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Overcoming the 'wicked stepmother' myth

10/31/2013

Wicked stepmothers -- they're the villains of stories from around the world and through the centuries. They are particularly common in fairy tales, which suggest stepmothers are evil creatures who treat children badly.

Today, one of every three American children is a stepchild. Experts say just more than 50 percent of U.S. families are remarried or in recoupled unmarried relationships.

Despite the passage of time since most fairy tales were written, research shows stepmothers have the most negative image of any member of a modern stepfamily.

Stepmothers still are perceived as being less affectionate, fair, kind, loving and likeable -- and more hateful, unfair and unloving.

What can be done to change these images?

Here are some pointers to help stepmothers and stepfamilies deal with some of the problems presented by the "wicked stepmother" myth.

* Remember a stepfamily is born of loss. A divorce, death or separation comes before a new stepfamily. Children grieve the loss of their first family, no matter how imperfect it might have been.

It can help if stepparents accept the tension and understand time and patience will be required to overcome the challenge.

* Individuals in stepfamilies have different personal histories. They have memories, traditions, values and sometimes private jokes that do not include the new stepfamily members. Differences in traditions and values are not right or wrong, just different. It could take extra effort to prevent family members from feeling like outsiders at times.

* There are no ideal role models for this job. Every stepfamily situation is unique, and there is no "normal" way of doing things. The stepmother role should be based on what's comfortable for her, her husband, the children and the family as a whole.

* There's no such thing as instant love. Stepmothers shouldn't feel guilty if they don't immediately feel love and affection for their stepchildren or receive it from their stepchildren. It takes time to build relationships. It can take four years or more for a stepfamily to seem like a family.

It can even take 18 to 24 months for children just to be friendly to a new stepparent.

Family members should be expected to treat each other with respect and fairness, remembering it is possible to be caring and nurturing, even if there are not yet deep feelings of mutual love.

* A stepmother will share her husband with his children for the rest of their married life. A strong bond might exist between a husband and his children from a prior marriage.

Jealousy can be avoided if stepmothers realize and accept this early in the relationship.

* A strong couple relationship is an important part of forming a strong stepfamily. If the couple doesn't work on their marriage, nothing either stepparent does alone will work. A united front -- husband and wife together -- must come first before relationships can be built with the rest of the family.

When couples have the support and love of one another, they can function at the most favorable levels to deal with stepfamily challenges.

* If possible, develop a working relationship with the stepchildren's mother. If the children's mother is available, stepmoms can benefit from talking to and sharing with her.

The two mothers don't have to like each other, but it is valuable if they can work together for the welfare of the children.

The stepmother/stepchild relationship is one of the most difficult family relationships to develop and maintain. Families need to communicate and work together to dispel the myth of the wicked stepmother so their family relationships can grow.

For more information on strengthening stepfamilies, see the "Stepping Stones for Stepfamilies" fact sheet from Kansas State Research and Extension at www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore/pubs/MF3097.pdf. Call the Ellis County Extension at (785) 628-9430 or stop by at 601 Main to request this helpful information.

Linda Beech is a Kansas State University Research & Extension agent in Ellis County specializing in family and consumer sciences. lbeech@ksu.edu