Skip To Content
No Mercy No Malice

(Not So) Evil Stepmother

September 4, 2020

4-min read

My father, at 90, just divorced his 4th wife. But that’s not what this post is about. My dad’s 3rd wife, Linda, came and spent a few days with us.  

Enjoy Labor Day. 

(Originally published September 2017.)


(Not So) Evil Stepmother

Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. Where I grew up, California, it’s 60%. So, I was surrounded by stepmothers and stepfathers growing up. The mother of my best friend, Adam, after her divorce, lived with a handsome, quiet law student named Paul, who mostly only spoke when it was time for me to leave. He was one of the first men I remember thinking was cool. He had awesome sunglasses and drove the coolest cars of the eighties, nineties, and aughts as his career progressed — Datsun 260z, Porsche 911, and a Ferrari. He was a steady, present male role model for Adam and his sister, who, like me, only saw their biological father every other weekend.

A friend of mine, Jimmy, is a stepdad who traded in a life as a pilot carting and partying with the wealthy around the Caribbean for a just-add-water family — wife and two school-age daughters. He boasts of his successful effort to bond with the oldest daughter by getting her into the Wicked Tuna series and speaks of the girls as if they’re his own … and they are.

After my mom and dad split, I got my very own stepmom, Linda (“#3”). Dad’s been married 4x. #2 (my mom) referred to Linda as “that bitch,” as there was some overlap between #2 and #3 (see above: seventies California). I don’t think my mom and Linda were ever in the same room at the same time, ever. My mom refused to be in the same room with my dad until my business school graduation 20 years later, but that’s another post. 

Anyway, the narrative was set up for me to dislike, even hate, my stepmom Linda. One problem though: Linda is a good person who was wonderful to me. Linda, in her twenties, had been told she couldn’t have children, so when a well-mannered eight-year-old boy, missing his two front teeth, showed up wearing cords and an Ocean Pacific shirt, she was in love.

Linda was the first person to spoil me, I mean really spoil. She would bake for me, a foreign concept in my house, as my mom worked and was British (not one with the kitchen). Linda would bake these amazing buckeye cookies, peanut butter paste enveloped in dark chocolate. When schedules would keep me from Linda and my dad for a month, she would bake buckeyes, wrap them individually in foil, and mail them to me.

One Friday she announced she was taking me to ToysRUs, where I could buy anything I wanted. Strolling through the aisles of ToysRUs, she would track my gaze and noticed me eyeing the remote control planes. She stopped me and asked which one I wanted. I was too embarrassed to say, as spending money was a crime in my household, and these were $30. No matter, if I wanted a model P-51 plane, then I was going to get it. (My father and I would later venture to a parking lot and spend several hours not getting the plane off the ground.)

Soon after, she found out that her doctors were wrong. She was expecting. When I went to the hospital to see my half sister, Linda gave me a gift — pajamas with the picture of a basset hound with lettering underneath that read “I’m special.” A dump truck on her bladder, about to push my sister through her birth canal, and Linda found the time to get me pajamas to ensure I knew she still loved me. Some people are …

Just. Born. Wonderful.

Most mammals will give their lives defending their offspring. What makes us human is not just opposable thumbs, but also our ability to cooperate. Cooperation draws on things that are uniquely human, like speech, culture, and long childhoods. One of the most noble forms of cooperation that advances the species is caring for those that aren’t biologically yours. I don’t enjoy my kids a lot of the time, and don’t enjoy others’ offspring most of the time. It’s a miracle people agree to love kids that don’t smell, look, or feel like them. Death, disease, and divorce leave a lot of kids in single-parent households, where the odds are markedly worse for the kids.

The fastest blue-line path to a better world isn’t economic growth or a better phone, but more of us becoming irrationally passionate about the wellbeing of a child that isn’t our own. The Pauls, Jimmys, and Lindas … being there, baking, watching bad TV, buying planes that won’t fly, makes us more human. My mom is gone, but this Thanksgiving my family will host Linda — my not so evil stepmom.

