I'm A Stepmother, And I Hate It

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars are joined by Wednesday Martin, a stepmother and author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do. They consider a letter from The Wicked Stepmother, who feels wrong for not loving her stepchildren the same way she loves her own baby daughter.


Dear Sugars,

This is something I've been struggling with for a while now and it's awful to write it to another person, but I have to. I am a stepmother, and I hate it.

The advice I get from everyone is that I knew what I was getting into when I got married, so I should accept it. But I didn't anticipate things being the way they are.

I met my husband when we were in high school, and even then we fell for each other. However, before we graduated, we had a fight, and I went off to college with our relationship unresolved.

During that time he had two children with another woman. Two years ago we reconnected online and all those feelings were still there, and we began a relationship.

At the time, I was hopeful about being a stepmother and sure that I could be a good one. So when we moved in together last spring, I jumped in with both feet. They were 5 and 2 when I met them and fairly easy to deal with. Now they are 8 and 5 and I'm overwhelmed with how annoying they are. I face pressure from all sides to "be their mom" — but I'm not. They have a mother, even if she's not around as much as she should be.

To complicate matters, I gave birth to my own daughter in June, and I didn't anticipate how fierce my feelings about her would be. My desire to protect her is so strong. I don't want the other children to touch her, and a terrible feeling fills my chest when I see this.

I know this is wrong. I am open with my husband about my struggle. I know I'm supposed to treat all the children in the house exactly the same, but I'm finding this impossible. I try to be present with them for my husband because I love him more than the world, but I never thought this would be so hard.

I don't know what to do. I know my feelings are not the right ones for this situation. I know these children have been hurt before and need a loving home environment.

I know the only possible answer is that I should have known what I was doing when I married my husband, but not marrying him was too much to bear. And our daughter is so precious to me. I know his kids are precious to him, and I try to look at our life through this lens, but it's so difficult, and I know I am so awful.

I hope things will improve and I know that it's up to me as the adult, but what if I can't hack it? What if I am just the evil stepmother? I don't like being such a monster. I don't like feeling so much pressure from everyone to be a saint and "love them like my own." That may never happen. I'm supposed to but I don't feel it. I know it's not right. I know it's not.

Signed,

The Wicked Stepmother

Steve Almond: I think this one of the bravest letters we've ever gotten. I think it is so extraordinarily rare for a stepmother to say, "I am having these terrible feelings that are conforming to every stereotype, but I'm having them."

Cheryl Strayed: Within the span of one season, she has become the stepmother to two children, and also she has become a mother. And I know from experience, when you give birth to a baby, you have a deep, animal urge to protect your child. This feeling you have isn't an indication that you're a terrible person.

Wednesday Martin: There is not one woman out of the dozens that I interviewed formally and the hundred or so women that I spoke to casually about being stepmothers who said to me, "I got this. This is easy." If anybody said that, within 15 minutes, we were getting into the nitty-gritty, which always involved resentment, anxiety, feelings of failure.

[Your stepchildren have] two parents. Your baby needs you, and it is OK to withdraw a little bit and prioritize your baby — that doesn't make you a bad stepmother. You're giving your stepchildren space with their father, and you're giving yourself time that you really need with your baby.

Cheryl: When you forgive yourself for having those feelings you have, what that opens up is the possibility that you will, over time, come to love these stepchildren.

Wednesday: Thankfully, these [stepchildren] have a present, loving parent, and that's Dad. And especially while there's a baby in the picture, Dad can pick up the slack and just work on his relationship with his children. And that takes the pressure off of her, and then she can reset her expectations and the guilt will lessen.

Cheryl: She signs her letter The Wicked Stepmother, like the terrible stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But I think that by asking these questions and admitting to these feelings that are so taboo, it tells us that you're not so wicked after all.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to hear the full conversation between the Sugars, The Wicked Stepmother, and her husband.

You can also listen to Dear Sugar Radio on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.

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