Mother's Day 2012: Why Stepmoms Are Ignored

To stepmother Judy Osborne, Mother’s Day is “the hardest day of the year.”

Osborne, a Brookline, Mass.-based marriage and family therapist, started her practice, Stepfamily Associates, in 1980, specializing in stepfamilies. While she said she has a strong relationship with her own stepdaughter -- a bond she cultivated slowly over many years -- her stepmother clients have shown her time and again how the holiday sparks complicated feelings. “They really dread it,” Osborne said. “Mother’s Day tends to be a lot more charged" than Father’s Day because most women invest in mothering a new partner’s children. “I think it’s hardest on women who don’t have children themselves.”

The problem, Osborne said, is that women act like mothers to their partners’ children all year, then aren’t recognized on the one day of the year they’re supposed to celebrated. It can be very hurtful, said Osborne, when “all of a sudden, bang, it’s Mother’s Day and the cards only go to the mother.”

What Osborne said she observes affects a growing number of Americans as "nontraditional" family structures become more commonplace. As of 2009, 5.6 million children lived with at least one stepparent, according to the census. And, according to the Pew Research Center’s estimates in 2010, 42 percent of adults have at least one step-relative. While it's difficult to determine how many stepmoms exist in the U.S., the Pew Research Center estimates 14 million.

Many stepmothers fill clear maternal roles, at least part-time, when divorced parents split time with their children, doing everything from taking kids back-to-school shopping to driving in the carpool. Often, they consider themselves co-parents with their partners, and strive to create close bonds with their partners’ kids. So if stepmothers aren’t shown appreciation on Mother’s Day, of all days, then when will they be acknowledged?

Kids and stepmothers don’t have complete control over factors that contribute to stepmothers feeling slighted on Mother’s Day. Some of these variables stem from how stepparents remain culturally overlooked -- not just on holidays.

Peggy Nolan, executive director of the Stepmom’s Toolbox, an online resource for stepmothers, is a stepmom to four children and has a stepmom herself. She said she’s surprised by the lack of resources available for children to celebrate their stepparents. Store-bought Mother’s Day cards, for example, are nearly nonexistent. “My stepson came up to me last year and said, ‘I’m so sorry, but they don’t have stepmother Mother’s Day cards,’” she said.

Nolan said she typically gives her own stepmom a “friend” card or a yoga-themed card (they bonded with yoga years ago), many kids either aren’t old enough or don't think of these alternatives.

While many kids do make cards for their parents, Osborne said they aren’t necessarily prompted to do the same for stepparents. “In schools or churches, with whoever helps kids think about Mother’s Day, they don’t think about stepmothers usually,” Osborne said. “They say, ‘Let’s make a Mother’s Day card for your mother, not ‘Let’s make two.’”

It’s not always realistic for stepmothers to expect stepchildren to treat them as they would their own mothers on Mother’s Day. Sometimes, kids won’t have the opportunity to celebrate the holiday with their stepmothers at all, as they will spend the day with their mothers. And, in some families, honoring a stepmom might seem like a breach in loyalty to a child’s “real” mom.

Emma*, 28, from Los Angeles, has both a mother and a stepmother. She said she wouldn’t feel comfortable celebrating her stepmom on Mother’s Day for fear of hurting her mom’s feelings. “I wouldn’t want to leave her alone on Mother’s Day to spend time with my dad and another woman, when the day is supposed to be about my mother," Emma said. "Maybe I would give my stepmom something small or buy her a card, but I would never spend the day with her.”

Emma said that even if she grew up with her stepmother, she would still feel an “extreme allegiance” to her mother on Mother’s Day. “If my stepmom didn’t have any other kids, maybe it would be different,” she said. “But she does, so I feel like it’s not my responsibility.”

If stepkids don’t honor their stepmoms on their own, or their parents don’t help or encourage them do so, then it’s up to a stepmom’s partner to recognize her, Osborne said. Nolan had different advice for stepmoms: Don’t have expectations.

“Not every kid sees their stepmom as a ‘bonus’ mom,” Nolan said.

Nolan said she hopes stepmothers can recognize ways their stepchildren might acknowledge them and show love -- not just on Mother’s Day, but any day. “They could simply bring you a cup of coffee. Or maybe they help [their dad] make breakfast,” she said. “Sometimes you have to look for it in the actions, not in the card or even in the thank you.”

Parenting in general can be a thankless job and Nolan said she thinks it’s important for stepmothers to not take what happens (or doesn’t) on Mother’s Day too personally.

“Mother’s Day is one of those made-up Hallmark holidays where women expect flowers, candy and cards,” Nolan said. “I choose to take a different approach. If someone wants to give me a card, that’s awesome. But … I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.”

*Name has been changed

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