Life is so rich, 

P.S. There’s still time to sign up for the Strategy Sprint, starting October 13, to learn the 8 winning strategies of today’s most valuable firms. And … I’m back on YouTube, with Winners & Losers–style videos every Monday morning. Subscribe!

90 comments

  1. OLADAPO says:

    Looking forward to read from you soon

  2. Lucky Lucas says:

    “I don’t enjoy my kids a lot of the time,“ what is wrong with you? They will choose your nursing home, don’t you know?

  3. Mike Harrigan says:

    Great post. I don’t know anything about business but I know honesty when I hear it. I get the stepmother thing now so much better. Time is funny .you see all this stuff at once you wish to God you could have seen before. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. Darren says:

    Your business analysis and commentary is great but your personal stories are what makes me come back week after week. Am glad you didn’t inherit the British reserve like some of us. Teaching can take many different forms.

  5. Rick Lee says:

    This was so timely for me Scott, thank you. Just 5 days before you re-posted this I proposed to the love of my life who has a spunky 9 year old daughter. I hope to be the Linda in her life someday if I can only learn more patience. 😅 Looking forward to her being old and wacky like you one day and can only hope she appreciates me half as much as you do Linda.

  6. malti peplow says:

    superlike this! and all other posts . thank you

  7. bagayan says:

    honest online career from home Earns upto $550 to $750 doller by way of work is simple on web. i have made $28K only month via chipping away on internet. Its right way and easy home work maybe a piece adolescent can complete this movement on web and benefits.chek detail….Www.jobs35.com

  8. Emma says:

    I love this and other posts you put together, Scott.

  9. ward robertson says:

    This proves time and time again, we need more love, less hate, more smiles, less frowns, more hugs and thank you’s. Let us be grateful and show we care for friends, family, and strangers everywhere.

  10. Ethan W says:

    My parents are in their 80’s and still together. I’ve never had a step-mom or dad, guess I’m lucky (and in the minority these days). I wanted to say that Prof. G’s article “WEWTF??” was one of the best things I’ve read in years. Perhaps he will consider revisiting that corporate train wreck, I’m SURE there have been some interesting developments since their ill-fated IPO. Anyone with me? Ethan

  11. Kelly says:

    So I happen to think that the divorced-with-children trend is actually leading to a high percentage of children who are spoiled, undisciplined, and with no concept of independence or how to work hard for anything. I’m an “old” millennial, at the top of the range, and have dated some divorced men with kids. The degree of one-upping that I have witnessed between the split parents, and the degree to which the children were very clearly forming into spoiled brats, has been astonishing.

    • Judy says:

      I have had the same experience dating divorced-with-children.

    • Emma says:

      Sounds like the children needed some stable love. Something which, as Scott has so beautifully pointed out, is just as possible regardless of blood connection, with adults who are focused on the little people.

  12. jamison williams says:

    Great story thanks for sharing. Makes you really think about the impact a relationship has on a kid.

  13. pawokid says:

    This is very Amazing when i saw in my Acount 8000$ par month .Just do work online at home on laptop with my best freinds . So u can always make Dollar Easily at home on laptop…Www.Works75.com

  14. Patrick says:

    Priceless

  15. Vincent P says:

    Relationships like this provide love and hope (when we need it most). That’s what makes Linda and others like her so beautiful. Thank you Linda (and Scott for sharing)

  16. Aaron says:

    Thanks Prof, top note. I also come from a 5 marriage household (3x Mum, 3x Dad, middle to each other) so I have an absolute understanding of what you’re talking about. My stepmum and I are super-close, but it hasn’t been without its grief… your observation about the ability to see beyond being an amazing trait is so so true. Unfortunately the ability to relate to others’ children so often comes from having our own: those who are capable of that love without having their own are, in my experience, truly special.

  17. Doug says:

    I love when Prof G writes articles like this. He has a way with being a little silly and a little frank in his speaking about his emotions with his parents children. He is pragmatist with a big heart lurking below.

  18. Heidi says:

    Thanks should also be extended to all the i baseball coaches, den mothers, robotics mentors, marching band parents and others. I’m a single mom with two terrific young adult children. Lots of people helped me raise them. Yes, I have thanked them all.

