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I was 20 years old when I first met my biological father.
He arrived as a package deal that included two half-brothers, and a stepmother.
I tried to fit in, but mostly it felt like I was trying to fit into the glass slipper that symbolized everything I’d hoped for as a child. The child within me feared that: Something Wicked This Way Comes. Stepmothers are not good, at least that’s what I used to believe.
The root of the evil stepmother fairy tale was planted in the 18th century when women married for financial survival, and children from a prior marriage were more likely to inherit an estate after the loss of its patriarch. Although the term “stepfamily” has been around since 1873, its societal definition is shifting 145 years later.
According to the Pew Research Centre, more than four in ten American adults now have at least one step relative in their family. The increase in the number of divorces among biological families along with babies born out of wedlock have contributed to a prevalence of step relatives.
On average, it will take a stepfamily about 10 years to get into a groove. This is my story; at times, it was a pretty ugly scene. I was a saccharine Cinderella stepdaughter, always aiming to please and eager to earn the love of my stepmother—alas to no avail. It felt as if I could do nothing to please her or earn her kindness.
A decade into my new relationship with my dad and his family, I’d had enough of what felt like self-inflicted rejection from my stepmother, and I was ready to bolt from the wonderful father and siblings that I’d always dreamed of having.
“Every time I am in your house, it is clear that it is her house,” I sobbed to my father. “I am an unwelcome guest, not family. You are not my father, but her husband. My brothers are not my brothers, but her sons; my niece is not my niece, but her granddaughter. I have no place here and that is clear.”
I waited for my father to choose his wife, above his 10-year-old relationship with his daughter—something that I had experienced with another “dad” early in my life. Instead of rejection from my biological father, I got a text from my stepmother: “I am sorry for everything. I will show you with my actions.”
It’s been two years since I received that text.
Inspired by an Elephant Academy assignment, I set about to explore how my stepmother and I might have accelerated the process of finding harmony in our family. I contacted my stepmother to chat with her about her experience, starting with the discovery of my existence to our truce. The call was the longest conversation we’ve ever had—we laughed, we cried, it was magical.
It’s not a clever spell, and it’s no “spoonful of sugar;” it takes hard work, and a lot of tough medicine.
Here are five ways we can transform our “evil” stepmother into our “kind” stepmother:
1. Peer into and prune your emotional baggage.
My whole body melted with tears when I received textual acknowledgement from my stepmother. It took me a month to figure out how I wanted to meet her in this new chapter, and how I wanted to present myself to her.
When I was 11 years old, my mom sat me at the foot of her bed and told me I might not be her ex-husband’s daughter. He’d known this was a possibility since birth, but after having his first child with a new wife, his behavior toward me changed. Two years later, we received the paternity results. It was negative.
“Think about how your stepmother feels,” my mom’s ex-husband demanded from me. I was 13-years-old and sobbed in response; it was confirmation that he didn’t want to be my dad anymore. The command never made sense to me. All I could think about was how I was unwanted—rejected.
But the phrase, “think of how your stepmother feels,” came back to me in stereo for the first 10 years of my relationship with my biological father’s wife, and played on repeat like a battle anthem. It eventually served as the key to a still-budding relationship with her.
I had to let go of perpetually fearing rejection, and pick up someone else’s emotions to move forward.
2. Think about how your stepmother feels.
After taking some space from my stepmother’s apology, I unbuttoned my heart from my sleeve and sent it as an email attachment to her. I stepped outside my ego, which was screaming that it was my turn to lash out, to blame, to reject. Instead, I chose to accept and relate.
Sure, it felt like crap to be on the receiving end of my stepmother’s territorialism when it came to my relationship with my new family members, whom I cherished. But I asked myself, “What must this feel like for her?”
3. Love, fiercely.
My stepmother always wanted a daughter; she had two boys, and she’d resolved to being the only woman of the house. Then I came knockin’ at the door. I was not a little girl, but a woman, and I was weird. “We didn’t have the same values or morals,” my stepmother said, “When I wanted a daughter, I wanted to teach her all those things. I wanted a daughter to teach her all those things.”
My father and his family could be described in four words: conservative, Catholic, and down-home hunters. I was liberal, accessorizing my spirituality with a little dab of Scientology at the time, and used the word “catch” when checking in to see if my father and brothers had brought home any meat for the season.
