“Our husbands, often either oblivious to our travails or critical of how we handle them, seem to live for, to relish, these small increments of time with their children—the very increments we sometimes find ourselves dreading.” Thus speaks Wednesday Martin, author of this fascinating treatment of a subject older than the hills: the wicked stepmother. Why the role has garnered negative press from fairytales to modern movie fare is not such a mystery. It’s tough to be the stepmom, and help is not always forthcoming to make the job easier. In fact, Martin presents us with facts so daunting, embroidered with some occasionally very discouraging real-life examples, that it’s a wonder anyone ever attempts what she refers to as “remarriage” when there are kids involved.
A woman caught between two families, unaware of histories and blithely believing that love for the new spouse will conquer all, may instead find herself “obliged to prove she is not, in fact, wicked,” and in the process “she may have difficulty asserting her basic right to be and feel.”
From the beginning of such a relationship, if the husband has kids and the wife is expected to take any place in their lives, she is suspect. His family will judge her – why don’t the kids want to come to the birthday party? It must be HER fault. Why are the kids behaving so badly since the first marriage broke up? It must be HER fault. Her family can also be judgmental and unhelpful. Why does SHE expect the rest of her family to be supportive of HER problems? Why is SHE trying to love his kids as much as she loves her own flesh and blood? Why hasn’t SHE turned the whole crew into a glorified Brady Bunch? What’s wrong with HER?
Some of the problem obviously lies with Dad, who has stresses of his own. He has to support a new wife and often maintain large financial and emotional responsibility for the one he left behind (though statistically, men fare far better after divorce than women). Emotionally clumsy, because male, he may think that throwing money at the problem will solve it, or that he can patch things together by doing the kinds of things he’s always done with the kids. Certainly he wants all of his time spent with his kids to be quality time, and anything his new wife tries to do that gets in the way of that will be seen as unfair and selfish. This can amount to emotional abuse of the stepmother, who will often defer to his wishes in hopes of improving the situation over the long run. The children, especially older ones with resentments of their own, may gleefully foster the sense that it’s HER interventions that are making things worse. And of course, the ex-wife will enjoy throwing blame on the interloper. “It is crucial,” the author states, “for remarrieds to start and maintain rituals and traditions of their own, leaving the door open for the children to join them and sending a message that both their marriage and their invitation are real…this imperative to nurture and protect a remarriage…outweighs the obligation many divorced fathers feel to repeat the rites of a past that no longer exists for the sake of their offspring.”
As a successful stepmother, I was surprised to read about how often the stepmother relationship fails and causes no small amount of heartache. I have always known that the stereotype (the Cinderella story’s dark side) exists but assumed it was overblown. Not so. For the most natural of reasons – feelings of jealousy, abandonment, resentment, desperation – new marriages may collapse through the failure of step-parenting. Though a stepmother need not be “wicked,” Martin observes, “It does pay for a woman with stepchildren to be canny, to observe, and to be strategic in her dealings with her husband and his kids.”