Orlando Sentinel

Motherly advice for stepmothers

By Kathleen Parker
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on May 19, 1999.

Stepmothers are becoming militant, demanding respect and understanding for who they are and what they have to do, says Time magazine.

My sides are aching already. Say I: Any stepmother who thinks she's going to get respect and understanding probably doesn't have children of her own. Mothers -- step or otherwise -- don't get respect and understanding until the little darlings start paying their own bills and fixing their own breakfast.

I guess it was inevitable that stepmothers would join the legions of America's disenfranchised. Like everyone else these days, they have Web sites, support groups and self-help books. Poor-Me Syndrome, apparently, is more contagious than chickenpox.

Step-parenting is a tough job; no one would say otherwise. On the other hand, it's not calculus. You can trust me here. I've had four stepmothers -- my father was a serial husband -- and have been a stepmother myself. The secret, in a word, is: Relax.

Do your job; lower your expectations; do not be needy -- you're the grown-up after all; be empathetic and compassionate; say little, be patient.

Most important, remember that the little darlings did not fall in love with you; their dad did. That's the starting point from which all thoughts and actions extend. In which light, I have a modest proposal for improving stepfamily relations. Get rid of the words "stepmother" and "stepfather."

As long as a child's mother or father is living, he has a mother and father. The so-called "stepmother" isn't a mother at all. She may be expected to do mother things -- cook and clean, be a good listener, hug on demand -- but she's not the mother and never will be. How could it be otherwise?

The prefix "step," meanwhile, has such negative connotations, thanks to Cinderella, that it's unusable. I have a friend who introduces herself as the "gorgeous stepmother," just to spiff up the image a tad. It would be better to say what she really is: wife and friend.

What's wrong, really, with a child introducing a "stepmother" as "my dad's wife"? Or being known in the home by one's name rather than a title? Some children may decide to call a stepparent "Mom" or "Dad," especially if the real parent is dead. Grand if they do, fine if they don't.

I called my father's second wife "Mama" because I was 4, my mother was dead, and I wanted a mama. All subsequent tenants (just kidding, ladies) were my dad's wives, not my stepmothers.

The rule should be that the child defines the relationship. People who demand love -- or respect and understanding -- usually get the opposite. Thus, to the "militant stepmothers" in Time's article, I offer the following friendly tidbits.

Understand this: When you marry a man with children, you're marrying his former wife. Living or dead, she'll always be with you. If you can't live with that prospect, you might want to reflect on the benefits of single life.

Respect this: His children are children. Their job description doesn't come with instructions for "loving" Dad's new wife. They don't understand where you came from or why you're there. The most you can hope is that they like you, but first, be likable.

Finally, on those days -- and there will be many -- when you're trying to remember how you ever thought you loved this guy and his precious little darlings, relax. They all grow up. And when they do, they'll understand and respect you. If you're lucky, they may even love you.

Kathleen Parker's column also appears Sunday in the Sentinel's Insight section. She welcomes your views and suggestions. Mail: The Orlando Sentinel, MP-72, P.O. Box 2833, Orlando, Fla. 32802-2833.
E-mail: Kparker@Kparker.com

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