It has struck me over the time I've been with my partner that society has a very negative view of step-parents, and particularly stepmothers. In a world where 50% of marriages end in divorce, and of that 50% a high number of those are likely to have children and go on to remarry or have new partners, it seems that we're still stuck in the Ark when it comes to our perceptions of stepfamilies. They are nearly always seen as a negative thing, and people fortunate enough to NOT have gone through a painful separation or divorce nearly always seem to have something to say about it. I tell you what, those Brothers Grimm have a lot to answer for with those fairytales, because Hansel and Gretel and ol' Cinders set a nasty precedent for how life, and art, would reflect stepmothers (and stepfathers) in the future. Barring Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, not many artists have had much good to say about us, from the evil Mr Murdstone in David Copperfield to My Stepmother is an Alien.
A few months ago, I was out with some friends of DP's, and we floated the idea of getting married one day. One of his friends instantly came out with the comment "oh, poor SD". When I asked her why (as I was quite hurt that she would think my future stepchild deserved pity because I might marry her father, I tend to think of myself as mostly a pretty nice person!) and she said that it would be a permanent reminder for SD that her parents are no longer together. I'm afraid she has that reminder every day honey - I doubt that marriage is going to make a huge difference to that one! But her argument was that we should not get married and celebrate something that for SD, is essentially pretty negative, because it would look like we were rejoicing in the fact that DP is no longer with her mother (uh, why can't we rejoice at that, pray tell? ;)). Now I could probably understand if I'd been the one to break the marriage up, but I came along 3 years post separation. Oh and now we mention the cause of marriage breakup, how many of you stepmothers out there have had to contend with people's assumptions that you caused it? I've had that a few times and had to laugh out loud! "Actually, my partner's ex wife left HIM for the female nextdoor neighbour 5 years ago....." oh, the looks on their faces, muhahaha.....
So without further ado, here are the top five stupid things people say to stepmothers!
5. "The kids always have to come first".
So the stepmother has to relegate herself to a life in second place? I haven't heard anyone say that when talking about an intact family, it seems to be something that always gets trotted out when the family is divorced and someone's started dating. When you marry a man with kids, yes you accept that there are kids who will need your partner's time, attention and energy. But also when you marry, you become a family, and thus the good of the FAMILY gets put first, not just one element of that family. I always find the irony of this one is it's people who have kids who usually say it, yet those same people wouldn't dream of letting their own kids rule the roost at home.
4. "Well he has to go easy on them, look at what they have to put up with, poor kids"
This is usually the stock response to a stepmother who has issues with the kids' behaviour and their DP's lack of discipline. It's generally assumed that because their parents got divorced, the kids are sooooo traumatised that they cannot cope with the word "No". Let's get one thing straight (and I'll tell you this from the perspective of a child with divorced parents) - having your parents divorce isn't a get-out-of-jail free card. It doesn't exempt you from having to be respectful to people, or generally having to behave in an acceptable manner. Nobody is going to pretend that divorce is easy on children, and usually they are the ones who suffer most (personal experience again there) but it does NOT give the parents a green light to stop parenting and become their kids' buddy/bank account. Parents who quit parenting their kids out of guilt are doing their children a massive disservice. It's an unfortunate fact of life that shit happens, and a parent's job is to HELP their kids cope with that shit the best they can - not give them an excuse to use that shit to get out of their chores/visiting Grandma/doing their homework/and most importantly, being polite to their stepmothers!
3. "You knew he had kids"
Ahhh, that old chestnut. Now I don't exactly know what this comment is ever supposed to achieve. Generally, yes, we did know our partners had kids from the get-go. But I'm not sure that the mere fact of knowing that he had kids is supposed to make us feel better about the mountains of shit that sometimes go with that fact. A strange one, this.
2. "Well you wouldn't understand what it's like, you don't have children of your own"
This one is often aimed at the especially vilified species of stepmother, the childless stepmother. Well, half of that comment is just pointing out the damn bloody obvious - no shit, think I'd know if I'd popped an object that size out of my you-know-what, don't you? And while we might not have children of our own, we are spending a fairly large chunk of time around our partner's, and in some cases, there are childless stepmums who do the full time gig. Would they say that to someone who had adopted their kids and were having difficulty? I doubt it, but it's deemed fair game to say it to stepmothers. And it's damn hurtful to those childless stepmothers who want their own kids but for various reasons, can't have them (I'm in this bracket). OK, so there might be a tiny grain of truth in it in some ways, because we are not those kids' parents, therefore cannot fully grasp what it is like to be in the parent's shoes, but that works both ways buster - they can't understand what it's like to be a step-parent either.
1. "You knew what you were getting into"
Ooooh, my favourite. It's not unlike #3, just even more moronic. Sure, we knew during the shiny happy honeymoon phase of the relationship just exactly what was down the line for us. We had crystal balls, did we? I didn't know that these days only clairvoyants could be stepmothers. I doubt that anyone would say to a wife whose husband's elderly parents are now unwell and need a lot of care, "well you knew he had parents, you knew they might get old and sick". I doubt that anyone would say to a wife whose husband got cancer, "well you knew he smoked/drank/ate bacon/(insert vice here), you knew he might get it". But like #2, it's fair game to throw this one at stepmothers!
The above snippets of stupidity are the reason why I LOVE my stepmum support network on the UK CSM site and now, through the blogging community and sites like Stepchicks. We give each other non-judgemental support, and there are even ex-stepmothers who stick around to help others cope. Of course, we give each other the odd kick in the bum sometimes when we need it - but with thoughtful, intelligent and mindful sledgehammers!