In advance of Mother's Day, Nneka McGuire asked Amy Wagner, Ph.D., LMFT, ABPP about being a stepmom on the holiday.
By Nneka McGuire
May 9, 2018
Stepparenting, like tightrope walking, is a tough act to ace. The stakes are high, the perils great, and slips can bring a world of pain.
On Mother’s Day, women the globe over are recognized for their child-rearing efforts. But stepmothers are rarely acknowledged — on the holiday or otherwise. The challenges, stepmothers and experts say, can range from thorny relationships with original moms to pushback from kids and a lack of reciprocal affection, not to mention legal rights.
Families, like bodies, take on many shapes, and stepfamilies aren't uncommon. About 6 in 10 women who remarry are in blended families, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
"And that's not even counting people who cohabitate or re-partner without marriage," says Dr. Amy Wagner, senior staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. "So this is a really large group of women" in the position of parenting other people's children.
"I think they're among the most courageous and brave women to really take on that job," Wagner says.
Before Ryan Tova Katz met her husband, she vowed to never marry a man with children. But there's a saying about best-laid plans. About five years ago, Katz met the father of a 2-year-old. They wed when the little girl was 4½ and have been married for nearly three years.
"Aveline is like the most awesome human alive," Katz, now 35, says of her stepdaughter. She reckons that because she entered Aveline's life when she was a toddler, the transition was easier. "When we go places, she just says, 'I have two moms.' And people think I'm in a lesbian relationship, which is fine," says Katz, a large-scale mural artist who lives in Ravenswood.
But for all the calm of the stepmother-stepdaughter duo, Katz's relationship with Aveline's biological mom was embittered. For years, Katz says, the negative experiences took a toll on her and her husband.
"It was really hard for me; it was really hard on our relationship," she says, but the couple worked to "mask it from Aveline for the most part, I think. I hope."
In years past, Katz and her husband would spend Mother's Day mornings with Aveline. One year, Katz recalls, she was a few minutes late picking up her stepdaughter — it was a blip, she says, "I never, never, ever run late." When Katz arrived, she says, Aveline's biological mom was very angry. Katz, her husband and stepdaughter now celebrate the Saturday before the official holiday.
The "bad, bad years" are behind them now, Katz believes. About a year ago, Katz says, Aveline's biological mom had a health scare, so she and her husband "stepped up for her. No matter what she needed, we were there." The bio mom later "apologized for her behavior for the last four years."
For Judy Hurst, the greatest source of resistance emanated from a stepchild, not a parent. Hurst, 47, married her husband in June 2015, but they’ve been together nearly a decade. She has three children from a previous marriage; he has two.
That's what Wagner would label a complex stepfamily — where there are multiple sets of children.
Hurst says they didn't live together right away, opting to slowly integrate the families.
"And I think, for the most part, that worked," she says. Nevertheless, "it's been a rocky road. Don't think it's all rosy." She admits she doesn't have a sterling relationship with her younger stepson, age 17, a gifted dancer.
"He didn't want a new set of siblings," she says. "He didn't want a new family. He wanted to continue on his own path and still be that rifle shot to his goal."
Just as she seemingly complicated his life, Hurst acknowledges the inverse: He complicated hers. Her husband, she notes, was very supportive, "but he also was smart enough to know when to draw a line to protect both me and his son."
Like Hurst, Bridgeport resident Amy Ramirez Diaz is part of a complex stepfamily. When she married in June 2011, she brought a daughter into the marriage. Her husband, Omar, had two children from a previous union.
As a stepparent, "you're expected to do everything a mom does and do it with a smile, but you are reminded," Diaz says, that "you're not mom. Know your place."
She points to this painful predicament in a hospital: "If you have a child that's ill, and you're there, and you're worried too, and you're scared," eventually the times comes for "the doctor to walk in and give an update, and you're excluded from that conversation because you're not the parent."
She's been in that situation, she says, and "for the sake of everyone," to avoid friction, she stepped aside.
"That's the hard stuff," she says, "not so much the holiday where you didn't get the card." It's being discounted that stabs. "That piece is hurtful."
Puja Jiandani, 42, could probably relate to that pang. She cooks for her stepchildren, assists with homework, helps prepare them for college and careers, and views them as her own. But, she says, "sometimes I do feel the emptiness."
"I think there's a real dance that (stepmoms) have to do between getting involved enough and getting too involved, and it's very hard to know where that line is," says Evanston-based therapist Alison Toback.
According to research, Wagner says, it takes about four years for stepparents to integrate. "There's no road map to how to do it right," says Toback.
What's clear: Effective stepmothers tend to be very flexible and adaptable, says Wagner. They are thick-skinned and accepting, able to understand the children's perspective. She recommends that new stepmoms observe first, assessing family dynamics before trying to make changes, and view their role as a "second lieutenant, not as a primary parent."
Experts and stepmoms agree: Seek validation from your spouse, not your stepchildren.
"The best person to fill that stepmother up," Wagner says, "is going to be her partner."
And don't be afraid to study: reading literature on stepfamily development can offer insights.
If stepmoms or their spouses experience ongoing conflict on the parenting front, therapy might be a beacon. "Get into couple's counseling before it gets bad," Toback says.
Remember, too, to savor moments of sweetness.
Recently, Katz, now 8 ½ months pregnant, was in the car with her stepdaughter, Aveline, who’s almost 8. Katz recalls Aveline saying, "My mom says that this is not my real brother that's coming; this is only my half-brother."
That stung, Katz says, but in response, she simply asked her stepdaughter how she felt.
"She was like, 'I know that this is my half-brother,' she's like, 'because it's half my blood, but I also think that it's 100 percent love, so this is my 100-percent-love brother.'"