A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

On Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere, I see post after post from stepmothers struggling with the husband, the stepkids, and the ex-wife. I get it. I get it.

No, I really do get it. The process of integrating a stepfamily takes seven to twelve years according to experts such as Patricia Papernow, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t.

Regardless of where you are in the process of stepfamily integration, it isn’t easy. Regardless of your best efforts, the speed of the integration isn’t slower or faster because of what you do. There are countless variables, so many it’s not possible to read a book about what others do and simply apply that to your own family, however there are some good ideas in some books. Think of the number of books about child development and how many contradictory theories there are for what is best. Same with stepmothering.

Every stepmother I know has learned she has to live it to see what works for her and her family.

For me, the greatest level of peace has come when I’ve educated myself about the process and taken less responsibility for the outcome. I know, it feels weird to not be designated as a fixer. It is so ingrained. I used to think it was a personal failing, now I know it’s culturally dictated. So, when I found this article, I knew I wanted to share it with everyone who marries a person with children from a previous marriage.

In Women Are Just Better at This Stuff: Is Emotional Labor Feminism’s Next Frontier?, November 2015, Rose Hackman introduced her latest research with this:

We remember children’s allergies, we design the shopping list, we know where the spare set of keys is. We multi-task. We know when we’re almost out of Q-tips, and plan on buying more. We are just better at remembering birthdays. We love catering to loved ones, and we make note of what they like to eat. We notice people’s health, and force friends and family to go see the doctor.

We listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness, the one-track mindedness while we’re busy organizing a playdate for the kids. We applaud success when it comes: the grant that was received, the promotion. It was their doing, and ours in the background. Besides, if we work hard enough, we can succeed too: all we need to do is learn to lean in.

Hackman says this is emotional labor and someone has to do it. Both at home and at the office, women are doing the greatest percentage of emotional labor and wondering why they are so exhausted. I feel her article is a very fair description of the issues, without disparaging the men and women we partner with.


Go ahead, get out for an early morning walk…

So, take a moment to breath. Consider Hackman’s list. Add to it all the things you’re juggling in your attention right now. Add to it all the worries you have about the kids, your husband, your own health and well-being. No wonder you’re exhausted and wondering if your marriage will survive. Simple marriages (my term, in which neither partner has been remarried before) struggle with emotional labor. Stepmothers, add an element of double or triple duty here. Emotional labor is one big reason it feels stressful. That and loyalty binds. No wonder stepmothers are depressed or anxious (Wednesday Martin).

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know I’m a big proponent of doing less. Of getting over the Great Healer Complex. For reminders and ideas for how to work with the image of doing less, see A Healthy Stepmother Minds Her Own Business, or A Healthy Stepmother Does as Good as She Can, or A Healthy Stepmother Knows When to Cat, Dog, or Hamster.

You might have felt doubtful when you’ve heard me encouraging you to do less. You might have struggled with guilt that things aren’t getting done: Johnny is going to flunk math, Suzie is not going to have that cute outfit to wear, or someone needs to pick up the kids.

Rose Hackman’s work is an awesome way to understand emotional labor in the context of your current life as a woman, as a wife, and as a stepmother.

Believe it or not, if you do less, your family will be better for it. It reminds me of the episode of Blue Blood (Season 3, Episode 2, Domestic Disturbance) where Linda went back to work and Danny was struggling to step up and help out more at home. Linda felt guilty she wasn’t there to do all the things she used to do. Erin reassured her it’d be good for the boys to take on more responsibility. In fact, maybe that’s the simplest way to encourage children to do more in the home, don’t you be the one doing things that don’t get done. Wait. Things will change if you can wait long enough.

While you experiment, there’s no need to go to the other extreme and never offer emotional labor. It’s a continuum and we can live somewhere along it without getting stuck on either end. Imagine, if you decreased the emotional labor in your life by ten or fifteen percent? How much energy would you have to do something else? To create something? To sustain yourself?

Of course, I’m dying to know what you’ll do and how it turned out. Please come back and comment and let me know. As always, you can post anonymous comments, just pick an alias. I’m the only one who will ever see your email address.

Ready to dish up some emotional labor?

Ready. Set. Stop!

4 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

  1. I wish I had read this blog post 20 years ago. I have always been someone who takes most of the emotional labour (sorry- Canadian! 🙂 with my husband, and our children (two together, and one stepdaughter)
    My husband feels everything deeply but does not show it openly. So I make up for it within our family by giving, organizing, remembering, excusing, planning, etc. Now, I am exhausted by it and have been hurt in the process.
    I am trying to pull back for myself now but it’s hard not to feel resentful for so many unnoticed things, and it truly takes great effort to fight what I think are my natural tendencies.
    BIG learning curve!

    • I wonder if it will be good news for you, Lana, to know that you are right on schedule? I’m not sure we could have seen it sooner, or if the culture could tolerate us seeing it sooner. It’s really now beginning to be identified in this particular way. It will probably be your daughters who get to benefit from the understanding, and their daughters. All to say, if we are over four decades on the planet, we are right on track. Perfect timing. The gang is all here and can now really take it in. 🙂 it has taken us this long to lay down our trying to be so good.
      The good news, your daughters will learn so much watching you navigate doing less. They’ll be storing the material for them to self-care in their adulthood. How cool is that?

  2. Emotional Labor!! What I feel and o finally has a name! I realize I have made one small step. I quit checking my 14 year old SD’s grade portal at her middle school. My husband began to rely on me to relay her grades, what homework was missing, etc, but in her eyes, I was snooping and nagging about grades, and turning in homework, and it got contentious, so I stopped, stopped 100%! She is maintaining relatively the same grades, and I know she is capable of doing better, but I have let it go, her father is fully capable of knowing the consequence of lackluster grades, if he chooses to not make them a priority, I have to continue to learn to grin and bear it. Problem being, in the long run, college will likely cost more, so you see my dilemma. We also just had a very abbreviated “grows on trees” money discussion as I was about to blow an emotional gasket. Yikes. This is a hard issue to step back from. Not sure where we are going on that yet, but suffice to say that my SD in now spending more in a weekend than I do on lunch for an entire week (maybe two), something’s gotta give (all ideas welcome). My situation is a bit different, her mother is deceased, so there isn’t another parent to teach some of the accountability/responsibility lessons she undoubtedly would benefit from. Emotional Labor, indeed! Thanks, Kim, always insightful.

    • Ooooo, I do like the sounds of this. It is always a big shock to everyone else, and to your own system, when you stop doing the thing no one really asked you to do but which you somehow ended up doing and then later wondered why. I will admit tho, there were a few occasions when I knew it was something I should step away from and made a very purposeful decision to stay engaged in that thing. I am still glad I did, it has proven to have been a good thing. Maybe the moral of the story is to have multiple strategies and options and depending on the situation you help or don’t help. So, yes, a name!!! It does make it more legitimate, doesn’t it?

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