I think there must be a primitive fear of stepmothers. The stepmother archetype is so, so powerful.
It goes deep and bypasses reason. No one comes to the concept of “stepmother” with a clean slate and an open mind, and this seems to be consistent across cultures and throughout time. Saying that it is one of the most common fairy tale tropes is stating the obvious, since “evil stepmother” is the first thing anyone thinks of when they hear the word. WE BAKE CHILDREN, MAKE NO MISTAKE.
As psychological archetypes go, Mom and Dad are probably the most significant. With these concepts we associate things like unconditional love, trust, support, nurturing, home, consistency, protection, etc. This is where it all starts for us as humans. Everything builds on this and we just hope that Mom and Dad don’t mess us up any more than is necessary to keep us interesting and charming.
The stepmother archetype, though unmistakably parental, does not conjure up a well of warmth. It conjures up an image of a child-eating, man-controlling witch (it’s like you’ve been poisoned, the mom said to my husband one time). Why?
I think it is because we are not what we seem.
We are a non-parent in a parent disguise. Stepmother evokes all of those warm parental concepts, but subverts them. Stepmother is the anti-mother.
On a more realistic, day-to-day level, we have this parent-ish role (that of course we can’t even figure out but no one is thinking very much about this because stepmother empathy runs pretty low) in the lives of our stepkids. Even if it doesn’t feel like we hold very much control or power on the parental tier, we often hold quite a bit of power in the home. Just being an adult who lives in the house gives us a significant amount of influence, even if it’s just deciding whether tonight is burrito night or not. You know? And it often goes much deeper than burrito night.
But unlike parents, stepparents may not contain that deep well of unconditional love and patience for their stepkids. Or maybe sometimes we do and other times we do not. Maybe our fuses run a little shorter. Maybe we’re just trying to make it through day to day. Maybe sometimes living with stepkids feels more like living with irritating roommates than living with our own kids. I think those admissions, and the amplified, exaggerated version of those admissions, make us seem like wolves in sheep’s clothing.
We deal with our feelings reasonably and try to continue acting in a kind and mature way, and hope that time will help find more consistently positive feelings. That’s the reality. It’s not evil, but it’s not fully parental either. Maybe there are some stepmothers out there who actually are evil, but most of us are just faking it sometimes. We do wear masks; we have to.
Art credit: Nadezhda Illarionova