What the Sandra Bullock Saga Can Teach Us About Step/Motherhood

What's a step/mother, anyway? Learning from Sandra Bullock

Posted Apr 28, 2010

If you follow celebrity news, here's the big story: Sandra Bullock is, in fact, getting divorced, by her own admission in a cover story for People magazine scheduled to hit newsstands in a few days. And she's not going to sue for or otherwise try to negotiate legal custody or formalized visitation of Jesse James's kids with his two ex-wives, according to her rep Cheryl Maisel.

Some even bigger news: recently she and James adopted a now three-and-a-half month old baby boy from New Orleans. Bullock is a mother, and a soon-to-be ex-stepmother. This change in her status ushers in a series of questions for those of us interested in the politics of gender and motherhood. Will being a mother alter the public perception of what it is "right" for Bullock (and stepmothers in general) to do, and what her "rights" regarding James's kids are or "ought to be"? Will it recalibrate public sentiment over her plight (e.g. will we feel less sorry for her, now that she "gets to be a mother"?) More generally, the Bullock saga and its latest permutation begs the question, What does our culture think is the difference between and mother and a stepmother?

The media and the online stepmothering community have, over the last weeks of the scandal in Bullock's personal life over her husband's infidelities, been interested in how (and whether) she will negotiate a way to remain in the life of her soon-to-be-ex-husband's three children from two previous marriages. Mostly, there has been a focus on James's six-year-old daughter, Sunny, and just what Bullock's "rights and obligations"--both moral and legal--might be regarding her.

In spite of frequent indignation and disappointment expressed on stepmother message boards over the last weeks about what Bullock "should" be able to expect in terms of access to Sunny (Bullock teamed up with James to fight his ex-wife Janine Lindemulder for custody of the little girl, and has by all accounts been a highly involved stepparent in a number of ways), reality intrudes.

And in reality, as legal scholars have pointed out since the scandal broke, Sandra Bullock, like stepmothers all across the country, is, in the words of family law attorney Sue Moss of Chemtob, Moss, Forman & Talbert, "a biological and legal stranger to these children and has absolutely no rights to custody or visitation."

As I discovered when I spoke to legal experts while researching my book Stepmonster, stepparents frequently cannot even authorize emergency medical treatment for their underage stepchildren, get them a library card, or automatically attend their parent-teacher conferences--let alone expect visitation rights post-divorce unless those arrangements are made with the child's parents, who are under no obligation to observe them. This in spite of the fact that stepparents may have made enormous emotional and financial investments in their stepchildren, and acted as loving, committed parent-surrogates. A stand-up stepparent's dilemma in general might be summed up as "responsibility without authority." "I'm paying for their private school tuitions, and I'm happy to, but I don't think I can take them to the doctor," one man with two stepchildren observed to me in a confused tone during an interview.

I am not of the camp that believes that "giving birth doesn't make you a mother." Legally, in fact, it does. And the vast majority of stepchildren with two living parents in the picture would not tell you anything very different. "I already had two parents and the last thing I needed was a second mother," one adult stepchild I interviewed for my book told me, echoing what three decades of research suggests: kids of any age who already have two parents (and even many of those who only have one) do best with a stepparent who is, in the words of family therapist and stepmother Mary Kelly Williams, "a dependable ally." Sandra Bullock was a highly-involved stepmother to her husband's children, it seems, and we are also told that he will not assert parental rights with respect to the baby, whom she will raise as a single mother.

However Bullock is quoted as saying, of James's children, that she "can't imagine life without them and will continue to co-parent." Time will tell whether this actually happens. Bullock may be extraordinarily wealthy, privileged, and famous. And a mother. But she is also a stepmother. And far from the empowered, evil excluders of myth, stepmothers are likely to find themselves on the wrong side of power with respect to ‘rights' regarding their stepchildren.