Stepmothers have been getting a bad rap for centuries — though, to be fair, for a while that reputation was on the earned end of the spectrum. Once upon a time, when widowers took new wives, women were forced into competition with preexisting children for resources, attention, and potential inheritance. Not a good recipe for happy blended family, that's for sure. Thankfully, times have changed, and it's actually possible to conceive of a stepparent who isn't necessarily wicked, or maybe is wicked but in a Boston way. But the evil-stepmom trope still rears its head in popular culture front time to time, a variation on a theme that once belonged primarily to the Brothers Grimm. One example? The 1998 movie Stepmom, in which Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts compete for the love and attention of two kids, and along the way, come to develop a new respect for each other. Despite the unimaginative title, it's actually a really great story, and not just because of its heartwarming, candy-coated outer shell. Here's the basic plot: Jackie (Sarandon) is somewhat amicably divorced from Luke (Ed Harris). They have two kids, Anna and Ben. Luke falls head over heels for a chic fashion photographer, Isabel (Roberts), who is struggling to get the kids to accept her new role in their lives. Jackie doesn't want the kids to befriend Isabel and constantly critiques Isabel's ability to connect with and take care of the children — that is, until Jackie is diagnosed with terminal cancer and must consider the part that Isabel will play in Anna and Ben's lives after she is gone. It's a bittersweet movie, mostly because of the cancer diagnosis, which pops up about three-quarters of the way through. Despite the fact that it's a warm-your-heart, grab-your-tissues kind of family film, Stepmom is also refreshingly modern in its take on Isabel: a career woman who doesn't hide the fact that she never wanted children herself, though she's game to take them on if they're part of a package deal. In fact, her careerism is one of the things that Jackie — a former publisher who became a stay-at-home mom — is so critical toward. Ultimately, Jackie seems to recognize that for all of Isabel's flaws, she is a good role model for Anna precisely because she has been so focused on pursuing her professional passions. Put another way: Stepmom isn't (just) a movie about two women who set aside their differences to do what's best for the children. It's a movie about two very different women who come to motherhood in two very different ways. They each navigate their own parenting journeys with different handicaps and advantages, while still trying to stay true to their own course. It's also about two people recognizing where their limitations begin and end — that you just can't fix a problem you would give anything to solve. And sometimes, you just have to learn to live with that fact or let it go.
As for how the kids experience this whole transformation, it's much easier on Ben than it is on Anna — understandably so. While all of this drama is going down between her parents and Isabel, Anna is already in a tender and tough period of life, one in which she wants desperately to grow up and assert her own independence, but still needs her mother — or perhaps her Isabel — for guidance and to patch up emotional injuries. Not to mention that for a certain type of daddy's girl, it's tough to share the spotlight of your father's love and affection with literally anyone else. As someone with her own stepmother, I can certainly attest to that. For the better part of two decades, I was unwilling to entertain the idea that anyone else could ever enter into the little family bubble of my sister, our dad, and myself. I spent most of my teen years playing nasty tricks on the women he dated, in the hopes that maybe they would get the picture and just disappear. (For the record: I blame this behavior on reading too many fairy tales as a child, and also on movies like The Parent Trap. Sorry, Dad.) As it turns out, we were just waiting for The One to show up who was finally right for our father. Eventually, she did (thank goodness). And even my mother — who by then had added an excellent new partner of her own into the mix — was pleased with this particular turn of events. Which brings me back to Stepmom. "They can have us both," Jackie tells Isabel, in the months between Jackie's diagnosis and her eventual passing. "I have their past, you can have their future." Standing in an overpriced paper-goods store recently, surveying Mother's Day cards, that line suddenly sprang into my mind. We so very rarely get to have it all; that's the way the world works. But sometimes, a stepparent arrives in our lives and she turns out to be someone we needed. It's nothing like a fairy tale. That's a good thing. But it is also an important reminder that there are many different ways to arrive at motherhood, and not all of them are entwined with biology. It's the act of parenting that makes you a parent — and of falling in love that makes you a family.