When asked what I would like to be when I grew up, I can’t say I actually aspired to being a divorcée, however glamorous it sounded, or, for that matter, a wicked stepmother. I don’t know about you, but it’s not exactly every girl’s childhood fantasy, and besides, I was brought up to believe that divorce was nearly always attributable to loose women, menopausal men and the ensuing infidelity all this engenders, whilst stepmothers were, quite simply, an abomination.
I knew this for a fact; after all, I had seen pictures of them in storybooks: horrid, fascinating illustrations of the beautiful but vain queen in Snow White, the hideous old crone with hooked nose and rotting teeth in Hansel and Gretel or the haughty, avaricious, malevolent stepmother in Cinderella. Needless to say, in my daydreams I was always the one riding off into the sunset with Prince Charming, and believe me, he wasn’t a divorced dad with weekend visitation rights and a vile ex-wife.
Infidelity, divorce and stepmothers; infidelity, divorce and stepmothers...it was like some obsessional mantra of my childhood. Against this background, never did I in my wildest dreams imagine I would find myself accomplishing, well, at least the latter two.
And so on a beautiful balmy night as the celebrant declared us husband and wife, like many other women before me, I made the transition from divorcée to wife and wicked stepmother and in the twinkling of an eye became a member of that internationally recognised sorority – ‘women who marry men with children’.
As I, in turn, assumed this mantle of stepmother, I became intrigued by the origins of the species. Was her evil reputation, steeped as it is in folklore and tradition, really warranted? I needed to discover for myself whether I was facing mere prejudice or whether I had truly begun a long, slow descent to the dark side.
For centuries, the stepmother has been portrayed in literature as a notoriously evil and cruel protagonist. In Persian, Greek and Roman myths, Russian folklore and Germanic legends, dating as far back as the 5th Century, the stepmother is invariably depicted as the villainess, plotting evil against her stepchild or stepchildren and in reprisal meeting a gruesome death.
In most tales, the stepmother is resentful of her stepchild for many different, if not understandable, reasons: inheritance, jealousy and intrafamilial romantic triangles. She may be worried that the inheritance will go to the other woman’s child; she may be jealous of the stepdaughter’s beauty or of the time a father devotes to the child instead of to her; she may even be humiliated because a stepson has spurned her amorous advances.
It was in Germany, however, that the art of the fairytale reached its peak, in the 19th century Children’s and Household Fairytales collected by the brothers Grimm. In German households it’s second in sales only to the Bible. Millions across the globe have grown up avidly listening to the enchanting, sometimes terrifying tales of Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Snow White.
My parents read them to me and I in turn read them to my children. What is not commonly known is that in the earliest known version of Snow White, dated 1810, the handsome queen is actually Snow White’s real mother who, dismayed by her daughter’s ever-increasing beauty, is driven by intense jealousy and sexual rivalry to get rid of her. Minor changes were made to each subsequent edition until 1857, by which time the wicked aspects of the natural mother had been transformed into a malevolent stepmother.
I don’t know about you, but I can certainly remember standing in front of the mirror, rehearsing those immortal lines:
“Oh, mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is the fairest of us all?”
“Thou wert the fairest, Lady Queen;
Snow-White is fairest now, I ween.”
Similarly, in the 1810 text of Hansel and Gretel, not only is the woodcutter’s wife identified unambiguously as the ‘mother’, but both parents cooperate in their attempts to abandon the children.
By the fifth edition (1843), the metamorphosis into an evil stepmother fairytale is complete. So why the changes to these tales? It’s not so difficult to imagine that the Grimm brothers were uncomfortable with the idea of parents harming their children, and in order to make these stories more digestible for their audience, they slowly removed this offensive notion by substituting a stepmother for the natural mother and softening the depictions of the father.
Let’s face it; the notion is certainly deeply repugnant and incomprehensible, but it does strike me a little unfair that the woman, not the man, was chosen to carry the burden of wrongdoing.
But you need not just look to the past: interpretations of these tales thrive in popular culture – from the 2002 movie of Hansel and Gretel, starring Lynn Redgrave as the witch, Tom Arnold as the bumbling bogeyman, and Delta Burke as the wicked stepmother.
