A Healthy Stepmother . . . Wakes Up to Oppression

Ten years ago, when I became a stepmother, I’d never have described my experience as one of being oppressed. And, as a younger woman, I would’ve never agreed that others controlled my behavior. Things like interference, stone-walling, and passive-aggression on the part of others didn’t seem to warrant the label, oppression. I didn’t even like the word oppression, it sounded so impossible.

It’s only recently, I’ve acknowledged oppression as a thing in my life, despite that I’m female and oppression against women has been going on for a tediously long time, i.e. forever. Now, I see that oppression of stepmothers is simply a subcategory of oppression against women.

Wikipedia describes social oppression as “the socially supported mistreatment and exploitation of a group, category, or individual.”

Racism, sexism and other prejudices are often studied as individual beliefs which, although not necessarily oppressive in themselves, can lead to oppression if they are codified in law or become parts of a culture……the tools of oppression include a progression of denigration, dehumanization, and demonization; which often generate scapegoating, which is used to justify aggression against targeted groups and individuals.

Denigration and demonizing, uh-huh. Scapegoating as a justification for aggression, mmm-hmmm. I’m quite confident my 44 stepmother friends would agree they’ve been denigrated and demonized. They have been, and are being, scapegoated. Some have even been assaulted. Many around them, unsure how to handle witnessing such behavior, say nothing.

Obviously, there are degrees of severity, but oppression is everywhere. It’s as if we’re either living in a giant dog-pile each fighting our way to the top or vying for winner in a Most-Maligned contest.

Look around, siblings oppress one another. Spouses oppress one another. Parents oppress children. Children oppress parents. Teachers oppress students. Administrations oppress teachers. CEOs and administrations oppress workers. You get the drift. Oppression isn’t limited to gender or race. It is about power and the use of power to control the behavior of another person or group of people.

If you’ve heard don’t take things so personally more than once, it’s likely you’re an oppressed stepmother. If you’ve opened the doorway of your home to children who breezed past and didn’t say hello, it’s likely you’re an oppressed stepmother. If you’ve been told, you’re not my mother because you gave an opinion about the schedule or chores that needed doing to keep the house running, it’s likely you’re an oppressed stepmother. Many books written for stepmothers compound the problem further by outlining all the ways a stepmother should change her behavior so as to not offend anyone, so as to be included, and so as to ensure her stepfamily has a happy life.

But, it’s not the stepmother’s job to become un-oppressed! She’s not the one doing the oppressing, at least not in the beginning. I’ve seen some stepmothers become oppressive because it’s the way they know to survive the situation.

It is time to dive into this subject of oppression and dissect it. Let’s read the books that describe the stepfamily situation as it is, not as the fairy tale we want to live within (look for my annotated book list this year). Then, let’s work together toward behavior that includes everyone in the family. If we already know stepfamilies form on the foundation of grief from a family divorce, then we already have the basis from which to work toward the well-being of every member in the stepfamily group. What are we waiting for?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if mothers stood beside stepmothers and said, it’s not right what we are calling stepmothers, its not right how we are treating them. And if a mother demonstrated to her children what it meant to treat the stepmother with respect? We need more mothers like this.

Wouldn’t it be healing for fathers to stand beside their wives and say to their children, I need you to treat my wife with respect, she is a member of our family. Wouldn’t it be incredible if this was the norm? Wouldn’t it be incredible if parents, both mothers and fathers, weren’t held hostage by the possibility their children might withhold love?

I don’t expect the culture we live in to change overnight, but it will never change if we don’t have a conversation other than the stepmothers should behave conversation.

Let’s begin now.

20 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . Wakes Up to Oppression

  1. They also form on the foundation of grief from the loss of a mother. This resonates with me, although I am a stepmother due to the biological mother being deceased. I believe many of the stepchild-to-stepmother issues look much the same, but there is a striking difference when there is no bio Mom, and especially when Dad is lenient. There is no bio Mom to be the “rule-maker”, to be the one who instinctively knows what tween/teens (in my case, a teen stepdaughter) are capable of getting into, and who has the “position” to do something about it, particularly when Dad is (sorry Dad’s) out of touch, and, yes I do have this same instinct, but I have precious little ground in this area. For those fortunate stepmoms who get the blessing of the bio mom, this particular dynamic will never benefit from that, and It does add another dimension to each of the relationships all the way around. I am sure there are many out there in my circumstance, but it is darn hard to locate this particular stepfamily dynamic in order to find that proverbial shoulder! The efforts in this area are so necessary and I hope attainable one day, I just hope it is sooner than later for sanity sake of all the stepmoms out there trying to raise someone else’s children with love and kindness. Thanks, Kim, this forum is invaluable!

    • Leah, some really good points you bring up. And, yes, there are other stepmothers in your situation though I don’t know where to refer you. Maybe someone reading this will comment and reach out. I’ve found some of my best stepmother girlfriends from reading their comments on a blog like this and reaching out to them.

