Play Your Position

“When I grow up, I really want to be a stepmom.”  Who says that?  Understudy, back-up quarterback, substitute teacher, adjunct. Know the role, play it when something bad happens to the lead, the star, the tenured one. Get ripped by critics, commentators, students. Are these all people who missed the mark? Are stepmoms just failed aspirants?

Mother. Step-Mother. Real Mother. Wicked Step-Mother. Mommy. Step-Monster. Mommy Dearest. Dad’s Wife. There is a chasm of difference between a “real mom” and a stepmom. A mother can fix her identity on her children regardless of her actual success in performing her role – she is a mother by basic biological fact. Even if she abandons her child at birth, she is a mom. A stepmother is the father’s wife. Being a biological mother is a great burden and responsibility, but I’m not particularly interested in talking about that right now. This is my rant. Mothers have tremendous presumptive benefits on their side. I’m not debating the merits of this, just observing. Children, parents, society, we each expect that mothers love their children. We presume that mothers want their children. We assume that mothers are naturally good. We know that being a mother is honorable. These suppositions can create tremendous guilt in the heart of mothers and can be proven false, but it takes a lot of havoc-wreaking to do so. Even in the midst of the rubble, children long to believe that their mothers love them and mothers want to believe that all they did was out of love.

Stepmothers are surmised to be evil. If not evil, at least improper. Certainly inconvenient – a sign of something broken and, many suspect, the cause of the brokenness. If a stepmother exists, someone died or got divorced. And you kind of hope they died because, apart from the burden of following in the footsteps of a now sainted mother, at least the “I came after death” role has some nobility in it. Some might say that marrying into divorce is downright foolish and you get whatever you deserve. Why not do it the right way, like everybody else. Stepmothers are an unnatural phenomenon. Contrary to motherhood, the presumption about stepmothers is we do NOT want these children. Instead, we are awaiting, eagerly, to seize upon the moment when we can lead them into the dark heart of the forest and leave them there, lost and alone, to be baked in the witch’s oven.

I should say we treat stepmothers as if we are an unnatural phenomenon. In terms of frequency, history, and commonness, we are quite prevalent. But, shhh!  Please do not say this aloud in polite society, or around recently married women or new mothers. Inadvertently, they can’t help but think a stepmother is like a black cat crossing their path. A stepmother is an adulteress, waiting to steal husband and children.

When mothers snap at their children, we know they’ve had a hard day. When mothers question whether they really should have had children, we know they are overwhelmed and just need a break. When mothers mess up their lives we know they really love and need their children, and if only those children behaved a little bit better or tried a little harder maybe mommy would be ok.

It’s a baseline thing. From whence do you commence to measure? Stepmothers snap and it proves it, everyone knew we were bitches. Stepmothers wish, for a moment, these children weren’t our responsibility and we are chastised with the “you knew what you were getting into” mantra. Stepmothers make mistakes and it confirms we aren’t fit to have children.

These inferences go both ways – child to parent and parent to child. Some days it feels as if every interaction is tenuous, a constant striving to be on the love side, the family side. People imagine that stepkids are going to be rotten. Stepchildren and stepmoms both fear that they won’t be loved, liked, or wanted. It’s easy to perceive every complaint from the mouth of the child, or, even worse, the teenager, as pointed criticism of the woman playing the part of Mom. Of course, it’s not always this way – not every day and not in every stepfamily situation. But this is the reasonable doubt that must be overcome to prove not guilt, but innocence.

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