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updated: 5/14/2012 3:19 PM

Stepmothers deserve a day, too

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I was in the card shop the other day doing some pre-Mother's Day browsing and came across a section of cards for stepmothers. There were at least a half-dozen selections ranging from sentimental to comical to fill-in-the-blank.

At first, I was impressed. It wasn't that long ago such cards were nearly impossible to find. Stepmoms just didn't fit the Hallmark image of the all-American family.

Now, to their credit, the cardmakers have embraced the reality of modern family life and rolled out a product line to make money. But cynicism aside, the more I thought about these cards the more I began to wonder if they were such a good idea after all.

I have spent a good deal of my professional life working with remarried families, and one of the biggest challenges for these families is the role of stepmoms. Stepmoms are not children's biological moms, and we pretend they are only at our own peril. I remember working with one family in which the stepmom had done an incredible job of caring for her two stepchildren, whose mother had virtually abandoned them when they were quite young. Now teenagers, the kids were having the expected teenage issues; they also wanted to find out more about their biological mother and who she was.

While exploring this in a family counseling session, the stepmom finally blurted out "I don't know how you could betray me like this. I have given you everything I've given my own children. And now you want to find that woman?"

It's not too hard to predict how the kids responded. She backed them into a corner and asked them to pretend the unpretendable: Stepmom was the same as mom. It wasn't going to happen. Ever.

I share this story to point out the dilemma that remarried families face. Stepmoms in particular are often asked to be nurturing, caretaking, loving "parents" to their stepchildren and fill in for bio-mom on a variety of occasions. Rationally, these stepmoms know they aren't the kids' "real" moms, but they can't be blamed for starting to feel like it. Kids get even more confused. They don't have the rational perspective to understand such family configurations and will see things almost entirely through an emotional lens.

This inevitably creates all kinds of mixed feelings. How can they like -- maybe even love -- their stepmom and also love their mom? How can they appreciate what their stepmom does for them and without comparing stepmom and mom? What do they do with the inevitable differences between the home atmospheres created by these two different women? How do they cope with the reality that stepmom has taken the place of mom in dad's life -- which crops up even when mom is the initiating party in the divorce?

A final confusion for everybody has to do with what we might call "emotional capital" (as opposed to political capital). Biological parents have an almost inexhaustible store of emotional capital that allows them to interact with, teach, set limits for, and discipline their children and still be loved -- not necessarily liked, mind you, but loved.

Stepparents don't have this emotional capital. They have to be careful interacting with stepchildren just to try to maintain a sense of mutual acceptance and tolerance. As much as possible, they need to avoid trying to be teacher, limit-setter and disciplinarian for their stepkids.

Remarried families, however, often unwittingly thrust the stepmom into the roles of teacher, limit-setter and disciplinarian with stepchildren. And even when a genuine affection, even love, exists between stepmoms and stepkids, assuming such roles can quickly exhaust these good feelings.

Rather than risk confusing things even further by celebrating stepmothers on Mother's Day, why don't we make it easier on everybody and give stepmoms the day of their own they so deserve? Maybe it could come a week or two after Mother's Day. On Stepmom's Day, we could truly acknowledge and celebrate the important and challenging job that stepmoms have in stepchildren's lives.

It could be a day of saying "thanks" to all the women who have taken on this role and, though knowing they are not moms to these kids, care for them and even love them anyway.