CUSP, Psychology, Research in the School, Social Psychology

What it means to be a stepmother


Stepmothers face many challenges, not least of which is their terrible reputation. Although stepfamilies are common – about 10% of UK families according to 2011 UK census – it is difficult to say exactly what a stepfamily is.  Do they include those families where the father’s children are not resident full-time as they live primarily with their biological mother or those where the father’s children are adults?  Do we consider them stepfamilies if the father and his partner are not married but cohabiting? These groups are rarely recognized or researched as stepfamilies and when they are, as in most stepfamily research, the focus is most often on the children or stepfathers. In a new article, Sandra Roper and Rose Capdevila discuss the stepmother identity, then present research from interviews and a web forum for stepmothers in which women in that role talk about their male partners.

Hapless, helpless, hopeless: An analysis of stepmothers’ talk about their (male) partners

Sandra Roper and Rose Capdevila


The identity of stepmother is, in many ways, a troubled one – constructed as “other” and often associated with notions of “wickedness” in literature and everyday talk. This paper reports findings from a study on the difficulties faced by stepmothers and how they use talk about their (male) partners, often constructing men as hapless, helpless or hopeless, to repair their “troubled” identities. The data were collected from a web forum for stepmothers based in the UK and 13 semi-structured face-to-face interviews with stepmothers. The analysis took a synthetic narrative-discursive methodological approach, underpinned by feminist theory with particular attention to the discourses that were drawn on by participants and the constraints that these imposed. This paper presents these findings in relation to three constructions of their partners through which repair work was attempted: men as in need of rescue; men as flawed fathers; and men as damaged. The paper concludes with some suggestions for supporting stepmothers by challenging dominant narratives around families in talk, in the media and in government and institutional policies.

You can read the article in Feminism & Psychology 30(2): 248-266

Sandra Roper and Rose Capdevila are part of the Networking Families group at the Open University

You can read about Sandra Roper’s research here

You can read about Rose Capdevila’s research here


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