Thoughts on Wednesday

by Carolyn on September 3, 2009

Stepmonster by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.

Stepmonster by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.

I know, I know, it’s Thursday.  I’m not contemplating the day of the week.  I’m thinking about Dr. Wednesday Martin Ph.D., and author of the new book Stepmonster.  Someone who I started reading almost by accident and to be honest, I wasn’t her biggest fan.  But as with most things that create an emotional response good or bad, her work held my attention.  And I haven’t stopped reading her since.

A stepmother and mother herself, Wednesday has spearheaded the cause of lifting the veil on the feelings and issues common to many stepmothers.  Jealousy, resentment, isolation and powerlessness are all common threads among stepmoms and Wednesday doesn’t shy away from any of them.  Instead she’s shouting from the mountain tops “That’s right, we feel that way and we’re STILL good people!” Pointing out that at times despite her very best efforts, a stepmother may still be regarded as wicked or green eyed or as the title of her book states, a stepmonster.

At first pass, her work made me gristle a bit.  I thought to myself “Are you kidding?  She’s really justifying these inane sentiments instead of telling stepmothers how to get past them?”  But the more I read from her and her commenters, the more I began to gain a clearer understanding.  I believe her now when she writes that being a stepmom is harder than being a mom.  Because in my experience the opposite is also true.  For me, being a stepdaughter has been harder than being a daughter.  At first I couldn’t help but feel like she was demonizing children of divorce in the name of supporting stepmothers.  Now I understand better what it is she means when she refers to unreciprocated relationships and disempowerment within the family structure.

It’s an odd instinct, the need to take stakes and defend one’s place when discussing an issue like family.  Whether dictated by societal or cultural pressures or simply human nature, it’s difficult to buck the feeling of ‘us versus them’.  But the reality is this:  I may not agree with the feelings she writes about stepmothers commonly having but that doesn’t mean that stepmothers around the world don’t actually feel that way.  Feelings can be errant and uncontrollable things.  Sometimes we wish we could do something different or feel something different but are faced with the reality that we can’t and maybe shouldn’t have to.  The only thing that’s guaranteed to never work when feelings are involved, is telling someone they shouldn’t feel that way.  Because invalidating said feelings usually only succeeds in making a person feel them more strongly.  As Wednesday writes, a stepmother’s feelings, even the not so pretty ones need to be validated and understood by both her, her partner and society at large.  She needs compassion and understanding for feeling them, not derision and censure.

This is an excerpt of an  article that I particularly liked:

The expectations that others have of women with stepkids–and that we have of ourselves–are beyond huge, greater than great. They are enormous, outsized, and the root of much evil (or at least the cause of much misery and divorce).

We might think of those stepmothering expectations as hopes woven into judgments tethered to ignorance. Women with stepchildren struggle with misogynist stereotypes (the menu of choices is stepmonster or upbeat, ever-loving stepmartyr who puts herself last); a lack of understanding (combined with a conviction that they know best) from friends, colleagues, and even some so-called “experts” (”All you have to do is be nice!”); and most of all, a pervasive cultural climate of unrealistically high hopes (”The Brady Bunch could do it, so you can too!”; “It’s easy to become a blended family!”; “Subsequent families can and should be just like first families!”). We know from a growing body of research that negative stereotypes about stepmothers have a dramatic impact on how women adjust to remarriage with children. It only makes sense, then, that great expectations, and the “failure” to meet them, will effect our adjustment as well.

Add to the brew the fact that women are highly relational, affiliative, and social, placing high value on how we are perceived, and deriving much of our self esteem from being in successful relations with others, and you see the problem. Between the way our culture works and the way our brains work, it seems, it is going to be a long road for women with stepkids to lower their expectations of themselves. But the payoff–and I invite you to consider it for a moment–would be incredible.