Better yet was the 2005 production of Cinderella by the Latvian National Opera in Riga, forced to close down for depicting Cinderella as a cleaner in a bordello, the ugly sisters as prostitutes and the evil stepmother as the madam. The descendants of the Russian composer were ‘seriously annoyed’ said a spokesperson for the Sergei Prokofiev Foundation.
But my all-time personal favourite is Cinderalla (2002) by Junko Mizuno. In this psychedelic book, dad and the stepsisters have been transformed into zombies, the family runs a yakitori restaurant, and the prince is so sick he’s on a permanent IV support system! As my stepson would say, “That’s intense!”
These myths may appear innocuous enough but they do serve to reinforce the negative stereotype of the stepmother. With stepfamilies predicted as the family of the 21st century, the notion of the biological family unit is changing. Today’s families are rarely the tidy, homogenous nuclear models many of us knew when we were growing up or at least saw idealised by TV shows like The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie.
Mum, Dad and their genetic offspring remain the dominant structure, but in suburban streetscapes there are same-sex parents, single parents, de facto partners, step-parents, step-siblings and half-siblings involved in the mix, as well as an intriguing assortment of races, cultures and religions.
We use terms such as ‘blended’ and ‘combined’ to describe families struggling to merge customs, habits and parenting styles. Even schools are finding it difficult to define what constitutes a family, as evidenced when my stepson came home with a class exercise involving a crumpled and smudged family tree that depicted three sets of grandparents, three parents, and an assortment of biological and non-biological uncles, aunts, cousins and half-siblings. We had trouble deciphering the intersecting lines, but he got a gold star for effort.
Despite the cosy, caring lives of the Brady Bunch, reality is a little more complex. A 2003 Family Characteristics Survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that step and blended families make up 7% of all families with dependent children, and that nearly one in four children live apart from one of their natural parents.
These children may live in, as in our case, visit regularly, rarely, or not at all. 23% of all children between the ages of 0 and 17 have a natural parent living elsewhere. Of these, 50% see their other parent frequently, while a staggering 31% of children have no contact with their non-resident parent or see them less than once a year. This means approximately 283,000 children at the time of writing had no or very little direct contact with one of their parents. It’s disheartening to think that my stepson is one of these statistics. Despite all this, a step-parent’s role remains socially and legally undefined.
Parenting is a formidable task at the best of times, but step-parenting is in a realm of its own. Not only are you, in a primordial sense, nurturing genes that are not your own, but it’s a practice full of unwritten conventions and obscure rules. It’s exceptionally challenging, and can be even more difficult than being a biological parent. We may have become an instant family, but the transition to stepmother or stepchild does not automatically mean love or even affection for each other.
It takes time to define your roles and responsibilities, to develop a relationship with the child, and to build trust on both sides. And I should know – I’ve made the grade.
Six years ago, I set out on a journey in pursuit of love and, with a little luck, a happy ending. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was unsuspecting, ill-equipped and unqualified. What’s that term Americans use? Greenhorn – that was me.
Be that as it may, within the space of twelve months I became a full-time stepmum to a child who resides with us permanently and has little or no contact with his biological mother.
I did not have nine months to prepare for the birth of this child, nor motherhood. I inherited a ready-made model without instructions, and our early years were characterised by misconceptions, unrealistic expectations and absurdities.
The complexity of dealing with someone else’s child day after day, coupled with my anger and frustration at the absent mother, has at times been overwhelming, and at the time, I found that few resources existed to provide support or strategies to help deal with the merger of families. There was no one-stop step-shop – at least, not that I was aware of – but I did find books offering practical tips on how a stepmother can find fulfilment, even pleasure in her role. By and large these are down-to-earth guides to surviving the much-misunderstood role of the step-parent, but they all assume an active, if unwelcome, working relationship with the biological mother and some level of shared care. In my case there was neither, and I didn’t want to be told what to do. I wanted to read an account that was brutally honest – a warts-and-all tale – if only to be reassured that the trials and tribulations of this role were not mine alone.
So here it is. Sometimes whingeing, often embarrassing and occasionally downright bitchy, this is the real story!
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem