Pity the poor stepmother. Thanks to popular stories like Cinderella, she’s gotten a bad rep for centuries. When I became a stepmother in 2002, I had a decidedly limited perspective on stepmothers. Because my parents have been married for over fifty years, I had no idea what step-life was like. I soon found myself plunged into a new world fraught with new rules.
It wasn’t long after my marriage that I sought some online support to help me learn the ropes of stepmotherhood. As I started to meet people online and read their stories, I soon found out that a lot of stepmothers have a truly tough road to hoe after marrying a man with children. It seems like so many people have so little empathy for women who become stepmothers, too. My online friends and I have often heard that familiar refrain, “You knew what you were getting into when you married a man with kids” or “That’s what you signed up for” or “Put the kids first.”
I was very excited when I heard about a new book written for stepmothers by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. The book, entitled Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2009. I first learned about it on a messageboard I frequent for second wives and stepmoms. Someone had linked to a book review posted on Salon.com. I read and thoroughly enjoyed the review and was all set to order the book. Finally, it seemed like someone understood and empathized with the difficult issues so many stepmothers face!
Then I read the comments, many of which had been posted by bitter adult stepchildren. Some of them made me shudder, even though I often understood where some of the adult stepchildren were coming from. True enough, there are some women out there who are not nice people. Some of those women do end up becoming wicked stepmothers. But just as often, stepmothers happen to be perfectly good people who happened to fall in love with a guy who has kids. And suddenly, a lot of these nice women find themselves in a truly difficult and sometimes impossible situation.
About Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.
It may come as no surprise that Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. is herself a stepmother to her husband’s two daughters. She was a regular contributor to the New York Post’s parenting page for a number of years and currently blogs on Psychology Today’s Web site. Her work has also appeared in a variety of national magazines. She earned her doctorate in comparative literature from Yale University and also taught cultural studies and literature at Yale. She and her husband now live in New York City with their two sons.
What’s great about this book…
Clearly, when Wednesday Martin chose to write about stepmotherhood, she chose a topic that she knows intimately. Dr. Martin is also in a position to empathize with stepmothers, who may enter their marriages with the very best of intentions, yet find themselves at war with their stepchildren and their husbands’ previous wives or significant others. As I read Stepmonster, I was often both impressed and gratified by Martin’s grasp of the issues typical stepmothers face. For instance, she explains that stepmothers often find themselves competing with their stepchildren for their husband’s attention and affection. That competition is often complicated by the guilt that many men feel after they split from their children’s mother. Many men end up being non-custodial parents, which means that their time with their kids is limited. Because they don’t get to see their kids as often as they’d like, they often lower their expectations of their children’s behavior and become more willing to tolerate disrespect or rudeness from their kids. Not only do fathers often tolerate bad behavior, they also expect their wives to overlook slights from their kids. So often, the stepmom gets told to “suck it up” for as long as the kids are visiting, because her husband doesn’t want their visit disrupted by arguments or strife.
A related issue that Martin discusses is the fact that stepmothers are often expected to take on a lot of responsibility toward their stepchildren. Stepmothers may be asked to drive their children to and from activities, look after them while their fathers are busy, or even contribute money toward their welfare. And yet, a lot of times, stepmothers are not given any authority over their stepchildren. For example, Martin writes about one stepmother who was perplexed when her stepdaughter’s mother yelled at her for not forcing the girl to wear deodorant, even though the girl’s mother had also expressly forbidden the stepmom from trying to “mother” the girl in any way.
Many people seem to expect stepmothers to love their stepchildren as if they were their own kids, even if the stepchild is not someone who is easy to love. And yet, no one seems to expect stepchildren from returning the sentiment toward their father’s wife. If a stepmother dares to complain about her stepchild’s negative behavior, she might be reminded that “she’s the adult” who “knew what she was getting into when she got married”. But the trouble is, most stepmothers really don’t know what they’re in for until they’ve already committed. Even if a stepmother has had the chance to get to know her stepchildren before she ties the knot, there’s something about making a partnership legal that really changes the dynamics of all related relationships. Suddenly, dad’s “cool girlfriend” becomes the stepmother– a potential threat to a child’s biological mom and, in some cases, a threat to a child’s potential inheritance.
Nobody wants to be a stepmother…
Face it. When little girls play house, they don’t usually want to take on the role of “stepmom”. However, as Martin points out, so many of those little girls will someday be stepmothers. Many marriages in the United States fail and about half of all American women will eventually marry a man who has children from a previous relationship. Martin reports that roughly 70% of those remarriages will also fail, often because of the difficult issues that come up when families try to blend. People with children from prior relationships bring a lot of extra complications to new relationships. In a sense, most people who marry someone with kids aren’t just marrying a new partner; they are also marrying his or her existing family. And that means having to deal with exes and children who come from old relationships with exes. According to Martin’s research, women in the stepmother role have a much harder time and report more dissatisfaction than men who become stepfathers do. Things often get even more complicated if a stepmother ends up having a child of her own.
Wednesday Martin covers these issues thoroughly in Stepmonster, using current research as well as history to back up her points. She uses a clear, concise, and entertaining writing style that is easy and enjoyable to read. I managed to get through this book in a matter of hours because I found it hard to put down. I really appreciated Martin’s sympathetic perspective toward stepmothers and stepchildren. In order to get a complete picture of the issues that complicate step-life, she interviewed stepmothers and stepchildren to flesh out the reasons why their relationships can so often be complicated and contentious.
Martin’s research seems to indicate that whether or not stepmothers and stepchildren realize it, the disrespect and distance they so often feel toward each other is very often not personal. This is a conclusion that I’ve actually come to on my own as I’ve been a stepmother. I could have been any woman on the face of the planet and my stepdaughters would probably dislike me just as much. Why? Because I represent an obstacle to the fantasy that their mother and father will someday get back together. And because stepchildren often don’t get the chance to really get to know their stepmothers without interference, they sometimes don’t get to see her as simply another human being who’s trying to get by in life. It doesn’t occur to them, just as it doesn’t seem to occur to society at large, that stepmoms are people too… with thoughts, feelings, opinions, hopes, and dreams, just like theirs. And they don’t often recognize or appreciate the stepmother’s attempts to be kind and good. In fact, if she’s too kind and good, they may have no respect at all for her.
I would definitely recommend Stepmonster to anyone who either already is a stepmother or is about to become one. It really does offer a refreshing and intelligent look at step-life from a new angle. So many books about step-life are sympathetic only to the plight of stepchildren. It’s nice to see one that addresses the numerous significant challenges that so many stepmothers face. Five stars.