Mother’s Day is a complicated day for stepmoms. We sometimes feel like an imposter on such a fraught, Hallmark day—yet we often do the bulk of the heavy lifting in the household to raise our husband’s children. We are mothers in a very real sense, so when our love for our stepchildren is dismissed or downplayed, we feel ignored on Mother’s Day. Anyway, it’s a hard day.
I went on a civil war walking tour of Washington, DC this week, and I’ve been thinking about President Lincoln a lot. He is one of the few famous people I know who was raised mostly by a stepmother. Sarah Bush Johnston raised Abe since he was 10 years old. Sarah was there to tend and repair him and the family after his mother’s death, and she raised Abe for a long time. She parented him through his formative years. Lincoln talked openly talk about his stepmom, and he did so with love and appreciation. She was pivotal to who he became as an adult, and he knew it. He was a good boy.
I see my mother’s influence on me quite often—since she passed away, it’s a way to keep her with me and to recognize her impact. Many things I do, and say, come directly from my mom—even the way I walk. During the DC walking tour (conveniently wedged between Mother’s Day and Stepmother’s Day) I found myself searching for Sarah’s influence on Abe. What of herself and her role as stepmom did President Lincoln carry into the role he played in our country and in his service to the union?
I know Sarah was creative and tenacious—as a stepmom, she built a home in a widower’s house. She raised another woman’s children and gracefully balanced her own needs to feel wanted and loved with children recovering from a profound loss. As a stepmom, she took on a new family because it was the right thing to do and because she loved her husband. She struggled to manage her feelings of doubt, failure, and not belonging in her own home. Did Sarah’s inventiveness and self-management have an impact on Abe? He successful managed this country through a civil war. He is the only U.S. president to hold a patent.
I know Sarah worked to keep her marriage safe—as a stepmom, she had to deal with a handful of unique stressors as well as the backlash of raising young children who missed their mother and loved her, too—they had little emotional skills to keep tidy such a divided allegiance. She probably found herself an unconscious, or conscious, target at times, and she surfed waves of self-doubt. Did Sarah’s generosity and grace impact Abe? He had a lovely dry wit and used it to dismantle his opponents. He put aside party politics and took a stand for the fate of the entire nation.
He wasn’t perfect, but this essay isn’t about perfection—just the opposite. Stepmoms are dominated, and often undone, but their own unrealistic standards. And we’re usually judged by an even higher standard than those for bio-moms, if you can imagine. (Believe it.) We endure rude treatment, mean jokes, and tedious cluelessness on way too many of our days.
If you know a stepmom, lucky you! You can acknowledge her on Mother’s Day, or Stepmother’s Day (the Sunday following Mother’s Day), or both. Not sure what day she prefers to celebrate? Ask her.