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Other and child: The stepmother's dilemma
Sunday Star Times, New Zealand | Tuesday, 8 May 2007


You love him, but when it comes to his children you feel like an outsider. It's not unusual for stepmothers to experience guilt for resenting - or even not loving - their new charges. So why is admitting it the ultimate taboo, asks Megan Nicol Reed.

Bitches, witches: the lot of them. Cinderella had one. So did Snow White. And Hansel and Gretel too. Stepmothers! Pity the child who has one. She'll steal your father's affections. Not to mention his money. Jealous of your youth and beauty she'll make your life a misery. She'll take over the house. She'll move her kids into your room. Hell, she'll have you abandoned in the forest, with only a handful of breadcrumbs to find your way home. We know this to be true. The Brothers Grimm told us so.

And what of her, this nasty piece of work, how does she feel? Has anyone ever asked for her side of the story? Expected to instantly love and care for hostile children she's only related to by marriage, she cooks everyone's favourite lasagne but is left out of the family photo album. There's no Stepmother's Day. No Christmas card for "The Best Stepmum in the world". No mention of her in the 21st birthday speeches.

It's hard to put a number on exactly how many stepmothers there are in New Zealand - to date statisticians haven't asked the right questions. But the longitudinal Christchurch Child Development Study has found that at least 30 percent of children in New Zealand live in stepfamilies.

In the UK one woman has spoken out. Alex Thomas has braved vilification and dared to take on the fairytales. A little harsh of tongue but neither wicked nor evil, she has started up a website articulating her struggle with the role in which society has cast her, and voicing her lack of feelings for the stepchildren she's had foisted upon her. And through her openness she's hit on something; a deluge of stepmothers have written in, desperate to finally share their resentment, their woe.

Family therapist Jan Rodwell, who has more than 17 years' experience working with repartnered families, says among the hundreds she has dealt with, nearly all of the stepmothers find themselves relating to the role of "wicked stepmother", guilty of such unmaternal behaviours as jealousy, resentment and selfishness.

Rodwell believes the stepmother's role is usually the hardest. There is so much expectation of an instant loving relationship between stepmother and stepchildren, she says, "when it's something that could happen, but might not either.

And really, why would we expect it to?"

We gave four New Zealand stepmums the floor and asked them if, like Thomas, given the choice they'd rather their stepchildren would up and disappear. It's telling that none were prepared to use their real names.

Stella's stepson was four when she got together with his dad five years ago. And there have been times, says the 40-year-old, when she's thought she wouldn't wish her situation upon anyone. Like two years ago, when her stepson accompanied them on their honeymoon. "He was just a complete shit. We had said from the start, this is about your dad and I, it's our holiday, it's our special honeymoon, you're really lucky that you're here with us, we want you to be here, but it's not about you, this is our time. And he tried to manipulate every single minute of every hour of every day. It was just a nightmare."

Things weren't always horrible though. In fact, says Stella, it was partly her husband's relationship with his son that attracted her to him in the first place. "He adored him and it was a very endearing and loveable thing. And Jake was so warm and welcoming to me. We played together a lot and it was really good fun."

Stella and her husband now have two young sons together. Jake does week about between their house and his mother's. He and his half-brothers are very close. "I'd really miss him if he wasn't there, I really would," says Stella. "The day I know he's coming home it's like, oh yay, it'll be good to see him. And then normally, by the end of the week, I'm quite glad for him to go again."

Because Jake is with them half the time, Stella says she does take on a mothering role. Homework, tidying up - sticky areas for any parent but potential minefields when you're a step-parent. They're enjoying a good patch, but she fears the joy that once defined their relationship has been lost.

"I don't love him as much as I used to and I don't love him as much as I wish I could. And some of that is I guess because I've had my own children. You can't deny your own maternal love for a child. You can't say it's the same with someone else's child because it's not. I think you can like them, and I think you can love them, and I think you can be friends with them, but it'll never be the same."

Rodwell believes women tend to be more practised at running a household, at caring for children, so she'll often end up parenting his kids. "Much of this work is so constant that it becomes invisible and is simply taken for granted," she writes in her book Repartnered Families.

"It is important to ask ourselves whether these roles are relevant or appropriate when a woman is not the mother of the children. Taking on a pivotal role when the intimacy and knowledge that comes with a shared history has not been built seems destined to result in conflict; when the children still have two birth parents it is even more questionable."

Rodwell recommends a stepmother take on a different role to one modelled on "mother" - a role she concedes society has yet to think through or understand - thereby allowing a father to be the primary caregiver in the new household.

Sam and her husband have had a lot of counselling over their seven-year relationship. He has three children - 12, 14 and 16 - who do week on, week off at their house, and it's been important to the couple to present a "united front".

Sam, who recently had her first child, says she's never tried to be their parent; that her husband is very hands-on. Yet despite this, says the 35-year-old, sometimes she just gets fed-up with what is ultimately "a thankless task".

