If Craving Acknowledgment Makes One Wicked--Then Stepmothers Are Wicked!

Stepmother's Day is May 16. Bet You Had No Idea!

Posted May 12, 2010

With Mother’s Day recently past, and Stepmother’s Day on the horizon (May 16th, unofficially), women with stepchildren all over the country are ticked. And sad. At least the ones who email me and many of the ones who frequent online message boards and stepmother chat rooms and websites for stepmothers all over the internet are.

To hear them explain it, many feel unacknowledged, overlooked, and unappreciated. By their husbands, and their husbands’ kids of all ages. And by their husband’s ex-wives, too. “I cart those kids to their after-school activities every day because their mom’s work hours mean she’s unable to. I care about my stepkids, I really do, but it’s a lot of work to do everything I do for them and she has never, ever once thanked me for it. Neither have they. It bugs me on Mother’s Day especially, when she’s getting lauded. I feel that I do the heavy lifting—and I DO do the heavy lifting—and she should thank me,” one woman with twin nine- year-old stepkids wrote.

Another noted, “I practically raised my husband’s kids. When they were little they asked if they could call me ‘Mommy’ and I told them ‘No, you already have a mommy and she’s a very special person.’ I was always respectful of that distinction, and I did everything to avoid stepping on her toes. But now that the kids are in their twenties, I sometimes wonder, can’t my husband, his kids and their mom acknowledge what I’ve done I some small way?”

If merely wanting to be acknowledged and thanked makes a person wicked, then stepmothers are wicked to the core.

Mother’s Day is one of those hot button issues and Feel-Bad days for many women who partner with men who have kids.  They may be hoping for a “thank you” phone call from the kid or adult kid for whom they’ve really put themselves out for years, even while understanding all the reasons such a call is unlikely. For starters, we’re not their moms. We’re not. Even if their moms are negligent and awful, they’re still Mom, and that’s a rightfully powerful bond. Secondly, many of these kids with stepmothers are in terrible loyalty binds, and nothing feels like more of a betrayal of mom than acknowledging us on her day.

Most women with stepkids get this. But because stepmothering is an undertaking so steeped in cultural bias, ignorance, and misconceptions, a stepmother’s hopes are not merely a matter of adjusting her own internal realities. Stepmothers face social expectations that make Mother’s Day particularly tough. Some of the most common, blatantly misinformed and damaging misconceptions I heard from people regarding stepmothers as I researched my book Stepmonster included:

 -“A stepmother only needs good intentions and good heart. Then things will take care of themselves.”

-“If she loves his kids, they’ll love her right back.”

-And the flipside of that particularly uninformed coin: “If they don’t like their stepmom it’s because she’s not likeable. If they don’t love her, it’s because SHE’S not sufficiently loving and kind.

These ignorant, entrenched ideas continue to get traction in the face of what we DO know. For example, we know that loyalty binds—feeling that it’s a betrayal of mom to like stepmom—are crippling to kids of all ages, and sometimes hinder their ability to form a bond with a stepparent. This is particularly the case when a child of any age has a stepmother because, as E. Mavis Hetherington and Constance Ahrons both found in their 30 and 20-year (respectively) longitudinal studies, divorced mothers are as a group angrier, more resentful, and more intrusive in their ex’s households for longer, compared to divorced husbands. All this engineers a context in which kids with stepmothers feel their loyalty binds more acutely, and for longer, than do kids with stepfathers.

We also know, thanks to the work of Marilyn Coleman and Larry Ganong of the University of Missouri, that when a child or adult child is in a loyalty bind, they will actually reject in particular a stepmother they find appealing, kind, and attractive, blaming her, in effect, for their own ambivalence. And so in many cases, trying and being loving and kind actually backfire in a stepmother’s face.

Making the situation more difficult still is that the ignorance about stepmothers happens at an institutional and clinical level as well. Even though stepfamilies will outnumber first families in the U.S. by the year 2011 according to several demographers who study American families, there hasn’t been nearly enough research or public education about stepfamilies based on research to counter prevailing stigma—that they’re second-best, that they’re inherently dysfunctional, and that divorce necessarily and invariably destroys children forever.

In fact at last count, there were twice as many psychological studies of stepfather families (divorced mom, her kids, and her husband or partner post-divorce) as of stepmother families (divorced dad, his kids, and his wife or partner post-divorce). Stepmothering experts including social psychologist Elizabeth Church, Ph.D., have written about how this paucity of research and understanding too often translates into a lack of support even in clinical settings.  In her book Understanding Stepmothers, Church notes what far too many couples in a repartnership with children experience first hand: couples with the best of intentions go to therapists who bill themselves as experts, but have never treated a stepcouple before, and/or have no real knowledge about stepfamily and remarried-with-children dynamics. And so they apply the first-family model to the stepfamily, figuring that the standard of success is for a stepfamily to look, feel, and act like a first family. Which engineers unrealistic expectations, disappointment, and resentment all around.

Stepmother’s Day is (unofficially) May 16. This Stepmother’s Day, do something nice for your stepmother, or for a friend who’s a stepmother. Learn a fact or two about stepfamily life. And tell her you appreciate what she’s doing.