Dr. Phil is fond of telling the¬†biological parents that they need to grow up, take responsibility, and¬†work together for the sake of the children. I submit that it does not take a PhD to suggest that approach.¬† Similarly, Dr. Joy Browne likes to tell stepmothers that their role in a stepchild‚Äôs life is to be a good hostess when they are in their home.¬† Again, sounds practical, but lacks any real understanding of the reality of stepliving.
When a couple divorces, they admit that they can not get along, they can not come to resolution of major issues, they no longer like or love one another.¬† They might be in enough denial to not say these things out loud, but¬†the message remains the same albeit subconscious.
The¬†‚ÄĚexperts‚Äô‚ÄĚ¬†recommendations are therefore founded on faulty thinking.¬† If these two previously married parents could get along, reach agreements, and put their children‚Äôs needs above their own‚Ä¶.they would still be married.¬†
A natural consequence of a divorce is that one or both of the original parties will get remarried.¬† This¬†person will become not only the spouse to the parent, but also the ‚Äústep-parent‚ÄĚ to the¬†minor child.¬† If this¬†happens when children are¬†adults, this is a different dynamic entirely.¬† But when it happens when a child is still a minor, then the¬†‚ÄĚnew‚ÄĚ spouse has a role.
The million dollar question is ‚Äúwhat role?.‚ÄĚ¬† I subject to you that the role varies greatly based on circumstances and can not and should not be dicated in¬†the cookie cutter way¬†to which the popular culture and its icons seems to want to default.
I¬†focus my attention, here, on stepmothers.¬† I don‚Äôt wish to disregard the contribution that a stepfather has, rather I¬†chose to discuss that which I know most about.¬†
I know stepmother¬†who have¬†entered a marriage as¬†a custodial stepmother and as such have signed up for nearly 24/7 parenting responsibilities.¬† They become a surrogate mother to children whose mothers are not up to the task.¬† These women deserve the respect and admiration they have earned by taking on such a role.¬† We freely give this respect to adoptive or fostering parents; why not to stepparents?¬†
I know stepmothers who have entered¬†into marriage as a ‚Äú50/50‚Ä≥ stepmother and as such have signed up for half-time responsibility for stepchildren¬†which almost always includes a ridiculous amount of organizing, negotiating, scheduling, and¬†assisting with the ins and outs of children moving¬†between two homes.¬† This is no¬†small task and requires perpetual adjustments in the dynamics of the home, yet again‚Ä¶stepmothers are expected to cooperate, never complain, and take it on as they ‚Äúknew what they were getting into.‚ÄĚ¬† That is a lot like saying that we all knew what we were getting into by going to college, getting married, or moving to another state.¬† It‚Äôs simply not possible to know ‚Äúwhat one is getting into‚ÄĚ until one gets into it.¬† Complaining is reserved for the bioparents, apparently, and stepparents should just put up and shut up with the challenges of child rearing.¬†
There is the additional population of fathers¬†and stepmothers¬†who have ‚Äúvisitation‚ÄĚ or defined ‚Äúparenting time‚ÄĚ with the children.¬† It is this stereotype of stepmothers that tend to dominate popular culture‚Äôs idea of a stepmother.¬† It is this group who Dr. Joy Browne tells to be the hostess with the mostess.¬† Heaven forbid she actually experience what it is like to have a child whom¬†both you and your husband love to come and go like a visitor.¬†¬†Is she possibly suggesting that over the long term, a stepmother is to be as aloof and distant as Martha¬†Stewart putting on a¬†party?¬†
¬†These non-custodial parents see and experience so many things regarding these children that they can not help,¬†if they are caring people, but to love and want to support and guide the stepchildren.¬† They often cook, clean, shop, manage, and assist the father in caring for the child(ren).¬† Yet they are expected to be a¬†mere hostess?
Look, house guests come but once a year for a¬†pre-defined period of time.¬† They are adults.¬† When it comes to stepchildren, they are not guests but family members.¬† They come at a great frequency.¬† They often have their own rooms, their own toys, their own clothes, their own domain in the non-custodial home.¬† House guests are old enough to behave as guests (ususally). Stepchildren require¬†guidance, teaching, supervision.¬†
Stepmothers are¬†a part of providing all of the above needs for the stepchild.¬† To treat her¬†as or to suggest that she behave as anything less than a co-parent to the¬†father is insulting.¬†
We praise our adoptive and foster¬†parents in this country, yet we demean and limit our stepparents.¬† The only thing I can attribute that to is our tendency to place mothers on a pedestal, even¬†when they have not earned the position.¬† We need to seriously re-think how we consider a stepmother, her role, and the appreciation that she deserves.¬† ¬†