February 26, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Anne Taylor Fleming considers stepmothers.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: It was about time that stepmothers would get a new spin, a facelift, and so they have.
ACTRESS IN SCENE FROM MOVIE: Mind if I try?
CHILD IN MOVIE: No, I already messed it up anyway.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: In the new movie by the same name, the young stepmom is a radiant Julia Roberts. Tenacious and affectionate, she suffers the slings and arrows of the first wife and two kids till she effectively wins their respect and hearts. She's a saintly dazzler, all lanky legs and first-rate instincts -- "pretty woman" as stepmom of the century.
MOTHER IN MOVIE: (running into police station) Ben! Ben!
LITTLE BOY IN MOVIE: Mommy!
MOTHER IN MOVIE: Hi, sweetie!
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: All right, the movie was a little hokey, a little too pat, full of Hollywood-sized sentiment, capped off by the tear-jerking plot twist of the first wife's contracting terminal cancer, a luminously scrubbed-faced Susan Sarandon. But I have to admit that my quarrels with the movie aside, it was a welcome corrective to the stepmoms of lore-- Cinderella, for example-- certainly to those of us who are ourselves stepmothers.
CHILD IN MOVIE: Mommy?
MOTHER IN MOVIE: What, sweetie?
CHILD IN MOVIE: If you want me to hate her, I will.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I have been one for 27 years. Back in 1972, I married a man with four blonde boys and we set about trying to be a family. The boys' mother remained nearby, and she and I, not unlike the two women in the movie, had to negotiate the ever so delicate relationship of first wife and second wife. You talk and you don't talk. You don't go deep and suddenly you are deep. You talk about Christmas presents and report cards and weekend schedules, and all the while there is this humming undercurrent of loss and fear and hope and anger.
By now, given the 50 percent divorce rate, becoming a stepmother is almost the norm. Three out of four of those who divorce ultimately remarry, bringing kids into their new lives. Catch a bride walking down the aisle and chances are you're seeing not just a new wife, but a new stepmom. Half of all Americans are now, have been, or will be in stepfamily situations. Finally, there does seem to be some common sense about it all, instead of the old refrain about how tough and awful divorce is. Of course it is painful and it is damaging, particularly for children, but that lament is, in a way, passé and what we're seeing now is an attempt to grapple with the new reality, not bemoan it.
As sugarcoated as it might be, "Stepmom," the movie, is a sign of the change. Gone is the quippy revenge fantasy of "The First Wives' Club." Now it's: "Hey, there are kids here, and they have to come first." Maybe it's at long last a symbol of the maturation of the boomers and the ebbing of the age of narcissism. Maybe it's that the good economic times allow more of us the luxury to be our better, more adult selves while trying to form these new families.
Maybe enough people remember their own parents' divorces and messy after-lives and want to do better for their own children. One of the hardest-- no, not the hardest-- but one of the most nuanced roles I've ever had, any of us has ever had, is that of being a stepmom, tethered to another woman through her children, trying to love them and earn their love without it being a competition, without causing her any discomfort or pain. It called for the best in both of us. You don't often get a chance to show your best.
I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.