Stepmoms step up to the plate

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Many women dream of becoming moms. Few dream of becoming stepmoms. On their good days, stepmothers think of themselves as bonus moms or mentor moms. On their bad days — and that often includes Mother's Day — they believe they are thought of by stepkids and ex-wives as something just above pond scum. Or not thought about much at all. Those who monitor the family say stepmoms need to be thought about. New research shows they do not often fare well with their stepchildren.

Yet many experts say stepmothers have a key role in making a blended family work. And they note that the blended family — whether the parents are married or just living together — is the family form of the future.

More than half of all Americans today have been, are now or will eventually be in one or more step situations, says the Stepfamily Association of America. About 30% of all kids are likely to spend time in some sort of "stepping" arrangement. And those kids are increasingly likely to be spending more time with a stepmom as courts begin favoring joint custody that increases the children's time with dad.

Many stepmoms are reaching out for help and finding innovative ways to succor others, particularly through Internet support groups. Most of those on the front lines do have battle scars. Kristin Lee Mead, 34, of Alexandria, Va., has stepmotherhood down quite well now. But at times being a stepmom has made Mead feel "lost inside my own head, with no idea how to make it work."

For a variety of reasons, not all stepchildren hold their stepmoms dear to their hearts. A growing body of disturbing research documents that the myth of the "evil stepmother" dies hard. Her new husband's children may simply never truly accept her, a woman they see as an interloper.

Among recent findings suggesting that stepmoms are often not cherished by stepchildren:

  • Only about 20% of adult stepkids feel close to their stepmoms, says the pioneering work of E. Mavis Hetherington involving 1,400 families of divorce, some studied almost 30 years. "The competition between non-custodial mothers and stepmothers was remarkably enduring," she writes in For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered.
  • Only about one-third of adult children think of stepmoms as parents, suggests Constance Ahrons' 20-year research project. Half regard their stepdads as parents. About 48% of those whose moms had remarried were happy with the new union. Only 29% of those whose dads had remarried liked the idea of a stepmom. Ahrons is a sociologist and senior researcher with the non-profit Council on Contemporary Families.

Stepmoms, Ahrons says, tend to get overly involved in their stepchildren's lives, whether the kids actually live with them or not. Stepdads often back off and stay out of the fray. Stepmoms need to approach the stepkids "very, very slowly. The women want so badly to be part of the family, and they tend to come on too strong too soon."

Huge numbers of stepfamilies are making it, melding successfully. But others fight jealousies, unrealistic expectations of instant love, the financial demands of child support, ill-defined roles and a constant undertow of tension.

Married two years, Tammy Matthews, 30, of Montgomery, N.Y., still struggles. Being a stepmom "has been tougher than I thought." She is lucky, she knows. She has two prime ingredients of a sound stepfamily: a supportive husband and "great" stepdaughters, ages 7 and 11. The girls spend Wednesday nights and every other weekend with Matthews and their dad.

Still, "I have no children of my own, and to have, poof, like an instant family, just add water, was a difficult transition."

New stepmoms can quickly feel overburdened. The stepdad tends to rely on his new wife to be the emotional glue that holds the new family together. Even if his children don't live full time with her, she tends to be deeply involved in their lives.

"Women are still socialized to care for the kids," says James Bray, author of Stepfamilies, based on nine years of government-funded research. "And men will let women do that. Unfortunately, men will dump the care of the children on the stepmom."

She may tire of the kids' hostility, the lack of involvement of her well-meaning husband, the resentment from an ex-wife who will never accept her right to love the children.

Many stepmoms will throw in the towel, leaving kids to go through a second parental divorce, says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. The role of the stepmother "is pivotal in the redivorce equation. That is true whether you are rich or poor, black or white or green. This stepmother thing is across the board."

The statistics are not encouraging. While the divorce rate is leveling off, it is still worse for second marriages than for first-timers. About 48% of second marriages fail, while about 40% to 43% of first marriages do. Approximately 65% of remarriages involve children and create instant stepfamilies.

Stepmothers come to Sollee with amazing stories. "A stepmom will tell me that the biological mother is a drug addict, that she beats her kids, but the kids still love their mom and won't be nice to me."

To make these often fragile blended family arrangements work, stepmoms are attending workshops and conferences, clogging Internet chat rooms and message boards with plaintive requests for help, joining real-life and virtual-support groups, starting associations, drawing on a growing cottage industry of books and reaching out to other women who understand.

They are very creative about how to find and give help. Stepmom Katherine McMillan, 30, of Oshawa, Ontario, will celebrate Mother's Day in cyberspace. She and about 30 friends from StepTogether, an Internet support group with 700 stepmoms, have partnered up two by two to exchange little gifts, running maybe $10.

"It's our own way of recognizing what we do," McMillan says. "We can celebrate each other."

Then in June she and a gaggle of stepmoms, including Tammy Matthews, will take a step past virtual friendship. They and others will host what they think is the first widespread series of small, weekend retreats for stepmoms who want to weave a stepfamily together. Confabs are scheduled on various dates in Oshawa, Ontario; Norfolk, Va.; Indianapolis; Mahwah, N.J; Detroit; and Houston.

Others take alternative routes to helping beleaguered stepmoms re-establish their sanity. Mead is starting a Northern Virginia chapter of the Stepfamily Association of America after spending some time on the Internet with StepTogether.org.

"Just entering a room with a lot of stepmothers, that feeling you are accepted and welcomed is something you can't find anywhere else," she says.

In the words of the stepfamily literature, Mead's family is now "stepping" well. She lives in a sophisticated apartment with her husband of four years, Luis Albright, 47, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sarah. His 14-year-old daughter lives nearby with her single mom, while his 20-year-old son, who lived with them earlier for two years, is in the process of setting up housekeeping on his own.

Albright, whom Mead calls "very grounded," does the lion's share of the daily work of parenting Sarah.

Over time, Mead has figured out the answer to the question virtually every stepmom must face: "Where do I fit in?"

Her job in this family, she says, "is to listen, to provide that communication. Let the biological parent parent. If you want to be a mother, then have your own baby."

She and Sarah are totally "on the same wavelength," Mead says. But still, "this is someone else's child. She has both a mother and a father."

The ability to detach takes practice, she says. "What woman can detach from a child who is in her care? It can be heartbreaking."

Sarah declares her stepmom "cool" and quite spontaneously gives her a hug.

"You have to be mindful and respectful of your stepparent," the teen says. After all, "she is married to one of your biological parents."

These two have bonded. But the experts say the relationship between a teenage stepdaughter and stepmother can be truly horrific.

"This issue is just huge," says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Second Wives. Her next book will center on the struggle. A daughter is already competing with her mother, and then this new woman comes along, Barash says. And the stepdaughter becomes "keenly aware of what the new woman does for her father that her mother didn't do."

There have been and will be problems, this Virginia family acknowledges.

"There has been a lot of stuff I have held close to my heart," Mead says. "I didn't want to feel that way, and I didn't want to inflict those feelings on my family."

Overall, though, she says her steps have enriched her life.

Sarah "has given me access to younger parts of myself. She has brought out my sense of play." Being a stepmom has "caused something excellent to happen to my life."

By Karen S. Peterson, USA TODAY

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