Stepparents don't get a lot of credit. History and literature are filled with stepparents, from Snow White's jealous witch of a stepmom, to the pharaoh's daughter, who took Moses from the bulrushes and raised him as her own son.
I Kid You Not!
Famous stepparent in literature: Hamlet's stepfather (the guy was also his uncle) was not a very caring man. He killed Hamlet's dad and then married his mother, grabbing the kingly throne for himself in the process!
The Wicked Stepmother
Many of the stepparents (especially stepmothers) in history and folklore are shown as wicked, cruel, and uncaring. They steal the father's affection from the children. They take the inheritance, they banish the princess to the cinder heap, or they're so jealous about her young beauty that they arrange to have her killed. (Sometimes, on a bad day, you might think you were the model for Snow White's stepmother. You don't want to be wicked, but what about those times when jealousy creeps in?)
The Abusive Stepfather
In general, there's not a lot of mythology about stepfathers. What there is tends to portray stepfathers as abusive. The hard drinkin', flinty-hearted man who... well, whatever he does, it's negative. Stepfathers often complain that people assume the stereotype about them and automatically view the relationship as a disaster waiting to happen.
I Kid You Not!
According to Paul Bohannan, author of Divorce and After, the terms "stepmother" and "stepfather" were first used to describe the "new" parent who stepped in after the "real" parent's death. "Today the stepparent is less often a substitute than he is an added parent."
The Dragon Slayer
Not all myths are negative. Sometimes the stepparent is looked on as a rescuer—the Able Woman, for instance, coming in to feed, clothe, and emotionally nourish the poor, feeble widower and his family of young children whom he loves but cannot care for. Then there's Super Stepmom, who mothers better than Mother ever did, baking cookies, driving the car pool, playing video games with the kids, and shopping with them. And then there's Big Daddy Moneybags, coming in with a whole lotta love and money to help save the starving young divorcee and her charming children.
Rescue fantasies are insidious. Very often it is the natural parent who believes strongest in the rescue fantasy, and that can be very seductive to the stepparent. "They want me, they need me," you feel. But if you or the people around you set you up to be the one to make it all better, you're gonna find yourself like Humpty Dumpty on that wall: sitting pretty but about to take a great fall. What happens when the family finds out that you aren't perfect? Yikes! What happens if they find out just how human you really are?
The term combined family usually refers to a stepfamily with two sets of kids, one set provided by each love bird.
Facing the reality that life is more complicated "in-step" is the first step to making life as a step go more smoothly.
It's hard not to internalize some of these images, to take them on as your own. On a good day, you may think of yourself as the rescuer on a white horse, saving this family from the depths of their own ineptitude and giving them a proper father or mother. When it's a bad day (when you've blown it and screamed, when the kids look at you like you're a small ugly bug that crawled out of the wall and somehow ended up living with them), you may feel like a wicked stepmother or fear you are becoming an abusive stepdad.
Stepfamilies also have their own set of myths, which can be equally dangerous:
- The Brady Bunch Family
The term "blended family" is often used to describe two families, each with a parent and children, coming together. Perhaps the most famous blended family in media history is the Brady Bunch. He's got kids, she's got kids, and they all live together in a big house as a happy extended family. In the Brady Bunch, nobody has issues. (Highly unlikely!) If you buy into the Brady Bunch mythology (we'll deal more with it in Part-Time Stepparenting), you'll either spend a lot of time in denial about the real, unsmiling state of affairs, or you'll judge yourself harshly for not being able to create blended family heaven. To save ourselves a lot of grief, let's call these types of families "combined" families.
- The Somehow Strange Sort of Family
It's a dangerous myth that your family is somehow abnormal because it's "in-step" instead of "all-natural." It's also wrong: Statistics show that about half of all Americans are currently involved in some sort of step relationship. And while the year 2010 census statistics have not yet been taken, the census bureau estimates that they will find more Americans living in stepfamilies than in nuclear families. Somehow, despite the facts, the mythology lives on, and as a result, stepparents often believe that their families aren't quite normal or aren't as good as biological families.