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Parenting On Mother’s Day, stepmoms navigate tricky emotional territory

Mother's Day is approaching, and with it my usual sense of unease.

As a mother, I want to love this occasion (don't worry, it's not till the 14th, you've still got time) of badly drawn cards and three-course brunch specials. But as a stepmother I just can't commit.

I'm not saying this with any bitterness, you understand. I'm just stating an unvarnished fact: Stepmothers miss out on Mother's Day, and it's not entirely fair because we do an awful lot of mothering in the form of school pick-ups, play date facilitation and the production of endless pots of spaghetti Bolognese.

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And yet I will be the first to admit it: Stepmothers are not mothers. There is a crucial difference, and it has nothing to do with biology – as my adoptive mother friends can attest.

I can say this about stepmothers because I am one (to Freddy, 8) and I have one (her name is Mary Jane and she's the best). I love my stepmother but I have never, not for a moment, mistaken her for my mother – nor do I think she'd want me to. I think (hope?) my stepson feels the same way about me. As a stepmom, you may do all the motherly stuff, but it doesn't make you The One.

There is a reason entire religions have been founded on the worship of the Mother. It is an almost mythical role – one that cannot be filled or encroached upon by the woman your divorced dad met on eHarmony and decided to marry.

We stepmothers, on the other hand, have a mythical status of our own – and it's neither flattering nor fair. We are the interlopers, the homewreckers, the lady monsters in yoga pants who stake our territory through merciless redecorating. To love us seems a betrayal of The One.

This is nonsense, of course, but it brings us to the bigger issue: What, if anything, do stepmothers actually deserve on Mother's Day? The question touches the emotional disconnect at the heart of many blended families.

In a recent national survey by Ipsos, 53 per cent of stepchildren said their stepmom is not as important to them as their biological mom.

Stepmothers profoundly disagreed. Eighty-seven per cent said they felt their stepchildren are just as important to them as their biological children are or would be. Given this emotional imbalance, the vast majority of stepmoms feel underappreciated in their roles.

In many ways, the stepmother's role is a raw deal – the ultimate parental double bind. You get all of the dish duties but none of the biological benefits. You will be subjected to all the hassle, worry and social judgment of motherhood with none of its attendant payoffs – no flowers, no breakfast in bed.

Just ask Sarah Paterson, the Toronto-based founder of a new website, socialstepmom.com, which provides advice and a networking platform for stepmoms all over the English-speaking world.

When Paterson married her husband, Scott (an investment banker), a few years back, she found herself stepmom to five kids – toddlers to teens – from her husband's two former wives. Paterson has since had two children of her own but says her role as a stepmom is the one she finds most challenging – mostly because there's no road map or support.

"Stepmoms walk a very fine line," she said. "We aren't allowed to make mistakes in the same way regular moms are, and because of that we feel a lot more guilt." She uses the example of showing up late to a kid's birthday party. As a frazzled mom, it's no biggie, right? But as a stepmom, it's not a good look.

"When I had my own kids, I realized how many resources there are out there for new moms," she said. "And then I thought: If only I'd had these same resources when I became a stepmom. It was so much trickier!"

To avoid any Mother's Day stress, Paterson and her family celebrate their own private Stepmother's Day (last year her husband and five stepkids made her a music video, which she loved). The idea seems to be that an official day for stepmothers would mitigate the thanklessness of the role without forcing kids to divide their loyalties.

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That also may be why Google (or at least its calendar) has designated Sept. 16 as International Stepfamily Day – although I've yet to see an Instagram feed of cute pics marking it, as people do with International Puppy Day or Siblings Day.

As a stepmother myself, I must confess I'm not wild about the idea. Just the thought of having another "day" on the calendar fraught with social and familial expectations makes me want to slip away and lie down in a dark room. I find that the fewer expectations I have of my family, the happier I am – not the other way around.

So here's my suggestion for what to do about your stepmother on Mother's Day. It's a little bit crazy and untraditional, but it just might work: Give her a call. Or send her a text. No need to hire a marching band and a hot air balloon. Just say hi.

I guarantee you she's not expecting it, but it's a nice thing to do for someone who probably did some nice things for you. She's not your mother, but she still deserves your thanks.

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