In the same way that I have always known about songs of sixpence and birds baked in pies, I have been aware of stepmothers and their supposedly implicit wickedness. They are the stuff of archetypes, if not stock characters representing darkness and evil. In such stories, a child must contend with darkness. Each child comes out on the other side triumphant, with the stepmother cast down. Goodness wins over evil.
Poet Ben Okri wrote, “Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” Beware, indeed. Such tales possess great power.
Still, when I fell in love, I found myself at a fork in the road. To step into God’s embrace in this loving relationship meant that I had to step onto the stepmother’s trail. Hers was never a path I imagined for myself.
At a subconscious level, I had always conceived of stepmothers as women who married fathers after the untimely deaths of birth mothers. Such was the norm for Grimm and their brotherly faerie tales. Mortality rates were steep in the era of Cinderella and Snow White. The death of a birth mother was assumed in such stories. Separation, divorce, custody battles and remarriage fell into the “unheard of” category.
In this present age, we find ourselves in an alternate reality. Fractured families are commonplace. Many children are born into relationships where the marriage bands were never read. I insist: No child is illegitimate. All children garner their worth from God, not from their parents’ respective relationships.
The stepmother’s trail is wide and varied. It is most certainly a difficult path. Some fortunate stepmothers are able to foster healthy connections with birth mothers and maternal families. This is a strange and wondrous thing.
Whenever possible, two separated by divorce should insist on co-parenting with mutual respect. Parents who demonize the other — either through intentional or subtle disdain — commit emotional violence against a child. Equally outside the pale stands a parent who strives to reduce a child’s time with the other parent. Such efforts set a child up for suffering and pain.
Meanwhile, a stepmother who finds ways to support both birth parents — either the one to whom she is wed, or the other — is a kind of hero. Even more, a stepmother who assists a child in the work of claiming his or her own path is an even greater companion in the journey. She had no obligation to rear the young one. She had the opportunity and chose to do so.
Sometimes, the love of a stepmother is tough love, with the expectation of healthy boundaries. Sometimes, her love insists on accountability. Sometimes, the stepmother’s trail unfolds by offering a safe landing space for a prodigal child to return home, welcome.
Maybe one day I shall write a story of a stepmother to give witness to her wisdom and grace. Stories help audiences face fears. Perhaps we need a different mythology. Perhaps we need a wider range of heroes and characters with whom we can empathize.