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Wednesday, April 19, 2000

'The wicked witch'
All children know from fairy tales just how evil stepmothers can be. What child would want a real one?
Kate Jennison
National Post

Snow White was just too beautiful for her stepmother, who tried again and again to destroy her. "Even when nourishment is offered, it's a trap."

"There is no doubt in my mind that fairy tales give modern-day children a language with which to torture their stepmothers," says one expert.

Roseanne Fowlie was hanging up clothes in her Toronto back yard when she was first introduced to her five-year-old future stepdaughter. Her fiance had just driven his little girl to Toronto from her home in a small town in Quebec. Dropping the wet clothes, Roseanne immediately began making a huge fuss over the glaring little girl, whose only question for her father's new partner was "How many bras do you have?"

"Two," a bewildered Roseanne answered. "Well," Roseanne's future stepdaughter said proudly, "MY MUMMY HAS 10."

"She just hated me," says Roseanne. "She had this look in her eye -- and she still has it. Ice."

Nicole Reeves, of Mission Viejo, Calif., remembers arguing "yet again" with her 10-year-old stepdaughter about the girl's refusal to load the dishwasher, clean her room or do her schoolwork. As the argument descended into a full-blown shouting match, the phone rang. Nicole's stepdaughter answered it. "I can't talk to you right now," Nicole heard her say, "I have to scream at the wicked WITCH."

"At the time," Nicole says, "I was devastated."

In an attempt to understand her stepdaughters' unrelenting coldness and hostility toward her, Stephanie Donehoo, of Kaufman, Tex., "resorted" to reading their diaries. "I was just so desperate to get into their heads," says Stephanie with a tinge of shame. Over and over, in page after page, a crushed Stephanie read how her three stepdaughters wished their "wicked stepmother" would just leave, go away, ANYWHERE, and let their REAL mother come back and live with their father.

"It still hurts," Stephanie says. "Their mother was the one who left them, and they were living in my house. I was caring for them day after day, and yet no matter what I do, no matter how much I love them, in their hearts SHE [their real mother] will always be queen."

"When it comes to my stepdaughter," says Roseanne Fowlie, with noticeable tension in her voice, "I feel like I'm in a glass ball trying to scratch my way through. And I admit it, nobody can replace your mother, but does there have to be so much bitterness?"

YES seems to be the answer. And at the same time as these and other stepmothers offer possible solutions to ease the tensions that so often exist between stepmothers and their stepdaughters -- see a counsellor, be firm, talk it through, say nothing, let it roll off your back, buy them something, grit your teeth, wait until they grow up, never show them how much it hurts, and never EVER marry a divorced man with children again -- most agree on one thing: Damn those fairy tales with their wicked stepmothers. In a society inclined to divorce, they definitely DON'T HELP.

"Fairy tales are bad news for stepmothers," says Nicole Reeves, who has raised her now 13-year-old stepdaughter for the last eight years. "They're written in a very nasty, mischievous way. And when it comes to stepmothers they don't give kids a good impression."

"Stepmothers wear a title," says Dawnn Bruce, who has a 10-year-old stepdaughter, "and when you wear it, you really feel it. Right from the start, as soon as you say 'stepmother' to a child, the word is so loaded. There's a sense of badness, wickedness about it."

Dawnn, who lives in South Carolina, goes on to confess that every time her stepdaughter introduces her to her friends as her stepmother she cringes. "But I don't know," says Dawnn, "what else can she call me? I wish there was another word to describe my role, and if there was a different word for us to use -- a nicer, kinder word -- I think it would enable us to escape the negative stereotype the word 'stepmother' conjures up."

According to Harvard University professor, author and folklore expert Maria Tatar, the term "stepmother" has its roots in Middle and Old English. Literally translated from Old English, it means bereaved or deprived of children.

"It's an interesting term," says Tatar, "because it suggests that a stepmother can never be a mother -- even if she enters into a family with pre-existing children, she will never really become a maternal figure to those children. In the fairy tales the stepmother often has a child or children, but those children become her rivals and have to be got rid of."

Tatar reminds us of the too beautiful Snow White, who is banished by her wicked stepmother to the forest to have her heart ripped out by a woodsman; and of Hansel and Gretel, who are deemed too expensive by their stepmother to feed and so also have to be banished to the conveniently located nearby forest.

"To be childless is nearly always the fairy tale stepmother's objective," continues Tatar, "and so the emotional experience articulated by the fairy tale is that of the unwanted child and the lacking, unmaternal stepmother."

There's also the problem that children remember fairy tales. "Often they're imprinted on their minds from the time they're four, and the fairy tale plot crops up over and over again, in our literature, in our movies," says Tatar. "So, of course, if you introduce a child to a stepmother [or a future stepmother], chances are there will be a negative association in the child's mind."

"Even I," Tatar goes on to confess, "when I hear 'stepmother' I immediately think 'wicked, evil, malicious' -- the term just has an element of the perverse in it and that's why I don't understand why we haven't searched for a new term. If you think of the way we've used language, it's constantly changing, and we've developed all kinds of new politically correct phrases.

"But for some reason," Tatar adds slowly, "the term 'stepmother' has been resistant to being replaced, and I'm not sure why."

According to Marsha Rudman, a professor at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts, the fairy tale stepmother usurps the role of the fairy tale child's real mother. "The father figure in fairy tales is usually very weak -- or not there at all," says Rudman. "So it's the two women -- the sex partner of the father and the daughter -- that are set up in the tales to compete against each other."