  19. Chuck says:

    Beautiful story and provides bountiful evidence that family extends far beyond genetics. That a ‘step’ became your outright family and is still cherished today – it’s proof that family comes from within. Being another child of divorce I can relate somewhat, but for the fact that I never had ‘steps’ living with me. They divorced when I was 15 or 16 and I moved out of the house at 18; so my life never included live-in ‘steps’.Mom and never remarried till I left the house. Dad remarried and I gained a ‘step’ with whom I never experienced in that first-person live-in situation. Both within the ‘step’ parent and how they treat the kids, and how the kids view and respond to new adults in their life. It’s awesome that you keep feelings of love above and beyond the anger and frustration of going through parental divorce. Right On Bro!!

  20. Dan says:

    Scott, I have had the good fortune that my second marriage is to a woman like Linda. Stepmother to my then 8 year old son (now 15) and now mother to an irrationally awesome 7 year old girl. You are so right – some are Just. Born. Wonderful.

  21. Namcy says:

    I’m dating a divorced man that will lead to me being a stepmom to three girls – 4, 8 and 8. The major difference from your story is that their biological mother will remain very close with him and they will do family holidays and events together as much as possible. It makes me scared of being compared and potentially hated. Your story gave me hope that as long as I just show kind and loving gestures, (and plenty of cookies) – things could turn out ok. Thank you, Scott!

  22. Dimo says:

    Thanks for making me fell less of an oddball.

  23. JP says:

    Pretty damn human for an academic…

  24. Jeff says:

    wow

  25. Rohit says:

    Clearly, Linda succeeded in her evil plans of making you compassionate and mindful so that you stop once in a while to appreciate good around yourself. I cannot tell you how much I admire you Scott. I hope to meet you soon. Lots of love from India. In advance, Happy Thanksgiving!

  26. Dhiraj Hundlani says:

    Compassion in our childhood is what leaves a lasting impact and that reduces the chances of going on the wrong path in future because then you are emotionally secure and do not stray towards momentary pleasures. Great article!

  27. Dan says:

    Good for you, Scott.

  28. Dave Fulton says:

    I’d add, “how about being irrationally passionate about the wellbeing and compassion for all our neighbors, all ages, all colors, everyone.“ P.s. best wishes on the Thryv ipo. As a former DexMedia guy, hope it goes well for Joe and friends I still have at Thryv. P.p.s. Would love to see you back on CNBC.

  29. Susanne says:

    Sitting in Sydney crying at your post- so beautiful because of its essential truth. This week we saw our beautiful 17 year old son who dreams of doing law at Harvard have a psychotic episode after battling depression and insomnia and trying to sit final exams and I struggle at times not to wallow in the unfairness of life. Most of the time regardless I am irrationally optimistic and grateful for the whole shape of it- the beautiful and the ugly. Stay grateful and thank you ‘Long time listener first time poster ‘

  30. ZL says:

    Thanks for reminding us all thats it’s not always doomsday in the world. Loved it.

  31. Tomas says:

    Just loved it, short n sweet packed with humanity. Loved it 👍

  32. Joe says:

    I picked up a ready made family too and told them I was the evil step dad. We argued over that endlessly. Great fun. When they’d had enough TV, I told the kids they had to stop or their eyes would fuse together into a one big square eye in the center of their foreheads. Years later, I heard my daughter, then a teacher running the post school/wait for the parents program, say the exact same thing. So MANY stories….

  33. SFGale says:

    Thank you for once again returning us to ground.

  34. LOLITA M GOLDRING says:

    And to my husband for sending me this and always sending me your posts! ❤️❤️❤️💖💖💖❤️❤️❤️ I am signed up now!!👍😊

  35. Lolita says:

    ❤️❤️❤️Thank you!!

  36. Christopher says:

    Warmed my heart. Ours was a Spitfire, Ca. 1966. We never did get it to fly. 🙂

  37. r says:

    This is your best Post ever. My SM was a twat.

  38. Valerie Cash says:

    No one knows what goes on behind closed doors and divorce is traumatic, no matter what the reason. Your story just proves how acts of kindness can mold and shape a person’s life. Thank you for the reminder.

