Stepmommy Dearest: Stepmothers Speak Out About One of Society's Most Underappreciated and Least Understood Jobs

Issue: 
May 2012

In most ways, Molly* bears no resemblance to most Americans’ image of a “traditional” woman. The 37-year-old teacher is an accomplished athlete, a Fulbright Scholar with a Master’s degree, and a fluent Spanish-speaker who’s lived abroad and traveled widely. She’s a self-described “striver,” always working on her swim stroke, her Spanish vocab, or her next advanced degree.  

A cheerful, practical sort who doesn’t tend to ruminate much, Molly admits that she didn’t fully know what she was getting into last fall when she married a man with majority custody of his seven-year-old son. She’d just taken a demanding new job in Metro schools and suddenly found herself diving into her new role as wife and stepmother with the same perfectionistic zeal she applied to sports and career. “I put all this pressure on myself that I had to do it all,” Molly recalls. “It’s so traditional, and yet I totally fell into it! Make sure the house was clean, wash the clothes, cook the food, get all the breakfast and lunch together.

“I looked at my mom, who was a housewife,” she laughs. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh! I can do all that like my mom did. But my mom did not work 60 hours a week! I realized, [that] to be a good wife and mother, it doesn’t have to all be on me.”

Within a couple of months, Molly and her husband settled into a happy routine of shared tasks. But she soon discovered that stepmotherhood was fraught with unforeseen perils: What was her role? she wondered. Was she like an adoptive mom, with full parental rights and responsibilities, or a favorite aunt, quick with hugs and gifts but steering clear of discipline and decision-making?

“I’m still figuring that out,” she says. “Is my role really like this, of nanny? I make his food, wash his clothes, bring him to school, make sure his homework’s done, and read him a story and tuck him in … But when it comes to making a decision about how he is disciplined? My opinion is not welcome.

“It’s like there’s a biological parent club,” she says. “I’ve never had a kid, so what do I know?”

Molly issues a good-natured belly laugh when I ask her if she has any regrets. “I cannot deny that I’ve had my moments where I’ve been like, ‘Oh my god! What did I do?!’” she chuckles. “I was not expecting how frustrating it would be. There are emotional land mines. You have to negotiate a very complicated relationship.

“I don’t think most people realize how complicated a role it is,” she adds. “Even husbands don’t realize how hard it is.”

Dr. Rachelle Katz, psychotherapist and author of The Happy Stepmother, says that stepmotherhood can be one of society’s most challenging and misunderstood roles. After marrying a man with a four-year old daughter, Katz struggled to bond with her new stepdaughter. One day, the little girl piped up, “Mommy says you’re a witch.”

“Well, what do you think?” Katz asked her.

“Nah, I don’t think so,” her stepdaughter replied. It was an epiphany for Katz. “I could not control what she thought of me,” she said. “It was a moment to say, ‘Just focus on what I can control.’“

Katz started wondering about other stepmothers’ experiences — a largely unreported story. She created a website, stepsforstepmothers.com, that included a posting board and online questionnaire for stepmothers. The emotional dam broke; she received more than 3,000 responses in the first year. Stepmothers reported what Katz had experienced personally: confusion about their role in stepkids’ lives; exhaustion from taking on too many tasks; the feeling that those tasks went unnoticed and unappreciated; little or no time to spend alone or with husbands; ongoing drama from ex-wives; and most difficult of all, an absence of affection or bonding with stepkids.

There seems to be no roadmap for stepmothering, and that confusion can leave stepmoms feeling anxious. A study by Lisa Doodson of Thames Valley University in England found that stepmothers experienced much higher levels of anxiety and depression than biological mothers.” And stepmoms with no biological kids and full-time care of stepkids reported the greatest anxiety of all.

“[Stepmothers] are trying so hard, “ says Katz. “A lot of [them] feel like outsiders in the home, despite the fact that they’ve been married 20, 30 years. For many, this wound keeps getting reopened. 

She points out that those wounds can feel particularly searing on Mother’s Day. For stepchildren, holidays often become an ongoing tug-of-war of competing allegiances, Katz explains. And on Mother’s Day, even a card for stepmom can feel, to bio mom, like a sign of disloyalty. “I think a lot of biological mothers feel that Mother’s Day belongs to them,” she says.

