Villainized in Cinderella, the evil stepmother is ingrained in our consciousness. She is cunning and ruthless; her malevolent intentions jeopardizing idealized images of the smiling, doting matriarch.
Reality, however, is more complicated. While not exactly sympathetic, at least in contemporary America, stepmothers face an unenviable burden. There is an expectation — tacit or otherwise — that stepmothers will mollify familial strife. To put it more bluntly, stepmothers can and will serve as a de facto peacemaker for warring families.
Unfair, untenable, and — in my immediate family’s case — unlikely.
In 2012, my beloved mother passed away. She was a community pillar — beloved for her selflessness and sagacity. For me, her loss devastated. Following her passing, I vacillated between casual numbness and grief-stricken sorrow.
As my brothers and I struggled with our grief, my father immediately started dating another woman. Barbara soon became a regular presence. My father would casually refer to her during our conversations. There was the awkward introduction to Barbara’s children. And when May 31st rolls around, Barbara always sends me an overly enthusiastic birthday text message (“Have a happy, happy birthday tomorrow!!! Hope you have some nice plans for the day!!”). For the other 364 days, though, our lives rarely, if ever, intersect. It is a relationship borne out of necessity — one of frozen smiles and insipid small talk. Sure, Barbara isn’t Lady Tremaine, but she and I aren’t exactly coffee companions sharing family secrets over a fresh pot.
Rapidly approaching middle age — with the thinning hair and stubborn paunch to prove it, the stepmother question has proved vexing over the past couple years. My father has pledged fealty to Barbara — to the detriment of his relationship with his immediate and extended family. And the questions, not surprisingly, have multiplied: How should I react to Barbara abruptly entering my world? Should I try to cultivate a relationship? Should she? And what role, if any, should Barbara have in moderating familial strife?
These questions are more than rhetorical — as many as half of all women in the United States will find themselves in the role of stepmother at some point in their lives. And from Snow White to my current stepmother, these issues are incredibly complex — and polarizing.
While this is no hard and fast playbook, here are a couple rules I have discovered — often gleaned through trial and (a lot of) error.
- Communicate. This means more than idle cocktail chatter; this means discussing the smoldering issues straining familial dynamics. While the weather can be the topic du jour, it is problematic when it becomes the topic du year. Dispense with that awkwardness and discuss your relationship expectations. The conversation, at the very minimum, will establish a baseline of trust and may prove cathartic — for both of you.
- Acknowledge reality. When my mother passed away, I was crestfallen. Not surprisingly, there was going to be undercurrent of resentment to anyone my father started dating — and that would include Mother Teresa. An open-ended conversation could — and would — have assuaged my “loyalty conflict.” Something from Barbara resembling, “Look, Matt, I know how much you revered your mother. You don’t have to choose between honoring your mother’s legacy and respecting my relationship with your father. They are not mutually exclusive. And, of course, I look forward to establishing my own independent relationship with you.” Eggshells are meant to be stepped on; trust me, it is more painful to tiptoe on them.
- Be compassionate. There are going to be missteps; you are going to make an ill-advised comment. Your stepmother is going to compare herself favorably — too favorably in your eyes — to your late mother. In this messy relationship, there is a natural feeling-out process that may take, yes, years. Compassion is a useful barometer — both for your and your stepmother.
Integrating a stepmother may not be a fairy tale, but it also doesn’t have to be a horror flick either.