Between us, the people in my innermost circle have had five stepmothers and one stepfather. The stepmothers have been, to a woman, difficult at best, appalling at worst.
My stepfather, on the other hand, is a paragon. He is loving, supportive, and unobtrusive, always delighted to welcome my mother's children and grandchildren, never intrusive or difficult, with regard to us or my mother. This stems in part from his personality: he is loving, supportive, and unobtrusive.
But our ease with him (now--I hated him for years, but that was about me, not him) also stems, I'm quite sure, from the way he and my mother set up their relationship. Coming together when their children were grown, or nearly so, they each kept responsibility (financial, emotional) for their own. I have never asked my stepfather for anything (significant--I'm sure I've asked him to pass the salad), and he has never told me what to do.
As importantly, my mother has always been financially independent--her own salary, pension, bank accounts--and, aside from the house they bought together, their finances are separate. Perhaps it is not coincidental, then, that she appears to be a stepmother as benign as my stepfather.
Yesterday, when I started thinking about a post on stepmothers (stimulated by current events in other people's lives, not my own), I was thinking along the lines of a disappointed rant against evil stepmothers who live up to their stereotypes, thus betraying the feminist cause. And, don't get me wrong, there are some serious bitch stepmothers out there. But I also know, though not from personal experience, that there are some godawful stepfathers. So why the hate on stepmothers?
All of the stepmothers I'm intimately involved with came along, like my stepfather, when we were adults, so issues of childrearing, authority, etc., were less salient. Money, on the other hand, has been highly salient, and this is where I need to pull in the materialist feminist analysis.
You're older; you haven't worked, or haven't worked in a while, or haven't worked enough; you've been married to this man for some time now; perhaps he's ailing and you need to care for him; perhaps you're ailing and wondering who will care for you; the house and bank accounts may be in his name; you have lots of reasons to wonder what will become of you...it makes perfect sense, then, that you would try to secure your financial future, and get your own needs met, regardless of his children, whom you've only known as adults. And those children...they place demands on your husband, they pull him from you, they are entitled, when you are the one who lives with him day to day, who care for him, who makes his home (this is, for now at least, surely a generational argument).
Stepfathers, in general, do not face these challenges. They are, largely, financially independent, and often, if they are of their generation, emotionally independent as well. They are free, thus, to be independent of our emotions.
Stepmothers get the short end of the stick, so I can understand why they throw that stick back at us. Still, I wish they wouldn't.