Date of Award

Spring 2019

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Rebecca Glauber

Second Advisor

Michele DIllon

Third Advisor

Benjamin Clifford Brown


A substantial amount of scholarly attention has been dedicated to understanding changes in the institution of family and, within the context of these changes, how the institution of motherhood continues to play a central role in reproducing gender inequalities for women in society. Through two distinct, but interrelated papers, this dissertation examines stepmothers’ experiences in the family with the goal of expanding our understanding of the reach of the institution of motherhood into the lives of all women. The first paper draws on 33 semi- structured, in-depth interviews with stepmothers. From these data, my findings are two-fold. First, I find that stepmothers’ abilities to enact facets of motherhood they identify as central to what it means to be a good (step)mother are patterned by the residential status arrangements of their stepfamilies, which are more diverse than previous research with stepmothers shows. Second, despite variation in the extent to which they can enact various facets of motherhood, stepmothers across residential status categories share the sentiment that lack of a biological bond with stepchildren is a defining feature of their role as a stepmother. This is a compelling finding because, in practice, it affirms there is a hierarchy within our socially constructed understanding of motherhood, rooted in essentialism, where even in the most extreme cases when stepmothers are doing all the work of mothering in their stepfamilies, they are not afforded the privileged status of being considered a mother in the family system. This holds true even in the complete absence of biological mothers from the stepfamily system. To reconcile this mismatch between role performance and status attribution, stepmothers embrace narratives of differentiation and deference as they enact their roles, but still ultimately model their stepmothering from dominant cultural expectations about what good mothering is. The exception to this pattern is revealed in rare cases in the sample where biological mothers have ceded their privileged social status in the family system, in turn, making room for others to assume the status of mother. For the second paper, I draw on ethnographic data gleaned from 57 hours of participant observation at Christian ministry seminars for stepmothers. I attended these weekend-long seminars for three consecutive years. I find that these seminars construct a foundation for stepmother attendees to build a unique therapeutic community; a rare opportunity for women who find themselves marginalized from other mother- and parent-centered spaces because of their stigmatized identity. In their programming efforts, the seminar leaders construct and share a therapeutic tool-kit, comprised of both secular and religious resources, for stepmothers to use as they navigate the ambiguous work of stepmothering. Embedded in this unique tool-kit is a typology of gendered emotion work stepmothers are encouraged to do – self-work, (re)marriage work, and (step)family work. Previous research shows that gendered emotion work plays a key role in the reproduction of gender inequalities in society; how this applies to stepmothers has not been explored in the literature. Overall, this dissertation adds to an existing literature, albeit in new ways, regarding how even in the face of societal progress and change, flexible ideologies about gender and motherhood are a powerful, enduring ideological force.