Why you can’t just tell a stepmum to wash her face…

Self-care isn’t enough when it comes to stepmothers. We need the whole village.

Self-care is a billion-dollar industry. Yep, 9 zeros. As with anything that gets that much hype and becomes officially ‘trendy’, the origins of what is a helpful narrative can get lost in the repeated translations impacting on the fidelity of the message.

Take a look at any version of a #selfcare hashtag and it looks like the self-care movement now belongs solely to white, upper class, skinny, smoothie drinking, law-of-attraction-believing women – including a growing number of stepmother influencers- to the exclusion of all others. For stepmothers or any person with children who require round the clock care or have jobs that demand significant time and energy, the current self- care culture appears inaccessible.

The phenomenon of Rachel Hollis and her best-selling self-help book, ‘Girl, Wash Your Face’, is a perfect example that quintessentially embodies why the notion of self-care just isn’t enough for stepmothers. For the record, Rachel Hollis is not a stepmother. She is an adoptive mother, biological mother and was a foster mother. However, her message is for all ‘mothers’, all ‘women’ – and many, many are listening without question.

Laura Turner, Buzzfeed contributor, is an exception. Her review “Girl, Wash Your Face” Is A Massive Best-Seller With A Dark Message is worth a read. It helped me understand exactly why the #1 New York Times best-selling book sat so uncomfortably with me. Turner’s review articulates clearly the problem with Rachel Hollis’ message – a message now being touted by a number of high profile stepmother influencers – that “you, and only you, are solely responsible for who you become and how happy you are”.

You know what they are selling here.

Most of us have even bought it a some stage over these years of the #self-care marketing boom. That gold ticket of …’If you want to feel better, then you need to do all the hard work yourself, on your own, for yourself’.

Basically, telling us and us believing that it doesn’t matter how difficult your circumstances, how little support you may have, what systemic or societal obstacles you face – if you just have the right attitude, meditate, drink a green smoothie and work out, you can change it all. Everything. All by yourself.

But state that the other way: if you are sad, worried, anxious, or depressed, it’s your problem alone that you have caused yourself, and it doesn’t feel so good. Or sell as much.

These messages no matter how harmful or unrealistic are definitely trendy in part because they offer in words taken from Dr Patricia Papernow (stepfamily academic and author) ‘seductively simple but mistaken solutions to complex problems’. No matter what the reason or how well-intentioned it is just not helpful to perpetuate a lack of community and social support, especially for our most vulnerable.

Yes, mindset affects wellbeing, but it’s not the only factor. Yes, we control some of our happiness – (50% exactly if you listen to the research) – , but we not all of it. As Turner puts it so eloquently:

Can you tell a woman who has lost her hoped-for child as a result of state officials turning a blind eye to a water-poisoning crisis in a predominantly black area, or a mother seeking asylum whose child was taken away from her at the border, that “you are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are”? You can, but you would be wrong. And cruel.

Of course, there is no direct comparison between the examples used by Turner and the circumstances of being a stepmother in places where there is ready access to clean water, no war, available food and employment. Nor am I trying to imply this. But, there is what I refer to as a commonality for lack of a better word in that stepmothers, like so many others, face obstacles to happiness outside of their control. Think the evil stepmother stereotype, the external parties that exert significant influence on stepparent’s relationships with members of their own families and how much harder it is to love a stepmother than a stepfather and you can see why these messages of self-help just don’t work for stepmums.

We know that stepmothers are overly isolated and the current #selfcare trend is often extremely individualistic. It focuses on preserving oneself rather than challenging the parts of society that make self-care necessary. The concept of a mental health day from work gives a person time off when they are struggling with stress, but it doesn’t do anything to make the work day less stressful. You can get a pedicure, but it isn’t going to stop madrastra the Spanish word for stepmother being also translated as “bad mother”. It takes just one look at the comments on Katherine Scwarzenegger’s picture of her husband, Chris Pratt, with his son acknowledging Father’s Day in the States to get an idea of where you stand with society as a stepmother.

What stepmothers need is connection. We need a community full of support. We need mentors and stepmother wisdom passed down from one generation to the next. We need acceptance and understanding. We need the village.

So, reach out. Text someone when you need to talk. Let your neighbour grab some milk for you when they offer. Let your sister babysit when you have a court date or cook dinner and do the dishes when you’ve been helping your partner grieve not seeing the kids. Then, do the same for others.

Sustained, interpersonal acts of kindness are a critical part of the care we need as stepmothers. We need to do those acts and we need to receive them.

But when it’s all too much for too long (and these times will and do exist – for us all), don’t hesitate to reach out for more structured support. Find a mentor, a coach, a therapist. Don’t believe anyone that tells you from a position of privilege that you can do it on your own. It’s just not true. None of us can. Nor should we. Find a support that provides more than telling you to wash those tears off your face all by yourself. It exists and you deserve it.

If you liked this article and your looking to expand your support and build connections, it might be time to work with a coach. You can read more about online coaching just for stepmothers here.