Stepfamilies are very common, but because our society's typical image of a family includes a married couple and their biological children, all of us who live in the huge number of American families that don't fit that mold often have to deal with a lot of awkward and even hurtful assumptions about ourselves and our families; especially stepmothers. You may not intend to, but there are plenty of ways you don't realize you're angering stepmoms unless you either 1) are a stepmom yourself and know all the common pitfalls or 2) are really close to a stepmom who's already schooled you on how to talk to her about it (or, how not to).
According to Pew Research Center, more than four in 10 adults count at least one step-relative among their family members. In other words, there's a lot of us. I really enjoy being a stepmom, and consider myself incredibly lucky to have my amazing stepdaughter in my life. Still, it's a really challenging role. Indeed, I personally find being a stepmom to be harder than being a biological mom, largely because of how frequently other people outside of my immediate family misunderstand, overlook, or flat out don't respect stepmoms. As a stepmom, I have to constantly work to be regarded and treated as a legitimate member of my own family — a struggle I just don't have when it comes to my biological son. There are plenty of other challenges that make stepmothering uniquely demanding, but stepmoms frequently don't have the necessary support to deal with those challenges.
It definitely doesn't help when the people around us, whom we often turn to for support, inadvertently say and do things that reinforce our sense of being the "other," or that show they really haven't made any effort to consider how we feel or how tough our situations can be. But given how common stepmoms and stepfamilies are, it's time people stopped regarding us as whatever "wicked" stereotype they've picked up from books and movies, and started being more considerate of us as real flesh-and-blood people who are doing our best to make our families happy, just like everyone else.
By Joking About “Wicked” Stepmothers
I guarantee that every stepmom you know has heard the words "wicked stepmother" more times than she can count. It is old and annoying, at best. At worst, it can really sting for a stepmom who is trying her best to deal with a really difficult family situation (a situation in which she probably has very little support). Please just drop this one already.
By Assuming How We Feel About Our Role
Every family is different of course, but the specific circumstances of how a given stepfamily forms is often very different from every other. So depending on a number of factors, the experience of being a stepmother can vary widely. For instance, for a woman who marries someone with adult children who no longer live at home, being a stepmom might feel mostly like a title. For other women who actively help raise their partner's children, being a stepmom is much more than that. Instead of assuming all stepmoms are un-invested in our families, be open to hearing how each stepmom you know feels about her particular experience with stepmotherhood.
By Assuming How We Feel (Or "Should" Feel) About Our Stepkids
Again, because stepfamilies often differ widely in how and when they form, the level of civility or hostility among the split-up co-parents, as well as how frequently they get to spend time with all of their children, there is a broad range of how cohesive (or not cohesive) and affectionate stepfamilies are. It's unfair to assume things about how any specific person does or "should" feel about their stepchildren, without understanding any of the dynamics of their particular situation.
By Holding Us Solely Responsible For Our Families’ Happiness
Because stepfamilies necessarily form as a result of breakups and/or death, it's inevitable that most of the time, there is an unhappy element to our families' origin stories. Nearly all stepfamilies have to navigate the ordinary grief that comes with a family splitting up (or a parent dying), but many others also have to deal with active sabotage by a vindictive ex, children who resent the changes in their parents' relationship and their living situations and/or who struggle with feeling loyal or disloyal in their old and new families, and any of a number of other potential challenges first families don't usually face.
All of which is to say: If a stepmom you know tells you she's having a hard time adjusting, do not tell her that everything will be fine as long as she's "nice." She's probably already being as nice as she can, 'cause that's what humans do. By suggesting that things will be OK if she's just "nice," you're also suggesting that any problems she's having are her fault. In reality, there are so many moving parts that determine the quality of life in any given stepfamily, and often, stepmoms have control over very few of them.
By Trivializing Our Role In Our Families
While we're deleting "wicked stepmother" jokes and comments from our lexicon, let's also get rid of "...just a stepmom," too. Unless she specifically says this role doesn't matter much to her (and I've yet to meet a stepmom in person who feels this way), please assume that stepmoms are invested in our families and treat us accordingly.
By Not Giving Us Space To Talk About Our Challenges...
If you're close enough with someone that she opens up to you about her challenges as a stepmom, and you respond with something like, "Well, you knew your partner had kids when you got together..." you should know that you're being really cruel. All parents eventually face challenges they could never have imagined before they were in the thick of it with their kids, and stepmoms are no different in this regard. We have just as much right to our feelings and to seek support when we struggle as any one else does.
...And Inadvertently Revealing That You’re Judging Us
Whether it's telling a struggling stepmom that things will be fine as long as she's "nice," or suggesting that she basically has no right to be upset about anything because she knowingly chose a partner with kids, dismissing stepmoms' concerns for reasons like these show us that you're judging us for our family choices instead of being empathetic and supportive. By saying things like this, you're suggesting that we're either being mean and undermining our own families, or that we're stupid for having chosen to be in our families. Not cool.
By Ignoring The Fact That Step-Parenting Is Parenting
Step-parenting often comes with unique challenges that aren't usually present for other parents, but it's still parenting.
By Forgetting About Us
Being a stepmom is very lonely at times. We're often left out of important decisions that affect us, celebrations, and other parts of family life that other folks often take for granted. It hurts to be overlooked, especially if we make a lot of effort to care for and care about our stepkids. Finding ways to include and acknowledge us often means a lot more than you might think.
By Suggesting Our Families Are Less Real Than Yours
Unless you're talking about families on TV or books or something, all families are real families. All. Families. Full stop.