Dawnn Bruce knows all about that kind of competition. "I've always had this sense of rivalry with my stepdaughter," says Dawnn, "this sense that I was competing with her for her father's time and attention. When I was first with her, she'd be cold and snooty, distant and very possessive of her father, and it wasn't so much what she was telling me but the way she was telling me. 'Guess what my dad did?' 'Guess where he took me?' It was always a challenge -- what he did with me versus what he did with her, and who got the best. What he bought her and HA HA, I know that he doesn't do this with YOU.

"And then when she'd go to bed at night," says Dawnn, "she would come out of her room and give Daddy a big hug and she'd sit on his lap and she'd look straight at me, while she was hugging her father, and give me this evil eye -- and she'd say like a little angel, 'Good night, Daddy, I love you, sweet dreams,' and then she'd turn around and walk right past me like I wasn't even there. And I'd think: You know, I've just played with this kid, taken her somewhere special. You do all these wonderful things, you're nice to her, you combed her hair, put it up in pigtails -- or whatever she wanted -- and when it comes time at the close of the day she DOESN'T EVEN ACKNOWLEDGE YOU. And then," says Dawnn through gritted teeth, "she'd SKIP happily down the hallway to her room and SHUT THE DOOR."

"I don't know how many arguments her father and I have had over the way she would treat me," Dawnn continues, "and always I was told I needed to back off because I was the adult here and she was just the child -- she doesn't understand what she's saying, what she's doing. And I would say, 'Well, with all the rotten things that keep coming out of her mouth, WHY WOULDN'T SHE UNDERSTAND WHAT SHE'S SAYING OR DOING? She's lashing out here. I mean, there were just so many snide remarks that after a while you'd just try to get immune to them and overlook them. And you just know that there's nothing you can do because the real parent -- HER DAD -- is going to tell you YOU need to grow up."

Roseanne Fowlie recalls the time she visited her husband's former wife to pick up the children.

"I remember having to sit in the car while my husband went to ring the doorbell of his ex-wife's house to get the kids," says Roseanne, "and his daughter and son would come out, get in the car and talk exclusively to their father. If I said anything they didn't answer, they'd only acknowledge their father, even when they were staying with us -- silence, nothing. But then when their father left and went to work -- they knew which side their bread was buttered on -- they'd be all over me, and we'd do sports and this and that together. And then as soon as their father came home, silence again, they wouldn't even answer me. And I'd tell my husband. And it would hurt him, and he'd say, 'What am I supposed to do?' So it got to the point where I just didn't tell my husband, because he couldn't take it. He couldn't handle the negative, and so it became my dirty little secret ... you know, you can't wish the goodness that won't happen."

"There have been lots of times, when the the three of us are sitting eating dinner, watching television," says Nicole Reeves, "and she [Nicole's stepdaughter] immediately moves to push me out, whether it's in conversation or physically. She talks constantly and interrupts me to the point where I get so frustrated I shut up, and if I sit on the couch next to her father she physically moves in between us. I get this sense that she wants me to give her a fight, she wants me to lose it and start screaming at her, she wants her father to see me for who she really thinks I am -- the wicked witch."

"There is no doubt in my mind that fairy tales give modern-day stepchildren a language with which to torment their step-mothers," says Tatar, "but it's more than a language -- the fairy tales give them feelings about how step relationships have something innately perverse in them, and it becomes difficult to change that because first impressions are very powerful and to undo the step connotations is just so challenging."

That first impression of "stepmother" in traditional fairy tales such as Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel is one of oppressor and withholder, "sometimes of the most fundamental things," says Tatar, "like food. It is the articulation of a relationship with no trust or safety -- I mean, as Hansel and Gretel tells us, the stepmother will abandon you in the woods, she will not only physically abandon you but she will abandon you emotionally."

In both Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, the stepmother reappears in the forest as a witch offering food (a candy house in Hansel and Gretel, a red, juicy apple in Snow White). "But when nourishment is offered, it's a trap," says Tatar. "So, as far as the stepmother image is concerned, the message is 'Even if she's nice she's going to hurt you.' I mean, it's such an incredible message to send. If the stepmother is mean, then she's horrible. If she's nice, then she's even worse, because she's trying to trick you and she's going to KILL you eventually."

It seems the feeling of not being trusted and of being in a no-win situation is common among stepmothers.

"When you're a stepmother, you can't try to be friends with the ex-wife," says Roseanne Fowlie. "You can't overdo it with the stepkids, you can't under-do it with the stepkids and overdo it with the ex-wife. You can't take sides, you can't point out weaknesses in your stepchildren to your husband -- that's your problem, and if you try to deal with them everything goes back to the ex-wife -- their REAL mother -- so you're just caught every which way. You are always an absolute jerk."

"You're the mediator," says Nicole Reeves. "You become the person that just wants to keep the peace between the biological parent and the child, and an evenness between both biological parents and the child, and both biological parents and yourself -- and yourself and the child -- so you're constantly trying to make sure everybody gets the attention they want and everybody's happy. And in between all this you have to try and carve a little space out for you and your husband."

"There's a truth to my role," says stepmother Dawnn Bruce, "and I guess I just want it recognized. The word 'stepmother' doesn't do it justice. I am not the evil stepmother of the fairy tales. I'm not looking for a pat on the back or a brass ring -- it's more than that. I'm involved completely with this child -- with her life. I care for her, I love her, I want her to do well."

"We need new fairy tales," says Tatar. "New cultural maps. We don't need to discard the other fairy tales -- they're still of historical interest -- but we should stop thinking of them as SACRED stories, because culture changes. We can still use the characters from the old tales, but we should reshape and revitalize the tales, give them new twists, have them frame new questions -- and we definitely need a new word for 'stepmother.' " There is a pause as Tatar reflects. "I love the word 'pal.' People introduce their significant others as their pals, so what about Pal Mum or Ma Pal or Pal Ma? It's a different name. It has friendliness embedded in it. What do you think?"

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