Religious Abuse
Jesus factor
Judge Bartell
The exceedingly complex role of the stepmom
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

“Do you, the bride, take this man, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health … and do you take his kids?”

You may never hear a minister utter these words at a wedding, but in theory, they’re becoming more and more appropriate. The “blended family” – a term that is both celebrated and abhorred, depending on whom you ask – is becoming a fact of modern life.

Statistics show that while one out of every two marriages today will end in divorce, three-fourths of divorced people will eventually remarry (suggesting that the institution marriage is alive and well, even if people sometimes pick the wrong partner). Unfortunately the rate of divorce for second marriages is even higher. And step relationships can be a huge factor.

Ask any family therapist, and they’ll agree: the stepmother generally has the most challenging role in these new families. There are plenty of reasons for this, starting with history. One research group found some 900 stories referring to the concept of an “evil stepmother,” the most well known of these “Snow White” and “Cinderella.” Certainly there are stepmothers that do terrible things (as there are biological mothers that do). And the myth is becoming less acceptable as more and more women take on the stepmother role. But it’s still true that stepmothers have an uphill battle on almost every front.

The role of a stepmother is exceedingly complex. A stepmom can get whiplash trying to negotiate her way around competing interests and attempting to find a path through veritable mazes of paradox. Stepmoms often have all of the responsibilities of parenting (think cooking, cleaning, laundry) but none of the legal rights. Stepmoms may constantly be trying to find the middle ground between being a child’s pal and being a disciplinarian. Those who feel no love for their stepchildren are seen as cold; those who do can be accused of “trying to take the place of the biological mother.” In short, being a stepmom means pleasing some of the people only some of the time.

A stepparent’s role in a family is unique in that it is born of loss. A child has lost a natural parent due to death or divorce; the natural parent may be in the child’s life all the time, or may be gone, but a child’s dreams of having “the perfect family” have been shattered, and a stepmom is the living proof of that fact.

A stepmom’s relationship with the biological mother can range from friendly to neutral to downright hostile.

“I consider myself very lucky,” says Claire, whose household contains her two children and her husband’s two children, all under the age of nine. “At first, my stepchildren’s biological mother was really angry. But over time she realized that I take good care of the kids, and now we are best friends.”

Not everyone is so fortunate.

“When I first got married I had this fantasy that the biological mother and I would be friends and would co-parent this child together,” says Kyra. “Now, several therapists later, our two households can communicate only via lawyer -– and even now there are blowups. I wish that she could at least appreciate that her son and I have a loving relationship, but I sometimes think she’d rather that I be a terrible person to give her an excuse for hating me.”

Lynnette, the custodial stepmom of three elementary school children, had a similar experience when her stepchildren’s biological mother lost custody of them.

“I didn’t know how to function being the object of such intense and systematic hatred,” she says, but adds, “the children were a little unruly, but they are wonderful -– sweet, absolutely dear.”

Relationships between stepparents and stepchildren can vary greatly. There truly are some children that “only a mother could love,” and there are stepmothers that behave badly and give their stepchildren good reason to dislike them. Sometimes a stepmom tries her best, but is faced with a “team” made up of her husband and stepchildren, against which she’s always losing.

Other stepmoms and stepkids just “click.”

“I love my stepdaughter as if she is my own,” says Rebekkah. “She’s sweet, smart, funny, pretty, and talented. We actually enjoy being together, and she’s never given me that ‘You’re not my real mom’ crap. But I give so much of the credit to her, for being the kind of person she is – frankly, she’s an easy kid to love.”

A big reason why the rate of divorce among second marriages is extraordinarily high is that the husband and wife often argue over the children. Jane is a clinical social worker and a stepmom as well. She knows from personal experience how important it is to keep the marital relationship strong. “My husband and I have always known that we were together because we loved each other, not because we wanted a pseudo-family,” she says.

Jane emphasizes the need for the children’s father to promote the stepmom as a parent figure within the household, deserving of respect. “When I would have a little struggle,” says Jane, who has two stepchildren, “I was supported by my husband. Still, it took time to acclimate.”

Many husbands, she says, want their wives to be pals with the children –- an unrealistic wish. And many “experts” on stepparenting say that stepmoms should never discipline their stepkids. But discipline is not punishment; it’s a form of teaching and can be done in a positive way.

“‘Discipline’ comes from the word ‘disciple,’” Jane says. “It’s about directing them in the way they should go. Children need the adults in their lives to be parents, not friends.”

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in The Phoenix. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

Return to words & stuff freelancing - Teresa's articles & expertise