"Every now and then it reaches boiling point for me and I feel exhausted by it all. I do sometimes think, oh God, I wish they weren't coming. I wish these bloody teenagers would get out of my house. So much gets taken for granted. The Christmases that you organise for everybody, and you've bloody worked for days to get it all organised, and they couldn't give a stuff, the kids couldn't care less, all they want to do is to get back to their mother's house for their Christmas presents there. And you sit there and you go, you know what, I never want to see that devil's spawn ever again.

"There's a danger, I think, in blended families, that you throw things back at people; it becomes ?you and your kids'. So you do create that separation. But I think you have to acknowledge it too. I don't agree with people who try and step in and take on the parenting role when they're not the parents. And I think stepmothers feel a responsibility to do that because as women they're possibly more nurturing, or men are much better at making women feel responsible for things, especially their children. And I don't like the terms used; I think ?stepmother' has such negative connotations." Like Sam, Rodwell isn't comfortable with the prefix "step". Especially when you consider how history has demonised the stepmother.

"Stepfamilies in the past were created by death rather than separation. There was a need then for stepmothers or fathers to replace the parental functions. For instance, with no childcare available, society was not set up for a man not to have a ?mother' for his children."

Perhaps, she wonders, the stereotype of the "wicked stepmother" stems then from the idea of a new mother trying to replace the old one. Rather than thinking of it as a different relationship grown in different circumstances, it became a competition between living stepmother and dead mother. A contest for the affections of children whose care she had been lumbered with, yet there was no context for their obedience, love or loyalty. ``I am sure there were many fine families created," says Rodwell, "but did the fairy stories come from those that weren't?"

Cass, 37, has never wanted her own children. Her husband of five years has two teenagers from his first marriage. "It's taken him quite a long time to realise that I'm not a mother. So the relationship that I have with the kids, it's different. You just don't have that unconditional love that you would with your own children. When they're being little shites, you react how anybody else would react, which is hurt and pissed off? You have this life with your husband, and then every second weekend there are two other people that come into the house. But it's your home, and you have certain expectations about how you will be treated in your own home."

However, she says, most of the real problems have been caused by her husband's ex-wife, a theme common to all the stepmothers interviewed. "When you are in a relationship with someone that has children you can't separate yourself, and he can't separate himself, from his previous marriage. It's almost as if they're still married. I'm perfectly happy for the kids to be supported financially but we were actually supporting her lifestyle."

And like the other stepmothers, Cass says while she was initially happy to take on a man with kids, it was later, when she fully grasped the challenges, that she had second thoughts.

"Being a stepmum is the loneliest thing in the world. It can be very isolating because you don't get support from anyone. When things are bad your partner is, of course, being the father. And your friends who are mothers are, of course, mothers, so they can't understand how someone would not be able to cope with a small child."

Rodwell says that normally by the time a stepfamily comes to her the conflict has become so great that the relationship is on its last legs.

"Sometimes when a father has his children part-time he's not wanting to spend his time on discipline and setting boundaries, so kids can run riot. And that just drives the other partner mad - their world is turned upside down, their house is no longer their own, the kids are behaving in ways that they don't like, so they get to dislike the kids." However bad things have got, though, Rodwell is always clear about the importance of providing an emotionally safe environment for the child, that they are still entitled to their home, to their place with their parent. But there are ways a stepmother can protect herself within this.

"I encourage him to parent appropriately, and for the couple to sort out some bottom lines that make life liveable for her. Also for her to have some time out so [the father] can reconnect with the kids and she can do her own thing to replenish.

"And if he is having a cuddle with the kids on the couch, it's important that she allows this, but that sometimes he makes room for her to join them too."

As a stepdaughter herself, Angelina is all too aware of the pitfalls of stepmothering. Her husband of 18 months has three children - six, eight and 10 - and while they were just dating, she says, the kids were an occasional pleasant presence in her life.

"Whereas when he proposed to me I was sitting there with this box and ring in my hand, and I remember thinking, okay this is it, kids and ex-wife become permanent now, am I prepared for this, because I knew that becomes a decision that you can't walk away from. When you're just dating they're his children, but when we buy a home together it becomes our home and they come into our home and our life, and that's when I think it starts to make a difference."

When she was 13, Angelina moved in with her father and his new wife. Now, at the age of 37, she regularly sends her stepmother a card apologising for her behaviour. "I treated her abysmally. I was a typical teenager but I'd also been able to have a relationship with my father for quite some time where there wasn't anybody else in our life. I think it was really just about the new wife and having to share. I wasn't rude to her, but I certainly ignored her. I wouldn't do anything she said. I'd just go to my father. I think I probably just gave her no respect. But she was really loyal to Dad and she tried really hard, as best she could, with someone who didn't want to be trying."

To date she's had a fairly smooth road with her stepchildren, who come to them every third weekend. Their father does the lion's share of the parenting, and she participates where appropriate, being careful not to overstep the line with discipline or encroaching on their time with their father.

Does she worry things will change as they get older or if she has her own children? "I think it's a real practical reality, the one that says, okay how do you integrate families? But the thing I've certainly learnt is that even if it's not a loving relationship that they want to build, there is enough love for everybody. There are enough rooms in the house, there's enough love, there's enough time.

"We do some things as a family but that's almost a nice extra because I'm not their mother. I'm their daddy's wife."