Disclaimer right off the bat: I am not saying that being a stepfather is easy. I was a teenage stepdaughter with a stepfather, and I didn't make that a fun situation for anyone involved! (No, I'm not proud of that, but thankfully we are a tight and loving family now).
Research shows that stepfathers are perceived more positively than stepmothers (Fluitt & Paradise, 1991; Duberman, 1973; Levin, 1997). As a stepmom, may I just say, Whaa??
In my research on stepmothering, I found that their role is intimately connected to the concept of "motherwork" (Hart, 1992; Barg, 2001) - the intimate and complex work of raising children. This is everything from the daily cooking, laundry, homework labour, to lifelong emotional and psychological support.
The labour of mothers, and the idea of what mothering looks like, is represented by the image of a "Supermom" who does everything from maintaining the home and managing it, to working outside the home in some cases, to getting the kids to their soccer games... the list goes on and on. Yes, of course fathers are involved too, but the social and cultural expectations of mothers is so intense.
Now, where does that leave stepmom?
How can a woman fill this intense, all-consuming mothering role, while at the same time not stepping on toes or violating any parenting boundaries?? How can you "mom" from a distance? Is this a trick question??
The idea of fatherhood in society (again, this is not for every dad, but the general story of being a dad) is about supporting his family, being a disciplinarian, and increasingly being involved in day-to-day activities. Levin (1997) found that men often fill the same role, whether they are father or stepfather. This is in contrast to the difference in what is expected of a mom and what is expected (and allowed) of a stepmom.
So generally speaking, there is much less role tension for fathers and stepfathers, while stepmothers are often struggling to find their "place" as a "mom" but "not a mom".
No one will ever take the place of a mother - but guess what - every stepmom I know isn't trying to do that! We are trying to find our own place in our own families.
So how do we change this role tension, and even the playing field for stepmoms and stepdads?
We change the conversation around mothering and stepmothering. We challenge the idea of being a "mom" that leads to mommy guilt (those of us with bio kids know this well), and we challenge the idea of being a "wicked, jealous, cold stepmom". We wear our stepmom label proudly. We talk about our stepkids with love, and we talk about our steplife with realistic expectations. We do not shy away from stepfamily challenges, but we raise awareness of them so we can make this life a little bit easier, one day at a time.
If we shift the way we think about our roles and expectations of one another as parents and stepparents, we change the way we think about our families and our lives. I'm a stepmom, and I'm so proud to say it.