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.


10 thoughts on “Watching Too Much Mad Men

  1. I agree that asking a stepmom to love less, care less, engage less w/her blended family is ultimately damaging to both HER and her (step)children — and spouse. It’s akin to keeping the stepmom as a less-valued part of the family than everyone else. And that sounds miserable to me. Perhaps it should be left to the FAMILY as a unit to decide what they need, want, ask from each other, while the rest ofus mind our own business and deal w/our own family issues. Being a stepmom isn’t that different than being an adoptive mom (which I am). And you know the only time it interferes with our family life is when a member of the outside community (neighbor, school family, etc.) brings it up — and their words are usually destructive in nature.

    So being who your family needs you to be, in a way you chose to be a mom is no one else’s business! Just be happy — that should be everyone’s goal.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Brenda! I agree that there are many parallels between adopt and stepfamilies, as well as some differences. We definitely all benefit when we can decide as a family what we value and how we want to move forward. For many people, there’s a transaction between the degree to which they feel judged by society and the degree to which they can allow themselves to be who they are in their relationships (ie the more judged they feel, the less authentic/spontaneous they behave). I find it ironic that the intended function of social judgments is to keep people in line, but often their actual effect is to make people more brittle, less skillful.

  2. when I was a “legal” stepmom, I never felt like I was put in a bind. Well, my husbands ex tried to put me in one, but it never worked. As a stepmom, I was able to take care of my stepkids, as if they were mine, while they visited. I KNOW it caused friction with their mom, but what else was I to do? She tried to jam me all the time, every which way, but I wasn’t going to play her game, so I continued doing what I was doing, and my husband was fine with it, and HE was the one that I lived with, so…I feel the issues the ex had with me, where HER issues to deal with ME about, not tattle or complain to my husband about.

  3. Thanks so much for your comment, Patricia! Sounds like it was a stressful situation. Tense interactions between moms and stepmoms (or the stress they create) are among the hardest experiences of stepfamily life. Sometimes moms feel that they have society “on their side” when it comes to trying to keep stepmoms in the background, or limit their engagement with the kids. I wonder if the dynamics between moms and stepmoms would change, if society expressed direct appreciation and encouragement to stepmoms for their contribution to their stepchildren’s lives.

  4. Ok, maybe I don’t “get it” coming from the male perspective, but isn’t it really about the relationship between the biological and step parent? I’m a stepdad (and a biological dad) and for our family it was more about getting to know each other than anything else. It took me a while to feel comfortable in the role of a father, especially since my daughters’ biological dad was still in the picture. I eased into that position, not so much as an end goal, but more as an evolution of my relationship with my wife and my daughters as a family unit. I think if anyone outside our family unit had suggested anything short of that I would have (and maybe I did) tune them out. If my wife had suggested anything less I can’t imagine how our relationship would have lasted.

    I did take it slowly; a couple of years I think. Because I didn’t initially feel like I had the right to be a full parent it was more about mutual respect than parental authority. Maybe I was just lucky. They don’t call me Dad to my face, but one day I heard that I was called Dad behind my back. Twenty years later we are a family, right down to the grandkids.

    • Thanks for your comment, Don – great to hear a stepdad’s perspective! I agree that the main reason to pace your relationship with your stepkids is because building trust and closeness takes time. And, yes – the degree to which the same sex biological parent supports or is threatened by your relationship can be a pivotal factor in how things progress. Thankfully, many biological parents who have negative responses to stepparents initially do change their views and behavior over time.

      Being a stepparent is a developmental process for all of us. I started this blog because I was tired of simplistic advice that overestimates the ease of solving tough stepfamily problems and fails to discuss the ways in which social context can influence the family’s development.

      From my clinical work, I’d say that the bio-step tensions tend to be more intense and toxic for moms-stepmoms than for dads-stepdads in general – and society supports this competition between women in a number of ways. Stepmoms are more often shamed with “you’re not the mother” or “know your place” than stepdads. They may also be more sensitive to negative social messages, since historically women have been given primary responsibility for the well-being of the family.

      The stepdads I know face different social assumptions (eg: society expects them to be less involved in parenting decisions, more emotionally checked out). It’s not clear how stepdads feel about this form of social invalidation, since they tend to be less vocal about it (either it bothers them less, or they manage their feelings more privately). The expectation that stepdads will be uninvolved does seem to be changing somewhat, as society is showing more respect for fathers’ parenting in general. But of course, every situation is different.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. I first want to start off by thanking you for making this blog, it’s the first thing I’ve read about step moms that I thought actually made sense! My fiance has a child so I suppose I’m not technically a step mom yet, but I definitely feel like one. I agree that there are similarities on how society views step moms to how America generally looked at the “role” of a woman in the 60’s. I never thought of it like that before, but it makes a lot of sense the way we are expected to just sit in the background and not give input on things that inevitably, directly involve us… Also, like Patricia, I have had issues with the mother of his child. We’ve honestly never spoken face to face but the threats she has made are incredible. I understand the “momma bear” concept and how she is very protective over her child. But I honestly think there is way more than that behind it. Seeing as I’ve never been able to shake her hand and have a civil conversation (just one failed attempt of me telling her if she was comfortable meeting me I thought it would be a good idea) I don’t understand how she could “hate” me so much. I think it all comes down to insecure females constantly trying to battle other females. Women as a whole need to start understanding that the cattiness doesn’t get you anywhere, and it might actually help to let your guard down, talk like an adult, and not put on a tough act. …At least that’s my take on it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Niki! I’m new at blogging, so it’s very reinforcing to hear that the content is helpful!

      The issue of negative interactions between moms and stepmoms comes up more frequently in my clinical practice than any other stepfamily problem. It’s so difficult! The good news is that it’s usually most intense in the first couple of years. But like all interactions, where it goes depends on what both people put into it (and who else plays along). I’m planning to write a future post on distress tolerance for stepparents (i.e.: How to get through a difficult situation that you can’t solve right away, without making things worse).

      I agree that how women treat other women is a very important issue, both inside and outside of the stepfamily frame. My priority is to try to stay open to feedback and practice communicating according to my values, no matter how unpleasant the other person’s behavior is. That’s easier said than done, of course. We can all notice when we’re feeling reactive in interpersonal situations – and intentionally try to come back and do something more skillful instead.

      Thank you for taking the time to add to the conversation!

    • I absolutely agree with this! It’s sad when “Mom” dislikes the step mom enough to let it affect the step/child relationship. I kow in my situation, I started off just being more of a friend to my stepkids. I let their dad handle things, because I know he had to do it with kit gloves, because “Mom” felt she had a right to know what went on in our house 24/7. The kids had to call her daily. I was told to “butt out” even before she met me, (which was only one time, face to face) and when I did, after a incident that took place, she tried to jam me for that, and accused me of ignoring her children and being abusive to them, because I really didn’t have much to say, basically, I spoke when spoken to. My husband had been on vacation, so I felt it was a good time for HIM to take over the reigns with his kids and suddenly, I was rude and abusive, for doing what she wanted from me for several years already. There was no middle ground. It has been 10-12 yrs that my step kids have had anything to do with my son, their half brother. Just last week, MY son reached out to his older brother, and they’ve been communicating via text and instagram. I don’t think his sister has communicated with him yet. Because of my experience with my stepkids, I’m on guard and do not trust my stepson’s motives right now, but who knows, maybe he will prove me wrong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *