To stepmother Judy Osborne, Mother’s Day is “the hardest day of the year.”
Osborne, a Brookline, Mass.-based marriage and family therapist, started her practice, Stepfamily Associates, in 1980, specializing in stepfamilies. While she said she has a strong relationship with her own stepdaughter -- a bond she cultivated slowly over many years -- her stepmother clients have shown her time and again how the holiday sparks complicated feelings. “They really dread it,” Osborne said. “Mother’s Day tends to be a lot more charged" than Father’s Day because most women invest in mothering a new partner’s children. “I think it’s hardest on women who don’t have children themselves.”
The problem, Osborne said, is that women act like mothers to their partners’ children all year, then aren’t recognized on the one day of the year they’re supposed to celebrated. It can be very hurtful, said Osborne, when “all of a sudden, bang, it’s Mother’s Day and the cards only go to the mother.”
What Osborne said she observes affects a growing number of Americans as "nontraditional" family structures become more commonplace. As of 2009, 5.6 million children lived with at least one stepparent, according to the census. And, according to the Pew Research Center’s estimates in 2010, 42 percent of adults have at least one step-relative. While it's difficult to determine how many stepmoms exist in the U.S., the Pew Research Center estimates 14 million.
Many stepmothers fill clear maternal roles, at least part-time, when divorced parents split time with their children, doing everything from taking kids back-to-school shopping to driving in the carpool. Often, they consider themselves co-parents with their partners, and strive to create close bonds with their partners’ kids. So if stepmothers aren’t shown appreciation on Mother’s Day, of all days, then when will they be acknowledged?
Kids and stepmothers don’t have complete control over factors that contribute to stepmothers feeling slighted on Mother’s Day. Some of these variables stem from how stepparents remain culturally overlooked -- not just on holidays.
Peggy Nolan, executive director of the Stepmom’s Toolbox, an online resource for stepmothers, is a stepmom to four children and has a stepmom herself. She said she’s surprised by the lack of resources available for children to celebrate their stepparents. Store-bought Mother’s Day cards, for example, are nearly nonexistent. “My stepson came up to me last year and said, ‘I’m so sorry, but they don’t have stepmother Mother’s Day cards,’” she said.
Nolan said she typically gives her own stepmom a “friend” card or a yoga-themed card (they bonded with yoga years ago), many kids either aren’t old enough or don't think of these alternatives.
While many kids do make cards for their parents, Osborne said they aren’t necessarily prompted to do the same for stepparents. “In schools or churches, with whoever helps kids think about Mother’s Day, they don’t think about stepmothers usually,” Osborne said. “They say, ‘Let’s make a Mother’s Day card for your mother, not ‘Let’s make two.’”
It’s not always realistic for stepmothers to expect stepchildren to treat them as they would their own mothers on Mother’s Day. Sometimes, kids won’t have the opportunity to celebrate the holiday with their stepmothers at all, as they will spend the day with their mothers. And, in some families, honoring a stepmom might seem like a breach in loyalty to a child’s “real” mom.
Emma*, 28, from Los Angeles, has both a mother and a stepmother. She said she wouldn’t feel comfortable celebrating her stepmom on Mother’s Day for fear of hurting her mom’s feelings. “I wouldn’t want to leave her alone on Mother’s Day to spend time with my dad and another woman, when the day is supposed to be about my mother," Emma said. "Maybe I would give my stepmom something small or buy her a card, but I would never spend the day with her.”
Emma said that even if she grew up with her stepmother, she would still feel an “extreme allegiance” to her mother on Mother’s Day. “If my stepmom didn’t have any other kids, maybe it would be different,” she said. “But she does, so I feel like it’s not my responsibility.”
If stepkids don’t honor their stepmoms on their own, or their parents don’t help or encourage them do so, then it’s up to a stepmom’s partner to recognize her, Osborne said. Nolan had different advice for stepmoms: Don’t have expectations.
“Not every kid sees their stepmom as a ‘bonus’ mom,” Nolan said.
Nolan said she hopes stepmothers can recognize ways their stepchildren might acknowledge them and show love -- not just on Mother’s Day, but any day. “They could simply bring you a cup of coffee. Or maybe they help [their dad] make breakfast,” she said. “Sometimes you have to look for it in the actions, not in the card or even in the thank you.”
Parenting in general can be a thankless job and Nolan said she thinks it’s important for stepmothers to not take what happens (or doesn’t) on Mother’s Day too personally.
“Mother’s Day is one of those made-up Hallmark holidays where women expect flowers, candy and cards,” Nolan said. “I choose to take a different approach. If someone wants to give me a card, that’s awesome. But … I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.”
