Oh, Gisele. Wrong move, sister.
Women have enough reason to hate the Brazilian beauty. All Gisele Bundchen has to do is smile, thrust out a sharp hip bone, and the world pays attention.
Then she had to go and unleash the primal fear of every divorced mother on the planet.
“I understand that he has a mom, and I respect that,” the 28-year-old model said, referring to John Edwards Thomas, the son of her new husband, Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots, had with his former girlfriend, Bridget Moynahan. “But to me, it's not like because somebody else delivered him, that's not my child … I love him the same way as if he were mine.”
While you're at it, Gisele, why not suggest that the toddler should be toilet-trained, if his mother were competent, and eating more fruits and vegetables?
The stepmother gig is more dangerous than a minefield. There will soon be more stepfamilies in North America than any other kind of family, according to some experts. And that means big potential for mothers to get their chocolate-chip cookies bent out of shape when dealing with stepmothers who, like Ms. Bundchen, are probably just trying to be maternal.
That may explain why books attempting to illuminate the territory – and its numerous hidden bombs – are the latest trend in divorce-related publishing.
“Structurally, you become the outsider and the interloper,” says Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonsters: A New Look at Why Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way They Do . At 35, Ms. Martin married a man who is seven years older and is the father of two girls. When she sought books on the issue, she found instruction on “the 10 things I could do to be a better stepmom, 25 ways to make life better for my spouse, and the 10 things my stepkids were feeling. … The emotional terrain of the stepmother and her own experiences is the piece of the puzzle that's missing.”
Many of the feelings are taboo. A stepmother may not love her stepchildren immediately, even though she is expected to. She may resent them. And she will be blamed if there is trouble, Ms. Martin says.
The failure rate of remarriages is high. In Canada, 20 per cent of second marriages end before the eight-year mark, according to 2006 Statistics Canada data. “Stepfamilies are lumpy,” says Ms. Martin, who went on to have two sons with her husband. (Ms. Bundchen is now reportedly pregnant with her first child.) “The words ‘blended family' set up the wrong expectation … and the stepmother, by the blended-family myth, is ratcheting up the pressure on herself.”
Carol Marine felt that pressure when she married David Marine almost 10 years ago. She was only 21 at the time, while he was 35 and the father of two girls, Sophie and Madeleine, then 9 and 5, respectively. “I knew it would be messy, but I didn't know how messy. I was naive,” she says.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Newcomb Marine, the girls' mother, was afraid that her ex's new wife was going to usurp her role. “It was like having a babysitter who moves in and you don't know her, you haven't vetted her, and yet she is given all this space to have a relationship with your kids,” Ms. Newcomb Marine says.
Both women, who live in and around Austin, Tex., decided to write a book about the dynamics of the fraught relationship between mothers and stepmothers, based on their own. “It's called No One's the Bitch because there is always the assumption that one side is,” says Ms. Newcomb Marine, a 44-year-old freelance writer. “With conflict, we always demonize the other person.”
Initially, the two women avoided each other. They didn't speak to one another. They avoided eye contact. The turning point came when Ms. Newcomb Marine went to her ex's house to drop off the girls one day and came across a painting of Madelaine by Ms. Marine, who is a fine artist. In the painting, the little girl's head was thrown back in laughter. “It was infused with her little spirit,” the mother says, but her reaction surprised her. “I was happy for Maddy that Carol got her, but for me to make room for that one good part was also a way of closing myself out. … I burst into tears in my car. I didn't even know what I was crying about.”
The incident made her look more closely at her ex-husband's new wife: “I thought if she was capable of seeing something in my daughter, I wonder if there's any commonality we can build between us.”
Ms. Newcomb Marine made an overture by sending a card on Mother's Day, expressing her gratitude over her attempts to be a good stepmom. “If she hadn't done that, I would not have made any effort,” Ms. Marine explains in a separate interview. “It was not one of my goals to get along with her. … But the card made me think, ‘She's not this bitch who is out to get us and get all our money.'” Ms. Marine acknowledges that competition over a husband's resources is a big part of the conflict.
They began talking and working together to ease the tension. In their book, they encourage women to “own their own crap,” as Ms. Newcomb Marine puts it, and use manners to try to build a relationship with the other woman. “You realize both you and the stepmom are suffering with different emotions,” she says.
As it turned out, Ms. Marine was feeling totally rejected by the girls. “They were these cute, sweet kids, but on the second day, when I went to help Maddy when she had fallen down, she gave me this look like, ‘How dare you pick me up?' I was expected to love them … to be this perfect new wifey and think of them as my own, but it doesn't work out that way. They are good kids, but they're not mine. I fell in love with their father, not with them. It has taken me a long, long time to even admit that,” she adds.
The lumpiness of a blended family is not all bad, Ms. Martin explains. “Rather than having the super-close dynamics of a first family, a step-family has instead a respect for differences, flexibility and porous boundaries.” Children need time to adjust to the new relationships, she counsels, and stepmothers should not “sit around and wait for the love and approval from a child. We wouldn't do that in a first family. We wouldn't beg for a child to love us.”
Now, Ms. Newcomb Marine, her ex-husband and his second wife sit down with Madeleine and Sophie and Jacob, the Marines' four-year-old son, for regular family celebrations. They also share Christmas morning. “The flipside of the bitch thing is that women are really good at responding to vulnerability, to genuine olive branches,” says Ms. Newcomb Marine. “Women like to get along. They like to bond. One of the things we want to say in this book is women should take the steps to see the other as a human being. She is stressed and overwhelmed, too.”