Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wednesday Martin's "Stepmonster"

Wednesday Martin has worked as writer and social researcher in New York City for almost two decades. She was a regular contributor to New York Post’s parenting and lifestyle pages for several years, and her work has appeared in a number of national magazines including Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Fitness. Martin was also a features editor at Woman’s World. She earned her doctorate in comparative literature from Yale and taught cultural studies and literature at Yale, The New School, and Baruch College. A stepmother for nine years, she lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do, and reported the following:
My book Stepmonster starts from the premise that it is time to tell the story of remarriage with children from the point of view of the woman who marries a man with children, since her role is uniquely challenging, uniquely over-determined, and (to me) particularly fascinating. Our cultural resentment and suspicion of stepmothers runs deep, and the role is historically and socially rich in meaning. Yet books for women with stepchildren tend to focus on the emotions and needs of the children versus the stepmother, and to reduce her entire situation to one of replacement parent or spouse soother. My book is an attempt to explore stepmothering more comprehensively--in other cultures and across historical periods, as well as from perspectives as varied as evolutionary biology, literary criticism, economics, law, and personal experience.

Page 99 of Stepmonster falls at the end of a chapter called "You're Not My Child!" This chapter is about the taboo emotions that a woman with stepchildren will commonly feel--anger, jealousy, resentment--but seldom speak about or even acknowledge, rightfully fearing judgment and condemnation.

In spite of the fact that I set about to write a book that is NOT a book of advice--my goal was to write a deeper, more comprehensive book about stepmothering, one that went way beyond lecturing, "shoulds," and simplistic "recipes for success"--page 99 is in fact a section of advice.

At the top of the page, I note that I have at times been emotionally cautious and even guarded with my husband's daughters, having learned from hard experience that putting myself out has inevitably resulted in feeling put out when my efforts were rebuffed. I note that, "The risk is that in protecting ourselves, we may unwittingly be turning ourselves into a stereotype--the emotional and financial skinflint of a stepmother." I also note that while this "may be a little sad, or a little funny, it is also, we might remind, ourselves appropriate. We are, after all, their stepmothers."

This sets up for a transition to a discussion of a celebrated (among stepmothers) essay on "disengaging," one that seems to have been posted anonymously on the internet several years ago. The recommendations of this essay, which I summarize in part of page 99, include stepping back from hostile and rejecting stepchildren and giving and doing less until they are ready for a more reciprocal and healthy relationship with their stepmother. Such an undertaking as disengaging goes against virtually everything women are socialized to want to do in a step-situation--to try, to blend, to win them over, to be the good guy no matter what, to bend over backwards in order to win the approval and love of children who are very likely simply unable to confer it.

Page 99 is not a page I would say is representative of my book--most of it is not even my own writing. But it does show that stepfamilies are not alone in their frequent feelings of frustration, and that they are not without resources or choices. It supports women in stepfamilies taking steps that are self-preserving rather than self-abnegating, and urges them, in spite of all the pressures they feel to do so, to stop putting themselves and their needs last.
Read an excerpt from Stepmonster, and learn more about the book and author at Wednesday Martin's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue