It’s hard to imagine a storybook figure that’s as painfully miscast as the stepmother. Cinderella is at the mercy of Lady Tramaine, who commands her to spend days sweeping floors and nights sleeping by the fireplace. Snow White’s wicked queen is so jealous of her younger rival, she sends her a poisoned apple. And in Hansel and Gretel, the titular siblings are dispatched to the woods by their father’s new wife, who hopes that they starve to death so she has fewer mouths to feed.
As Leslie Jamieson points out in a thoughtful April 2016 essay in the New York Times magazine, stepmothers in culture often stand in for the “dark maternal”; constructed as the cold, unfeeling counterpoint to biological motherhood, which — in turn — is elevated as saintly and virtuous, the highest possible state that a woman can aspire to. It’s a perception that makes the real-world work of being a stepmother, along with recognition for the labour it takes to negotiate it, that much more difficult.
Marcia Watts, 43, a relationships counsellor with three biological sons and one stepson says the challenges of assuming responsibility for your new partner’s children is compounded by the lack of clear expectations around the role of the stepmother in society, as well as an absence of mainstream resources that help women navigate this terrain.
Watts, who’s written a book on the subject of blended families, tells SBS that although she thought that her professional background would emotionally equip her to become a stepmother, the reality was more complicated.
“There’s a lot of information about it in academia but very little in the mainstream,” Watts explains. “You have to learn to mother a new child and this takes a lot of energy. I think part of this is because of the lack of recognition of stepfamilies as legitimate. For example, child support agencies don’t take the income of stepfamilies into account unless approved by the biological parent.”
Then, there’s the fear of overstepping boundaries and of being drawn into competition with the biological mother — the by-product of a culture that often delights in pitting women against each other, whether at work or in the home.
“When my stepchild wanted to be close to me, there’s a conflict because at first, I didn’t want to disrespect their mother,” she says. “But my colleagues tell me it’s like having two separate bank accounts; they are two completely separate relationships. It’s really okay.”
Alex Reale, 34, first became a stepmother as a 21-year-old and says that her experience has been shaped by the fact that she came into her stepdaughter’s life when she was young.
“She’s always been a great kid and because I was only 21, I was still the age where it was fun to have a little kid to play with,” says Reale, who has since had three biological children. “Instead of someone who was trying to replace her mother, I was more of a friend.”
According to Stepfamilies Australia, one in five families is a stepfamily. But Reale says that we often don’t recognise the effort that’s related to being a stepmother and that there’s space to value these efforts more.
“When you have 50-50 custody, you’re the one reading the bedtime stories, organising the play dates and birthday parties, thinking about vaccinations and dentist appointments,” she says. “All that sort of stuff came so early for me and takes so much energy.”
For Sarah Ade, a 35-year-old finance director who identifies as British-born West African, this is exacerbated by silent maternal pressure and the expectation that parenting decisions will be both compared to those made by the biological mother and held up to an ideal that’s impossible to meet.
“I hate the phrase stepmum, I think it has so many negative connotations — there are no negative connotations around ‘stepdad’,” she laughs. “My partner and I have been together for five years and his kids are 12 and 14, they’re already fully-formed. I think when your stepchildren are younger, there’s more of need, even if it’s just a practical one. I’ve always felt like from the get-go, I’ve had to prove myself.”
“I hate the phrase stepmum, I think it has so many negative connotations — there are no negative connotations around ‘stepdad’.”
But just as there’s no single defining experience of motherhood, the challenges and rewards of being a stepmother are a world away from the dangerous tropes peddled by fairytales and anything but one-size-fits-all.
“I feel lucky that there was so much of my stepdaughter’s life that I was able to shape and that I can be proud of the adult she’s turned out to be,” smiles Reale. “Because we all watch Disney cartoons, I’ve been able to joke about whether or not she sees me this way. She never has. Unless she’s not game enough to tell me.”
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This story is part of a two-part SBS Life series discussing alternative female parenting roles, and follows on from 'Otherhood: In praise of the aunty'.