Whenever a child is missing and foul play suspected, stepmothers collectively breathe a sigh of concern, hoping that a stepmother is not involved. They worry that both the media and everyone else will immediately go to the default stereotype that stepmothers are evil and wicked, and responsible for the child’s disappearance.
The stereotype that stepmothers are wicked has existed for thousands of years, popularized by “Cinderella,” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers. These folktales serve a greater function than merely entertain children; they reinforce the moral lessons that a society wants its members to learn. Unfortunately, the message that stepmothers are “the bad guys” still persists in the 21st century, despite the fact that there are approximately 15 million stepmothers with stepchildren under the age of 18 in the U.S. When adult children are included in these estimates, there may be as many as 36 million stepmothers. How can so many women be wicked?
Stepmothers come in all shapes and sizes, with different personalities. The vast majority of whom are loving, kind, and compassionate to their stepchildren yet the stereotype still persists. And, stereotypes matter. Unconsciously, they oftentimes influence us to hold beliefs and make decisions based on inaccurate information. If people believe stepmothers are wicked, they will treat them poorly. Too many stepmothers end up exhausted by, and depressed from trying to repair their misimpression others have of them. Here are a few tips to overcome the stepmother stereotype:
1. Focus on the young: The stepmother stereotype is inculcated in small children from the moment they can understand the stories being read to them. One way to overcome the stigma associated with stepmothers is if parents would take the time after reading Cinderella to their children to explain to them that most stepmothers are loving and kind. Even though Cinderella’s stepmother was cruel, not all stepmothers are bad. Parents might then give their children some examples of good stepmothers whom their children know to contrast Cinderella’s wicked one. This would balance out the negative image to a more neutral one.
2. Self examination: Do you perceive stepmothers in a negative light? Try an experiment to find out if you see stepmothers negatively by becoming conscious of the times you think of one. Are the adjectives you use negative (such as wicked, evil, mean, horrid), or positive (such as loving or kind)? If you are like most people, you will notice that you think of stepmothers negatively. What you think has a tremendous influence on your behavior and beliefs. By changing your negative view of stepmothers to either a positive one or a neutral one, you ensure that you do not prejudge stepmothers unfairly. Rather, you treat them fairly, something we all deserve.
3. Stop offensive stepmother remarks: It’s inappropriate for anyone to use a derogatory term for a member of any ethnic group. Jokes that poke fun at certain races or nationalities may seem harmless, but they covertly reinforce stereotypes that compartmentalize, and inaccurately define, who a person may be. This is true for stepmothers as well, so don’t allow others to use derogatory adjectives when describing stepmothers in your presence. Tolerating contemptuous and ignorant remarks about stepmothers is unacceptable, and can damage their self-esteem, even when the thoughts are expressed as a form of humor or endearment. You might consider saying, “I know you don’t mean any harm, but that comment is offensive to me because it perpetuates a stereotype about stepmothers.”
4. Eliminate over-functioning by stepmothers: Indoctrinated by the same cultural stigma as everyone else, many stepmothers try to compensate for the “wicked stepmother” stereotype by over-functioning. They take on greater responsibilities in their stepfamilies to make up for any deficiencies others may perceive. They work hard to prove that they are different, that negative stereotypes do not apply to them. When any of us try too hard to overcome a label attributed to us, we tend to become anxious which interferes with our efforts to succeed. In fact, they may even serve to perpetuate these stereotypes. Instead of wasting time and energy trying to prove to family members and friends they are kind and loving, stepmothers should breathe deeply, relax, and focus on accepting they are “good enough” exactly as they are.
5. Stand tall, stepmothers: To avoid being judged and criticized by others, too many stepmothers try to be invisible, and won’t share their frustrations with this most challenging role to family and friends. They end up feeling isolated and lonely even when surrounded by others. Stepmothers have nothing to be ashamed of. Their struggles are not personal; they are endemic to stepfamilies from the effects of divorce, and the insidious nature of the stepmother stereotype. Stepmothers can be helped by reaching out to others who are going through something similar by joining a stepmother support group, either in one’s community or online. Peer support groups provide guidance and encouragement to stepmothers, as well as serve another important function. They can be part of the process to overcome the stepmother stereotype. When stepmothers help each other improve their self-esteem, they can recognize and embrace their contribution to their stepfamilies. their pride can counteract the negativity of the stepmother stereotype. A collective voice is more powerful than a silent one, and can accomplish major changes.
Many other groups have succeeded to overcome the unfair stereotype attributed to them. Let’s all work together to finally banish the stepmother stereotype!
About The Author
Rachelle Katz, Ed.D. is a psychotherapist with 25 years in private practice in New York City. She is the author of The Happy Stepmother, self-help guide for stepmothers. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as an addictions specialist, certified in alcoholism and substance abuse counseling. She received her B.A. in Psychology from Clark University, her M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology from Boston College, her M.A. in Clinical Psychology from the New School for Social Research, and her doctorate in Family and Community Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association.
Since May 2004, Rachelle owns and moderates www.stepsforstepmothers.com, a website designed for stepmothers to provide support, advice, and encouragement to each other. She also leads a monthly support group for stepmothers in New York City. She has been married for 19 years, and has a 23-year-old stepdaughter.