Profiling Stepmothers

Published by Wednesday Martin

An image of stepmothers I've been particularly focused on dispelling these last weeks as I speak to the media: empowered, evil excluders and victimizers. As any woman with stepchildren knows, and as the research so clearly spells out, our perceptions of who stepmothers are could not be further from the reality. The studies and anecdotal reports from mental health professionals who work with stepmothers actually paint a picture that will startle many: stepmothers are by and large the most powerless and vulnerable members of the stepfamily system.

Lessons from Birds and Primates

Published by Wednesday Martin

While I was researching my book, I was fascinated to discover that there is plenty of stepparenting in the animal world. Evolutionary biologist Stephen T. Emlen, for example, studied some Kenyan birds, the White Fronted Bee Eaters, and discovered uncanny similarities between their families and ours. Bee Eaters live in rather large communal apartments — okay, they're really giant bird houses in mud banks, but you get the idea. They help extended family members with provisioning and childcare (yes, juvenile bee eaters actually babysit their younger offsprings and cousins) and they also "divorce" (that's what ornithologists call it) after a nesting failure (i.e., no chicks in a breeding season). After which the Bee Eaters will "repartner." That's right, get married again.

It's Not Over 'til It's Over, But...

Published by Wednesday Martin

As I researched my book over the last three years, lots of women with older and adult stepchildren shared with me their sense of frustration upon discovering that stepparenting isn't just suddenly over or easier once the kids turn 18, or 21, or move out of the house. Sometimes, a father's emotional commitments and financial contributions continue into a stepchild's thirties and beyond. We're not talking about caring and spotting someone $20 for cab fare here. Women have told me stories of husbands who unilaterally decide to pay a thirty-something child's rent for the long haul, or remain embroiled in unhealthy emotional dynamics more suited to a parent and an adolescent.

As Spring Holiday and Event Season and Summer Vacation All Approach, Stepmothers Think, "Just Shoot Me"

Published by Wednesday Martin

In spite of the brief snow flurries in Manhattan today, Spring is in the air. I know this because I am woefully underprepared for both Passover and Easter (sometimes, being part of an interfaith marriage means bungling two traditions). If memory serves, they are to be followed in short order by May weddings and graduations, after which there will be the long Memorial Day holiday, followed by June weddings and graduations, and along the way, sometimes as early as late April or early May if they're in college, the kids are off for a three or four month summer holiday.

I Was a Really Good Stepmother Before I Married a Man with Kids

Published by Wednesday Martin

Did you catch Oprah yesterday? The theme was "Secrets of Motherhood," and women were cutting loose ( I laughed out loud at the story of a mom who was driving down the highway with all of her kids asleep in the backseat — bliss! A few moments, perhaps even an hour, of quiet to look forward to! But what to do about the fact that she was dying to pee? If she pulled over at a rest stop the crowd would wake up and make her life hell again, after all. So, like any self-respecting mom in desperate need of silence and a potty, she hauled a diaper out of the nearby diaper bag — and used it. You also have to give it up for the mom who said she thinks the secret of discipline is for your kids to think you're a little bit crazy and they just don't know what you might do next. Case in point: she threatened her daughter that if she continued to misbehave, Mom would get rid of ALL her toys. Her warning went unheeded — so she made good on her promise. Swooping into the room with a big garbage bag, she spirited every toy away, Grinch-style: "There wasn't so much as a Lego left." She left her kid high and dry for 24  hours, then returned the stash. But the lesson lives on: "All I have to do is get a certain crazy look in my eye," the woman reports, "and she knows I mean business."

Who You Callin' Blended?

Published by Wednesday Martin

The media is in love with the term "blended family." From U.S.A. Today to Star magazine to the New York Times, from 20/20 to Oprah, there's no escaping the articles about repartnering with children that don't just label such families "blended," but further suggest that "blending = success." That is, not blended = failed stepfamily.

