05/11/2012 12:35 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

Mother's Day vs. Stepmother's Day: Who Owns It?

Mother's Day. As if divorced moms and stepmoms needed yet one more reason to feel at odds with each other.

For moms (whether divorced or not), Mother's Day might mean blackened toast and watery coffee delivered on a tray in bed, with a dandelion plucked from the backyard. We overlook the explosion in the kitchen and choose instead to bask in the glow of love and attention on this one special day, excusing ourselves from chores and life as a housemaid. We all have our own memories of how we honored our mothers as children and there's something miraculous about seeing life come full circle.

But for stepmoms, Mother's Day can trigger the deepest of hurtful emotions, serving as a reminder that although they typically perform the daily, hands-on "mothering" duties at home with their stepkids, they aren't in fact Mom and will never be recognized as such.

For divorced moms, the notion that some stepmoms feel they should be included in this day goes one step too far: She already has a consistent place in her stepchildren's lives, now she wants to encroach upon a day meant to celebrate the bond between mother and child, too?

What's true for both divorced moms and stepmoms is this: It's an uphill battle to be acknowledged for all the ways they give to their families each week. Tiny details no one else catches. Countless objects restored to their proper places. Endless messes cleaned up without thanks. Difficult emotions noticed and tended. The struggle to shape chaotic fragments of days into a cohesive and nurturing whole.

Why so much conflict over this one particular day?

Granted, there is actually a Stepmother's Day. But it's not an official or widely-recognized holiday and it falls on the Sunday after Mother's Day, a hierarchy not lost on many stepmoms. Go to any card store and you'll be lucky to find one or two meant for stepmoms among the ocean of cards festooned with flowers and curly-cued script for Mom.

But consider the fact that you can find almost as many stepfamilies as nuclear families on any neighborhood block. How can we have such a glaring absence of acknowledgment for "the other half?"

Since their day hardly seems to exist, a stepmom's longing for appreciation means the spotlight naturally turns to the Grand Dame of thanks for maternal love and devotion: Mother's Day. And it must now be shared.

That Stepmother's Day is essentially a non-event is a perfect example of society's lack of understanding about the realities of divorce-connected families today, a willful denial of the dual-household nature of divorce and remarriage.

The culture at large blindly reflects back to us what's already taking place inside many stepfamilies: The stepmom often feels like an outsider in her own stepfamily, yet is expected to step seamlessly into the role of maternal caretaker. She's not privy to the realm of authority that the two parents possess, yet is expected to bear the consequences of their decisions. She strives to provide love and nurturing to children she genuinely cares for, yet may still be seen as second best.

This holiday can highlight the most intractable problems between divorced moms and stepmoms. At our worst, there's the mother who insists on being the one and only mother in her child's life, never to be "shared" with another woman. Or there's the stepmom bent on outshining the mother, showing her how proper parenting is done.

Some stepmoms want nothing to do with Mother's Day, are perfectly happy with an unofficial day of acknowledgement and would feel odd if they were singled out. But many stepmoms do want to be appreciated on this day and don't want to be thought of as so far removed from a maternal figure that they can't somehow inhabit the same holiday.

It may be a sore point for moms to share Mother's Day because they already feel as if no one's noticing their contributions, especially if their children are younger and lack a father figure to prompt them to make cards or gifts. It's difficult to see another woman stepping into your role, without an invitation. And it can be hard to watch your ex making more of an effort to celebrate the day with his wife than he ever did before with you.

But the fact remains: we live in a world rife with divorce and remarriage. It's high time then, that we recognize there are two women taking care of our children and give each of them their due for a job well done.

So what can you do to make this day easier?

For stepmoms:

Own your holiday: Tell your family you want to celebrate Stepmother's Day and what you'd like to have happen.

Petition card companies: let Hallmark know they're overlooking a major segment of the population. (If nothing else, they're missing out on an awesome marketing opportunity!)

Send a card: if you happen to think your stepchildren's mom is raising great kids, sending her a card or email message saying so might really be appreciated.

A child does not have the maturity of an adult: If you're a custodial stepmom who wants to be acknowledged on Mother's Day because you're doing the lion's share of the caretaking, please keep in mind that stepkids might feel guilty celebrating you due to loyalty binds.

For divorced moms:

Keep your expectations in check: If your kids are really young and you're still single, or your partner isn't the best at taking the initiative and helping your kids honor the day, reach out to family and friends and, just like the stepmoms, ask for what you want and take action to make it happen.

Send her a card: Even if you're at war with the stepmom in your kid's lives, if you see her working hard to take good care of them, acknowledge her efforts with a card, text or email message.

Focus on what you have now: There are probably many things you can find to be grateful for in your relationships with your kids, so put your attention there, instead of comparing how each woman is being treated.

There's room for both stepmoms and divorced moms to be recognized, in their own way, on whichever day they choose. But like it or not, we need to ask for what we want to ensure that it happens, even though doing so might initially feel contrived and we fear lessening the importance of the gesture.

If we're to thrive in this dual-household environment, we must all adjust to these changing times. Both divorced moms and stepmoms deserve to be fully honored for our contributions and all that we bring to our families.