Two Heads Are Better than Three

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Two Heads Are Better than Three

Book excerpt

By: Mary Roach

Date: 2005

Source: Moses, Kate and Camille Peri, ed. Because I Said So. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

About the Author: Mary Roach is a San Francisco based journalist and author who has made frequent contributions to various American magazines and periodicals.


There is little question that the popular connotations associated with the position of stepmother in the modern American family are often negative ones. Literature, beginning with fairy tales such as Snow white and Cinderella serve to reinforce the stereotypical stepmother as mean, evil, cruel, or wicked.

The etymology of the term is not so malicious. The prefix 'step' is derived from Old English, and referred to a child who was bereaved due to being orphaned; a stepparent was thus, one who became the parent to an orphaned child. It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that the concept of step-parentage moved beyond a relationship through marriage with an orphaned child. In contemporary language, a stepparent relationship is said to be created through any second marriage where one or both of the new spouses has a biological or adopted child that will be a part of the new family unit. Given the increased incidence of common law relationships in modern American society, a child previously born to a common law spouse entering into a new common law union is also referred to as a stepchild.

The statistical evidence with respect to the creation of various kinds of steprelations in the United States underscores the broadening application of the 'step' designation. It is estimated that as of 2006, approximately one third of all American families included a stepfamily component. The English lexicographer Samuel Johnson observed in 1770 that a second marriage was the triumph of hope over experience; modern American attitudes to re-marriage echo Johnson's sentiments, as seventy-five percent of all divorced Americans will re-marry, usually within five years of their initial divorce. In 2005, over forty percent of all marriage licenses issued in the United States related to a re-marriage of at least one of the new spouses.

The ability of a stepparent generally to assert parental influence within a new family structure is one that is dependent more upon the manner in which the new spouses agree that their home and the relationships with the children shall be organized, than it does based upon the law. Stepparents often inherit preexisting child custody, access, and support agreements or court orders that influence the ability of the stepparent to assume a truly parental role with a stepchild. Where a stepparent commences family life in circumstances where the former spouse to their new partner is resident in the same geographic area and the former spouse asserts ongoing parental control over the new stepchild or children, the ability of the stepparent to become a meaningful, parent like part of the stepchildren's life is often very difficult. In such cases, the stepparent is cast in the role of the usurper as described in the following book excerpt.


In the early days of transplant science, a horribly enthusiastic surgeon named Vladimir Demikhov grafted the head of a puppy onto the neck of a full-grown dog—a dog that already had a head, thank you very much. In the files for my last book, I have a photograph of the aftermath of this ill-advised undertaking. The severed head is sewn into the front of the neck of the intact dog, nose up, so that the two canines are face-to-face, constantly reminded of each other's presence. You can almost see the Wellbutrin bottle in the background.

Bear with me, I'm working on a metaphor here.

Seven years ago, I met a man and fell in love. He had been married before and had two young daughters. Because I was in love, and because at that time his children lived with their mother in another state and our visits with them went well, I did not give the complexities of the situation all that much thought. I did not read even one of the dozen or so books out there about "blended families." (I love the term "blended." I love the ridiculous optimism of it. It suggests an outcome that is smooth and delightful and effortless to attain. "I'll be the mango!" "I'll be bananas!" "Dad, you push frappe!")

After a couple years the man's family moved back to our city. Do you see what I wrote? "The man's family." They were his family, and I was his second wife. His parents are her kids' grandparents, which gives his ex-wife a permanent slot there between the generations on the family tree. I don't know if there's even a protocol for adding second wives to family trees. I'm imagining a faint dotted line of the sort used by mapmakers to delineate unpaved roads or proposed subway extensions that have been in the works since the Eisenhower administration. There is an inalterable solidity to the ties of matrilineage. These are people attached to one another by the uncor-rodable bonds of blood and ancestry and family photo albums. A second wife is a flimsy, sewn-on thing.

