The summer my daughter was three, she developed a debilitating fear of wicked witches. Bedtime became a nightly quest to banish possible witches from closets and corners where they might be lurking with their long fingernails and sinister cackles to pounce on my hapless child as soon as I left her room. This was also the year that my marriage to her father ended, the year we sold our house and moved to a strange new apartment, and the year I met the man I would later marry, bringing an imminent stepfather and stepsister into her life. I’m no therapist, but it wasn’t impossible to draw the connection between all of the ways her life was out of control and her need to rout witches out of every crevice.
While trying as best I could to help her with life transitions and wicked witch containment, I also was trying as best I could to wrap my head around the concept that I would become a stepmother. As any avid reader of fairy tales knows—and show me the parent of a three-year-old girl who isn’t one—stepmothers come in one-size-fits-all. Evil. My daughter and I both had fairy tale villains roaring off the page to dominate our imaginations that hot, sticky July, four years ago, when I fell in love and changed her life.
One Saturday afternoon, to escape the heat of the un-air-conditioned apartment, I took my daughter to a marionette show of Hansel and Gretel. We sat on the floor of the cool, darkened theater with a dozen other parents and children. I pulled my daughter into my lap and held her tight.
“There’s a witch in Hansel and Gretel,” I said to prepare her for what I hoped would be a manageable and hopefully helpful encounter. She nodded, all big-eyed and serious. After thinking for a while, she turned her face back up to mine.
“Is the wicked witch a stepmother?” she asked. I immediately bristled. “What? No, of course not,” I answered, although after a moment’s thought myself, I realized that the question was perfectly logical, given that in her favorite fairy tale, Snow White, witch and stepmother were interchangeable.
“Not all stepmothers are evil,” I said, more for my benefit than for hers. Even as I said the words, I realized that in the show we were about to see, a woodcutter’s children are sent off into the forest alone by their evil stepmother who hopes they’ll be eaten alive by wild animals. I had conveniently forgotten about the evil stepmother element when I bought our tickets. The curtain rose, and my daughter and I braced ourselves for a face-to-face with the characters we feared most.
To my shock, this version of the show had no stepmother. The opening scene gave us four puppets: the woodcutter, Hansel, Gretel, and their ordinary, un-evil, actual birth mother. Instead of banishment to the woods by the nefarious wife of their father, Hansel and Gretel choose to traipse off on their own counsel. The unseen grown-ups manipulating Hansel and Gretel gave us the story line:
“Mommy and Daddy are so poor, but they love us so much that they plan to sell our only cow at the market tomorrow so they can buy us food. But we love them so much that we’re going to sneak out tonight and search for food in the forest to surprise them so they don’t have to sell the cow.”
Well. No evil stepmother! I was delighted. Somebody out there was sensitized to the high divorce rates and concomitant millions of stepfamilies who made up potential audience members. If my boyfriend’s daughter saw this show, she wouldn’t have to worry that the equivalent of me would banish her into the woods. I relaxed, and focused on wicked witch management, helping her laugh at the silly witch instead of cry. We both left the show feeling relieved.
I married my boyfriend the following year. As the months passed and we moved ever deeper into stepfamily life, my daughter’s fear of witches abated, but the memory of that sanitized, politically correct Hansel and Gretel continued to haunt me—and made me angrier and angrier. Why, exactly, was the specter of the evil stepmother so dire that the show felt the need to eliminate her, while the witch was allowed to stay? Was it indeed helpful to children of blended families to negate the stepmother’s very existence? In American popular culture, despite millions of stepfamilies, we still cling to the Madonna/Whore model of stepmother typecasting: we’re either Carol Brady-perfect or we’re Snow White-Cinderella-Hansel-Gretel-evil witches. And you know how many of us are Carol Brady. So what do I then prefer? To grapple with being portrayed as Evil, or to grapple with not being portrayed at all?
I have a real-life stepdaughter now. She is seven years old and although we love each other dearly and I would protect her with my life, I am not her mother. She has a mother. Our blended family is happy. But I believe, probably more strongly than I believe anything else, that the only way to keep it so is to acknowledge and accept that no matter how happy we are, our children did not want this. They have suffered the loss of both of their parents together, day in and day out. When I researched the history of stepfamilies, I learned that the very meaning of the prefix “step” is suffused with this sadness. I always assumed that “step” referred either to being a step removed from motherhood, or stepping in to take on the role of mother. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “step” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “steop.” It means “bereaved.”
Do we tell a bereaved child that the thing making them so sad simply doesn’t exist? Because I will never be Carol Brady, am I supposed to shut up and go away? From my daughter and stepdaughter’s vantage points, it’s easy to see how “evil” can stand in for “complicated and sad.” I think I serve them better by embracing the complexity, by whatever name the fairy tales give it, than I do by pretending it all away.
So I welcome this column as a chance to bring stepmothers back to the stage. We have a hell of a lot to say. And if—like so much of the history of women in the public sphere—that means I’m considered evil for speaking my mind, then bring it on. Evil I shall be.
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