On (wicked?) step-mothers
April 6, 2017 6:10 AM   Subscribe

"I only ever found two fairy tales with good stepmothers, and they were both from Iceland. One stars a woman named Himinbjorg, who helps her stepson through his mourning by helping him fulfill the prophecy his mother delivered to him in a dream: that he will free a princess from a spell that had turned her into an ogre. By the time he returns from his mission victorious, the royal court is ready to burn Himinbjorg at the stake, because everyone is convinced that she is responsible for his disappearance. Perhaps I wanted credit for mothering more than I wanted to mother. Himinbjorg, on the other hand, is willing to look like a witch just to help her stepson break the spell he needs to break."
posted by ChuraChura (8 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I just did a quick read, but it was an interesting essay! One thing I vaguely remember from a history of fairy tales - in the original verbal folklore, a lot of the step-mothers were actually abusive birth mothers. The Brothers Grimm changed them to step-mothers to preserve the mystique of maternal affection and the bonds of blood.
An article at Psychology Today about mothers who are jealous of their daughters. "Consider for a moment that in the original version of Snow White published by the Brothers Grimm, it was her mother—yes, the one who longed for a beautiful child and gave birth to her—who was jealous of her daughter’s beauty and became her nemesis. "
posted by King Sky Prawn at 7:34 AM on April 6, 2017 [16 favorites]

Stepmothers come in all flavors. A few years ago, I suddenly had five stepchildren, two who lived with us. I had to walk a fine line in not competing with or contradicting their mother, who they saw often, while still treating them exactly as I treated my own children. Meanwhile, my husband had no trouble stepping into the complete father role, as my children's father had died years earlier. I dearly loved the new kids in my home; after all, I didn't give birth to mine, either. Yet I could not quite claim them. The kids are all grown now; I just hope that I did the best I could.

On a lighter note, since I had two daughters and a stepdaughter all near in age (11 and 12 when we merged families), we made plenty of jokes about Cinderella's wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters.
posted by Miss Cellania at 8:17 AM on April 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have multiple step-parents, and while I've had complicated (and sometimes fractious) relationships with both of them, neither do I envy the emotional landscape they inherited.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:20 AM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's so fascinating to hear how other women feel about being a stepmother--especially when their story doesn't contain a lot of abuse or complex situations with new babies, etc. etc. I'm a new stepmother to three (3) kids, and for a moment I subscribed to an online magazine called something like STEPMOMZ! because I was desperate for contemporary material to help me find some footing. But it seemed like every family's story in that magazine was about an unsupportive husband, kids doing drugs or teenagers going to jail and being Seriously Delinquent, and then something bad happening involving a new baby and the stepkids. I hated how everything was pathologized and problem-centered.

Instead, I would love to read a periodical about step-parenting that included like, "Five Fun Art Projects You Can Do This Weekend!" and "How To Negotiate a Cohesive Policy About Junk Food With Their Other Mom" and "Let's Talk Laundry!" So for those purposes, and for getting at the quotidian feelings of ambivalence and love and duty, I really appreciate this article.

And one of the NYT commenters wrote this better than I could:

As I read this article, I was struck, once again, how women, due to the ascendency of men telling the tales that defined us in earlier centuries and echo throughout time, are forced into a narrative not of their own making and then---and this is the real kicker--feel they must respond to that narrative as opposed to their own feelings, both positive and negative, about their lives and roles in society. We continue to need new fairy tales and new paradigms.
posted by witchen at 8:22 AM on April 6, 2017 [17 favorites]

Witchen - start that magazine! Surely there are other stepmoms who think like you and want similar content. Share the good stories!!
posted by seawallrunner at 10:09 AM on April 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm in a bit of an awkward position relative to this article. I'm a stepdad, and like many people, upon reading a story like this immediately start drawing the parallels and differences with my own life. As a step-parent, I feel like this is relevant to me, that it's okay for me to do this...but so much of this is about the cultural narratives specific to being a stepmother that it immediately starts feeling like...appropriation? I'm not sure.
posted by Four Ds at 2:00 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

As an step mother to now-grown twin girls (gods below - the stories!) I always joked about being the Evil Stepmother (TM). It's turned into a beloved family trope as the girls always seemed to know from a very young age that fairy tales were bullshit that they were too smart for.
posted by ninazer0 at 3:06 PM on April 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I remember being maybe 6 or 7 years old (no older, certainly) and learning that a dear family friend, who is basically a grandfather to me, had a stepmother. I immediately asked, "Is she wicked?"

I don't think I had ever to that point heard the word stepmother when it wasn't preceded by "wicked." Certainly I had never encountered someone who had (or was) a stepmother.

Mental note: I need to make sure my daughters - the younger of whom is six and loves fairy tales - have an accurate understanding of the word.
posted by nickmark at 8:01 AM on April 10, 2017

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