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Stepmothers, what's in a name?

Being a stepmother is complicated, difficult and often a thankless job. It’s true! Pregnant women bearing a biological child are celebrated and revered. We literally shower them with congratulatory gifts and offers of help…whether it is their first or fourth birth. Adoptive moms, it seems, are held in even higher esteem. Their selfless willingness to provide for an orphan begets admiration of heroic standards from the masses. Foster moms and grandmothers raising their children’s children out of necessity evoke the respect and acknowledgment of society’s staunches critics.

So, what is it about stepmothering that usually excludes it from the praise and recognition afforded the other circumstances of motherhood? I have a couple of theories.

One is the prevalence of an out-and-out prejudice. A preconceived notion that if you are mothering children to whom you did not give birth, and their biological father is present, you must have been “the other woman” or bear some significant responsibility for the in the nuclear family no longer being intact. People will rarely ask what led to the demise of a relationship, it would be, after all, impolite; but, they will, in the absence of facts, take the liberty of assigning the “home wrecker” label to the best and most devoted of stepmothers. A side note to this is the observation that stepfathers are not as likely to be subjected to this judgment.

Another theory I offer you is the negative reputation associated with stepmothering. You can find examples of this in movies, television and especially folklore and fairytales. Most of us saw Cinderella before our third birthday. Equally as poignant as the prince, the ball and the glass slipper, is the dreaded stepmother. Not only is she wicked and biased toward her own children, she is disgustingly unkempt and embarrassingly unsightly. I have three granddaughters so I should know the answer to this…but where is Cinderella’s father? My point here is that the media has contributed largely to the image of stepmothers as unwanted and not to be accepted or tolerated. Even if everyone eventually lives happily ever after, the well has already been poisoned.

The third consideration, and keep in mind this is an extremely abbreviated list, is the title,“STEPMOTHER”. While I have finally got past the physical cringe that used to accompany my daughters’ introducing me as their stepmom, for a long time I was affected by the connotation accompanying the title. I did then and continue to think of it as an impersonal, removed term intended to suggest a legal relationship as opposed to the carefully nurtured kinship of natural parenthood. It implies distance and forced togetherness.

Shakespeare insisted that a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet, but consider for a moment all the cute and innocent names kids have concocted for special grandparents. It doesn’t change the definition of grandma and grandpa, but receiving an endearing and meaningful (very personal) designation brings a unique identity to an age-old relationship. I hope, as a nod to today’s blended families and complicated ties that someone like Disney or Spielberg or even Brad and Angelina, will come up with a story that places stepmoms in their rightful light; a place of honor and recognition for their big hearts, generous spirits and unending capacity for love…especially when it is difficult and complicated. I would welcome a more positive example of the woman who today has a 50% chance of filling that role in her own lifetime.

Perceptions consist of attitudes, viewpoints and opinions. They are cultivated out of experience, observation and cultural imprinting. But they can change. Understanding, empathy and the desire to see the good in every individual makes far more sense than changing the name we use to identify them.

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