Catch Brenda Ockum on Good Morning America

Published by Wednesday Martin

Brenda Ockum, the founder of StepMom magazine ( is going to appear on Good Morning America this Friday, April 3 at 8 a.m. EST. She'll be talking about the magazine, her own experiences, and presumably how to survive and thrive as a woman with stepkids. Check her out on your local ABC affiliate this Friday at 8 a.m.

I Already Know I'm Not Your Mom, It's the Rest of the World That Doesn't Get It

Published by Wednesday Martin

I make no bones about and offer no apologies for my obsession with my weekly fix, Star magazine. My fellow readers may have been drawn by the March 30th edition's headline that screamed about John Mayer's alleged intention to publish a tell-all about his ex-girlfriend Jennifer Anniston. Whatever. For me, the reading got worthwhile on page 62, with what I think of as a kind of round-up of round-ups: "Step Stars," about all the "celebrities who treat their partners' kids as if they were their own."  Indeed, the copy proclaims, "They're not bio-babies, but these celebs treat their partners' kids like their very own flesh and blood." Followed by pages of photos and quotes attributed to steps like Jenny McCarthy, Katie Holmes, Megan Fox, and Sandra Bullock essentially gushing, "I love them just like they're my own" over and over.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Carpenter

Published by Wednesday Martin

You knew Catherine Zeta-Jones was an Oscar-winning actress. But what about her side job — carpenter? Or, more specifically, the side job of women with stepchildren the world over: family carpenter. At first glance, a recent story about Catherine and her stepson in the Daily Mail is heart-warming: Catherine helped bring Michael and his wild-child, hard-partying young adult son Cameron back together after years of  estrangement, telling him "You are a huge part of this family and  you are always welcome"  (see the full story as it ran in the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago: He's grateful for it, and it's nice to hear a new riff on the old narrative in which stepmothers are wicked excluders, surely.

A Stepmother's Bill of Rights

Published by Wednesday Martin

A number of web sites for women with stepchildren have been posting this Bill of Rights — author unknown — for a few years now. But it's worth posting it again here — and praising it. Too many of us women with stepchildren don't think about these basic rights until it's too late — until we have been consumed with frustration and doubt about whether our expectations are unreasonable, whether our disappointments with stepfamily life and our partnerships make sense or are just self-indulgent, whether our feelings count.

In the course of researching my book, Stepmonster, for the last three years, I discovered that each and every one of these points below tells a story. About how stepmothers, rather than wicked excluders, tend to be Outsiders in the stepfamily system, whether his kids live with them or not. About how, rather than Cinderellas burdened with chores, stepkids, especially those who just visit dad on weekends or holidays, are likely to be waited on by dad, and especially stepmom, as dad lets reasonable expectations about helping out slip to the wayside "because they're hardly ever around." About how women with stepkids are often burdened with responsibility, but deprived of authority when it comes to his children. And about the terrible toll it can take on one's self-esteem and psychological well-being to keep trying in the face of a stepchild's repeated rejection and rebuffs, and keep pouring energy into a relationship that can feel painfully unreciprocal.

Every one of these points makes perfect sense — yet a surprising number of people who post responses to this Bill of Rights feel a need to qualify certain points (particularly number five, which sets them off). Others on these chat boards seem to feel that a stepmother who wants reasonable treatment from her husband or partner and his kids is just wicked.

But really now, what's so controversial about any of this?:

  • Our marriage is our first priority, and we will address all issues together.

  • will be part of the decision-making process in my marriage and family at all times.

  • People outside the immediate family - including ex-wives, in-laws and adult children - cannot make plans that affect my life without my consent.

  • I will not be responsible for the welfare of children for whom I can set no limits.

  • must be consulted about which children will live with us, when they can visit and how long they will stay.

  • I will not be solely responsible for housework; chores will be distributed fairly.

  • will be consulted regarding all family financial matters.

  • Others may not violate my private space at home, nor take or use my possessions without my permission.

  • I will never be treated as an “outsider” in my own home.

  • My husband and stepchildren must treat me with respect.