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Wednesday Martin Headshot

Let's Stop Expecting Sandra Bullock to Be a Stepmartyr

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Sandra Bullock is a huge star, America's Sweetheart, an Oscar winner, an uber-celebrity--and one of us. I'm talking about her having married a man with kids from a previous relationship (or, in this case, two previous relationships).

In this regard, Sandra is Everywoman.

Stepfamily demographer Larry Bumpass Ph.D. has projected that more than half of all women in the U.S. will wind up partnering with or marrying a man who has kids from a previous relationship, and becoming a stepmother. Like Sandy, many of them learn that, particularly for women, there's plenty about being in a remarriage with children that's burdensome. Love for kids not one's own is not as simple and sentimental a matter as movies like Stepmom and The Blind Side would have us believe.

Part of the problem is that expectations others have of women with stepkids--and that we have of ourselves--are enormous. For example, the expectation that we ought to want to, and be able to, fix the dysfunction that came before us. To be better mothers to his kids than their own mothers are. To heal the pain of divorce or partnership dissolution. To make our men into better fathers. They're outrageous fantasies--and women who partner with men with kids take them on every day. We go to parent teacher conferences, pediatrician's appointments, graduations, basketball games and sometimes family court to prove that we're good "substitute mommies," good wives, good women, and good people.

Often for very little thanks--or none at all. Stepkids with loyalty conflicts can be ambivalent and rejecting of us and our efforts, often for years; ex-wives can become inflamed over our involvement in their children's lives. And men like Jesse James can be stomach-churningly unappreciative.

It's hard to imagine what Sandra Bullock must be feeling right now, and it's hardly the point. But one thing that's clear is that there is incredible pressure--internal and external pressure--to stay in her marriage to Jesse James "for the sake of the kids." It's all over the internet--antipathy toward him, outrage on her behalf, and calls for her to "stick it out for Sunny," James's six-year-old daughter.

Sure Sunny is cute (and really the focus of much more media attention than James's other two kids, who are older and whose mother is more in the picture). And it's sad--tragic, even--that her father has created upheaval in her life. First by choosing as his second wife/Sunny's mother a woman he has accused in court of being an unfit mother and who currently lives in a half-way house; and now by publicly humiliating the woman who, for whatever incomprehensible-to-us reason, took on him and all his unseemly baggage.

Yep, that was one hell of a leap of faith--a guy with three kids from two marriages, one of them to a porn actress and drug user--but women all across the country do it, or something like it, every day. They partner with or marry men with kids whose ex-wives are anywhere on a spectrum from mentally ill to simply unsupportive of the kids forming an attachment to stepmom. They tolerate husbands who humiliate them in smaller, less public ways--for example, men who expect them to cook and clean uncomplainingly for kids who aren't little and cute, kids who don't say thanks or even acknowledge them when they walk into the room. And many of these women suffer from what I call Stepmartyr Syndrome--embracing the notion that they are going to make it all better for everyone, whatever the cost to them personally.

Reality is a slap in the face. It doesn't always involve your husband cheating on you with a tatted aspiring porn star, but interviewing women and stepfamily experts for my book Stepmonster, I learned that stepmotherhood is difficult in myriad ways that the culture at large prefers to gloss over. The psychological literature and many women themselves describe stepkids with serious emotional and social problems who are rejecting and hostile, permissive husbands who don't require that their kids at least be civil to stepmom, angry ex-wives who undermine their attempts to build a relationship with the kids, and friends who think that being a successful stepmother is simply a matter of "being nice and kind and those kids will warm right up to you." Often these women become isolated from their own friends and family as they pour their energy into stepfamily life, and later find themselves resentful and depleted. One Canadian study found that women with stepchildren had the most adjustment difficulties and suffered more from anxiety and depression than any other stepfamily members, due in large part to trying too hard and taking on too much.

Which brings us back to Sandra. Her life is not a movie and being a stepmartyr--sacrificing her own self-respect and self-esteem out of some misguided sense that she owes it to his kids--is not the same as being a good or moral person. Looking out for herself doesn't make her selfish. Her happiness is as important as anyone else's in the picture. Let's remember that, and her impossible bind, when we call for her to "do the right thing for that little girl."