  39. california says:

    I find myself hurting for your mom. The “overlap” was likely crushing, as was the realization that she’d have to share her kid with an outsider. Yes, one hopes that parents can rise above this type of hurt and accept new spouses with open arms, but not everyone gets to that point; and for women of that era, who may have tied their identity to motherhood, it was likely especially difficult. It’s great that Linda was wonderful, but she likely got an evolved/kinder version of your dad…and she wasn’t worn down from years of tiring child rearing. Linda could enjoy you, as is, a bubbly 8 year old…while your mom, worn down and cheated on, was left to slap on a happy face and pick up the pieces. I’m sure your mom had her faults, and yes — ouch — she should not have been calling Linda names, but again, her pain was probably deep.

  40. Lisa says:

    As I enter divorce after decades, I needed this! You are inspiring!

  41. Cindy Carvalho says:

    Well, I wasn’t expecting that one… especially since I am an “evil stephmother”. I have child of my own, and remarried a man who had two of his own. Yes, we are a #modernfamily. The way I see it, if you love your significant other, there is room to love his/her children as well. Don’t get me wrong: it hasn’t always been easy, especially with a 13-year old stepdaughter going on 18! But we’ve managed to connect and get closer thanks to those difficult moments. Showing your stepchild love isn’t about buying them the latest gadget or letting them do what they want all the time, it’s about cooking their favorite meal, listening to the school gossip, teaching them about 90s hip hop, all while setting boundaries. In essence, it’s about showing them that even if they aren’t your biological child, you treat them as if they were. 🙂

  42. Lawrence Husick says:

    A corollary to the caring about kids stuff is this: humans are the only animals that willingly teach the young of other humans in addition to their own. We call these amazing people “teachers” and in most cultures (but maddeningly, not in the US) we accord them high status and compensate them well. It is fitting, because having teachers is what allows society to advance. If you had to learn everything by direct experience, you’d be a hunter-gatherer (and a poor one, at that). With teachers imparting knowledge accumulated over thousands of generations, you get to be an astronaut, a dermatologist, a bricklayer…or a teacher!

    • Christopher Henson says:

      “…If you had to learn everything by direct experience, you’d be a hunter-gatherer (and a poor one, at that).” Brilliant! Best post and made me smile.

  43. UshnikM says:

    This post is so heartwarming. Thank you for sharing this. 🙂

  44. Randy says:

    Many younger people who would follow Scott probably cannot imagine that white people actually suffered in life. His story might as well be about an alien invasion of Earth. The media narrative doesn’t account for poor white kids having to work hard within a fractured family structure, and succeed. I remember being at a famous tech company a few years ago, and being asked at a group dinner, ‘so, where did YOU party in college at spring break?’ When I responded ‘I didn’t, it was the time I could get in a 60 hours work week and save enough to make it through the school year’, their jaws dropped. Never asked about my past again. Ask the same question at Google or FB now, same people would have the same reaction. Only difference is that no one like me would be working there to ask, as I would not fit into their political/racial echo chamber.

  45. Kathy Barkulis says:

    You just made my day. A lovely tribute in a world of uncertainty. Thank you.

  46. A Awa says:

    Aww all heart. It’s a sweet story. Thanks for sharing-)

  47. Karl says:

    A great reminder of what we can be, collectively. I am the adoptive father of 6 children. Five from Russia. One from Kyrgyzstan. From 11 to 41 years in age now. Each is different, all are special. Every one has their own unique talent. THEY ARE AN INSPIRATION! Teaming with my wife, we have been able to provide them with safety and opportunity. I am confident they will make the world a better place.

  48. Tim Hill says:

    What a breath of fresh air – thank you.

  49. John says:

    I indentify with the Linda conundrum. My father married a Lynn (wonderful lady) and a Linda (not the wonderful). Neither were my mother and that’s another story. I also have a story about my desire for a gas-powered model plane, not a P51, but a P40–which my dad and uncles spent the day I should have had with my brother, trying to fly that airplane…unsuccessfully. It eventually ended either way, it wasn’t ever again to fly. So, while I was a little older when I first met my future step Mother, Lynn, it was still long before I understood infidelity. I just thought she was a nice lady that showed up at restaurants, Christmas and birthdays.

