Watching Too Much Mad Men

I started this blog because I’ve had enough of the advice that’s offered to stepmoms. And judging from the feedback I’ve gotten, a lot of other stepmoms have too.

Every week, there’s some new piece of advice that tells us to lower our expectations, mute our concerns, and resign ourselves to second-class status, in our own families, and in our own homes.

The authors usually imply that “good” stepmoms make these adjustments easily. So those of us who question whether they’re necessary, or even helpful, must be bad stepmoms indeed. And sadly, these judgments don’t just come from the experts. They come from all levels of society – sometimes even our families and fellow stepmoms too.

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Mad Men, but I think that the way stepmoms are treated today bears a striking resemblance to the way most women were treated in the 1960s. Although the women’s movement has increased the range of options for many, stepmoms are still frequently shamed when we try to move out of our behind-the-scenes roles.

I’ve spent a lot of my career exploring the impact of gender expectations on women. Before I went into private practice, I visited mothers in Uganda, taught psychology in Egypt, consulted in refugee camps, and advocated for changes in male-led institutions all over the world.

Yet even with that history, I still feel brief moments of shame when the advice that’s given to “help” me invalidates my experience, reminds me that I’m “not the mother” (rest assured, I know that), or warns that if I cross the narrow boundaries that society has drawn for me, I may cause my family harm.

In those moments, I feel especially grateful for the support I’ve received from my husband, family and friends, who believe – as I do – that everyone benefits when we encourage each other to question the limits of our socially-sanctioned roles.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to any woman who wants to provide background support for her family. The whole point of the women’s movement was to allow for more choices. If you’re supporting your family from behind-the-scenes – and it’s working for you – keep doing what you’re doing. I respect your right to make your own choices and I hope you’ll respect my right to make mine.

In my case, I decided to pace myself slowly when our family was forming, because authentic relationships take time and I wanted to give the kids a chance to adjust. But I never agreed to stay in the background forever. I couldn’t sustain it – and it wouldn’t have fit my values if I could.

If I had stayed in the background, I might have reduced the kids’ discomfort in the short-term, but I might have also reinforced the fantasy that the divorce wasn’t permanent, or given them the impression that the life they enjoyed with their dad before I arrived was going to stay exactly the same.

My husband and I want to help the kids learn to adapt to change so they’ll become flexible, resilient adults. We can’t teach resilience through avoidance. The most direct route to resilience is by acknowledging and processing loss.

Even if we weren’t worried about how my actions might impact the kids’ ability to let go of the way things were, it’s not compassionate to ask me to stay in the background indefinitely. I believe that self-compassion is one of the most important skills we can teach our children. But compassion is not selective. We can’t teach the kids to have compassion for themselves, if we don’t offer compassion to all.

It’s time to rethink our eagerness to ask stepmoms to constrict their lives for the sake of the family. It’s not compassionate and it’s not sustainable. It’s like telling them that the only way they can be accepted, is if they promise not to breathe.

There’s a transaction between how society treats stepmoms and the chances that their relationships will succeed. At best, harmful societal messages add to stepmoms’ stress levels and take energy away from other priorities. At worst, they create real suffering and cause relationships to fail.

So instead of continuing to repeat the same old advice about how to be a “good” stepmom, as if nothing’s changed since the 1960s, maybe it’s time for a more updated view. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that a lot of the advice that’s offered isn’t helpful. Some of it puts stepmoms in an untenable position. Some of it invalidates their feelings and causes them to feel judged or shamed. And some of it is a better reflection of our cultural assumptions about women, than it is about stepmoms at all.

We’ll know that we’ve grown as a society, when we encourage stepmoms to come out of the background and live their lives according to their values, instead of telling them to hide who they are.