Reconsider the Stepmother

Reconsider the Stepmother May 16, 2022

Among his many other exceptional qualities, Abraham Lincoln had high regard for his stepmother.

Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln married the sixteenth president’s widowed father in 1819, and by Abe’s own honest report, “she proved to be a good and kind mother.” This reputation makes Sarah pretty unusual, and not just in American history. If motherhood has seen some highs and lows in the country’s life—moms valorized and vilified according to shifts in culture, economy, and politics—stepmotherhood is trickier still.  Stepmothers have been essential to family formation from early years of settlement when demographics destabilized household patterns, but are even more important in our time given recent trends in remarriage.

The stepmother—a figure shaped by what Dorothy Bass calls the “ugly word”—gets unfairly maligned in literature and popular opinion, and historian Lisa Wilson observes that stepparents long have been regarded with suspicion.

Dorothy Bass’s new book, Stepmother: Redeeming a Disdained Vocation, offers a better path forward.  Bass elevates what stepmothers do not only by taking it seriously as a vocation, but envisioning it as cruciform vocation, a way of living in the pattern of the cross.  Stepmothers step into a life shaped by what came before it, something gone awry, a break, a death. The call that comes to a woman who can take it up is not a denial that brokenness exists but a way of bringing good into difficulty. Though defensiveness and resentment might be natural, grace can give stepmothers the ability to bring healing to situations of hurt and loss.

If stepmotherhood is so obviously a cruciform vocation, why has it been neglected in Christian literature?  Long held concerns about divorce may offer part of the explanation.  Bass faults more particularly current Christians’ idealizing of family norms.  Circumstances matter, of course, both the ones leading to divorce and remarriage and the ones that follow. And those looking for evidence of stepmoms behaving badly will certainly find some.  Still, Bass makes so appealing the big-heartedness this vocation invites that it is hard not to want to observe this beautiful work at close range.  We should appreciate grace wherever we see it, and there’s a lot to see here.

Read more here, or better, see it firsthand in Bass’s book.

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