Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book about being a stepmother. I was a stepmother, and a sympathetic interviewer, but the book was based more on the experiences of 50 women I interviewed and the prescriptive advice of step family experts than on my own experience. Since that time I've covered many other subjects, but stepmotherhood is the one that women still want to talk about. I should have known. The indicators were good when I started the book.
At the time I wrote Stepmotherhood -- How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out or Wicked my career had stalled while I stayed home with small children. But my husband's career as an editor of a major news magazine for which he often interviewed international figures and U.S. politicians was soaring. At a Manhattan dinner party we attended together I felt rather drab and uninteresting while everyone asked him about his recent interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, the newly risen leader of the Soviet Union, and a trip he had planned to Latin America. When it was time for dessert our hostess turned dutifully to ask me what I was doing, and I replied that I was writing a book about step-mothering. The evening's dynamic changed. Within minutes almost everyone at that party gave me their phone number and made me promise to phone the next day. Do I have a story for you was everyone's exit line to me. Many of those stories went into my book.
I have moved on from writing about stepfamilies, but even now when I'm out speaking about my latest book, the biography of the Standard Oil heiress and fashion icon Millicent Rogers, women in the audience often come around afterward to ask me about step-parenting. It is a subject that knows no bounds or time limits, and the demands of the role continue to bedevil women who assume it. When I revised my book 16 years after the first edition, I revisited many of the same women I had originally interviewed. What I discovered was invariably the same. They found the role didn't change very much over time, but their ability to cope with it improved with confidence and experience.
Millicent Rogers, my latest subject, was not a stepmother, but as I was reporting her biography and interviewing the families that descended from her three sons by her two husbands, I realized that a stepfamily dynamic was at work. Each family wanted to show that Rogers had loved their progenitor the most. Supremacy is important in stepfamilies. I soon felt like I was in the movie Groundhog Day where themes repeat themselves over and over again. I had stepped back into the stepfamily dynamic. It's hard to escape.