  50. Randy says:

    I have several friends with similar stories. The only positive force in their young lives were step-moms or dads. Selfish or self-centered bio-parents. For many, working hard to love – be loved is better than being handed it by nature.

  51. Jared says:

    Well that made me a little teary. Beautiful thought.

  52. Grace says:

    My husband was “adopted” by his neighbors on Long Island in the 1970s. He was a bi-racial child, born 2 years after mixed race marriages became legal in New a York. His mother was 18 and his father was largely absent when he wasn’t abusing his mother. The neighbors (especially the Dad-Tom) took this my husband with them everywhere. They showed him what a family was and loved him like their own. Tom passed away last month. At a pandemic friendly funeral, conducted on Zoom, we heard from so many others that Tom impacted just the same. I would like to think that my children, born in Boulder Colorado, continue to be touched by the love their father received. Tom loved my husband. He was the light in the darkness for an otherwise lost and broken child. Be like Tom.

  53. Kathleen Hetrick says:

    As professionals (im in sustainability engineering), we can do so much more to enrich the lives and jump start the futures of young people that we aren’t related to. We need to create a new movement where professionals of all stripes are invested in education equity and using virtual mentoring, job shadowing, paid high school virtual internships and enrichment opportunities tied to the classroom to create the 21st century education we need to fight our biggest problems (climate change, inequality, tech monopolies etc.). We are doing in this successfully in building engineering with LA Promise Fund, LAUSD, University of Texas and other institutions. I think thats a great tie in to previous higher education posts on here.

  54. Michael Wardner says:

    Thanks. That was nice.

  55. flip says:

    Got bless Linda and well said. Thank you.

  56. RFK says:

    opposable thumbs Wanting Sumptuous Heavens BY ROBERT BLY No one grumbles among the oyster clans, And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer. Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want Heaven to be, and God to come, again. There is no end to our grumbling; we want Comfortable earth and sumptuous Heaven. But the heron standing on one leg in the bog Drinks his dark rum all day, and is content.

  57. RD says:

    I adopted my first daughter 15 years ago and am a lucky grandfather and step-dad to three more, ages 15 (going on 25 and yes, a girl) with the boys 17 and 20. Each of them require a unique combination of interactive skills and personal understanding. No two are alike. While there are certainly less-than-perfect moments, I try and do my best. What I’ve learned through the steps-dad years is that loving unconditionally and being present is sometimes all I can do. And I am grateful for that.

  58. HeatherC says:

    Thanks for renewing my spirit as a not-so-evil stepmom myself.

  59. Sukh says:

    I came to laugh, not to cry! Loved it. Thank you for sharing.

  60. David Stahl says:

    Time then to make some Buckeyes for Linda.

  61. Njonjo Ndehi says:

    Who wouldn’t wonna adopt Prof?

  62. Susan says:

    I’m verklempt! Great post. I needed that today – thank you.

  63. michaelm says:

    Touching story Scott. thx for sharing, helpful medicine in this time of 24×7 Trump, trauma and titillation.

  64. Matt says:

    Great post – the personal is so much better than the political. I take back all my bad comments about you.

  65. Fernando Arocena says:

    Beautiful, heart touching

  66. Bob says:

    Oh yeah, been there done that and got arrested for L&L on a minor, spent $125k to defend myself against fantastical stories/lies of a 9 year old in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. I wanted to make a difference and volunteered. Went on a few outings with my “little” and then we went to a major league ball game where the boys had the “time of their lives.” Then we went to a minor league game and during some roughhousing I pinched the other little on the butt. Playful but I knew it was wrong. I called BBBS who illegally recorded me and the kids mom went to the police claiming all kinds of outrageous behavior by me, all lies. Turned over the illegal recording of my call where is said I pinched him to the po-po. After 3 whole hours of “investigating, the detective decided to arrest me for a life felony without parole. I bonded out and after 9 months of twisting in the wind, the truculent prosecutor (who left to work for Jefferson Beauregard Sessions) and Jabba the Hut State attorney filed a null prosse. I was never even charged but if I didn’t have that $125k to spend on lawyers, experts investigators and bail I’d be dead today. So the kids can all rot, and starve. Screw them. BBBS needs to be investigated on why they illegally record calls and roll over on their volunteers. Where is James O’Keefe for a real story. No I’m not at all bitter/