Because of my stepmother’s familial loyalism, when I showed up, this doting mother suddenly felt pushed out of a role that she cherished. “How do you raise an adult stranger? How do you relate to someone you don’t feel shares your set of values?”
My stepmother also questioned her own place as a woman in her home: suddenly a 20-year-old girl was in her house, was in a new relationship with her husband, and occasionally tried “nestlingup” to him on the couch.
It was uncomfortable and frightening for me to intentionally develop an attachment to a man, and to trust that the paternal bond was legitimate. It was painful and frightening for her to know her persistent inability to accept his daughter could end their 20-year marriage—either by her own choice, or his. Divorce rates are higher for “stepfamilies” (a title that I imposed upon her clan) than for a first marriage like theirs.
It’s an important step for every member of a blended family to be familiar with the struggles unique to its matriarch. In hindsight, my stepmother’s behavior makes sense to me.
4. Acknowledge and validate that what she is going through is difficult.
Stepmothers are prone to depression. Wednesday Martin identifies several health risks for stepmothers in the book, Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do. Martin acknowledges the alienation stepmothers feel from their husbands over stepfamily issues, and how they feel different from the mothers in their social circles who are unfamiliar with the conflicts involved in blended families.
Speaking with my stepmother, I was surprised to learn how many people in her life were initially disapproving of her negative feelings toward me: including some family members, regulars at work, and my father.
When a marriage counselor validated my stepmother’s experience and asked my father to define how his wife was supposed to feel in such an unexpected situation, he decided he wasn’t going back for more—demonstrating an outright rejection of his wife’s emotions.
“Every time you came around, I felt like I was lost,” she said. “Your father was trying to make you happy, and I felt ignored. Then when we would go to bed at night, he would ask ‘what’s wrong?’ I’d respond, ‘Well, I’m glad you made everyone else happy today.’”
The turning point arrived when her friend at work took her outside for a talk. He acknowledged what I have come to know as her essence—her limitless sweetness, her compulsion to help those in need, and her caring nature. He then asked her why it was so hard to offer her love to a young woman in need of just that.
Not long after, I sent my long email to her containing my heart, and echoing his sentiments. After validating her feelings, our relationship began to flourish. The next time I saw her, she told me for the first time that she loved me.
Reminding a stepmother about who she is, and letting her know her efforts and struggles—small or large—are seen goes a long way in allowing space to grow in their hearts to welcome their stepchild.
5. Be authentic and then give space.
It’s the most difficult thing to open ourselves to a person who we fear wants to hurt or get rid of us, and then to allow that space to be filled with trust in its own time.
I was a people pleaser. I often went out of my way to be kind, or to bond with my stepmother. Those attempts, mighty as they were, were disingenuous and came from a desperate agenda to escape the discomfort of our lack of connection.
“If we had both sat down and shared our feelings in the earlier years—this is how I feel, and how you feel—maybe it would have come easier,” my stepmother said. “It was always coming from your dad. He would say you weren’t comfortable around me because of how I’d act when you were around.”
There is no need to be hurtful in expressing our feelings, but it is important to establish a genuine check-in with the stepmother in our life to authentically express when our feelings are hurt, or when our insecurities arise.
If we come from a place which has embraced understanding, and validated our stepmother’s feelings, the acknowledgment of our vulnerability serves as a “wiggle-of-the-wand” to incrementally increase our shared understanding.
The dynamic within stepfamilies, and between adult children and their stepmothers, along with their biological siblings, is complex. As a member of a stepfamily, whether stepchild, father, or biological child, it is important to think of how the stepmother in our life feels, to acknowledge and validate those feelings, and to then be real with our own emotions and provide space for a bond to grow.
Stepmothers, contrary to popculture’s representation of them, are often bullied, and not the bully. They enter their role with a title already dooming them to failure, and yet pressure is often placed on them to develop the feelings they are told “they should have,” but are, at least temporarily, unable to find authentically within.
It may seem counterintuitive to be the first to embrace empathy, and give an inch if we feel that maternal love should come effortlessly. Often, those who have difficulty expressing and understanding love are the ones who need it the most.