This became clear to me shortly after their return. My husband's ex-wife gave me a present and a card that said, "Welcome to the family." This was an extraordinarily nice gesture, for she is an extraordinarily nice and generous person, but for some reason it did not sit right with me. When you first fall in love with someone, you have a sense of the two of you as a complete and perfect universe. Like any new couple, you want to feel like the core of a family unit. It was naïve and self-centered, but such is the nature of new love. Reading that card was my Demikhov moment. You are the stitched-on dog head, it might as well have said. No, I thought You are. No, you are!

Then I forgot about it, because things were going well. My husband's kids like me, and when the four of us were together, I permitted myself to think of us as a family. The transplant, it seemed, had taken. Of course, this probably made my husband's ex-wife—"my ex-wife," as I sometimes slip up and call her—feel like the unwanted dog head. (With stepfamilies, it seems, some one always has to be holding the "big fat loser alone at recess" card. I once saw a book entitled How to Win as a Stepfamily. I imagined opening it up and finding 213 blank pages with the last page saying, "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, you can't!!!!")

As it turned out, the ex-wife did not have to feel this way for long. Soon it was my turn. Like transplanted appendages, stepparents are allowed to thrive and feel good for a short while before the rejection stage begins. Family counselors call this the "honeymoon period." Inevitably and all too soon, the honeymoon ends. Someone starts to have issues.

Often this coincides with someone hitting puberty. Up until puberty, you can pretty much get a kid to go along with anything. All kids have issues with a parent's remarriage, but the issues remain more or less subcutaneous until adolescence. As long as the equilibrium holds, stepparents—provided they are not abusive, overbearing boors—are treated like any other adult in the child's universe: one more person to play Chinese checkers or spring for lip gloss. Not the greatest thing in the world, but not the worst.

Then comes puberty. Now the issues demand to be heard. They unionize. They organize demonstrations and carry signs. This is a period when everything is annoying, and a stepmother, especially to a girl, can top the list. A stepmother is a random extraneous adult thrown into a girl's life, day in and day out, taking up her dad's time and attention, which she doesn't want anyway these days but she's going to resent its absence nonetheless. The child who just last year was walking hand-in-hand with you to the corner store is now refusing to laugh at your jokes or look you in the eye.

I was no longer me; I had become the things I represented: someone standing in the way of Mom and Dad's remarriage, someone who usurps dad's love. When I look at the situation from a stepchild's perspective, I can understand the resentment. Of course they have issues. I would too. That doesn't mean I enjoy it or handle it well. Issues breed issues. It is not easy to enjoy the company of someone who makes it clear, however subtly, that she wishes you'd go away. Not surprisingly, the odds are not in favor of the stepfamily living happily ever after. I read somewhere that sixty percent of marriages involving "blended" families end in divorce. Rocks in the Osterizer.

Part of the problem is this loaded and mostly outmoded word stepparent. It's a holdover from the days when divorce was uncommon and stepparents were mainly people married to widows and widowers. Unless an actual parent has died and the stepparent functions as an ersatz actual parent, the word just makes everyone uncomfortable. It sets up confusing expectations. (Under the heading "relationship" on my older stepdaughter's high school emergency contact form, it says, for me, "Dad's wife.") If people are referring to you as a stepparent, you imagine you will be occupying some sort of vaguely parent-like post, and that even if you don't behave like a parent and mete out discipline or pick them up at school, there will be some sort of familial bond. But why should there be? A child who has two loving parents does not need or want a third. Especially a bogus one who didn't give birth to you and who can't be relied on to send let-ters while you're at summer camp and who doesn't know the songs you all sang in the car together when you were growing up. Who is this woman? What is she doing at parents' night? How did she get into a book about mothers?

While I'm not wild about my status as stitched-on appendage, I view it as just. No one owes me otherwise. And there have been times—there are times—when I feel genuinely loved and appreciated by one or another of my stepkids. To feel the affection or love of someone who has cause and cultural rubber-stamp to resent you is a uniquely precious thing. Unlike the love between parent and child, this love you don't take for granted. It's an Indian summer kind of love—maybe it'll show up this week, maybe it won't. But when it does, it's a gift, and you run out and bask in it.

