Why is it that the words “wicked” and “stepparent” so often go together? Certainly back in the days when the Brothers Grimm were gathering their tales, divorce rates were nothing like they are today, and thus the “step-parent” was a less common occurrence.
Nevertheless, in fairytales we rarely encounter kind stepparents. Cinderella is plagued by the unfair step-mom who devalues her by making her clean the ashes while her biological daughters get to go to the ball. Hansel and Gretel are abandoned to die in the forest by their cold-hearted stepmother, aided and abetted by a spineless father who does nothing to prevent it. Snow White’s “mirror mirror” wicked-queen stepmother tries overtly to kill her.
In psychological terms, a very young child “splits” his or her parents into “good” and “bad” aspects, and one of the key tasks of development is the integration of the good and bad mother or father into a single being with both good and bad elements. A person who cannot heal this split within themselves may be prone to dramatic mood swings from loving someone to turning on a dime and hating them. Such figures are deeply wounded, volatile and unpredictable—and whether “step” or biological parent, they are a paradigm of the seemingly “wicked” caregiver.
In fairytales, the “stepmother” (or more rarely stepfather) is really code for the “bad mommy,” the one who comes out unexpectedly, is impatient and cruel. Thus the enduring power and popularity of “Hansel and Gretel” comes from children relating to the feeling of being abandoned by the “bad mother” (dubbed the step-mother). No sooner are they ditched by the abandoning mother figure than they meet the witch—a devouring mother figure (one who will eat them up, she “loves” them so).
In fact, by pushing the witch into the oven, this is code for turning her into food, implying that kids must both dispel the bad mother, but also unconsciously eat her, or psychologically integrate her, in order to come to terms with the bad as well as the good in both parents and in one’s own self.
A more overt example of this eating to incorporate the “bad” dynamic can be found in “The Three Little Pigs,” where as soon as the mother pig tells the babies to hit the road, the big bad wolf appears (a de-facto devouring, or “bad” mother figure in disguise). The pigs must do more than build a brick house (symbol of a solid self); they must also trap, cook and eat the wolf before they can live happily ever after.
In terms of real parenting, I have known many engaged, loving, kind and excellent stepparents. Yet the stepparent role is a highly loaded one, partly owing to fairytales, and partly to the natural rivalries that would favor a biological child over a non-biological child until the deep bonds that come from living, loving and care-giving have time to form—after which a stepchild often becomes truly one’s child. A child may also resent a biological parent who as withdrawn from the picture (i.e. if he or she has substance issues, mental illness that renders them unpredictable, etc.) and at the same time feel a guilty loyalty toward that parent, creating painful dynamics where a child goes repeatedly to the biological parent, only to be hurt once again—and then works through the mess with the stable stepparent (who finds themselves in the often thankless role of mopping up the damage).
Many tricky dynamics are at play in stepparenting situations: firstly there is the guilt that the biological parent may have about their children in introducing a stepparent into the picture. If a parent has died, a child will resent any attempt to replace the original parent, and his or her anger, sorrow and possible unconscious guilt must be worked through over time to form a healthy bond. There is also the issue of children not wanting to share the biological parent with any interloper, no matter how nice; thus the stepparent may initially encounter a lot of rejection and hostility from would-be stepchildren. Children grow up marinating in fairytales of all stripes and colors, so they too are prejudiced to project the hostile and the wicked onto any potential stepparent figure.
A key element that can help in stepparent situations is for the non-step parent, if still in the picture, to clearly demonstrate to the child that he or she still comes first, and that they will be protected and taken good care of. The stepparent needs to tread the line between respecting that he or she is not the parent proper, while also taking a sincere interest and working to build a bond of trust and love based on getting to know the child and his or her specific interests, feelings, etc. A willingness to receive hostility and emotional pain and not retaliate or dish it right back at a child is also an act of love that can prove the foundation for a truly profound relationship later on, provided one can weather the storm.
While a few bad apple stepparents may have spoiled the very name “stepparent” and forced it into an unfair alliance with “wicked,” it is important to truly listen to our children when they voice concerns about inappropriate behavior (be it coming from a biological parent, a stepparent, a babysitter or an uncle). Some of the deepest wounds in my adult clients stem from children having told parents that abuse was occurring and a parent minimizing or denying this (perhaps out of fear of being alone, or due to economic dependence issues); taking reports of abuse seriously and then protecting kids and ensuring that it not happen again goes a long way toward helping kids heal and bounce back from adversity. Turning a blind eye often does as much, if not more, damage as the abuse itself.
While stepparent can be a very tough role, if you find yourself in it and you can somehow find the motivation, heart, patience and courage to get it right you do a great service for the child in your care, and for our collective world. So, let’s dedicate today to sending a wish of love, a thick skin and plenty of endurance in support of stepparents so that they will not succumb to the “wicked” stereotype they are saddled with from the get-go and rise to the privilege of parenting—and let’s do this in honor of all our collective children.
p.s. for a lovely article by Christina Odone in the Guardian about being a stepchild, and later a stepparent and finding the beauty in it see: http://tiny.cc/B9Etd