Dorothy C. Bass is a theologian, historian, mother, grandmother, stepmother, and former Collegeville Institute Resident Scholar. She has written, edited, or coedited more than a dozen books on practical theology and vocation.
In her new book, Stepmother: Redeeming a Disdained Vocation (Broadleaf Books, April, 2022), she explores the complicated, and often-maligned, role by drawing on her own experiences as a stepmother. Brimming with practical insights from sociology, history, and clinical studies, but firmly rooted in her own experience, Stepmother points readers to the central spiritual work needed to intentionally build loving family relationships beyond the stereotypes. CI staff member Susan Sink interviewed her about her book.
At the beginning of your book, through a story from your life, you point out the problem with the term “stepmother.” Can you briefly say why this role is often cast in such a negative light or even seems taboo to discuss?
Let me tell a short version of that story. “Kristen” (a pseudonym) was four when I married her father. That summer, outdoors at a retreat center, she was sitting on my lap as I read her a storybook. A nice man came over and spoke to us, assuming I was Kristen’s mommy. She was confused—her mommy was hundreds of miles away—so I tried to clarify: “I’m not her mother; I’m her stepmother,” I said. Kristen burst into tears and cried, “No you’re not!” As a well-read-to child, she already knew that stepmothers are not to be trusted. The man walked sadly away, sorry to have upset this child. I suddenly realized that I had entered perilous emotional terrain. I was overjoyed to be caring for this beautiful child—but at the same time, my presence proved that Kristen’s young life had already been marred by grief, the breakup of her original home. In my body, the terrible truth that families are fragile had taken on flesh.
Fairy tale depictions of the evil stepmother—Snow White, Cinderella, and many others—are only the tip of the iceberg. Stepfamily roles and expectations are not well defined in our culture, especially when both of a child’s parents are still alive. What do we owe one another? Love and care, of course, but there are a lot of moving parts and conflicting feelings.
My presence proved that Kristen’s young life had already been marred by grief, the breakup of her original home.
This role is inherently difficult. A stepmother is a stranger who has found her way into the intimate life of a child. She may or may not be interested in supporting her spouse’s pre-existing relationship with the child, and now that the great majority of stepfamilies are formed after divorce rather than death, competition with the child’s mother may also be a problem (as it was for me). Stepmothers have lots of opportunities to hurt others, and we also have lots of opportunities to be hurt, rejected, used, or overlooked. But if stepmothers are intentional and self-aware, we are also well-positioned to make a positive difference in the lives of all concerned. And, in the midst of these complicated and unexpected relationships, we can find great meaning and joy.
The book is a hybrid of memoir and analysis on the topic of stepmothers. What was it like to share the more deeply personal parts of your own story?
This was terrifying at first. Writing about being a stepmother is almost as complicated as being a stepmother! In both cases, my own story is entangled with stories that belonged first to others. When sharing family stories, I worked very hard to speak only from and for my own experience; I tried never to presume that I knew what others were thinking. In the more personal sections, I tried very hard to tell the truth, but I also did my best to make it clear that what’s here is really only my truth.
Key family members gave me permission to write the book, and I’m immensely grateful for that. I changed the names of my stepdaughter, her mother, and their spouses and children. For me, this change reminds us all—me, family members, and readers—that this story is the creation of its author. Once I started telling folks about the project, I took courage from learning how many people are, have, or care about a stepmother, and how eager many are to ponder their questions and concerns. It was for their sake that I did the work and took the risks that led to this book. My greatest desires are to make other stepmothers visible as crucial contributors to the well-being of today’s changing families, and to invite stepmothers themselves to reflect on both the disdain we sometimes encounter and the beautiful, complicated vocation we have embraced.
The book moves toward two big, spiritual concepts at work in successful stepfamilies. The first is grace, and the second is mercy. Could you talk a bit about these forces at work in the lives of stepmothers?
I started writing this book during a residency at the Collegeville Institute. I had gone there planning to write a wide-ranging book about how people may grow in wisdom and grace through life in community—but as I worked I realized that my experience of the joy and struggles of this process came to a focus at one tender spot in my own life: being a stepmother. In fact, I realized that being a stepmother is a paradigm of the Christian life. You enter a situation that is already broken (here it’s a family, but it could be a workplace or congregation or classroom) and you try to live with grace in that situation. Aware of your own flaws as well as those of others and trusting in God’s mercy, you step into the situation and try to love and serve your neighbors.
How might a stepmother embrace this challenging calling with grace? That’s the question at the heart of the book. The most important work stepmothers can do, I believe, is the work we do in our own hearts. I encourage stepmothers to be honest about their own pain and the pain of others—and also to be open to the love that often comes to them within these unexpected family relationships, even when this kind of love is not exactly what they had planned on when they anticipated having families.
The most important work stepmothers can do, I believe, is the work we do in our own hearts.
Most books about stepfamilies offer rules of behavior, many of which are helpful. But I think it’s also important to address deeper personal and spiritual questions having to do with issues such as jealousy, loss, and hospitality. Family members have to buckle down and follow the rules once in a while, to be sure—but when it comes right down to it, “should” is not a liberating or empowering word. The word we really need is “grace.”
My biggest challenge as a writer was how to present the spiritual dimensions of stepmothering. On the one hand, I wanted to reach out to a wide audience that includes people of other faiths or none, as well as those who once were Christian but who have stopped looking to theologians like me for wisdom because the church has been so inhospitable to their nontraditional families. On the other hand, whatever wisdom I may be able to offer flows from my own experience of life with God. So I just did my best to write in a voice that’s open to all, and once in a while I also shared some wisdom from my specific tradition in a personal, non-evangelistic way.
What was most surprising to you from your research? How did it enhance your view of what it means to be a stepmother?
The biggest surprise was that there are so few reliable, accessible books available for and about stepmothers, who turn out to be the least visible and least studied members of their complicated families. That said, I did find lots of help in more academic sources, and I’m excited to share that research with others.
Another surprise was how writing this book came to feel like a calling, just as stepmothering itself, I realized, had been a calling. I never would have predicted that the word “vocation” would be in the subtitle, although this is a concept I value highly and have written about in other contexts. This now feels like a very important dimension of the book.
Why is it helpful to think of stepmothering in terms of vocation, as a “calling”?
Many people would call stepmothering a role, but to me that implies a set part for which one auditions. A vocation is more fluid, contextual, and relational—it’s an unpredictable path of responsibility, located within a family and the larger society, where one has the opportunity to contribute to the well-being of others. A vocation often arrives within the give-and-take of relationships.
A vocation is fluid, contextual, and relational—it’s an unpredictable path of responsibility.
I first moved toward my vocation as a stepmother when Mark said “Marry me”—that is, when he loved me, chose me, and invited me to be his partner in life, which both of us by then understood would include helping him to fulfill his own vocation as Kristen’s father. My first response to this call was to say yes, with joy, though I later learned that embracing this path would be difficult at times. Along the way, vocational language has helped to remind me that responding to a call as big and important as this one requires me to rely on the grace and mercy of God.