We're an odd, ungainly thing, this three-headed family of ours, but we seem to have adapted to our condition. All families have some sort of metaphorical deformity. There are ripped-out hearts and overactive spleens, forked tongues and wandering loins. Relatively speaking, we're as normal and healthy as the next dog.


A significant feature of the perception of the modern stepmother is the fact that the law has not generally kept pace with societal trends concerning the importance of the stepfamily in American society. While the applicable legal definitions vary from state to state, it is a generally accepted principle of American family law that a parent may be defined first as a legal parent, a person who has a relationship with a child either through birth or by adoption. The second class of parent is found in both the legal academic literature as well as through inclusion in many definitions of the term that have evolved in recent American case law. In particular, the extended definition of parent may include those persons who have stood in the place of a parent in relation to a child, providing support or care to a child for a period of time without the benefit of a biological relationship or court order. A stepparent does not necessarily fall within either definition, a fact that tends to make their assertion of a parental role in the stepfamily structure more difficult.

Conversely, the absence of a concrete legally defined role for the stepmother in the modern American family creates significant grey areas if the marriage or cohabitation that created the step-relationship is terminated. A stepparent upon such a termination has no prima facie obligation to provide support for the stepchild or children; the ability of a stepparent to secure custody or to exercise access to a stepchild is an emerging legal issue that has not yet been definitively resolved. It is clear that in all American jurisdictions, a step-parent who had fulfilled a parental role towards her stepchildren for many years would likely be unsuccessful in any custody contest involving a biological parent, no matter how strong her relationship was with the stepchildren.

It is clear that the negative connotations associated with stepfamily status are far more frequently associated with a stepmother than with a stepfather or a stepchild. The author of the primary source uses the expression 'matrilineage' in this context. In its strict sense, matrilineage is the tracing of one's line of descent through the maternal side of the family. In the context of the primary source, there is an undoubted weight to the argument that mothers are the more respected parent in a typical family setting; the fact that mothers are the custodial parents for the children of a marriage in over seventy-five percent of all cases on marital breakup supports this view.

A number of theories have been advanced in the academic literature as to why the stepmother has been frequently vilified; a common conclusion is the perception that the new stepmother is regarded as a barrier to a child obtaining the fundamental nurturing that is only obtainable from a biological mother. In support of this notion is the considerable research data that suggests that stepfamilies formed after the death of a previous spouse are far more harmonious and stable entities than those created in the wake of a divorce.

When the current legal framework with respect to stepparents is combined with the common perceptions of the stepmother in American society, the result is the creation of new obligations within the stepfamily structure for the stepmother, with lesser rights, privileges, and degree of acceptance than that afforded the biological mother of the stepchild.

Where the stepmother perceives themselves as a biological entity that has been transplanted by marriage into an existing family, as opposed to being a component of a new family order, the stepmother will often correspondingly expect the new family to operate as though it were a traditional biological family. To be successful, stepfamilies must be treated as unique structures and not equated to the biological variety, to avoid the undue influence of the prior history of the partners and any turmoil or tension associated with the prior biological family.

It is an enduring irony of the regard in which various members of the extended American family are viewed that the only other family member that attracts an equally negative stereotype to that of the stepmother is the mother-in-law.



Marquardt, Elizabeth. Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. New York: Crown Books, 2005.

Waterman, Barbara. Birth of an Adoptive, Foster or Stepmother: Beyond Biological Mothering Attachments. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2004.


Laythe, Joseph. "The Wicked Stepmother?: The Edna Mumbulo Case of 1930." Journal of Criminal justice and Popular Culture, University of Albany. 9 (2) (2002): 33-54.

Ramsey, Sarah H. "Constructing Parenthood for Step-Parents." Duke University Journal of Gender Law and Policy. 8 (2002):285-295.