Women and Children

Cinderella had it wrong

The hard part is being a stepmother, writes the author of a new book on women who marry into the maternal role. Heather Mallick, a stepmom herself, reports.

Globe and Mail: Saturday, May 22, 2004 - Page F7

When you think of stepmothers, do you think of stories at bedtime, hot cross buns for breakfast, and hugs and kisses from the nice lady who is your special aunt? Or do you think of the stepmotherish Miss Murdstone, in David Copperfield, or of Cinderella's wicked stepmother or just any vicious crone fresh from the underworld whom your father has been tricked into marrying?

Most likely, you don't think of stepmothers at all. Despite the fact that even by the mid-1990s, only about one-third of Canadian kids lived in a traditional family, and among remarriages, 26 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women were stepparents, no one ever talks about "the steps".

The self-help business is so extensive that there are books on people's relationship with their own hair. But the stepmother section is almost empty. I discovered this myself when I became a clueless stepmother of two in 1990. I knew no other women in my position and the only book I stumbled on had the dire title When You Marry a Man with Children, with the unspoken following clause being "you are in deep trouble".

"I'm a stepmother and a psychologist," author Elizabeth Church says in a phone interview. "And when I talked to friends, I was amazed at how isolated stepmothers are, but also how silenced they are." Several years ago, she wrote a piece in The Globe and Mail about the subject. "The response was overwhelming." I myself had considered participating in her study, but was wary of being led into introspection.

When Ms. Church, a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, interviewed 104 stepmothers for her new book, Understanding Stepmothers: Women Share Their Struggles, Successes, and Insights, she found that most stepmothers wanted to hang around after and chat, so desperate were they for advice and comfort.

How desperate? Here's proof: I asked a close friend in B.C. who is a stepmother of three, with two kids of her own, if she thought stepmothering was a lonely experience. I expected an e-mailed sigh. Instead, I got this outburst: "No one tells you what to expect when you're a stepmother. No one tells you how to manage what can be an incredibly difficult situation, particularly if there's a hostile ex-spouse who makes the children feel conflicted about getting close to you. No one tells you that it's okay, in fact it's normal, not to love your stepchildren, and there is always this guilt eating away at you for that. For me, a close and affectionate friendship with my stepchildren is as good as it's going to get. My attachment to them will never be as visceral and emotional as my attachment to the children who I nursed."

Prof. Church found that in most stepfamilies she sees in her private practice, the stepmothers are the most miserable and conflicted of family members. There are many stressors, she has found, that make them so.

They are the cultural cliché of "wicked stepmother" that precedes her, her own unrealistic expectations, living up to the model of the "perfect mother," the intrusions of the ex-wife, her lack of authority over her stepkids, partners who don't understand her dilemma, and for the stepmother who wants children of her own, there's the reluctant spouse who never wants to see another diaper.

Despite all these traps, many stepmothers were happy. It all depended on which kind of family setup they had managed to create. But the successful setups rarely fell into place by plan; they just happened. And when Prof. Church asked stepmothers if they would do it all over again, many paused, thought hard, and if they didn't say a flat no, said they would have talked to other stepmothers first.

Here's the most important insight, which Prof. Church gleaned from stepmothers who had been stepchildren themselves. "The quality [children] most prized in a stepparent is kindness." That's what the kids remember, not the second income, the sparkling house or elaborate birthday parties: Just kindness.

If it were only that easy, though. The hallmark of the way families are built in our society is that the mother is often seen as the catalyst, the person responsible when things combust. Often their partners just leave it all to them.

In my case, kindness came naturally, as my stepchildren were tiny, sociable creatures, brimming with love. But many stepkids are older, set in their ways, manipulated by one or both parents, and feeling betrayed. Kindness won't dent their defences.

When things go wrong, the stepmother blames herself, when in fact, she has just been responding to the impossible situation handed to her on a secondhand plate the day she married.

Prof. Church identifies different kinds of stepfamilies. The most ambitious is the Nuclear Family, in which the stepmother tries to pretend they are a happy standard family as opposed to a stepfamily. For stepfamilies are stigmatized, as stepmothers will learn when they take a stepchild to the emergency room. They have no legal rights.

These stepmothers actually love their stepchildren, perhaps having been handed them as toddlers. As Prof. Church reports, they say things like, "Family is who you can count on." They are crushed when their stepchildren reject them or rebel, as a biological mother would not be crushed. The bio-mother is their mother, forever.

In the 1995 film Jake's Progress, about a lovable but possibly psychotic little boy, actress Julie Walters sits on the floor with her weird child and intones repeatedly, "Jake, parents will always love their children more than their children love them".

Learning this will be infinitely more painful for the hopeful nuclear-type stepmother than for the biological mother. Prof. Church asks one such stepmother what advice she would offer a new stepmother. "I would never tell anyone to marry someone who has kids," the woman replies. "If they decided to, then [I would] tell them, 'Don't think you'll ever be their mother, because you can never be.' "

Prof. Church offers a twisted Christmas card image of the Retreat model: the cozy house radiating light while outside, the Retreat stepmother peers in.

Next comes the Couple model, where the relationship between the partners comes first, and the children are loved but secondary. What holds the stepfamily together, Prof. Church says, is the profound sexual and intellectual bond between the parents.

Stepfamilies are on the increase. There are just not enough single, attractive marriageable people out there who come without baggage. It's almost a human version of conspicuous consumption and the lure of the disposable object.

Prof. Church takes a fair and dispassionate approach to stepmotherhood, not solely out of curiosity but out of necessity. Stepfamilies? They're everywhere. Her milk-curdling message that women carry the heaviest burden is really a call for change. Steps of both sexes have to work together better.

My girlfriend agrees. She says stepmotherhood is a trap for women and only feminism can explain why. "Women already put so much pressure on themselves to be perfect," she wrote bitterly. "You have to leave that desire behind as a stepmother."

Would stepfathers even bother to read a book about their role, or would they just confidently muddle through? Would their most desperate wish be to link up with other stepfathers and compare notes? In court cases where the stepfather has been abusive and even murderous, all eyes turn to the mother or stepmother. Why didn't she step in? After all, she is a woman, and all women are natural mothers, ergo all women are natural stepmothers.

But are they? Before they dive in, Prof. Church advises, they should stick a toe in the water to see just how cold it is.

Excerpt from Professor Church's book.

Heather Mallick is a columnist with The Globe and Mail.