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Mary T. Kelly, M.A. Headshot

A Letter To Jada Pinkett Smith

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Dear Jada,

You don't know me so let me introduce myself. I'm a therapist who has been working with and writing about stepcouples, stepfamilies, step kids, stepmoms and stepdads for over a decade. I felt the need to respond to the letter that you wrote to your stepmom friend on your Facebook page on February 16th. You wrote,

"A letter to a friend:

Blended families are NEVER easy, but here's why I don't have a lot of sympathy for your situation because... we CHOOSE them. When I married Will, I knew Trey was part of the package...Period! If I didn't want that...I needed to marry someone else. Then I learned if I am going to love Trey...I had to learn to love the most important person in the world to him...his mother. And the two of us may not have always LIKED each other... but we have learned to LOVE each other.

I can't support any actions that keep a man from his children of a previous marriage. These are the situations that separate the women from the girls. Your behavior is that of an insecure child who needs to recognize her own weaknesses that MUST be strengthened to take on the task at hand. We can't say we love our man and then come in between him and his children. THAT'S selfishness...NOT love. WOMAN UP... I've been there...I know. My blended family made me a giant... Taught me so much about love, commitment and it has been the biggest ego death to date. It's time you let your blended family make you the giant you truly are. J."

Your commenters applauded, praised and supported you and my letter is directed as much to them as it is to you. I wasn't surprised by their responses. We live in a culture that is addicted to happy endings and stubbornly clings to the myths of stepmothers as evil and selfish. As the reader, I wasn't given the specifics of what your friend shared so I'm not going to assume that she was either immature or selfish. I agreed with your position regarding being non-supportive of "any actions that keep a man from his children of a previous marriage." Any stepmother who sets out to keep her partner from his children deserves to be labeled as "evil" and any father that would allow this is equally if not more culpable and would benefit from examining why he permits this.

Because you didn't share your friend's laments and your admonitions to her became generalized to all stepmothers (or else why would you post this so publicly?), I do have some questions for you: Do you really believe shouting at someone to "WOMAN UP" is helpful (ask any man who's been told to "MAN UP" how that went over)? Do you really think it was productive to remind them that they "CHOSE" a man with children from a previous relationship so therefore a stepmom must essentially put up or shut up?

The advice you gave your friend was a great example of the unrealistic expectations that are imposed on so many well-intentioned and good-hearted stepmothers. In reality, stepmothers have far less power than most would assume. The success of "blending" any family has much more to do with the attitudes of the husband and the ex-wife than the stepmother.

Did you know that the divorce rate for remarriages with children is at a whopping 62-70%? Did you know that most stepfamilies take years (four to six) before family members even begin to feel comfortable with one another, let alone love one another? Did you know that the research shows that only approximately 20% of adult stepchildren report positive feelings about their stepmothers, despite the years of effort and kindness so many of them have shown their stepchildren? Have you acknowledged that there may have been other factors to your success in "blending" your family that others aren't as fortunate enough to have (i.e. money, other willing adults, luck)? Do you really think that stepmothers need to be reminded that stepfamilies are hard?

The number one declaration that stepcouples, and especially stepmothers tell me is, "We/I had no idea it would be this hard!" While you seem to acknowledge how difficult combining families can be, your solutions seem to rest solely on the shoulders of the stepmother. This is just naïve, simplistic, and contrary to research and clinical experience on stepfamily success.

I wonder if you would feel differently if you'd spent the thousands of hours I've spent in the company of earnest and loving stepmothers who have given themselves to the point of becoming sacrificial lambs in order to make their "blended" families and marriages work. While doing this, many stepmothers are continually met with resentment and outright hostility from their partner's children and ex-spouse.

Would you tell a woman that she must love the mother of her stepchildren who has dragged her through court, falsely accused her of being abusive, told lies about her and disrespected her time with her partner with constant texts, emails and shocking intrusions into her home? Would you tell a woman that she "chose" to be treated like a second class citizen when her stepchildren walk into the home and refuse to acknowledge her and her spouse avoids backing her up because he feels pulled in every direction or lacks the courage to do so? Would you say the same thing if you knew a woman who was a custodial stepmother and cared for and loved her stepchildren in every way a biological mother would, only to be dumped like a hot potato by these same stepchildren when Mom reappears on the scene? Would you be as judgmental if you understood the loneliness and perpetual feeling of being an outsider when you are a childless woman partnered with a man with children?

Woe to the woman who becomes a stepmother and quickly finds out that she is not allowed to have the normal and natural feelings anyone would feel when dropped into the conundrum of stepfamily life. A mother can complain about her children, tell her girlfriends she needs a break and that they are driving her crazy. But a stepmother who voices the same feelings is considered selfish, mean spirited and evil. She is met with suspicion from other mothers when she attends any of her stepchildren's events and is often expected by her husband and society to be Mary Poppins and Mother Teresa combined.

Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled for you and your family where it appears that all the adults in your family are actual adults and love abounds. I commend you for working so hard to make things work in your stepfamily and appreciate your advocacy for love and connection between all members. Aspiring to love all human beings is a worthy and admirable goal.

However, reality is often more complicated than we'd like to admit and not every stepmother gets to have a Hollywood ending. Given the predominance of stepfamilies in the culture, we would all be better served to approach them with compassion, understanding, empathy and practical solutions, especially for the stepmother, the one who often finds herself on the lowest rung on the stepfamily ladder.