Stepmothers are women who marry or cohabit with partners who have children from prior unions. This broad definition of stepmothers includes women from a variety of roles and who live in diverse family constellations – those who have children of their own as well as women that are childless or childfree, women in lesbian relationships, and it includes step mothers who reside with their stepchildren all of the time, some of the time, or never. Women who live with their stepchildren are called residential stepmothers and those who do not live with their stepchildren, or who spend only part of each year living with their stepchildren, are called nonresidential stepmothers. Some women that fit the broad definition of stepmothers, such as women cohabiting with fathers whose children live elsewhere, and some lesbian partners, do not see themselves as stepmothers, and, in fact, are seldom included in studies of step mothers. Given the diversity of stepmothers’ situations, it is unfortunate that the majority of studies have been limited to married step mothers and most researchers have not distinguished between residential and nonresidential stepmothers.
Anyone who is familiar with children’s fairy tales such as Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel knows that stepmothers are not a new phenomenon; there have always been large numbers of stepmothers. However, throughout most of human history, stepmothers were women who moved in with a father and his children after the death of the children’s mother. In the past, step mothers often were considered mother substitutes; in fact, fathers often were motivated to wed because they needed help with childcare after the death of their wives. In the last century, better control of disease, especially infections related to childbirth, resulted in fewer early deaths of mothers and less need for stepmothers as substitute mothers. Fewer early maternal deaths, combined with increases in divorce, resulted in divorce replacing death as the pre cursor to remarriage in the 1970s, a trend that continues (Ganong & Coleman 2004). Consequently, stepmothers now are not replacements for deceased mothers, but are additional family members.
In western societies fathers are seldom awarded physical custody (at least, sole physical custody) of their children after divorce, so the vast majority of stepmothers do not live with their stepchildren on a daily basis. These nonresidential stepmothers may have adult stepchildren whom they barely know, they may have minor aged stepchildren who visit them on occasion, or they may have stepchildren who visit regularly and frequently. According to Nielsen (1999), over 90 percent of the estimated 13 million stepmothers in the US are nonresidential, and it is reasonable to expect similar percentages of nonresidential stepmothers in other western societies.
Because mothers most often have physical custody of their children after divorce, there are about five times more residential stepfathers than residential stepmothers. Not surprisingly, the majority of stepfamily research has focused on stepfathers and stepfather–stepchild relations, in part because they are easier for researchers to find (Coleman et al. 2000; Ganong & Coleman 2004). As a result, a lot more is known about stepfathers than is known about stepmothers.
Clinicians (Bernstein 1989; Visher & Visher 1979) and some researchers (MacDonald & DeMaris 1996; Sturgess et al. 2001) have indicated that stepmothers struggle more with their roles within stepfamilies than do step fathers. Clinicians and the few researchers who have studied nonresidential stepmothers have found that these women are involved in the lives of their stepchildren, but they struggle with ambiguous expectations and feel frustrated with the lack of support from their partners (Ambert 1986; Church 2004; Morrison & Thomson Guppy 1985; Weaver & Coleman, in press). Stepmothers are stressed by not knowing how they should interact with their stepchildren. As additional adults, nonresidential stepmothers report actively avoiding acting as if they were the mother to their stepchildren out of fear of usurping the inviolate role of the biological mother (Church 2004; Weaver & Coleman, in press). One nonresidential stepmother in Weaver and Coleman’s study described herself as enacting ‘‘a mothering but not a mother’’ role. However, when she described her behaviors in the stepfamily (taking care of the stepchildren, cooking for them, helping them with homework) it was difficult to tell how these behaviors differed from what a mother would do. Nonetheless, this stepmother was typical of others in her efforts to distinguish what she did from what her stepchildren’s mother would do for them. Because of cultural expectations that women should be responsible for the quality of their family’s relationships, stepmothers are in a difficult position. They are not the mothers of their stepchildren, yet to be a good woman, they are responsible for their stepchildren’s well-being, at least during the time they share a household. This is an ambiguous position at best, and one that many stepmothers report feeling ambivalent about. Church (2004) found that one way stepmothers deal with this is by identifying more strongly with their spousal/partner role than with their parenting role. This enables them to avoid competing with the mother and attempting to meet the nearly impossible expectations that assuming the mother role would require.
