Elizabeth Mehren

(WOMENSENEWS)–On the 2008 political spouse horizon, it is Elizabeth Edwards who seems headed for a landslide in the public sympathy vote.

Certainly she wins my support for valor and determination. Who could not feel bad for her, knowing that she has faced the sequential terrors of hearing that she had cancer, and then learning that the cancer had returned? I admire her strength, and her refusal to be sidelined by this devastating development.

But to my surprise, it is Judith Nathan Giuliani for whom I am feeling an unexpected sense of compassion. As the stepmother of two myself–and as my husband’s third wife–I have cringed while tabloid headlines, television and even the ostensibly respectable New York Times have portrayed her as the evil stepmother.

Stepmotherhood, as I know all too well, is such an easy-target archetype. Medieval fairy tales presented stepmothers as so wicked that usually they were stoned to death or pushed off a cliff by story’s end. In 2007, that depiction ought to be shockingly anachronistic. And yet ever since 21-year-old Andrew Giuliani told the New York Times in March that “there’s obviously a little problem that exists between me and his wife”–meaning Judy–she has been symbolically stoned as the new ogre of blended families.

Easily Sold Image

Back in the days when Judith and Rudy were dating–or “carrying on,” as my mother might have put it, given the then-New York City mayor’s quite-married-to-someone-else status–it was easy to buy into the image of Judy Nathan as The Other Woman.

There was Donna Hanover, taking care of the kids and holding down the home front at Gracie Mansion. And there was Judy Nathan, stepping out on the town with Donna’s husband. Harumph. Donna was even a onetime journalist, so she got my professional-girl loyalty along with commiseration.

And of course there was Rudy Giuliani’s announcement during a live TV interview in 2000 that he intended to file for divorce. I can’t think of too many graceful ways to deliver this news, but even a registered letter is preferable to the way Rudy handled it. Rudy and Judy married in 2003.

My bet is that the new Mrs. Giuliani took on her role as stepmother with the same optimism I felt when my husband and I married in 1988. I bought my soon-to-be husband’s daughter–then 8 years old–a lovely dress and shiny new patent leather shoes to wear as my sole bridal attendant. I was so determined to send a message of inclusion to both children that I insisted they accompany us on our honeymoon, a ski vacation. (Madness, right?)

There certainly have been low points, for step-parenting is an endeavor fraught with emotional land mines. Although you are not an actual parent, the step-parent still is expected to perform what I would call “para-parent” functions. It’s a lot of hard work, with virtually no credit involved, but an almost certain guarantee that if something topples in the family architecture, the step-parent will get the blame.

Still, nearly 20 years into this thing called step-parenthood, our family has reached a relatively calm plateau. My stepkids regard my 17-year-old son as their brother, never a half-sibling. We celebrate holidays and take vacations together. Everyone goes to each other’s graduations and other significant ceremonies. But this has taken persistence–and most of all, patience–as most of this country’s 1.5 million stepmothers likely would attest. A public upbraiding by one of her stepkids will not make Judy Giuliani’s domestic journey any easier.

Stepmother Makeover

Once Rudy G. decided to go after the GOP presidential nomination, his adviser-entourage took on the serious work of repackaging his third wife. Judy got a sleek new hairdo, more suited for Republican social events than her long, loose tresses and bad-girl bangs. Out came the tailored suits, attire that all but screamed prim and proper. The former mayor took to describing his wife as a “health care professional.” True enough, since she trained as a nurse. But Ms. Nathan Giuliani spent most of her career in pharmaceutical sales, hardly the heart and soul of the medical profession.

Still, the public pillorying that followed Andrew’s announcement seems ill-deserved, not to mention tacky. I called Jeannette Lofas, president of the Stepfamily Foundation in New York, to take a reading on the Judy Giuliani situation. Lofas echoed my own position that stepmothering is fundamentally a flawed institution. After all, what other job is routinely modified by the word “wicked?”

My own stepkids never used that word to my face, although “stepmonster” did become a weird term of endearment after a while. It helped, I think, that I never confused myself with their mother. I was someone who happened to be married to their father, which to me meant a very different set of expectations. I could take my stepdaughter on a college tour–which I did, just the two of us–without feeling any emotional angst about where she would eventually enroll. I could conspire with my stepson to write a job recommendation for him, because we have different last names, and who would ever know we were related? Mostly I was lucky that the stepkids adored the little boy who came into their lives in 1990. He became a kind of glue, a biological link, and it didn’t hurt at all that he looks exactly like them.

40 Percent of Families

Close to 40 percent of U.S. families involve remarriage and a child or children from previous unions, Lofas pointed out. But society remains suspicious of this family structure, she said, much like “the rejection of non-self tissue in an organ transplant.”

Judith Giuliani is not the first stepmother-by-divorce to take to the presidential campaign trail on behalf of her husband. Nancy Reagan paved that road in 1980. More recently, Teresa Heinz Kerry was a veritable Mother Superior of political stepmoms when she appeared surrounded by her sons and John Kerry’s daughters in 2004. The kids linked arms and laughed and smiled and did all the things that political families are supposed to do. If only that Brady Bunch idyll could have endured.

Many political analysts say Rudy Giuliani will suffer from the public nature of his family tensions. His son’s comments forced Giuliani to defend his wife as “a very loving and caring . . . stepmother.”

In 2007, it is important to remember that those words are not at all contradictory.

Elizabeth Mehren is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

“Candidates’ Wives Trivialized by Press”:

The Stepfamily Foundation:

“Women Join Hands to Build Family a Better Home”:

Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.