Katz eventually came to accept her stepdaughter’s emotional distance, and to understand why she did not acknowledge Katz on Mother’s Day. “It took a long time,” she admits. “There’s a difference between what your mind knows and how your heart reacts.”

A stepmom since 2004, Lynne has learned a lot about regulating how her heart reacts. Lynne and Molly are close friends with similar personalities—bilingual schoolteachers, fiercely independent women with broad strains of wanderlust, wiry athletes and highly motivated doers. At 49, Lynne offers a view of a stepmother’s life that benefits from almost a decade of hard lessons and more than a few rewards.

Soon after they married, Lynne and her husband became his son Charles’s full-time caregivers for almost two years. (For health reasons, Charles’s biological mother was unavailable during that time.) Up by 5:30, at school by 7, Lynne’s days were a blur of work and child care. She’d pick up Charles from school at 2:30 and spend the next few hours getting him fed and supervising homework. Her only “me time” was after 8 —usually a workout, followed by a glass of wine at home before bed.

Lynne says the biggest source of stress was trying to present a united front for Charles while navigating frequent legal and interpersonal dramas with his birth mother. “It was very hard,” she says. “I had to be the taskmaster. His regular mom got to be his Disney World mom.”

She recalls one moment early in the marriage when Charles asked her, “Why do I live with you?” It was a tough question to tackle. But slowly, she says, Charles grasped that although Lynne wasn’t his “real” mom, he could count on her. She’d always be there to make sure his homework got done and his lunch packed. “You’re the only one who cares if I do these things,” he said to her once. Another time, he brought home a picture he’d drawn of himself, his dad, and Lynne in front of a boxy house. “It’s very telling,” she smiles.

During the most intense care-giving years, Lynne had to give up certain favorite activities — volunteer work and social time, mostly. She coped by adopting a big-picture view. “I see life as a phases thing,” explains Lynne. “Facets of our personalities have different times to shine in our lifetimes. There was a mothering part of me that I’d never known I had. I was a provider. That kept me better adjusted, instead of like, ‘Why can’t I do the things I used to do?’

“I’m a lemonade -maker person,” she adds. “I saw a child in need. What are you gonna do? I cared for his father and cared for him. You become an adult when you can put someone else’s needs first.” 

Now that Charles is a pre-teen, with his biological mom back in his life in significant ways, Lynne’s had to take a more neutral and distant approach with discipline and child-rearing decisions. That struggle hasn’t been easy. “But my marriage is stronger now than it ever has been,” she says. “I thought it was all going to blow up on several occasions.” 

She believes that what helped her marriage survive the toughest years was maintaining a strong sense of self. “You don’t do things to get thanked. You do things because they’re the right thing to do, that make you feel good about yourself. 

“I wasn’t going be petty and angry and vengeful, because that’s not me,” she explains. “It’s that taking a step back and not acting out in anger. Like, ‘Things are tough now. Maybe I’ll wait until things blow over and see where we stand.’ If you do that, things will be fine.” 

In one way, Lynne and Molly are opposites: whereas Lynne confronts, Molly tends to abide, quietly. She says she’s had to learn to speak up when she finds herself getting irritated that her husband isn’t valuing her opinions about his son’s care. “I’m not a great communicator,” she says. “But when I say I’m upset, it helps me let go.” She’s also discovered that a selective “no” can preserve her sanity. On Saturday mornings, she now goes for a long swim at the Y or visits friends instead of going to  soccer games.  

Despite the occasional land mines, Molly calls herself lucky and has wholeheartedly embraced her new job as stepmom. She says she was surprised to discover how naturally she fell into a mothering role. It helps that Molly’s husband defers to her teacherly wisdom in all school-related matters, leaving her with a clear, important role to fill. But more than that, Molly says, Denis is a sweet, affectionate little boy who makes her laugh; and husband and stepson both are quick with help and “thank yous.”

“There are a lot of beautiful things about it,” says Molly of stepmotherdom. “My stepson is really sweet. We have a good relationship. I know he loves me a lot, and I love him.”

*Names have been changed.

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