For years, stepmothers have complained that “Snow White” cast them in an unflattering light. Pop culture has tried to rehabilitate their reputation, presenting us with such paragons of step-parental virtue as Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” Florence Henderson on “The Brady Bunch,” and Allison Janney in “Juno.”
But in real life, many women find coping with another woman’s child harder than they had hoped. Some balk. Many moan. They form support groups, write articles about their hardships, and even publish books based on their challenging new situation.
While I’m sure parenting your partner’s kids can’t be a cakewalk, I think these women should shut up and wise up. Because no matter how hard it might be to become a step-parent, it’s twice as challenging to gain one.
I speak from (sometimes bitter) experience. I got my first stepmom at nine, my second at 22, and signs are pointing to the possibility of a third by 33. When my dad married a woman who could barely control her contempt for me, I not only hated her but lost trust in his judgment, too. And the fact that her kids got to live with him while I only saw him once a week was my first and worst taste of rejection. However much she resented my existence, I was the one who missed out the most.
When my dad headed for the divorce courts again in my early 20s, you’d think I might have been relieved. Instead, I cried on-and-off for months. It felt like my mom and I went through a lot of anguish for nothing.
It turns out that being a stepchild never gets easier, even if you’re not technically a child any more. In fact, the worst part of being a grownup is that you’re expected to act like one, even if your life is being thrown into turmoil by your parent changing partners.
My reaction wasn’t very mature, but counselor and author of Be a Great Step-Parent, Suzie Hayman, says it was pretty typical: “What often happens is you go through the emotions you didn’t resolve the first time round. You mourn your original family all over again.”
It’s probably best not to take out those tensions on your new step-parent, but it’s an extremely well-adjusted person who can become part of one ‘blended’ family after another without experiencing even a hint of hostility. This is made harder by the fact that every time my dad meets someone new, he moves further away from me, and not just metaphorically: He relocated to Australia with his third wife.
I know not all stepmothers are evil, but I never felt welcomed by either of mine. Still, things could have been a lot worse: Some of the women I know hardly see their fathers because their stepmother situation is so strained. My friend Leah’s stepmom sulks so much when her husband socializes without her that he and Leah meet for lunch in secret, while my other friend Siobhan was close to her dad’s girlfriend until they married and had kids of their own, when she was pushed out of the picture.
Of course, growing apart from their children is down to the dads in question, not their wives, but what kind of woman considers “love me, love my kid” an unreasonable request?
One who shouldn’t be a stepmom, of course. Yeah, you can’t choose who you fall in love with. But if learning to live with a guy’s kid sounds like too much of a challenge, don’t even date him. And certainly don’t say “I do.”