. I was enormously lucky because the private school I went to noticed the changes in me and when things really started to go south when I hit adolescence, they called my father in and insisted I go into therapy and it saved my life.

Their marriage continued but I was able to cobble things together with Dad and then, I was off to college and making choices for myself. Not very good ones at first but I stuck with therapy and, in the end, I managed.

As a child of divorce, Gillian, 50, recalled how she longed mainly for what she called “a demilitarized zone:”

My father famously left my mother for his secretary–yes, that old cliché–and basically my mother never really got over it. She lived to make him and his new wife miserable.

I was 10 when they divorced and my mother worked overtime to make me swear allegiance to her and only her; it was awful. The truth is that Kate, my dad’s new wife, was very sweet and caring and did what she could to be supportive of me. No loyalty test from her or my dad.

Kate and Dad ultimately had two kids–my baby brother and sister–and I was thrilled but could I ever admit that to my mother? No. So here we are, forty years later, and my kids have three grandmothers which still drives my mother crazy.

She never remarried or rebuilt her life; the foundation for her life is still grievance. I was lucky that my dad and Kate didn’t play that game; it would have ended badly for me.

Yet, for every story like Gillian’s, there’s usually one that is more like Cinderella than not. Despite the myths, there is no one-size-fits-all generalization when it comes to stepmothers.

The Stats on Stepmothers and Stepfamilies

As we all know, the last 50-plus years have seen a huge sea change when it comes to the composition of American families. More than a decade ago, it was noted that 42 percent of all adults had one step-relative. Thirty percent had a half or step-sibling. Eighteen percent of Americans had a living stepparent. Thirty percent had at least one stepchild. Divorce, single parents, and “blended families” are no longer a rarity.

But that doesn’t mean that the cultural myths about family have fully changed. Blood ties are still the gold standard, despite the fact they often aren’t. And blended families aren’t always as easy or as “fun’ as The Brady Bunch made it seem.

The Mythology of the Stepmother

As robust as the cultural myths about motherhood are, that all women are nurturing, mothering is instinctual, and all mothers love unconditionally, the mythology of the stepmother is even stronger. Just two names sum it all up: Snow White and Cinderella. The Brothers Grimm contributed mightily by changing all the evil and plotting mothers in fairytales into stepmothers–they were pious and loyal sons, those two–but the evil stepmother was familiar to the ancient Romans as well.

As noted in one study by Jason B. Whiting and others–called “Overcoming the Cinderella Myth,” the myths of the stepmother infiltrate the expectations and mindsets of every family member, including the stepmother herself. The researchers found that the most successful stepmothers shared the fathers’ vision of parenting, were able to forge a relationship with the child or children’s mother, and had good support systems.

Another small study by Danielle N. Shapiro and Abigail J. Stewart found that stepmothers, compared with biological mothers, were more likely to experience depressive symptoms because of the complexity and difficulty of their roles.

It's been many years, but I remember the emotional agility stepmothering required since it could all turn on a dime, from throwing his arms around me to thank me for the cookies to the angry protest, “You’re not my mother.”

Thanks to my readers for sharing their stories.

Copyright © 2023 by Peg Streep


Whiting, Jason B.,Donna R. Smith, Tammy Barnett, and Erika L. Grafsky, "Overcoming the Cinderella Myth: A Mixed Methods Study of Successful Stepmothers,"Journal of Divorce and Remarriage (2007)vol. 47(1/2),pp. 96-109/

Shapiro, Danielle and Abigail J. Stewart, "Parenting Stress, Perceived Child regards, and Depressive Symptoms among Stepmothers and Biological Mothers,"Family Relations, 2011, vol. 60, pp. 533-544.

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