Thursday, May 23, 2024

Why is the step mother always wicked?

Some people say “art imitates life,” and others say, “Life imitates art.” In my opinion, art imitates life: that which we see in varying forms of art is inspired by real life images, people, places and thoughts.

That being the case, the fairytale stories of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel, to name just a few, render some truth in real life.

The real life story which is a common theme in the aforementioned fairytales is not the damsel put into a deep slumber by a poisoned half green and red apple, nor the pumpkin which turns into a carriage, or boy who tracks his way home through the murky woods with pebbles he had left behind as a guide. The common thread in these fairytales and real life is the evil or wicked step-mother.
If my belief is true, that art imitates life, could it really be that the archetypal evil step mother is the only step mother who exists in reality, so much so that she has inspired more than 900 stories written about evil step mothers?

If an evil step mother did not exist, how then could she be the antagonist of so many a story written all over the world? All (or most) of us, who exist in a world where stereotypes are known not to be the norm, wonder how and why this image is so prominent in fiction stories.
One has to wonder how long this stereotype has been accepted universally and where its origins can be traced to.
Patricia Watson’s book, titled Ancient Stepmothers Myth, Misogyny and Reality, enlightens the readers’ curiosity about just how long the wicked step mother has existed: “the ancient Greeks and Romans thought ill will from a stepmother to her stepchildren was a normal consequence of the relationship. They used several references to distinguish mother versus stepmother. If you were expecting a lucky, or good day, it would be considered a ‘mother day.’ However, if you were having a bad day, it might be considered a ‘stepmother day.’ Men from the native country were from the ‘mother country’ while immigrants were living in a ‘stepmother country’.

The author also explains that during the time when Hansel and Gretel was written, the peasant class in Europe was going through a great famine. Apparently, many families, unable to feed their children, attempted to dispose of them. People found it much easier to accept that a stepmother would permit this, rather than blaming an actual mother.

According to Watson, “the word step comes from the Old English word stoep.

It is defined as related by marriage rather than blood. Step is also associated with bereavement or loss, and in reference to stepmothers takes on several different meanings: such as one step removed, second best, or stepping in someone else’s shoes.”

My argument states that with the way the world is changing and family values and structures shifting, it is no longer realistic or even fair to group all step mothers under the same unfortunate umbrella of evil.

With today’s ever changing family structures, the occurrence of ‘step families’ or ‘blended families’ as they are now called, is very common. According to an article which appeared in Marriage and Family Living Magazine written by Dr Joan D Atwood, “The problem is increasing. As reported by the Tribunal, Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, in 1988, the number of marriages (in the U.S) annulled nationally was 65,262. No statistical data are kept as to the number of marriages that end with the death of a spouse.

Following a divorce, it is estimated that 79% of the divorced men and 75% of the divorced women remarry. Sixty percent of these remarriages involve children.”

More recent statistics taken from show that in the United States alone, by 2010, “ blended families/step-families were the most common form of family in America, 2,100 new blended families are formed every day in America and over 65% of Americans are now a stepparent, a stepchild, a stepsibling, step-grandparent or touched directly by a stepfamily scenario.”
Botswana is no exception to the trend as evidenced by the increasing divorce rate.

An article by Kabelo Seitshiro, titled ‘Botswana hit by high divorce rate’ in 2010 and published in Sunday Standard (05-11-2010) says : “The Northern and Southern High Courts have already registered 986 divorce cases this year.?Information from the Lobatse High Court, Civil 2 Registry Matrimonial cases reveals 679 registered cases from January to October 2010. The most affected age group is that from the mid-thirties to 40.” Moreover, “The Central Statistics Office census indicates that women form the overwhelming majority of the divorced ÔÇô 86 percent compared to 14 percent of all men. The analysis data notes that more than 50 percent of the female population over 65 years was widowed compared to only 10 percent of all males.”

These families are faced with many challenges, as Atwood explains, “Although stepfamilies are similar to natural or intact families, they have important structural and functional differences that require attention. For example, not only does the stepfamily have the same growth and developmental problems that any other family has, but they have additional problems as well which are rooted in the remarried situation. As this new family form continues to become more prevalent, it is important to become aware of the traps and pitfalls unique to this type of family. In remarried families, only some family members have a common history. Lacking a common history in which to locate one’s identity and one’s experience with one’s new spouse, it is no wonder that remarried relationships often feel arbitrary and false. People report that nothing feels quite right. Blending two families is an inherently disorganizing experience that involves a total transformation of the individuals’ world. There is a lack of a common history and therefore a lack of a common culture.”

I believe these challenges and more are what have fuelled the stereotypical image of a wicked step mother.

Fortunately, for those who seek it, there is help and hope for a brighter day as the new mom in the house can shed off the cloud of being a so-called wicked step mother, and the families can work towards unity. Help can be sought though family counselling, spiritual counselling, friends and in many cases, even self help books.

After all, the wicked step mother is only entertaining in fairytale stories and Hollywood movies.


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