A Healthy Stepmother . . . what naiveté really means.

Recently, a woman commented here, thanking me for the perspective of one of the posts. She shared her story of tragically losing her mother when her father forced her mother out of her life, and that her mother loss is still reverberating through her life. And, I read her blog and found her to be sensitively and thoughtfully working her way through her childhood loss as she writes in what is hopefully a healing and productive way.

I was going to share her story here and link to her blog, and then something stopped me. I had commented there, on her other blog, and gently suggested that at 22, her stepmother was likely unprepared to walk into the fire of defending the then-girl’s mother or questioning her new husband. I suggested that it was doubtful that the stepmother had wanted to erase the mother from the girl’s life. And, the author of the blog agreed with me, indeed her stepmother had been young.

A few days later a woman commented, and then another one, and another, describing a stepmother who ruined a life. Another admonished me to not be naive, stepmothers were bad. Another agreed.

I stand by my comment, the motive of a stepmother is very seldom to erase anyone from a life. In my real-life experience, the motives we attribute to others are most often based on our assumptions and not on the actual details we might learn if we polled every person in the scenario.

It reminded me of a time I was in a group of women (that had nothing to do with stepmothering). As we introduced ourselves, I mentioned I was a stepmother and I was working through the issues that come along with that. One woman blurted, “Oh, you’re an evil stepmother.” Later, the blurter and I were in a small group together working on an exercise and she told us more about her story. Simply meeting me had reminded her of one of her most traumatic moments. She was five years old when her mother died. Her father went into a depression and didn’t talk to her, he didn’t tell her any of the details about her mother’s death, and he didn’t comfort her. At some point, he remarried to a woman who tried to be nice to the young girl, but the girl’s wound wasn’t something the stepmother could heal.

All those years later, at least fifty, the woman was still wrestling with the issue and blaming her stepmother. Even though she corrected herself and said that her stepmother had tried, she had continued to tell the original story in the blaming stepmother, it’s all her fault way. She had told it as if she were five years old and her mother had just died.

I find myself contemplating issues of small children, parents controlling situations, blame, shame, and shutting people up, and several things occur to me.

First, when a child is wounded, it takes a mighty strong personality to work toward health and well-being. And, there are many children who are mighty strong and resilient and they find a way, often with help and sometimes in spite of seeming help. Somehow, deep down in there, they know there is another version of the story and if they dig it will come out. Or, as they get older, they decide they would like to live in peace without carrying a primal wound around like a piece of shrapnel inside that might kill them at any moment if they move just so. And, there are some who don’t make it out of the past and it stays with them and colors their perspective of the world.

Second, as a child we can’t know our parent’s, or stepparent’s, motives unless we ask. And, sometimes we won’t get an answer even when we ask. Even for parents, it takes a mighty strong personality to work toward health and well-being and not harm the children along the way. When the adults are motivated to live in peace without carrying the marriage or childhood wounds around like pieces of shrapnel…well, you get the drift. And, there are some who don’t make it out of the past and it stays with them and colors their perspective of the world.

Third, it feels most honorable to live with assumptions of honorable stepmothers, until we learn otherwise. There are stepmothers who survive and stepmothers who struggle, just as there are mothers who survive and mothers who struggle. There are stepmothers who misbehave and there are stepmothers who sacrifice and go above and beyond, just as there are mothers who misbehave and stepmothers who sacrifice and go above and beyond.

It is naive to assume all stepmothers are bad, just as it is naive to assume all mothers are good.

Most naive of all is to assume a stepmother should be the savior and rescue every child who is lost and hurt when the parents’ marriage ends.

I’m grateful to know there are children of divorce, who lost a parent one way or another, who are now adults and working toward an integration of their life. There are many of us, who are now parents and stepparents, working to make sense of our childhood experience and fit them into our now-adult world view, so we can move on and shift our focus to our children and the world around us.

There is nothing naive in that.

10 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . what naiveté really means.

  1. You are right on. Those childhood assumptions that we nurse and tell over and over again, holding tightly on to what we could understand as a hurting child can drain off so much of our life’s energy. Life is so complex that one story held forever is always too small. You point to an alternative that can be so life-giving.

  2. Preaching to the choir here. I totally agree with everything you say, and I have spent a lot of time wondering how to introduce this counter-narrative into the general atmosphere.

    • Victwa….write, write, write. Tell your story. If you don’t want to do that, I’ll interview you and tell your story here. Or you write, and I’ll post here. I think the more stories there are that show people as people, humans as humans, stepmothers as humans, the better off we will be. I’ve purposely not shared the details of my own family and almost everything I write is a composite of families, but I’ve been considering doing more feature-type posts about other families. It can be completely anonymous. Let me know if you have any interest. 😉

      • How did I miss this response? Maybe because I did not ask to be notified of new comments and then I forget to check blogs? Sheesh. I did not mean to be so silent after this comment! I can’t decide which of those options I’d be more interested in….

  3. Love this. I am a stepmother to a teenage daughter who lost her mother when she was 10. I am in my 50’s, and never had children of my own. It takes huge conviction to help in raising someone else’s children. To say my life is a bit chaotic and wrought with drama would be an understatement, but I treat my stepdaughter with kindness and respect, while standing along side her father, doing what I can to help raise her to be a loving, caring and respectful adult. My own mother is now gone. My two younger siblings and I were adopted at birth. My older sister was adopted by my mother when she was five, after losing her own mother. To this day, in her 60’s, she still has very unkind words to say about my mom and recounts things that, if they had been done by a birth mother, would never have been a story held or told. I find this so strange, because I was there too. I witnessed my moms love and sacrifice for her children. I only have wonderful words to say about my mom. Tragic that even though she was adopted by my mom at the young age of 5, she spins the stepmom horror story. The bad rap so many stepmoms get is age old. And in the case of my older sister, undeserved.

    • Leah, thanks for sharing some of your story. I have a similar story of my mother and my stepsister. It was difficult to watch at the time, and still is to think of today. Sad to think your stepsister will hold her heart so closed and not let people in. I know I came to a crossroads in my own life, almost like a choice-point between becoming bitter or open. I chose open, scary and incredibly vulnerable-making as it is/was. I’m still committed to that path and to laying down blame of every kind.

  4. I really think it is human nature to blame the “outsider” for whatever unhappiness the “injured party” might feel. In my experience, families blame in-laws and steps equally. It is very difficult for humans to look inward to try and get personal insight into how they contributed to a situation they are unhappy about.

    • So true, Ellen. It is our nature to get the icky feeling off ourselves and the quickest way to do that is flick it onto someone else. In many areas of life, awareness is helping and that is my hope in continuing to write. Also, what helps is for women who are in this stuck place of being a stepmother (or any other role) will gain a sense of not being alone in it. Thanks for your comment.

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