*Name has been changed
Here, 10 foodie gift ideas for Mother's Day:
Cinnamon Vanilla Caramels (1/2 lb jar) | $13 | TheCaramelJar.etsy.com "These caramels are a small bite of luxury in the midst of an often hectic day," says Etsy seller Nicole. But don't expect to find out for yourself, because mom will likely "hoard these in a cupboard or create a secret stash." It was Nicole's "love of vanilla lattes with a dash of cinnamon" that gave her the idea for these preservative-free sweets in the first place; if you can get your hands on one, "melt [it] into your morning coffee and enjoy!"
Bon Appetit French Country Linen Towels (2) | $54 | ikabags.etsy.com These gorgeous kitchen towels don't just look French -- they are! In fact, the owner of Etsy store ikabags says the linen material has been "made by the same French family since the 1800s." Hand-washed, -sewn, and -ironed, they'll lend a rustic elegance to mom's kitchen, not to mention help her stay green (who needs paper towels when you have these?).
On the Move Mommy and Me Apron Set | $67 | luckyduckydesigns.etsy.com "Especially now when our lives are moving at such a hectic pace, it's often the little moments with our kids that we cherish," Etsy seller Sandy Grau tells us. "If having matching aprons encourages more time together or makes the moments more memorable, then I think that is a great gift." The aprons in these sets -- which are reversible and come in four different sizes -- will help foodie moms and foodie kids enjoy kitchen time in style.
"Cooking Secrets" Book | $10 | ARMINHO.etsy.com Handcrafted in Portugal, these slim, handsome vintage-style notebooks are made from local and recycled materials. The seller reports: "Each book is hand bent, cut [and] assembled," and "every paper sheet passes by our hands." If mom's a true foodie, these blank books might be the ultimate compliment; they'll send the message that you think her recipes are worth recording.
Indian Spice Kid - 16 Exotic Herbs & Spices | $35 | CraigsMarket.etsy.com Just glimpse the vibrant colors and varied textures of the spices in this handy kit, and you'll be transported to a world beyond your kitchen's workaday salt and pepper shakers. If your mom isn't an expert in Indian cuisine, not to worry -- this starter pack includes a few basic recipes she can use to find her feet. The set will appeal to the more experienced Indian chef, too, of course; seller Craig Lantz says it's "unique because it contains fenugreek leaves, fenugreek seeds and kala namak (black sea salt) which are hard to find, especially all together in one spice kit."
Heart Measuring Spoons | $48 | beehivekitchenware.etsy.com A measuring spoon is a measuring spoon is a measuring spoon. Right? Nope. These adorable instruments bridge the gap between tool and love token. As their Etsy sellers attest, "The spoons encapsulate so many things that people associate with their moms, but mostly ... the love and nurturing that goes into preparing food for the people you love."
Mini Herb Garden Markers (Nickel) | $28 | NinaGibsonDesigns.etsy.com Metalworker Nina Gibson branches "beyond jewelry" with these adorable herb garden markers, which are "hand-cut from nickel sheet" and individually stamped. Best of all, "they are made to order, so you can specify mom's favorites!" ("I have had people order them with names of children to mark plantings which honor the birth of a child," Gibson notes.)
Strawberry French Macarons | $15 | sweetsarahshop.etsy.com These "delicate and elegant" French macarons are a totally on-trend food gift this year. Extremely difficult and time-consuming to make by hand (seller Sarah O. says "it takes me approximately two hours to complete each order"), macarons make a wonderful present for anyone with a sophisticated sweet tooth. Wrapped in "eco-friendly," biodegradable packaging, they're good for Mother Nature, too.
Red Wine Jelly (6 oz) | $9 | byMags.etsy.com "My love for jamming was actually caused by my mother," Etsy store owner Margaret Perry tells us. "In fact, all the women in my father's family are expert canners, and Mom learned how to make jam from her mother-in-law when she was a young bride, eager to make a warm and welcoming home. I'm grateful to be participating in their tradition." Red Wine Jelly is Perry's most popular item; she makes it with "local Virginia red wines, that tend towards a fruitier profile." "Offer this as an indulgent interpretation of all those PB&J sandwiches Mom used to make for your school lunches," Perry says.
4 Seasons Mugs | $56 | perchceramics.etsy.com Etsy seller Amy Adams can personally attest to the fact that these handle-free mugs are great mom gifts -- because she gave them to her own mom for Christmas. Illustrations by Claudia Pearson feature seasonal items such as kale and apples (for fall) and corn and cherries (for summer). Microwave- and dishwasher-safe, and made of "super durable" porcelain, these mugs will grace mom's table for many summers, falls, winters and springs to come.