You can read the rest…here

I still don’t agree with everything she writes, but I have a profound respect for her work and for her as a person as well.  I’ve read some comments from stepmothers asking if they’re doing things wrong because they are feeling close to their stepchildren and getting along with the ex-partner;  not feeling the way she describes.  She is very clear in her response.  She writes that there is a broad range.  Some stepmothers do not have the issues she writes so well about and for them they should keep doing what’s working for them.  But for the many stepmothers who are struggling, she is  a wonderful resource and source of support.

And it just makes sense that when a stepmother  feels validated and confident in both herself and her role, the entire family benefits.

I read a short story recently called “One Step Forward”, that put Dr. Martin’s work into perspective from a first person account.  It was written by Shirley A Serviss (clearly a stepmom before her time) and is included in the book Dropped Threads 2, More of What We Aren’t Told.  This book, a compilation of short stories from female Canadian authors, has quickly become a favorite of mine.  This story in particular is completely relevant and helped me get over the question “If they knew he had kids already, why did they not prepare themselves better for what would surely come?”  Here are a few small exerpts:

I was in my early thirties and wanted desperately to have a child when I became involved with a separated, twice married man with a two-year old son.  A man who loved his son enough to take on the role as primary caregiver seemed like good father material.  I was seduced by his dedication:  leaving work on time night after night to pick up his son from daycare and put a home-cooked meal on the table.  I was seduced by a small, blond, blue-eyed boy climbing into bed between us in the mornings for “sandwich hugs”.  I was seduced by an image of a stable family life, like the one I had known as a child, in contrast to my single life following a divorce from a childless marriage.

Greg was four by the time I moved in with his father, into the house his mother had once lived in and to which she still had a key.

…..The symbolism of the house, the furniture, the crystal and china would not strike me until much later.  My immediate concern was the preschooler who lived with us more than half the time and whose care had suddenly became my responsibility.  When I dropped Greg at his daycare on the way to my office, he would dash in ahead of me and slam the door in my face.  Suspecting the problem, I inquired on morning, “What would you say if someone asked you who I am?”  He replied without hesitation, “I would say you were nobody.”

When we later explained to him that I was his stepmother, his reaction was one of relief.  “Just like Cinderella,” he sighed.  At least he had a context for me – whether or not it was a positive one.

I had no better an understanding of the role of stepmother; what I did was try to be a mother.  I read bedtime stories, made Rice Krispies squares and sewed on buttons.  It wasn’t long before I was the one making sure Greg was enrolled for soccer and earning Cub badges. One of my more misguided efforts was organizing Greg’s birthday parties.

I would spend an inordinate amount of time finding prizes for ice fishing down the laundry chute and inventing life-size board games to play in the basement; his mother would breeze in with an ice-cream cake she’d picked up at Dairy Queen.  The cake, of course, would be what Greg would mention as the highlight of the party when I tucked him into bed that night.

Greg already had a mother.  He would quickly correct anyone who mistook my identity.  Mother’s Days came and went, usually without recognition for the role I played in my stepson’s life. (Although I was both saddened and touched when he showed up at the doorstep on his bicycle one year with some wilted flowers he had evidently been hiding for me.)

….”All he needs is love,” I was told repeatedly by my sisters, who had no experience with, or understanding of, stepfamilies.  Love was dangerous territory for Greg and me; it equated with loss and pain.  This little boy lived with us only half the time.  Each of his departures was like a death.  His empty room, his empty chair, his baseball glove by the back door were daily reminders of a missing son. Because of the acrimony between his mother and me, I didn’t dare call him when he was there; I could only blow him kisses to the moon and hope he’d know I still cared for him.  Loving me was just as dangerous for him.  Whenever he betrayed feelings of closeness to me, his mother grew angry.

…I was not to be a mother to Greg, which left me in the rather thankless position of being an unpaid nanny.  Because I worked from home, I was expected to take on much of the responsibility for him when he was living with us.  I was expected to do laundry and clothe him, but his real mother had the right to phone and insist he wear the outfit she bought him for his school picture.  I was expected to make sure he did his homework and help him with it but not entitled to sign permission slips for field trips or attend school functions.