Stepmothers who reproduce with the father of their stepchildren are not as close with their residential stepchildren as are stepmothers who do not produce a half sibling for the step children (Ambert 1986) and they are less satisfied with being a stepmother (MacDonald & DeMaris 1996). The role of mother is so important (Hayes 1996) that it likely predominates over the stepmother role in stepfamily households.
Women who become stepmothers to grown (adult) stepchildren struggle less with issues about how to relate to their stepchildren. They often attempt to be friends with stepchildren or take a peripheral position to that of the father. Vinick (1998) found that women who became stepmothers later in life often played an important role in promoting the reestablishment of relationships between their husbands and their stepchildren. Nonresidential fathers often lose contact or maintain only minimal contact with their children after divorce, a situation that their new wives try to remedy. Vinick referred to these women as ‘‘carpenters’’ because they ‘‘repair’’ relationships between their husbands and their children.
In addition to problems determining their roles within stepfamilies, stepmothers have been demonized across cultures for centuries (Church 2004). In fact, no other family position has been held in such low regard. Stepmothers are stereotyped as ‘‘evil’’ and ‘‘wicked.’’ Young children have an early introduction to this stereotype through many old and beloved fairy tales. Because of the stigma surrounding step mothers, the chief goal of many of them is to avoid the ‘‘wicked’’ label. Unfortunately, there are no clear guidelines for doing so.
It is evident from the research that step mothers have quite different experiences, depending on whether or not they share a residence on a daily basis or only see their stepchildren occasionally. There are also differences depending on the age of the stepchildren, and whether or not the stepmother shares a mutual child with her partner. Unfortunately, clinicians and most researchers do not distinguish between the various types of stepmothers. To understand the nature of stepmothering, far more attention needs to be paid to these variables in stepfamily research. Considering the difficulties that clinicians and researchers identify that stepmothers have in negotiating their roles within stepfamilies, it is unfortunate that we have so little empirical evidence to guide them.
- Ambert, A. M. (1986) Being a Stepparent: Live-in and Visiting Stepchildren. Journal of Marriage and the Family 48: 795-804.
- Bernstein, A. (1989) Yours, Mine, and Ours. Scribner’s, New York.
- Church, E. (2004) Understanding Stepmothers. Harper Collins, Toronto.
- Coleman, M., Ganong, L., & Fine, M. (2000) Reinvestigating Remarriage: Another Decade of Progress. Journal of Marriage and the Family 62: 1288-307.
- Ganong, L. & Coleman, M. (2004) Stepfamily Relationships: Development, Dynamics, and Interventions. Kluwer/Plenum, New York.
- Hayes, S. (1996) The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. Yale University Press, New Haven.
- MacDonald, W. L. & DeMaris, A. (1996) Parenting Stepchildren and Biological Children: The Effects of Stepparent’s Gender and New Biological Children. Journal of Family Issues 17: 5-25.
- Morrison, K. & Thompson-Guppy, A. (1985) Cinderella’s Stepmother Syndrome. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 30: 521-9.
- Nielsen, L. (1999) Stepmothers: Why So Much Stress? A Review of the Literature. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 30: 115-48.
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- Sturgess, W., Dunn, J., & Davies, L. (2001) Young Children’s Perceptions of their Relationships with Family Members: Links with Family Setting, Friendships, and Adjustment. International Journal of Behavioral Development 25: 521-9.
- Vinick, B. H. (1998) Is Blood Thicker Than Water? Remarried Mothers’ Relationships with Grown Children from Previous Marriages. Paper presented at the Gerontological Society of America Annual Meeting, Philadelphia.
- Visher, E. B. & Visher, J. S. (1979) Stepfamilies: A Guide to Working with Stepparents and Stepchildren. Brunner/Mazel, New York.
- Weaver, S. E. & Coleman, M. (in press) A Mothering but not a Mother Role. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.