My teenage daughter Zoë is a child of divorce. My wife Holly is her stepmother. In other words, we are a typical American family. While statistics are scarce, it’s likely that stepparents are present in over half of American households with children. And yet it’s almost impossible for Zoë to find Mother’s Day cards for her stepmother, especially ones that aren’t numbingly trite.
Mother’s Day is all about a one-dimensional view of motherhood. Take a look at any Mother’s Day greeting card section: you will learn that every mother is selfless, tender, and noble, and that all her children worship her. You will also learn that card givers are assumed to be genetically related to Mom, and that maternal instincts follow from genetic relationships. Yet we know that this is not the case—either among animals (many of whom abandon or even eat their young) or among their human counterparts. And it’s a good thing, especially for adoptive children and stepchildren, since a lot of mothering gets done these days by women who are not the birth mothers of the children they care for.
I’ve thought a lot about whether this proliferation of stepfamilies is a good thing. In my view, there are two basic templates upon which marriage can be built. In one, the primary function of marriage is to serve the structural needs of the society outside the marriage. In the other, the primary function of marriage is to serve the emotional needs of the individuals within it. Ideally, a marriage will serve both sets of needs, but one must take precedence.
Unlike the marriage model of some traditional societies in which partners are chosen by parents, contemporary societies take an approach that’s based more on what we might call market forces. Like capitalism, marriage in our society is driven by the needs and desires of the individual. In the same way that capitalist economies provide some mechanism whereby businesses can fail (bankruptcy or its equivalent), so contemporary societies also provide a mechanism whereby marriages can fail. This does not mean that divorce is a good thing. Trust me: it’s not. But our approach to marriage requires that it be an option. Sometimes divorce is the least objectionable of a lousy set of alternatives.
Looking at families she knows
The reality of the world our daughters live in is that stepfamilies are here to stay. No girl lives in a perfect family, and most suspect from their own experience that families are not automatically stable or nurturing, whether they are being raised by biological parents, stepparents, adoptive parents, or extended-family parents. Despite the Mother’s-Day-card mentality, girls can see that mothers come in all varieties. Just like moms, some stepmothers are wonderful, and some are dreadful. The variable, it turns out, is not the capacity to give birth, but the capacity to mother. In the end, the hard work of raising children is not about genetics, but about love and sacrifice.
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