I’ve read the books, I’ve read and written the blogs, I’ve talked to many, many stepmoms. Even those who have “a great situation” struggle with their role – a role which often shifts and changes.
So what is it that makes this so hard? We talk about feeling like an outsider, negotiating an often complex relationship with the biological mom, being unsure of discipline and family rules… And yes, those are all very complicated and very real experiences. But what is BEHIND them? And why does the experience of being a stepfather seem to be (often) less fraught?
Now for the disclaimer. In no way am I trying to say that being a stepfather is easy. Trust me, I know how I was as a teenage stepdaughter, and I did not make it easy for anyone (An Open Letter to My Stepfather), least of all my stepdad. But research has actually shown that whether it is self-reported, or based on stepchildren’s perspectives, stepfathers are perceived more positively than stepmothers (Fluitt & Paradise, 1991; Duberman, 1973; Levin, 1997). What’s up with that?
I’m in the foggy midst of my PhD research right now, which is all about stepmoms and how they learn to navigate their role in their stepfamily. And let me say, if you read “PhD” and imagine some twitching, socially awkward person surrounded by papers, dirty hair and sweatpants with holes in them, let me tell you that this stereotype is completely wrong.
It is much, much worse.
What I have found is that for some stepmothers, their role is connected to what theorists such as Mechthild Hart and Rose Barg call “motherwork” – the very intimate and complex work done to raise children. This includes everything from emotional and psychological support, to the day-to-day feeding, bathing, helping with homework, to the maintenance of the home through housework and chores.
Mothering ideology refers to the “way women should mother” based on our social and cultural values, and represents the dominant idea of what it means to be a mother in society today. This is not necessarily the “right” way to mother (as there is no such thing), but rather, how women are taught that they should mother (engage in motherwork).
For many in Western society, mothering ideology is represented by a “Supermom” image – a woman who gives her all for her children; who balances work outside the home with maintaining her house and getting to all her kids’ activities and soccer games. And yes, dads are involved too, but the expectation of the mother is an intense, devoted kind of bond with her children.
So where does that leave a stepmother? In her research, Irene Levin talks about this oxymoron of mothering (that intense, devoted relationship) and step (which suggests distance). How can a woman fill a mothering role but from a distance? How can you love, support, and care for children while being careful not to do it too much?
The ideology for fathers is that of a man who will support and guide his family, play the role of the disciplinarian, and (increasingly) contribute to the day-to-day activities of parenting. The ideology of fatherhood is not explicitly different than that for stepfathers in that typically, men will fill the same role whether “step” is a part of their title or not. The tension of fathering from a distance is not the same reality for men as we see for women. Again, this is not to suggest that stepfathering is easy or without its challenges, but generally speaking the role tension is not the same.
So, if the root of these challenges for stepmoms are our deeply held assumptions about how we live in society; how we are taught to live in this world… what can we do to change it?
Well, the first step is admitting there is a problem.
Seriously. The first step to challenging dominant ideologies that don’t really serve society is to acknowledge it. To say, Hey, you know what? This doesn’t really work for moms and it certainly doesn’t work for stepmoms. So let’s change the discussion. Let’s change the way we teach our daughters and nieces and granddaughters to grow up in the world. Let’s change the current idea of mothering that gives us mommy guilt (so common that there are now commercials about it). And when we can challenge that idea, we can challenge the accompanying stepmother ideology. Perhaps we can go back to more of a “it takes a village” attitude, where parents and stepparents are part of the community of support that raise children.
No one will ever take the place of a mother – that’s just human nature. And for myself and many other stepmoms, that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to be a piece of the puzzle, only at times it feels like my piece has an apple on it and the puzzle picture is of the Milky Way. Ha ha.
I know, you’re thinking, Well sure, that sounds “easy”… just change the conversation (and you’re saying it with a great deal of sarcasm. That’s what I would do anyway). Well then you’ll be equally scornful when I say it all starts with each of us – with the way we talk about our families, our roles, and our village. When we parent in a way that feels right for us, and that serves to nurture children without creating loyalty binds or alienation – two detrimental outcomes that we can connect to an individualist perspective of parenting – we slowly create change. When we make it okay to be a part of the puzzle, and support those other pieces as they click into place, we shift our consciousness, our understanding. We shift the way we think about our roles and expectations of one another as parents, stepparents, and by implication, our children and stepchildren.
Breathe deep, love deeper,
Erin Careless is a PhD Candidate in Adult Education, focusing on stepmom learning. As a certified Stepfamily Coach, Erin provides support and help to stepmoms through her business, Steplife – Stepmom Coaching and Support. Erin and her husband Matt share their home with his two little ones – 9 year-old Oliver and 7 year-old Waverleigh.