At the end of her story, the author contemplates whether she views her experience of being a stepmother as successful or not.  She’s not sure and has thought differently at different points in her life.  But in the end she points to the enduring relationship she continues to have with her adult stepson as evidence of success.  It was hard not to be endeared by her honesty.

I’m sure it’s hard to imagine what it must feel like to flounder; wondering how to define your role within your own family; all while having no control over so many of the elements of that role.  But what’s interesting for me is that it’s so similar for the child of divorce in a blended family, not knowing anymore where they fit and feeling helpless in their situation.  But instead of seeing each other as comrades, struggling together through a difficult situation; quite often the relationship between step parent and step child finds itself to be adversarial, each trying to claim their ‘rightful place’, both trying to claw their way up the totem pole.

Hopefully more experts will learn from people like Wednesday Martin.  Maybe then step families will be able to find more helpful resources; allowing them to focus on the true challenges of the blended family, lending real support and finding real solutions.

Source: Shirley Serviss. “One Step Forward.” Dropped Threads 2, More of What We Aren’t Told. E.d. Carol Sheilds, Marjorie Anderson. Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada, 2003. 65 – 72.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 One Sassy Girl September 3, 2009 at 5:16 pm

I keep reading about this lady and her book! I’d read it except I’m still single and need a healthy dose of smut reading in my life. I’ll save thought-provoking reading for later in life ;)
Great take on such a complicated issue… I appreciate the amount of thought you put into this post and love that you don’t feel obliged to agree with everything she says. Very fair.
.-= One Sassy Girl´s last blog ..Bye, Bye Baby =-.

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2 Jill September 3, 2009 at 7:19 pm

What do you mean by, “I may not agree with the feelings she writes about stepmothers commonly having but that doesn’t mean that stepmothers around the world don’t actually feel that way.”? What does it mean not to agree with feelings?

I do not mean this as an attack, but as a real question. It is hard to convey tone of voice in a comment, and this is my first comment, so I don’t have a history with you yet as a commenter. I found your blog a week or two ago, though, and subscribed right away, and forwarded a post to my husband that I thought might help us in our family. So please know, I am a fan!

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3 Carolyn September 3, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Hi Jill! Welcome and thank you for commenting. Please never worry about questioning something I write or offering a differing opinion. I enjoy discussing issues and seeing things from other perspectives. I completely understand your question and I’m going to try to answer it as best I can.

For example, I don’t think stepmom’s should feel jealous of their stepchildren or the time their spouse spends with them. Dr. Martin talks often about power imbalances within the stepfamily stucture, finding the stepchildren elevated to a level above the stepmother. But I think being jealous actually contributes to that power imbalance, with the stepmother then elevating the child themselves by viewing them as the competition instead of simply the kid. Because if there is an issue about their spouse’s time, attention or activities, any related feelings should only really be directed at and then worked through with him. But that’s all well and good to know in your mind. It’s another thing to feel. And although jealousy is a normal and common feeling for stepmothers, the feeling of shame attached to it comes from (in part, I think) the recognition that it is not appropriately directed.

I hope I’ve explained myself well enough. Let me know if you’re still confused or think I could look at things differently. I hope to hear from you again!

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4 Jill September 3, 2009 at 10:57 pm

I think I see what you’re saying — maybe a way to look at it is that stepmoms should not compete with their stepchildren for their husband’s time and attention — they should go about solving the problem of feeling jealous in a more constructive way — maybe through conversations with their husbands, therapy, and other approaches to meeting their needs for love, affection, attention and inclusion. I would agree that it’s definitely not right to throw the kids under the bus in the process of getting those needs met!

I guess I come from the school of thought that feelings are not right or wrong, and that they are not something we have much control over. What we have control over is what we do about our feelings. We can choose how to act and how to solve our problems.

I also don’t think that there are any wrong feelings that stepchildren could have. Or that moms could have.

