The Second Wives Club
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The Second Wives Club

Isn't it time we finally get the respect we deserve?

The Stereotype

On July 10, 1999, I happily became a statistic the moment I uttered "I do" -- I was now in a second marriage, along with some 20 percent of 40-plus men and women nationwide. Life had thrown me a curveball just four years earlier, when my first husband suddenly died. In the depths of my grief, six months later, I was reintroduced to an old acquaintance, the man I married that summer afternoon. As it turns out, he and his first wife had legally separated the same time that my marriage had ended so differently.

We popped corks, celebrated with our closest friends and enjoyed a luxurious honeymoon in France. When we returned, I was in for somewhat of a rude awakening. Although I thought of myself simply as a wife, I quickly learned that the "second" amendment in front of my title spoke volumes to many people. When I showed off my new ring to an acquaintance, she told me I had no business marrying a father, strongly implying that I had destroyed another woman's life and contributed to the abandonment of an innocent child. I was shocked that my happy news could be interpreted so falsely. My husband's ex is the one who initiated the divorce. He's a great dad, and my stepdaughter doesn't even hate me. She gives me presents on Mother's Day.

Say the words "second wife," and what comes to mind? A home-wrecking, younger tramp, that's what. Forget that statistics show the age difference between spouses in second marriages is a scant 3.4 years, or that, at 44, I'm older than my 41-year-old husband. Common wisdom is that we're home invaders, using youth or glamour to insinuate ourselves into otherwise happy marriages and cut men off from their children.

I'm not saying that doesn't happen now and then. On any given day, you can read tabloid stories of older men jumping into younger women's arms. From Marla Maples to Suzy Wetlaufer (who allegedly lured former GE CEO Jack Welch away from his wife -- his second wife, actually), such sexy scandals feed a stereotype I think is long past due for a decent burial.

But it just won't die. Maybe we're still harboring resentment for what happened to many divorced women of my mother's generation, who made sacrifices for their husbands' careers only to be left high and dry if the marriage ended. The First Wives Club tapped into the anger of women who ended up in that situation. But I found the movie, with its slimy husbands and predatory women, to be curiously out of date. The women I know who have divorced in the past 10 years or so have benefited from changes in divorce law that provide for a more equitable split when one household becomes two; in a couple of cases, they even secured the lion's share of the assets. It's tough on everybody as we navigate this brave new world of blended families, with its foreign and emotionally tricky terrain. Tired stereotyping doesn't help a thing.

A Reality Check

For the most part, I'm lucky in my personal situation -- my husband's family, and especially his daughter, welcomed me warmly. But a quick check on any one of the numerous stepmother/second wife-support sites on the Web reveals that my sister second wives aren't always so fortunate.

Perhaps we would be more accepted if everybody realized how different our lives are from the outdated stereotypes. Take the one that says we're out to snag a rich husband and peel him and his money away from his first family. Reality check: Far from stealing away men in their financial prime, the second wives I know are essential breadwinners whose paychecks help provide stepchildren with housing, clothing, and food -- and many of them need to work to compensate for the money their husbands must send to their first wives. A woman I know has it the worst, with much of her husband's income being funneled to his first wife 15 years after his divorce. His first child has a trust fund, sizable enough to ensure his financial security for life, and his ex has never worked. There is no trust for his child with my friend, who works part-time to help maintain their lifestyle (which, granted, is still pretty nice).

In some states, and depending on the discretion of a judge, the income of second wives can even be considered when alimony and child support are calculated. Shortly before my husband and I married, I learned that my salary could potentially be factored into future adjustments made to his nonworking ex. It had taken me years to get back on my feet financially after my first husband's death (he didn't have life insurance), and we were saving like mad to get a place big enough for my stepdaughter to have her own bedroom. (Fortunately, due to the financial situation of all involved, the threat never materialized.)

