by Erin Careless & Kristen Skiles
The Wicked Stepmother
What image comes to mind when you hear the word stepmother? Is it the cruel glare of a woman yelling at a beautiful Cinderella to mop the floors? The harsh, unloving woman who leads her stepchildren, Hansel and Gretel, to their almost certain death? This narrative, this story of the Wicked Stepmother is alive and well in society today, despite the fact that stepmoms are everywhere! And most of them are totally awesome people (ahem!).
From fairy tales to modern movies, online groups to the school playground, stepmoms are often vilified as being “the other woman”, or the woman trying to take the place of the mom. But in most cases, stepmoms are just women who have met and fallen in love with a man who has children from a previous relationship. She doesn’t have ulterior motives or evil intentions, she’s just in love and trying to figure out how to do this whole stepmom-thing the best she can.
This notion of the Wicked Stepmother often silences stepmoms who want to seek help or support, because they are afraid of fulfilling the stereotype when they voice their frustrations. Therefore, it is incredibly important that we challenge this story, and re-write it in a way that acknowledges the complexities of stepfamily life, while supporting the women who are living this narrative every day.
Challenges of the Mom-Stepmom Dynamic and the Assumption of Dislike
Beyond the societal perspective, there’s a completely different challenge stepmoms face daily. The child’s mom. There is an illogical societal stigma that Mom and Stepmom must dislike each other – that they’re not on the same team, simply because they loved the same man at different times. How archaic is that?
There are definitely times when the dislike is warranted and has been earned, but to begin a relationship with skepticism and disrespect simply doesn’t make any sense. Oftentimes the women are afraid of each other, or jealous of each other, or simply uncomfortable. But what we struggle to see is that the other mom is just as uncomfortable as we are. You might be struggling with being a second wife or with the stepmom role generally, but she’s also struggling with sharing her child. Mothers are fiercely territorial, and she is trying to protect her children; it’s not personal.
Re-Writing the Story for Stepmoms and Moms
Just as you didn’t grow up dreaming of one day becoming a stepmom and raising someone else’s children, the Mom didn’t get married and have kids with the intent of getting divorced and sharing custody with her ex and a stranger (you). Sometimes when we act negatively, it is out of fear. While there is no excuse for truly bad behavior on the part of the other woman, practicing a little empathy can go a long way. Even if you don’t engage with her at all, you can still practice peace when you think about and hear about her.
For stepmoms, try to see the mom as a woman who is going through the emotions of a failed relationship and sharing custody of her kids. For moms, try to see the stepmom as a woman who is coming into these new family dynamics, unsure of her role and responsibilities. The more we can be open and accepting of one another, and cut each other some slack, the more chance we have of actually being able to get along (or at least not dislike one another!). Church notes that “the stepmother-ex-wife relationship often seems fated to be adversarial” (p. 76). But this dynamic is completely within our control. If we choose empathy instead of mistrust and competition, there can be a great deal more harmony for stepfamilies.
Moving Forward Toward a Positive Relationship
Sounds a bit idealistic, doesn’t it? I get it; I was in your shoes just a year and a half ago. But today, I’m in a healthy co-parenting relationship that includes trust and communication and always puts the child’s best interests first.
I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s necessary to accept the other mother figure in your child’s life and to move forward. Communicate early and openly if you’re offended by something the other mother has done to or said about you. Express concern if you sense tension or resentment. Work together on the same team. You’re not competing; you are different sides of the same coin. You each have a place in this child’s life, and your roles are not the same but are complimentary.
My relationship with my stepdaughter’s mom started rocky, to put it nicely. We didn’t communicate, and I was grossly jealous of her. I had deep insecurities about being a second wife, I winced any time my stepdaughter discussed her mom or anything that happened at her house, and I judged her for all of the things she did wrong in my eyes. One day I sat down and really confronted those feelings and came to the realization that I didn’t need to hate her. I didn’t need to compete. My husband wanted me, my stepdaughter needed me in her life, and I was a completely different person in each of their lives than Mom had ever been or could ever be.
Today, Mom and I work together to parent. We discuss the struggles our daughter faces, and we are on the same page about parenting and discipline. All four of our daughter’s parents work together to raise the best person possible, and we work hard to ensure that though she’s a product of divorce, she’ll never feel different or disadvantaged by her parents’ breakup.
What will you choose for your child? Resentment and tension or peace and cooperation?
How We Can Help
Changing your relationship with the Mom doesn’t have to require her involvement at all. While it may be ideal for you to come together and co-parent in a peaceful, supportive way (and this is what we would like to see for ALL stepfamilies!), if this is not possible in your situation, you can STILL change things.
As we move into February, a month when we often think of love and relationships, we encourage you to extend some of that love in the Mom’s direction. Complete the form below to grab your FREE month of love challenge calendar, filled with an idea every day to help you gain new perspective and improve your co-parenting relationship with the Mom. Every small step we take towards peace and understanding, is a step toward peace for our family, and ourselves.
With LOTS of love,
Erin and Kristen
About Erin: I’m a Navy wife, Mom to baby girl Grace, and stepmom to two awesome kids. I am the Director of Education and the Ambassador Program for Social Stepmom, and helping stepmoms is my passion! I researched the stepmothering experience for my PhD, and I blog at steplife.ca. Check out my courses and articles through Social Stepmom on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Erin offers a three-tier interactive program, “Ex”pectations: Second Wife, Happy Life?. This research-based program helps stepmoms to understand the dynamics between her the Mom, and to work towards change – whether she does it alone or with her co-parenting counterpart. Check it out on Social Stepmom! www.socialstepmom.com