Thick Skin, Soft Heart

As I’ve been chronicling my struggles in trying to become a mom and the small window that is closing on me, some of you might wonder about why this struggle is as painful as it is.  After all, I am a stepmom, so I do have child in my stepchild.  This is true, and I do love my Skid, but those of you who aren’t in a blended family situation may find it hard to comprehend how it is not exactly the same as having a child of your own.

Oh my Skid… my wonderful, funny, sharp as a tack Skid.  I have never met a person who can so completely capture my heart and break it at the same time. Well, not since the 8th grade when I had a crush on a boy with deep-brown eyes who never gave me the time of day, but he liked my friend.  Putting puppy love aspect of the metaphor aside, it is actually very similar scenario.  Living life with Skid is painfully like being that insecure 14 year-old girl in that invisible love triangle.

The life of a step parent, especially that of stepmom, means reconciling to the fact that you’ve come into a pre-established relationship, and even if your are entrenched in both your husband’s and your stepchild’s life, you are still a bit of an foreigner.  It’s a role that psychologist Patricia Papernow coined as “the intimate outsider.” You are privy to the ins and outs of your family, but you are without the ties and history that bond child and parent. You can perform the duties of a parent – pack the lunches, do the laundry, complete registrations for basketball camp, and anything else that’s required – but you do not (and cannot) occupy that space that rightly belongs to Mom and Dad in your stepchild’s mind and heart.  Your role lies outside that sacred space, and most stepchildren do not appreciate it if you try to cross over into it.  Life is a daily dance:  The “Don’t get too close; don’t step too far back” cha-cha.

I count myself lucky that I’ve never heard the dreaded, “you’re not my mom!”  I feel I can safely assume Skid doesn’t hate me; yet at the same time, I’m acutely aware of daily behaviors that clearly delineate where I rank on the totem pole.  They are often imperceptible to Hubs, but speak volumes to me:

  • The family is watching a movie. Hubs can’t stay awake, so he gets up to go to bed. Skid takes off as well leaving me by myself
  • Skid offers Hubs a sip of soda, taste of ice cream, or piece of a candy bar, but never offers the same to me.
  • When Hubs cooks dinner, Skid hovers around the kitchen when food is being plated; when I cook dinner, Skid sits at the table with Hubs while I’m doing the plating.
  • When driving Skid to basketball, school, or sports camp, Skid pulls the most amazing contortionist’s act in order to be turned away from me and toward the passenger’s side window. 
  • Any suggestion or offer of help I have to give is met with a “No,” with the possible exception of an offer to go to McDonald’s.

Now, these behaviors are small and seemingly innocuous.  But no matter how big or small the act, it underscores that they mean a lot more to you than you mean to them -and that can really mess with your self-concept.  You know you’re nice, you know you’re lovable, but any amount of rejection on a daily basis will wear a gal down.

When you become a stepmother, there is one directive you will hear again and again:  Don’t take it personally.  It was a phrase I learned to hate in the first years of being a stepmom.  Being naturally thin-skinned, taking it personally was EXACTLY what I did, especially after my pregnancy losses.  I’d be lying on the couch for days emptying boxes of tissues and nursing my broken heart, and Skid would sail right by and not even acknowledge my presence.  I was in total despair. Not only was my body betraying me, but my step child acted like I did not exist.  I sadly admit that I let it harden my heart for a while.

One day, I was lucky enough to stumble across a blog post written by a women who was both a stepmom AND a stepchild.  Her perspective helped me finally “get it.”   While I haven’t exactly gotten it all figured out, I have adopted the mantra of “Tough skin, Soft heart” to keep myself centered during those times when I’ve seemed to slip into invisible mode in my family.

One Step Forward, One Step Back

While Snow White gets a new kick-butt persona, the stepmother archetype remains stagnent.

Who doesn’t love a Hollywood makeover?  Especially when well-worn stories that once  featured the helpless damsel in distress are retold with a more empowered, feminist point of view.

Case in point, the two upcoming releases featuring retellings of Snow White. Both feature sword-wielding protaganists determined to take control of their fate and reclaim their rightful kingdoms all the while looking amazing. So what can be anti-feminist about kick-butt versions of classic fairytale princesses?  Enter the villian. 

In order to become heros in their stories, both Snow Whites must face off with their respective Evil Queens who both perpetuate the evil stepmother archetype: one played by Julia Roberts and the other by Charlize Theron. While the classic Disney version of the tale never made the Queen’s connection to Snow White clear, both remakes in question explicitly cast the villain in the stepmother role.

So why is this a feminist issue? This archetype perpetuates the notion of stepmoms as hateful, controlling interlopers who do nothing but seek to fulfill their own desires even if it means crushing their stepchildren in the process. An archetype that in most cases could be nothing further from the truth. According the Wednesday Martin, author of the book Stepmonster, stepmothers are often the most powerless and vulnerable members of the stepfamily system.

To those outside of stepfamily life, it is difficult to perceive the differences between a stepfamily and a first family.  As a result, roles within the stepfamily are judged by a first family standard.  To an outsider, the situation appears simple, the new wife fills the former wife’s role in the household.  If she loves her husband, loves the children, attends to their needs and is nice, everyone will get along and be a happy family.  If she fails to show anything other than enthusiam for her role or his kids, she is judged harshly for it.  “You knew he had kids when you were dating him, what did you expect?” 

In reality, stepfamilies are complex situations that are based in loss. Remarriages bring together individuals who bring their different histories and past hurts into the situation. The child inevitably hurts from the disentigration of his first family. The parents feel guilty about the hurt they’ve caused their children, which often leads to overcompensation by way of lessened discipline, increased privileges, or even treatment of the child as an equal, blurring the line between adult and child.  Adding another person to the mix is not as simple as snapping a puzzle piece into place.  It does not make what is broken whole again.  It creates choas which doesn’t resolve easily. Boundaries must be re-established, discipline needs to be addressed, old wounds are opened… all related to issues that existed before the stepmom came along, but are attributed to her as her presence brought change about.  Very often, she feels responsible for fixing what she didn’t break. It’s part of what makes her role so difficult.    

The perpetuation of the evil stepmother archetype continues to cast a shadow on a greatly misunderstood role.  It creates more stress. Stepmoms seek to avoid the label even to their detriment.  According to Martin:

“Canadian researchers have found that, owing to their conviction that they must “blend” the family, and owing also to their fear of being perceived as wicked, stepmothers tend to take on the role of family counselor and marital therapist, and to bend over backwards to be “perfect.” The result is feelings of exhaustion and burnout. And such feelings, combined with the hostile environment she often finds herself in when the kids are around, prime her for anxiety and depression.”  

Not exactly the stuff of female empowerment. 

As a stepmom, I long for the day when stepmothers are portrayed against the archetype as someone sympathetic you can cheer for instead of distain.  Until then, the closest we’ll get is Alison Janey’s character in Juno who passionately defended her pregnant teenage stepdaughter to an insensitive ultrasound technician and, of course, Julia Roberts, in the somewhat unrealistic Stepmom.