Second wives are often depicted as blinding their husbands to the emotional needs of their children. In truth, the stepmoms I've talked to are more "mom" than "step," attending parent/teacher conferences, supervising sleepovers, comforting kids, cleaning up vomit (it happens). The difference is, stepmothers don't get the respect and decision-making power automatically accorded to "real" mothers. Despite the fact that I've been caring for my stepdaughter for six years (she's now 12), I feel like a bit player in the ongoing negotiations between my husband and his ex over his custodial time. His ex often doesn't stick to a set schedule, and it's not unusual for me (us) to get virtually no notice that my stepdaughter is coming -- or, worse, that she won't be. I was also once excluded from an important school event because its organizers didn't think to take stepparents into account and it turned out there literally weren't enough seats. Even more upsetting, stepmoms often serve as lightning rods for the anger children harbor after a divorce, and stereotypes make this difficult situation even worse. I know of one woman whose stepchildren blame her for breaking up their parents -- a scenario their mother encourages them to believe. The second wife and her husband don't plan on telling the kids that their mother was the one cheating, but knowing she's doing the right thing doesn't ease her frustration about the blame and the "You're not my mother!" back talk she gets when she tries to set house rules.

Why the Trouble?

Most of the problems I see among second wives can be traced to lack of respect. I've bitten my tongue more than once when I've heard a divorced mom dish about her ex-husband's new wife, snarking about her looks or job, finding fault with how she dresses or feeds the kids. Rarely do I hear appreciation for taking on carpools, school projects, extra laundry, and more. But we need recognition and support just like everybody else. The first time I ran an Internet search on "second wives," I was surprised at the number of online groups out there, filled with women swapping strategies for coping with problems like upset children, frustrated husbands and "deadbeat moms," which can refer to mothers who spend child support on themselves, then ask their ex for more money in front of the children, or mothers who unexpectedly "dump" children on their ex's household during their own custodial time. I used to believe that things like that didn't happen, but it's more common than one might think. And it's taboo to talk about: Complaining makes it sound like you don't care about your stepchild, so many of us turn to the Web.

I shadow some of these sites when I need reassurance that I'm not alone. Sympathetic souls turn up in unexpected places, too. Not so long ago, my stepdaughter and I were nosing around the kids' department at Bloomingdale's, and the saleswoman smiled and commented that she looks like me. "No, no," I said. "I'm just her stepmother." "Listen, honey," she said, fixing me with a look that clearly came from experience. "That counts."

The most recent Hollywood take on the second wife, the movie Stepmom, suggests we've made some progress, but not much. The movie wasn't very good, but I could relate to Julia Roberts' character as she dodged barbs and struggled to keep her relationship and career afloat while attempting to forge a bond with her fiance's children and their mother. It was more than a little depressing that the first wife (Susan Sarandon) had to develop a fatal disease before she could welcome Roberts' character into her children's lives. Is that what it's going to take before we'll be respected?

Making It Work

I prefer to think we'll all learn to behave as admirably as the members of one blended family I know. When a friend of mine and her husband divorced several years ago, they vowed to put their young child's interests first. That wasn't so hard while they were two single parents, but it became much more difficult when he remarried. My friend struggled to accept the fact that her child's diapers were changed by another woman's hands, that the man she had married now loved somebody else. She finally realized that she might as well work with this new family structure, because it sure wasn't going away. She made an effort to see the good qualities in the new wife and to be cooperative with respect to custody and child care. Her ex and his wife behaved in kind, and a stronger, more productive family was born. "I'm lucky," my friend told me recently. "She's a great mother, and she's great to my child."

Maybe they should be the model for the new American family, one that acknowledges that nearly half of first marriages don't last, and that most children in America now grow up with more than two parent figures. The family has already been redefined in fact, but we're all still catching up emotionally. There is no "norm" anymore, and it's high time we all realized it and got on with the business of getting along.

For that to happen, second wives need to be promoted to a full member of the family team. The respect that is naturally accorded first wives and mothers needs to stretch to embrace second wives and stepmothers as well. But, like second wives everywhere, I've learned that I can't make my husband's first wife accept me, even as I try to live up to my end of the bargain and support her.

The best I can do is accept and respect myself. I love my husband in a way I never thought I could again, and we are both so happy to have been blessed with this second chance. Yet, I recently caught myself blurting out to a virtual stranger that I was widowed before I remarried, as if to soften the fact of what I am. I'm not going to do that anymore. I am a second wife and stepmother, and I'm proud of the role I play in this family. In my own eyes, at least, I will be second to none.

Carla Rohlfing Levy contributes regularly to Self, Lifetime, and Fitness.