I recently leaked.
Not like white pants, woman's worst nightmare, kill-me-now leaked (thank god)… I StepMom leaked.
Over coffee with a close girlfriend and wonderful mother of three boys the other day, I caught myself sharing a hint of frustration that arose last week with my stepdaughters’ mother. My “leak” was nothing big - It was much like any other woman would share with a friend about the insane runaround that hits every household the week before school begins. The new schedule coordination and early bedtimes. The three coffees to get us through school clothes shopping. The pulling of teeth to finish last minute summer reading… and for me, the flack I received from BioMom about the type of shoes I bought and her disdain for the color pants we had selected… The instant I saw my girlfriend's eyebrows rise when I mentioned the hint of contention that often exists between my stepdaughter’s biological mother and myself, I knew I had hit the Mom Nerve that StepMoms tiptoe around on a daily basis. I quickly ended my thought with a positive comment about the new tee shirts the girls’ mom had just bought them, and redirected the conversation toward the handsome new social studies teacher her daughter and my stepdaughter shared. “But you don’t really have to actually DO that much, I mean they already have a mom,” my girlfriend naively prodded deeper, trying to sooth her own twinge of insecurity I accidentally hit. The familiar pang of hurt hit my stomach as I knowingly suppressed my urge to educate her on what StepMoms actually do. Instead, I smiled and said simply, “It helps my husband for me to do these things for the kids when they’re at our house." And I left it at that.
Over the years, I’ve learned when talking with BioMom friends, that this kind of embarrassingly primitive validation for my participation in my step kids’ lives was generally needed in these situations. I’ve found that most women who are not StepMoms themselves simply don’t understand and can’t comprehend an alternative form of maternal care than traditional, biological motherhood. And its rooted in the fear that we will replace them - render them unneeded. Little did my well-meaning girlfriend know that for years these little souls have come to me for comfort when they fell sad or had a fight with a friend. Little did she know that it was me who scared away the closet monsters and caressed their foreheads to sooth them to sleep at night. She had no idea that I happily took them to the EXACT store they NEEDED to go to, because it had the EXACT tee shirt they MUST have for school. She could not comprehend that although they weren’t born from my body, for years I have been what they've known as their maternal figure for 50% of their childhood in our home. And even with this level of maternal participation in their lives, Mom still safely remains Mom. Contrary to popular BioMom fear, the maternal role of StepMom does not obliterate the role of BioMom - to have both is simply a reality of the modern stepfamily, that too many mothers haven’t yet accepted.
Are any of your girlfriends StepMoms? How well do you know them? I mean how well do you really know them? Do you know the challenges they face? Our culture has positioned StepMoms in a precarious role. Thanks, Hollywood, for labeling us women who remarried men with children as the “wicked stepmother,” the “Stepmonster,” or the gold-digging-young-bimbo-who-married-dad... truly - we owe you for that one.
In addition to the normal challenges of fostering a healthy family and happy marriage (a challenge and of itself since one out of every two marriages in the U.S. ends in divorce), StepMoms face far more challenges than other women - challenges that diminish our social network, our sense of womanhood, and our feelings of belonging to a community. StepMoms often encounter greater guardedness and suspicion from other women, as though we entered with malice as home wreckers to steal husbands, capture the children and brainwash them all into accepting us as their new, exclusive Mom.
The truth is, most StepMoms work really hard to take care of their husbands, step-kids and households. In a perfect world, divorced parents would want their children to feel loved and fully accepted by both parents and new stepparents - right? For the addition of new family members to mean just more love and support for the kids. Unfortunately, the more common reality of resistance to the StepMom often leads to greater conflict and confusion. And StepMoms frequently feel alienated, misunderstood and alone - afraid to appear as though we love our step kids too much or too little. We face challenges that differ from biological moms and other women. Research suggests StepMoms experience significantly greater anxiety and depression than biological mothers. And yet, being a StepMom is becoming the norm. Forty-two million adults in the U.S. have been married more than once, and over half of all US families are remarried or recouped. That means 1,300 stepfamilies form each day in this country. Fifty percent of all women are likely at some point in their life, to live in a stepfamily relationship (either married or as live-in committed partners).
So why is it so difficult for StepMoms? Research suggests that 50% of ex-wives still feel intensely angry with their former spouses - read: BITTER. In their twenty and thirty-year longitudinal studies, both family researchers Constance Ahrons and Mavis Hetherington uncovered that women tend to nurture feelings of hostility far longer after divorce than men do. Meanwhile men tend to foster hopes of greater peace in the blended family after divorce. It was also found that BioMoms often cling onto fantasies of either reconciliation with their ex-husband, or at least a specific (often overly entangled) picture of co-parenting. This sets the stage for conflict off the bat between BioMoms and StepMoms. BioMoms can feel very resentful of the new wife and marriage, and Hubby may avoid rocking the boat, and so remains entangled with BioMom in a way that is unhealthy for the new marriage. Studies have shown that Dads with shared custody tend to fear alienation from their children, which can cause them to retreat from situations of conflict with BioMom. This creates a situation where BioMom has greater influence in Dad/StepMom’s home, parenting styles and rules, allowing inconsistent or unhealthy boundaries that affect new marriages and stepfamily life negatively.
Hetherington also found that StepMoms were more often singled out by stepchildren and treated poorly - typically when children picked up on BioMom’s anger, hostility or jealousy. This is thought to be a way for the children to show support for BioMom or to help her feel better about the whole situation. Many divorced parents are unable to separate their emotional needs from the children's needs, and often share too much of their personal life with them. This can create a breeding ground for parental alienation and confusion for everyone - all pointing to StepMom’s addition as the culprit.
For StepMoms to nurture healthy families and marriages requires a close and consistent partnership between her and her husband. It also requires great bravery and development of new skillsets to set healthy boundaries with BioMom, and natural encouragement of eventual loving relationships with step kids. This can take years, and in the meantime StepMoms frequently feel alone during huge turbulences in their lives while these dynamics shift. Like any big change, often times they shift back and forth, causing frustration many other women don’t understand. With the prevalence of StepMoms on the rise, it is time to talk about these dynamics more boldly, and bring awareness to the undertones of a newly developing cultural shift within American families. Step kids do best when both stepfamily homes are stable, loving and supportive. They learn healthy relationship dynamics not witnessed in the failed marriage, through the new marriage. And the health and happiness of StepMoms is critical, since they continue to help lead a rising number of stepfamily households across the nation.
If you’re a StepMom, and you are lacking a community of women who understand, join our StepMom Tribe. If you’re a friend of a StepMom and just opening your eyes to all she has been through, share this with her. Let her know that although you’re not in her shoes, you’re starting to understand her nontraditional role and its complexities. Let her know that you SEE her, APPRECIATE her, and welcome her as a maternal figure in your world. And for the love of all that is good - Hug a StepMom today.