Is there anybody in the family who gets worse press than the stepmother?
In fairy tales she is an ugly, cold-hearted tyrant who does her best to make life miserable for her stepchildren. And the image hasn't been revised much since Cinderella's day.
Ever seen a bumper sticker that says: "I my stepmother"? Forget it. "Stepmother in trunk" is more likely.
But with divorce and remarriage commonplace, more and more women are voluntarily stepping into that tainted role despite its image. Nobody believes in fairy tales, they figure. And besides, when you are in love with their daddy, children have a way of looking so angelic. It is easy to assume you will all live happily ever after.
"People say, 'You knew what you were getting into before you married a man with children from a previous marriage,' " Connie of Newport Beach says. "Let me tell you--you have absolutely no idea or way of knowing. It has been difficult beyond my wildest imagination. I have grown and matured through all these experiences, but I certainly would not recommend this method of personal growth."
Connie began her letter to Family Life by disputing the stereotype. "I am a stepmother, but far from evil," she wrote.
She has been a "part-time stepmother"--as she puts it--for four years now. Her husband's daughters, now 9 and 13, live on the East Coast with their mother and their stepfather. They spend summers with their dad and Connie. "The girls are lovely and very well-behaved. The 13-year-old is going through the typical teen-age stage. They love me a lot, and the feeling is mutual."
So far, so good. The problem is that this self-professed non-wicked stepmother feels more like Cinderella when the children are in town.
"Even though I am not their mother, I am somehow thrown into the traditional mother's role of taking care of the marketing, laundry, shopping, cleaning and meal preparation. My husband spends time enjoying the girls and has done very little with the day-to-day chores that need to be taken care of.
"The traditional mother's role would be fine if I did not have a full-time career which involves traveling from time to time and also being in graduate school in the evenings. "
Still, Connie says, "I constantly find myself trying to be this super woman. As a stepmother, there is an intense need to not just be good but to be the best. You are always seeking acceptance (even though you might not admit it to anyone else) from the children and from your husband. . . .
"It's taken four years, but I've finally been able to realize that there are no gold stars or Brownie points for being a stepmother or martyr. You need to do what you can in the given amount of time. Love the kids and love your husband but don't forget to love yourself and take care of yourself. Save time and energy for yourself and your relationship with your husband."
In addition to what she has learned from experience, Connie has another advantage over many of her sister stepmothers. "One of the successes in our situation is a positive and healthy relationship with (her husband's) ex-wife and new husband. The four of us work together as a team for the good of the girls. We discuss school issues, discipline, goals, any problems together. "
But wait. Now that she has figured so many things out, Connie's situation is about to change drastically.
"Just recently, my husband's ex-wife suggested that we take the girls on a full-time basis. Life has a way of giving us challenges, doesn't it?"
Connie confessed to having mixed feelings about this. "It will be good for the girls and good for my husband but less than ideal for me. During the past four summers, we did everything together as a family. Getting a sitter so we could even go out to dinner alone was unheard of.
" I am considering the two of us going for some counseling prior to the girls' arrival to help us sort out some of these potential problems."
Anne, who lives in San Juan Capistrano, is already in the position Connie's so nervously anticipating. She has lived full time with her five stepchildren since she and her husband were married three years ago. Anne's own two children divide their time between their mother's house and their father's, which is less than a mile away.
There are five boys and two girls, between 10 and 19 years old. Anne's husband, Bryan, was a widower who depended on a live-in housekeeper to help him with the children.
"The housekeeper was a wonderful woman, but, nevertheless, the children knew she was their housekeeper and that Dad was the real nurturer of the household. The children became accustomed to having all their daily needs met without developing an intimate bond. This was definitely an obstacle and a barrier in my initial relationship with my stepchildren," Anne says.