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The myth of the wicked stepmother

She’s a villain as old as time – but modern families would benefit from banishing this stereotype to the realm of fairytales

Posted: 18 March 2014
by Alex Lloyd

Wicked stepmum
You don't need to bribe stepchildren to get them to accept you in their lives. (Illustration: Tiffany Lynch)

Did you hear the one about the stepmother who was so adored by her stepchildren that they cried when they had to go home? Or was beseeched by her stepchildren to read them just one more bedtime story, or to let them help her choose an outfit for an evening out with their treasured father? Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? Yet it seems the reputation of her equally far-fetched counterpart – the wicked stepmother, riddled with jealousy of her stepchildren and prone to committing vile acts upon them – remains strong.

Dr Wednesday Martin naively told herself that her story would have the true fairytale ending when she agreed to marry her partner, Joel, who had two daughters, Alexandra and Katherine, then aged 15 and 11. “I had my head placed firmly in the sand,” she says. “I wanted this thing to work and I was going to ignore everything in order to make that happen. When friends warned me of the potential pitfalls or I came across a negative article, I just ignored it. I was nice, I was fun. Step-hell was for stepmonsters and I wasn’t going there.”

The reality was somewhat different. It took years of trial and error to find some kind of balance and, even then, a supposedly joyous event such as shopping for a wedding dress or the birth of her two sons, Eliott and Lyle, could turn up the heat on the family melting pot and send emotions bubbling over. “The truth is no one wants a stepmother and no one wants to be one either,” says Wednesday. “But there are ways to make it work.”

Wednesday’s first action was to turn to self-help books for advice, but she was not impressed. Either they were too stuffy and academic, or didn’t reflect the reality of her experience. “I felt that we owed stepmothers more than that,” she says. So she wrote her own, Stepmonster: A New Look At Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel And Act The Way We Do (£16.75, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which draws on her 13 years of experience in the role, as well as scores of brutally honest interviews with other stepfamilies, currently the fastest-growing family type in the UK, with a third of us being part of one in some way.

As a writer and social researcher, Wednesday discovered that most stepmothers share a common misconception – that the conflict was their fault, and therefore their problem to resolve. “Women are expected to win over their partner’s children, to love them like their own, and to keep on trying if this doesn’t happen,” she says.

Fiction also has a lot to answer for when it comes to assumptions about modern stepmothers. The stereotype of the second wife deviously plotting to do away with her pesky stepchildren so she can have their father to herself, or seeing them as a threat to her own biological family’s success, is as old as time. From the Brothers Grimm tales to Disney fables, these women are portrayed as cruel and uncaring, while it’s hard to think of many fictional stepfathers drawn in the same way. Indeed, society often views them as heroic, selflessly taking on the helpless single or widowed mother and her brood.

With such dire expectations attached to a new role, it’s no surprise that many woman feel under pressure to make their new partner’s children like them – and feel like it’s their fault if they don’t. “The need for approval runs deep in women – especially in matters of children – and can be hard to buck,” says Wednesday. “But I’ve found that those who make it with their personalities and self-respect intact are very good at negotiating with their own hopes and ignoring the opinions of the ill-informed.”

So a stepmother needs to start by giving herself a break. “Don’t beat yourself up if your stepchildren don’t accept you, or if you don’t automatically feel maternal towards them,” says Wednesday. “They don’t need you to feel like their mother – they already have one.” Focus on yourself for a change, too. “The experiences and emotions of the woman with stepchildren matter just as much as everyone else’s feelings,” she says, “But exploring the issue of how children can stress and threaten a marriage, rather than how a remarriage may affect a child, is a reframing many find unsettling.”

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