I think feelings are important signs that our needs are or aren’t being met, and how we go about meeting those needs can be right or wrong, but that just feeling a feeling doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you as a person. I think that’s where the shame comes in — the idea that a feeling can somehow make you bad or wrong. I think that’s so sad — and so destructive! Because people start trying to hide their feelings or stuff them down instead of dealing with them head on and responsibly, and they keep popping out in messy and sometimes hurtful ways.

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5 Carolyn September 3, 2009 at 11:32 pm

“I guess I come from the school of thought that feelings are not right or wrong, and that they are not something we have much control over. What we have control over is what we do about our feelings. We can choose how to act and how to solve our problems.”

Very well said and very true indeed!

“Because people start trying to hide their feelings or stuff them down instead of dealing with them head on and responsibly, and they keep popping out in messy and sometimes hurtful ways.”

I’ve seen this happen. I’ve done it myself. It’s a large part of why I started this blog. A very insightful response. Thank you Jill!

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6 Eyes Wide Open September 3, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Carolyn – I LOVE your blog. Just found it today. You are a gem of a writer and a brilliant resource for us stepmums who care about our stepkids’ future and want to make them as best adjusted as possible. Thanks! Not that I’m anyone of consequence, but I added you to my blogroll. Really, really enjoy your perspective!
.-= Eyes Wide Open´s last blog ..Parental Alienation Syndrome =-.

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7 Carolyn September 3, 2009 at 9:21 pm

Thank you! I’ve been sifting through your blog too. Wonderful. I’ll be happy to add you to my blog roll. I love that so many stepmoms are finding a way to express themselves and support each other in the blogosphere! And I think your perspective can be really good for us grown children of divorce too. It’s difficult to really see things from another’s perspective, but you stepmom bloggers have really helped me to understand the intricacies of step parenting. So thanks to you too!

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8 Kelly September 3, 2009 at 11:45 pm

Very interesting. My best friend has a very strained relationship with her childrens’ stepmother. I think if they could just understand each other, it would make things easier. There is so much tension now though. Part of it also comes from the stepmom’s relationship with the kids. It’s not going well right now.
.-= Kelly´s last blog ..Overheard at the Corporate Meeting =-.

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9 Carolyn September 4, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Hey Kelly. Sounds like your friend and I would get along fabulously. ;) And yes, although experts like Wednesday can say that the evidence shows that it doesn’t matter how nice or positive the stepmother is, the relationship often is not reciprocated; she does play a large part (at least 50%) in setting the tone. And if that stepmother is not dealing with her feelings responsibly, just like Jill wrote, they will ‘pop out in messy and sometimes hurtful ways’.

I wrote in one of my comments to Dr. Martin, thanking her for the work she does, that when stepmothers don’t deal with their negative feelings, the relationships with their stepchildren becomes the collateral damage.

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10 Laura September 14, 2009 at 5:38 pm

Wow interesting post….hopefully more people will learn from Wednesday

Thanks
Laura
.-= Laura´s last blog ..Saturday in the side lanes =-.

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11 Carolyn September 15, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Thanks! And thanks for stopping by Laura.

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12 Taylor September 30, 2009 at 12:40 pm

I think I’m gonna have to buy this book. During my marriage I was (and still feel like I am) a step mom to my ex husband’s oldest son. Being a step mom is definitely hard.

I’ve also been on the other side of this… I have both a step mom and a step dad. Things weren’t easy on any of us kids growing up. Thankfully I get along with both of them now that I’m an adult.

Very interesting blog you have here! Thanks for sharing it with me. :)
.-= Taylor´s last blog ..Ouch, that stung just a little. =-.

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13 Carolyn September 30, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Welcome Taylor, I’m glad you’re enjoying reading here! About Stepmonster – I can honestly say that I’ve never heard a negative thing about it from a stepmom. Wednesday is seeming to have become a voice for stepmom’s around the world. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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