It’s hard to be a feminist and a stepmother: everything I do is wrong, is interpreted in the nastiest possible way.  Ironically, frustratingly, it’s often other women — those who aren’t stepmothers themselves — who judge me most harshly.  There’s not a whole lot of sisterhood in my particular village.  Perhaps there are women who feel supported and appreciated by cooperative mothers, women who hear the words “please” and “thank you,” women whose offers of friendly conversation are accepted without suspicion.  I am not one of those lucky ones.

Like many of my sister stepmothers, I am often silenced by fear.  We’re so often told that we’re wrong, and we’re afraid of being wrong – again and again and again.  We’ve been told that we’re damaging the children, and then we are silenced because we believe that telling our stories will cause more damage.  We want to be good stepmothers, and yet this is an impossible task – completely impossible.  There is no good stepmother; there are only degrees of screwing up.  It’s never a matter of whether we’ll screw up – of course we will – but it’s a question of how badly.   You would be amazed at the horrible, horrible things that are alleged about me.  And for stepmother screw-ups, there is no forgiveness, ever.

So we silence ourselves because we think that our silence will protect the children, and in the process, we eat the damage ourselves.  We own the damage that does not even belong to us.


I look in the world and I don’t see our stories being told anywhere, not the dissonant truth of stepmothers’ lives.  There are occasionally excellent books – Wednesday Martin’s Stepmonster is an ideal example: a well researched, beautifully written and sympathetic account of the reality lived by many women.  Yet even there, I am struck by the fundamentally academic tone of the work.  As an academic myself, I certainly appreciate the value of such discourse: research, analysis, a carefully considered critical perspective – these are immensely valuable tools in coming to understanding ourselves and our lives.  But in reading Martin’s book, I longed for more stories, more details, more anecdotes from the front lines.  Does her experience match mine?  How did she cope?  Am I the only one who feels crazy?

Then again, some stepmothers have written breezy, cheerful memoirs of the chick-lit variety.  There, the challenges of stepmotherhood sound to me more like the challenges of reaching goal weight; hipster references to cocktails and retail therapy leave me feeling shut out of an ending that’s ultimately a market-driven variation on “happily ever after.”  These books sell, no doubt, but they leave a lot unspoken.

By contrast, revenge memoirs by aggrieved ex-wives sell like hotcakes.  hauntingOften they are touted as bristling with “raw honesty” or some such drivel, as if that excuses or explains the angry and hostile portrayals of former husbands, the nasty swipes at second wives and stepmothers, at women like me.  Damn, we’re easy targets.  The popularity of such books cowers us into submission even further;  we are all of us, somehow implicated in those divorces, all of us somehow carry the weight of another woman’s failed marriage.

We watch over our shoulders, always haunted by the ghosts of someone else’s loss.

Behind the scenes

Stepmotherhood is a secret society of women joined together by fear, each of us haunted by damage.  We gather 6943077858_28a7eedb4d_hquietly, in hidden spaces to vent and seek advice and friendship.  We share our stories – they are poignant and deeply felt dramas, and they are lived daily, they are survived by women whose scars are often invisible and unacknowledged.

When I go out into the world, I find sister stepmothers everywhere.  And wherever I find them, I find stories.  Sometimes they are tales of horror, like the woman whose teenaged stepdaughters demanded that their father divorce her.  She wasn’t abusive, or unkind, or in any way deserving of this rejection: the teenagers simply refused to share their father’s attention, and threatened to cease visitation unless he left her.  So he divorced his wife for fear of losing his daughters, abandoning the woman who loved him to a lifetime of confusion and heartbreak.

Sometimes I hear tales of witty resignation, like the ride I shared in a taxicab with a fellow Ph.D. as we departed an academic conference on aesthetic theory.  How is stepmotherhood for you, I asked this poised and accomplished historian upon learning of her family situation.  She turned to me with a grim face.  “Well,” she sighed, “it’s basically taxation without representation, isn’t it?”

Stepmotherhood is a sad, painful, challenging and searing identity, and in our secret chat rooms and private groups, we gather to affirm to ourselves and each other that we exist, and that we matter.

© 2018 kathy * writes