Stepmothers: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Once upon a time, there lived a little girl with beautiful long blonde hair and eyes as blue as cornflowers. She had lived happily with her father for a long time… But then something terrible happened. The little girl found out she was to have a STEPMOTHER! Everyone knows, of course, that all stepmothers are evil. They give their stepdaughters poisoned apples, make them work like slaves, and NEVER let them go to the ball…
It's an old story, and one that attorneys hear time and time again. In the midst of the divorce, dad gets a new girlfriend or mom get a new boyfriend, and suddenly everything is five times more complicated. Sexist though it may be, stepmothers have a harder row to hoe than stepfathers. Blame it on the fairy tales, in part. There are over 900 stories written about evil and/or wicked stepmothers.1 Because the perceptions of small children are shaped by the stories they are told by the adults in their lives, this bad press can have a devastating effect on fledgling stepmothers.
According to the Stepfamily Association of America (www.saafamilies.org), about 75 percent of divorced persons eventually remarry, and about 65 percent of remarriages involve children from the prior marriage and form stepfamilies. The SAA cites a study which suggests that 66 percent of all women and 30 percent of all children are likely to spend some time in a stepfamily (where the definition of "stepfamily" includes cohabitating couples).2 These statistics suggest that stepmothers, and the issues they face, are having a major impact on American families and children. We can also infer that, as women attorneys, we are almost guaranteed the opportunity to deal with stepmother issues-either as stepmothers ourselves, or in the course of representing our clients.
Surprisingly, there is little in the way of statutes and case law specifically referring to stepmothers (a general query on Westlaw came up with 43 results, of which only a few actually related substantively to the stepfamily issues). Currently, stepmothers have few legal rights regarding the children they parent, especially if their spouse is a non-custodial parent. The result is a series of emotional pitfalls: "What if I get attached to these children, and then my own marriage doesn't work out? I'll never see them again!" "What if I'm too strict with the kids, and they complain to their mother, who causes problems with my husband?" "What if I'm not strict enough, and the kids get into trouble, and everyone blames me?" "And for Pete's sake, what do they call me?"
Luckily, the number of available resources for stepmothers is growing. Books, Web sites, and support groups, a number of which are listed below, offer advice on many of these issues. One in particular, called "CoMamas," stresses the relationship between the biological mother and the stepmother, encouraging them to parent as a team.3 Random divorced males polled about this idea were leery of their current and ex-wives getting too chummy, but on the whole the concept seems to have a number of benefits for stepfamilies, including improved trust, cooperation, and a greater chance for family continuity in the event of a future divorce.
Even so, hurdles abound. Some studies validate the "wicked stepmother" concept. The Seattle Times reported on a study which found that "Children reared in families with stepmothers are likely to have less health care, less education and less money spent on their food than children reared by their biological mothers.4" The article suggests that women who do not give birth to children have less "investment" in those children, and that fathers in these families generally defer to their wives on child-rearing issues.5
The one thing upon which experts across the board seem to agree is that, while stepmothers can modify their behavior in order to appear less "wicked," the major factor in the creation of strong stepfamily relationships is: time. The Times article quotes stepmother and psychoanalyst Carol Albano-Lutz: "(I)t's very important, going into a stepfamily, to understand that family integration is a process that takes four to seven years."6
As with most other legal and social hot topics, information is key-whether you are a stepmother, or whether you represent one. At the end of this article are lists of legal and non-legal resources on stepmother/stepfamily issues. Armed with information, compassion, and luck, stepmothers are more likely to write their own happy endings, and to throw the fairy tale myths out the window. What will become of our heroine with the cornflower-blue eyes? We can only wish that she and her stepfamily will live happily ever after.
1. Nancy K. Recker, M.A., Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Allen County, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University Extension, The Ohio State University
4. "Stepchildren are better off with biological mother," Tamar Lewin (New York Times) Seattle Times, Friday, August 18, 2000.
7. Compiled by the Stepfamily Association of America, <www.saafamilies.org/advocacy/references.htm>
About the Author: Amie M. Sobkoviak is the Managing Attorney of the Will County Legal Assistance Program, Inc.. She specializes in handling domestic violence, family law, and children's issues. She very much hopes to be a stepmother soon herself, so this article is dedicated to Kassidy-in the spirit of shameless sucking-up.
Publications on Stepfamilies and the Law 7
• By Margorie Engel, MBA, PhD:
"How Current Laws and Social Policies Undermine Stepfamilies," Chapter 10, FAMILY LAW UPDATE 2003, Ron Brown and Laura Morgan, editors; Aspen Law and Business (December 2002).
"The Effects of Divorce Financial Decisions on Stepfamilies," Chapter 9, FAMILY LAW UPDATE 2002, Ron Brown and Laura Morgan, editors; Aspen Law and Business (December 2001).
Stepfamily Business Decisions Booklets series, SAA Families Press (Spring 2001).
Pockets of Poverty: The Second Wives Club-Examining the Financial [In]Security of Women in Remarriages, William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law, Volume 5, Issue 2, 309-381 (Spring 1999).
• By Margaret M. Mahoney, J.D.
Support and Custody Aspects of the Stepparent-Child Relationship, 70 Cornell Law Review 38 (1984).
Stepfamilies and the Federal Law, 48 University of Pittsburgh law Review 491 (1986).
Stepfamilies in the Law of Intestate Succession and Wills, 22 U.C. Davis Law Review 917 (1989).
A Legal Definition of the Stepfamily: The Example of Incest Regulation, 7 Brigham Young University Journal of Public Law 21 (1993).
"Reformulating the Legal Definition of the Stepparent-Child Relationship," in STEPFAMILIES: WHO BENEFITS AND WHO DOES NOT? (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 1994).
STEPFAMILIES AND THE LAW (University of Michigan Press, 1994).
Stepfamilies from a legal Perspective, in STEPFAMILIES FROM VARIOUS PERSPECTIVES (The Haworth Press 1997).
Non-Legal Web Resources:
• The Children's Rights Council - <www.gocrc.com>
• Stepfamily Association of America - <stepfam.org/>