"Stepmom:" A Family's Picture
by Lisa Ritter Starr
The movie "Stepmom" stars Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon as two moms in the same family. It also happens to tell a story that relates in many ways to open adoption. The challenges faced by the family -- opening a family to more core members, helping kids understand parental roles, and parents learning those roles themselves -- are like those challenges faced in open adoption families.
Anna and Ben are the two schoolage children whose parents are recently divorced in a fairly amicable split. The family seems to have worked out a decent parenting plan that respects equally the roles of mother and father, played by Sarandon and Ed Harris. "Jackie" and "Luke" share custody, financial obligations, and a respectable friendship with one another. When a new person -- a new "mom" -- is introduced into the family, however, everyone seems to be temporarily thrown for a loop.
Isabel, played by Julia Roberts, is Luke's first girlfriend after the divorce. She is a very successful photographer, a bit younger and hipper than Jackie, childless, and has never been married. Things between Jackie and Isabel are tense at first, but remain somewhat pleasant until Isabel's and Luke's new life together starts to bring up issues that affect the children.
When Isabel enters the picture, it is obvious that she does not want to replace Jackie as Anna's and Ben's mother. While focusing mainly on her own life and personal goals, she also wants Luke and his children to remain happily in each other's lives. If that means developing a relationship with each of the kids, Isabel is happy to do it. She displays a familiar paradox of self-absorption and self-sacrifice.
Everything seems to be going well until the first "issue" of Isabel's new place in the family: Anna accidentally witnesses Isabel and Luke in what we will call an intimate moment. While Isabel may not have handled the situation as holistically as Jackie would like, things quickly smooth out again. The real issue occurs when Ben is left in Isabel's care and temporarily disappears one afternoon, to be found hours later lounging in a police station, safe and oblivious.
It is as if Jackie was waiting for an excuse to cast Isabel out of the picture. She immediately explodes and refuses to let Isabel have any more responsibility for the kids. She and Anna share similar feelings of vindication that begin to affect Ben, who has been neutral up until this point. While the three are riding horses one day, Ben smiles curiously at his mother and tells her, "Mommy, if you want me to hate her, I will."
Ben's invitation to turn his loyalty completely to Jackie and close off his acceptance of Isabel is a major turning point in the film. It depicts a core challenge in open adoption as well. It would have been easiest for Jackie at that point to tell the truth and say, "Yes, Ben, that is what I want." But Jackie is a divorced parent whose main concern is to do the right thing for the children. She has known all along that, despite any resentment she feels toward her ex-husband, she cannot ask her children to harbor that same resentment. The children need to feel like their father is the same loving father as always, divorce or no divorce.
The same is true regarding Isabel. Jackie might want Isabel out of the picture more than anything, but it would be unfair to pass on that negativity to her children. Even if Isabel never had Ben and Anna in her care again, she would likely remain an integral part of their lives as a role model and -- to some extent, like it or not -- a mother figure for years to come.
Meanwhile, Isabel does the best she can. She is inexperienced at stepmotherhood, but wants to make the situation work for Luke's sake. No matter how hard Jackie, Anna, or even Ben might try, Isabel remains intricately connected the family through Luke. Finally, when Jackie fails to pick up her kids and shows herself to be just as prone to mistakes as anybody, Isabel is offered another chance.
Much of the film's focus splits into two paths when Luke and Jackie meet in a restaurant to tell each other important news. Luke wants to marry Isabel, and Jackie is terminally ill. Jackie ends up keeping her news secret until Isabel accidentally uncovers it. While Isabel and Luke are getting ready to marry and start a new life, and Isabel is trying to develop a relationship with the kids, Jackie is forced to make arrangements to die.
The story goes on to show how one experienced mother learns to coexist with a second mother, who brings with her a fresh perspective on kids and family. At no time does Isabel come close to replacing Jackie; rather, their roles coexist. But when Jackie is nearing the end of her life, she and the children learn to see that a new stepmom coming into the family may not only be a happy and positive event, but a serendipitous one.
Isabel's role as stepmom is not quite like a birth mother. Birth mothers may be more aunt-like or sisterly, depending on their age and the type of adoption, and they are not involved intimately with any other member of the adoptive family. Still, birth mothers have a mother role. They are their child's first mother. Some may think it is confusing for a child to have two kinds of mothers. Others -- like me, and many birth mothers, stepmothers, foster mothers, and so on -- know that they can and do understand.
One of the last scenes of the film is the family spending Christmas together. At one point they snap a family photo: Luke, Jackie, Anna, Ben, and Isabel. It may have taken a tragedy to get them there, but they finally learn to open up and accept one another and the strengths each brings to the family. Most importantly, they all see that, depending on how you frame it, there is room for everybody in the picture.
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