    • michaelm says:

      i’m sorry to hear your story Bob. Something pretty similar happened to me, tho i wasn’t hounded and didn’t have shell out to defend myself. I playfully called the kid I had been seeing as a ‘Special Friend’ (that was the term used by the agency) an “ass”, and thought nothing more of it but the kid told his alcoholic mother who reported it to her disfunctioning ex, who phoned the agency and … i was immediately dismissed without any attempt to hear me out or to reconcile with this family. I moved on but steered wide of that agency evermore. There is a liability we take on when we jump into such situations, i’m story you paid such a big price.

    • Bob says:

      @michaelm my mugshot on the front page of the paper with splash headline “Prominent lawyer arrested for lewd behavior on child” didn’t hurt either/

    • michaelm says:

      @Bob Ouch! That truly sucks.

  67. Barney says:

    Oooh, this was a great post. Now we’re all going to want to hear more from you on humanity vs tech.

  68. Susan Franks says:

    I want to host Linda at my house next time. Your writing is mesmerizing.

  69. Shezzashezza says:

    ‘becoming irrationally passionate about the wellbeing of a child that isn’t our own’ – that’s beautiful. I will send this to a friend who recently told me she was becoming a foster carer. I said ‘That is the best news I’ve had all year’. She said ‘I knew you would get it. I haven’t told everyone, some people just don’t’. They will, one day. I hope. My step-dad was Dad to me. My partner and my son, well, they are working it out…!

  70. Jim says:

    I choked up. So heartfelt and inspiring.

  71. Neil says:

    Great post!!!

  72. Michael says:

    So beautiful. Thank you.

  73. Sirron C says:

    He’s back at it again! 💯

  74. Mike says:

    What a good read! What a nice Linda!! Even though the Linda I know is real bitch.

  75. Jay Lerman says:

    Bravo. May be your best… post… ever. 😇

  76. Terry says:

    Thanks Scott. Beautifully said and much appreciated at a time when nice is out of vogue.

  77. Tara W Stotland says:

    I follow you closely. My husband crossed paths with you at Gartner. I am involved with the Future of Education at Cognizant. There are many reasons why I love reading your column. But, this one is just about the best I’ve read yet. I sent it to my Stepmother and said a simple “I love you”. Thanks for putting into words what I have not been able to express.

  78. Michael says:

    I do not have kids but seem to like most I come in contact with. Love your writing.

  79. Susan says:

    Wonderful post. My father’s stepfather was far better to him than his “real” dad ever was. I watched how he treated ALL of us (it was years before I learned he wasn’t my biological grandfather), and I’ve done my best to emulate him in my relationship with my own stepdaughter and her daughter. Coincidentally, my step-grandfather’s name was Charles Riley; my step-granddaughter’s name is Rylie Grace. “Riley grace,” indeed.

  80. Jeanne Jones says:

    Thank you for this. Perfect read to end the week on. It’s good to remember that behind everything is people.

  81. elford says:

    Sharing this with my son. Thank you for the privilege of encountering intellectualism at it’s best.

  82. Martian says:

    Such a uplifting sweet read for a Friday & long wkd, I can understand the strong motivations behind our responsibilities to take care of the elderly gen in this uncertain time. B/c some ppl are just born wonderful

  83. Melvin Cohen says:

    Nice to get away from tech and business on occasion and talk about humanity. What really struck a cord was the reference to Ocean Pacific shirts. Boy that seemed like eons ago. I think i was wearing them when i went on some Club Med vacations.(another fond memory-day camp for adults) The OP shirts may even be too old for thrift shops- I enjoy reading your posts thought provoking ideas and opinions.

  84. Mark Gruen says:

    Very sweet