Set up to fail

I had just become a teenager when my father and his then-girlfriend sat us down, his two kids, her three, and handed out markers and big sheets of paper. We were assembled in the living room of her Plymouth rambler and I recall, as clearly as if it were this morning, the Norway fir in front of the picture window and the mobile that hung above it. I spent hours pondering the mobile, an array of tiny glass raindrops filled with actual water.

I was revisiting my puzzlement over how the glassblowers trapped the water in the crystal drops when the purpose of the art supplies was announced. We were to draw the house where we would all like to live together — our first activity as a blended family!

My stepbrother-to-be ran into the basement, slamming the door on him and his beer-can collection. The rest of us were nonplussed; we didn’t realize a household merger was underway. I dutifully started sketching in my mind only to come up blank, over and over. How could I picture our dream house, its gables and windows and hedges, when I didn’t want to live with these people?

As a parent wrestling with some of these issues myself, I think often of that dream house. Don’t you set everyone up for disillusionment — or worse — by pretending that the new setup will be idyllic? What happens when it isn’t? When it turns out — surprise! — that every member of the new household has their own idea of what paradise looks like, and the visions don’t jibe?

At present, one in three kids will spend some time as part of a stepfamily. And the necessarily rocky nature of these family mergers is legend: Divorce rates are 50 percent higher in remarriages with children than in those without. I could fill every page in this magazine with agate type describing the myriad frictions and resentments that fuel those statistics, but suffice to say rarely does the new family start out as anything other than a compromise.

Most likely, the kids would prefer their parents had stayed together. The previously childless stepparent would probably prefer to start their marriage with a clean slate, and the parent with a new partner would prefer not to be pulled in opposing directions.

There’s a stereotype for every single member of the drama: Dads can be affable but absent or even evil. Kids are cast as nuisances intent on shattering the new union, either from loyalty to the other parent, out of jealousy or in an attempt to reunite their parents. But the stepmother, there’s a special place in popular lore for her: Hansel and Gretel, anyone? Snow White? Cinderella?

In her new book, Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin describes the outlandish expectations confronting the woman who marries into children. She is expected to be all things: Innately maternal, unnaturally eager to put her own needs behind those of her stepchildren, possessed of an endless supply of cheeks to turn when kids are rude or her mate blind to their cruelty, understanding of the ex’s primacy, and on and on and on. When she fails — which she will, given that laundry list of superhuman traits — we depict her as a monster.

Martin does a terrific job communicating the perils of this precarious perch. Stepmonster is populated by women whose friends can’t listen without criticizing, whose husbands can’t find the spine to demand respect from the kids, and a culture that refuses to recognize theirs as a “real” family. Most corrosive, when the new family fails to resemble the Brady Bunch — a standard for domestic bliss we don’t impose on those “real” families — it’s stepmom’s fault.

“We tend to sweep the stepmother’s difficulties under the rug because they strike us as unseemly,” writes Martin. “Her pain, struggles, and failures set us on edge, make us want to turn away, because they smack of guilt. A stepmother’s suffering is, more than anything else, an indictment — of her. An admission not so much that she is falling short as that she is flawed.”

The last thing a fragile new family needs is for any member to labor silently under stratospheric expectations. Much in the way the parenting literature of the last decade has given mothers permission to be fallible and ambivalent, Stepmonster will go a long way toward validating stepmothers’ experiences.

But be forewarned: It’s not pretty reading. Martin tells readers several times that her journey worked out for the best, but she doesn’t say how. By the time I finished the book, I had a crystalline understanding how we set stepmothers up to be monsters, but no idea why anyone would ever want to become one. Could she not have included more detail on the rewards awaiting those who persevere?

I remember vividly how painful it was to become a mother in a culture that has rigid definitions of what constituted proper maternal feeling. I wasn’t endlessly patient and giving, the very idea of Gymboree propelled me toward the TV remote, and I found games involving Matchbox cars and talking utensils tiresome. It was years before I felt able to tell anyone that in truth I preferred adult pursuits. The second I voiced my real feelings, of course, I became a much happier parent.

The stepmother, however, we’d prefer not to hear from. A parent’s complaints about their kids are easily recognized as venting or commiserating. In the mouths of a stepmother the same laments sound like damning evidence that she’s incapable of empathizing with the children. Never mind that usually she’s doubled over backwards trying to do just that.

The kids, meanwhile, usually aren’t. Stepmom’s displays of generosity or kindness are often written off as efforts to undermine Mom’s place in their lives, or simply go unacknowledged. Or worse: Hardest to read are Martin’s examples of astoundingly bad stepkid behavior. “F@*% you,” is one teenage girl’s daily greeting. “I don’t have to listen to anything you say. Get out of my way.”

Where is Dad in all this? Never mind that Stepmom often ends up the target for anger more properly aimed at him, often he neither responds to the verbal abuse nor advocates for his partner. Frequently he’s assuaging his guilt with nonstop indulgences or locked into that post-divorce mistake of being a friend instead of a parent. It would be easiest for everyone if his new spouse would just shrug it off, he thinks. After all, who’s the adult here — right?

Wrong, Martin suggests. A child-centered second marriage is no healthier than the one that preceded it. In both cases, of course, the entire family is best served when the parents tend to their own happiness. But stepfamilies run a second risk: Parents who suggest, albeit unconsciously, that the kids’ needs always trump all are likely to find themselves with children who try to drive a wedge in between the couple.

Research shows most stepfamilies to be remarkably stable and resilient, if often after a rocky first two years. According to the experts Martin consults, the path is smoothed considerably by kissing goodbye the well-intended but misguided “blended family” ideal that fueled my parents’ dream-house exercise. Freed from the pressure of having to become a unified, togetherness-loving troupe, individual stepfamily members stand a decent chance of forging meaningful one-on-one relationships.

Viewed through decades of hindsight, my parents’ art experiment seems more naïve than anything. They wanted to inspire us to think of ourselves as something new, something we could help shape and direct as it grew. Where they veered off course was in presenting the new household as a kind of blended-family Camelot. Of course, we knew better; that was their fantasy, not ours. I can’t help but wonder would a healthy dose of reality at the inset have helped us construct something less fantastical, less obviously covetable, but ultimately more comfortable and durable.

Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.



Upcoming Events

Loading upcoming events...