      A couple of things come to my mind. One is the lenient father image. Other terms are permissive father. I only know one father and his personality definitely fits those labels, but after reading all the “he should do…. ” and “the father should….” well, I started believing it and behaving that way and we’ve never fought more. Almost as soon as I stepped back and looked at him again, and saw he was making the best of the situation in the way he knew how and sometimes, often, his strategy was exactly what was needed in that situation. Of course, that didn’t satisfy my urge to get things mended now. And, it also wouldn’t have worked if we’d lived with the kids full-time. I’d have taken my space then and laid some ground rules, nothing major, but basics. And, I’d have asked for his support. And who knows how it would have gone. One thing I’m sure of, I’d still be needing all the self-soothing skills I know and will know one day.

      The second thing I think of in reading your post is that if the larger culture/society shifts in the thinking and we become more public in a healthy conversation about stepfamilies, your husband will have more models to follow. Right now, the models for men to follow are few and women do most of the leading. I wish it was more balanced, and it might be headed that way, but I don’t have any statistics. Right now, the $$$ drives the show and men are afraid of losing the love they have with their child. We’ve developed a funny world where the children can be the oppressors. Goofy, huh.

      Most of all, I’d say, keep taking care of yourself and don’t feel like you have to solve every single problem. Take a day off now and then from worrying about any of them, and get time for you and your husband alone. Encourage him to be with them alone sometimes too. But, you probably do all these things if you read here. 😉 I have to remind myself some days, too…

  2. Kim, thank you for your well thought out response. And this: “We’ve developed a funny world where the children can be the oppressors. Goofy, huh” Goofy indeed! When my generation were the youngsters, kids being the oppressor never even occurred to anyone, nor should it. How times have changed. And I really have to wonder exactly why it became so. Today, I will step back and watch my husband’s actions with a kinder eye. Just this morning, I was belaboring (once again) the point that my SD should be spending more time on studies, and less time on social media (her grades are failing), I went on and on, and though he agreed that she should, he stayed mostly silent. I honestly don’t think he knows how to approach this and not upset her at the same time. In some instances, its just not possible to have both. This tiptoeing around gets very frustrating. Love your blog, and love it even more when others respond with their experiences, it helps us all.

  3. Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes again. Particularly the part about all the ways stepmothers are told to silence themselves and be smaller so that they don’t disturb anyone by their presence. Because if you’re small enough, and silent enough, everyone will be happy, right? Ugh.

      • I’m doing well– learning that I do not need anyone’s permission to be myself and take up some space in doing so. 🙂

      • Also, the tag line in the article you retweeted today, “I’m tired of suppressing myself to get along with white people” had this line:

        “Concealing my emotions has made me feel like a ticking time bomb about to go off.” As a white person, I am very, very clear that I cannot appropriate someone else’s experience because I do not, in some ways, have any idea what it’s like to be her. However, this line (and several others) resonated with me about the experience of trying to be someone you are not, or less than your full self, in your home.

  4. Oh, yes! If we just mind our own business and don’t rock the boat, perhaps everyone will be happier (except us!!) I love this blog and am so grateful that I am not alone in this boat of stepmothering.

    • Talia, great to hear from you….yes, don’t rock the boat. And, don’t take it personal. Woot, some of my favs. Stay tuned for more, I’m on a new role with a new angle. 😉

  5. I agree, it would be wonderful if bio moms would say “it’s not right what we are calling stepmothers, its not right how we are treating them.” Sadly, I believe it is the rare bio mother who will say that. I believe most bio moms are not interested in having a conversation around this issue. They don’t want their children bonding with the step mom. They also use the children for aggression by proxy, as Wednesday Martin so aptly put it.

    • Ellen, your comment came in as I was getting sick. Now limping along but I can read and type. I know a few women who have reached out to the stepmother and by doing so have anointed her. They have worked siege their children and given them permission to love whomever they choose. The rarity of this act does indeed make it seem like a miracle. Two women in particular come to my mine, one a close friend of mine, and another woman I know who is the close friend of a friend. I hold them on my mind as beacons do hope. Perhaps I should interview them for the blog. Hmmm…..

  6. Enjoyed reading your perspective/experience of being a stepmother! I think you make some very valid points in this post. I’ve never been in your shoes. I think my own stepmother was a combination of oppressed(by my father) and not..(because my real mother was shut out of our lives). I think your story is probably more the norm

    • Hello MotherErased, welcome here. Thank you for the comment and sharing your thoughts. I read your blog post, one of them so far, and I can see why you’ve said what you’ve said. Yes, it’s likely as you’ve said, your stepmother was oppressed in some ways and not in others. I wish that was never the case, and for there to be no parent alienation, ever. The issues you bring up are an important part of the story, especially the who, how, and when can I love both of my parents. Oh, it’s such a deep topic. I wonder if you’d be okay with me doing a post on my blog and steering readers to yours? Again, welcome here.

  7. Reblogged this on Jennifer Lee and commented:
    This is probably the most honest and accurate description of what “being a stepmom” feels like. If you told me to describe stepmotherhood in one word, never in a million years would I choose the word “Opressive”, yet when I read this post it’s a word that makes sense to me.

    To quote Kim – “Wouldn’t it be amazing if mothers stood beside stepmothers and said, it’s not right what we are calling stepmothers, its not right how we are treating them. And if a mother demonstrated to her children what it meant to treat the stepmother with respect? We need more mothers like this.”

    Yes, it would. And, YES, we need more mothers like this. I’m ready to change the culture! Who is with me?

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