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Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do ~ Wednesday Martin

Posted Oct 30 2009 11:00pm

Lifers seem to sense — seem to have learned, from years of hard-won experience — that the wicked stepmother has much to teach us about who we are and, counter intuitively perhaps, that she has a lesson or two to impart about surviving step motherhood with our self-respect intact. The happiest, most successful women with stepchildren, it seems, have first of all accepted the ugly truth that we will, some days, be ugly — jealous, resentful, and angry. Slowly, the women who succeed at marriage to a man with children learn that these charged feelings are not only terribly taboo; they are also grounded in reality. Jealousy, as stepfamily expert Elizabeth Church writes, comes from feeling powerless, and stepmothers are certainly often that. Resentment indicates that we are feeling unappreciated and that our overtures of kindness are going unreciprocated — another common and maddening reality of stepmother-stepchild relations. Anger may be a sign that our unrealistic expectations of stepfamily harmony have been dashed. Or it may be a healthy response to feeling spurned and unsupported for years on end, and it may eventually motivate us — and our husbands — to take constructive action.

Like the classic wicked stepmother, the happiest lifers no longer seem hobbled by the need to be liked by their stepkids. If things work out, that’s fine. And if they don’t, well, the lifers shrug as if to say, it’s okay to stop trying if you know you gave it your best. Some battles just can’t be won and aren’t worth my energy. Nor do successful lifers seem gagged by the fear that stepkids, husbands, friends, or the world at large will think of them as stepmonsters if they speak up about wanting respect and civil treatment, or to be treated as a person rather than an obstacle in front of Dad or a maid. Such fears and the need for approval are likely the biggest obstacles a stepmother must overcome in her quest to put her own happiness on a par with that of the rest of the family. It may be difficult or frightening at first to assert ourselves, feeling like outsiders in the family hierarchy as we likely do, but the alternative is worse. Again and again, women with stepkids showed me that it is a quick slide from “I bite my tongue when his kids say something rude or mean to me because I don’t want to get into an argument with them” to “I’m afraid to lay down the law in my own home.” Next stop is “I nag my husband to get his kids to act better and be nicer to me, and then he and I have a huge fight.” Then on to “I hate being a stepmother” and, finally, “I just can’t do this anymore.”

It might just be that some of the strategies of the classic wicked stepmother — toned down but essentially gleaned straight from her ostensibly evil behavior — can pull us back from the brink and even make marriage to a man with children pleasurable. Every day, for example, the wicked stepmother looks at her reflection and asks, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” The real life lesson here is not to be a homicidal, envious narcissist, of course, but to put yourself first. Stepmothers, as we have seen from the studies of their rates of burnout and depression, constantly lose sight of their own needs — arguably even of themselves — as they deal with, blame themselves for, and attempt to fix stepfamily dynamics. Giving yourself a little love will counterbalance the powerful but unreasonable cultural imperative that you must put his kids first. And a little vanity is the best antidote to the typical step-dilemma of becoming so consumed with the unhappiness that sometimes surrounds you that you forget you are an attractive woman, an appealing wife, and a compelling, sexy person — that is, that you have an identity apart from being a stepmom. As a stepmother of two teens told me, “Love thyself, because your stepkids won’t.”

The wicked stepmother does more than gaze at herself in the mirror, of course. She schemes, pulls strings, and consolidates her power. Real stepmothers have no need for any of that. Mostly. But it does pay for a woman with stepchildren to be canny, to observe, and to be strategic in her dealings with her husband and his kids. For example, there are worse things than helping your husband see that you are on the receiving end of quite a lot of bad treatment from his kids (whom he may naturally but unrealistically idealize until you help him see the truth about their behavior) and that it hurts you. It helps to remember that men generally have an easier time dealing with a wife who is sad or pained than one who is aggrieved and angry. Learning to show what is underneath your alienating fury — vulnerability and sadness — will not hurt your efforts. And as for power, don’t forget that you are, in fact, the queen of your household. Pandering and kowtowing to stepchildren of any age who do not respect you as one of the two people who rule your roost will not get them to like you, and it will not make them easier for you to like either. Lifers know that everyone wins when you can find it within yourself to say “Please don’t be rude to me in my home.”

The classic wicked stepmother is, of course, cold and unfeeling. She is emotionally stingy. And she may just have a point — sort of. After all, for a lot of good reasons, your stepkids are extremely unlikely to appreciate, let alone thank you for, your efforts with them. In all likelihood, neither will they gratify your desire to be loved. Your response should be never to give too much. Don’t give stepkids the opportunity to break anything of value to you, including your heart. Lowering your expectations of them and maintaining your focus on your own life — a toned-down version of being cold — will create a pressure-free environment in which a friendship might eventually take hold and even flourish.

Perhaps most notoriously, the wicked stepmother loves her own children best and doesn’t hesitate to put them first. The lesson here is not to be spiteful or petty, of course, or to overtly play favorites. But lifers and experts concur: don’t try to pretend that you love his kids and your kids the same, and don’t buy into the destructive belief that you should. His kids aren’t yours, you likely didn’t know them when they were beguiling babies or toddlers, and they are probably not making an effort to be lovable now. No guilt and no self-flagellating, then, when those without a clue observe, “You probably love them like they’re your own,” and it makes you want to roll your eyes. The expectations of the uninformed — especially regarding “maternal” behavior — are a particular burden for stepmothers. But others’ hopes needn’t become your obligation. Knowing the difference between what you can realistically achieve and what others think you ought to be able to do is the equivalent of a lifeline for women with stepkids.

Author Bio
Wednesday Martin Ph.D., author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do was a regular contributor to the New York Post’s parenting page for several years, and her work has appeared in a number of national magazines. She earned her doctorate in comparative literature from Yale and taught cultural studies and literature at Yale, the New School, and Baruch College. Martin, a stepmother for nine years, lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons.
For more information please visit www.WednesdayMartin.com.

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